Monday, July 13, 2015

Pre-Review of Go Set a Watchman

I've been known to wear a t-shirt bearing the cover art for To Kill a Mockingbird.  I taught 9th and 10th grade English for ten years.  My dear departed dog was named Scout.  So, when the talk about the long-lost novel of Harper Lee being published began, of course people asked me about it.  I often demurred, saying I had a lot of thoughts about it, but we'll see what it looks like.  That of course I will read it, but I'll feel a little bad about it.  I wouldn't have put myself firmly in the "Harper Lee is being taken advantage of in her old age by a greedy publishing company" camp, but I could see the those folks' point.  Over the weekend, a friend texted, "So Atticus is RACIST in the new novel?!?!" This was news to me, but I hadn't read an actual review of Go Set a Watchman yet.

So, on the eve of the publication of the "sequel" to the only book I can come close to calling my favorite, I thought I'd put together some of my thoughts on a book that I believe is inherently flawed, but worth reading anyway.

I can't claim that my thoughts on Go Set a Watchman are entirely original, as I read just about anything about To Kill a Mockingbird that crosses my social media feeds.  But, since I first read To Kill a Mockingbird the summer between high school and college (no, I never had it assigned to me when I was a student myself, surprisingly), through the years I taught it and beyond, I've certainly thought about what can be gained from reading the book quite a bit. The only texts I've probably read more times than TKAM are A Separate Peace, The Lord of the Flies and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.  And truth be told, I probably usually only skimmed those other ones in preparation for discussion, rather than actually re-reading.  TKAM was compelling every time.

Go Set a Watchman is Harper Lee's first draft novel, which everyone, including her, felt was not worthy of publication.  It was the springboard for writing TKAM, a book which I suspect benefitted greatly from a large amount of work with an editor.  I'm not saying that Lee didn't write like a dream, just that she wrote more tightly and more compellingly with someone else's eye.  The first book, which is now being published with only "a light copy edit," never got that treatment, and no one ever thought it was worth that effort.

I've read the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman, and I found it enjoyable to finally hear Lee's voice in print again, like meeting back up with an old friend. I recognized her rambling, scene setting style, and her sly sense of humor.  I think the book is worth reading if for nothing else to see what Lee thought about those characters and where they would be in their later lives.  Those older characters were the ones she wrote first, so it's interesting to think about how they informed the ones we know.

I doubt the entire book will read that well, or that it will stand up well to a whole lot of scrutiny. That doesn't really bother me because I was willing to accept To Kill a Mockingbird as a beautiful one hit wonder.   I worry instead about the way it will bring all of Lee's work under scrutiny.  I am not sure any of it will hold up as well as I'd like it to in today's literary or cultural standards, and I wonder if that is fair.

I haven't read the reviews of the whole book beyond the headlines that call out Atticus as a racist, but I can't say I'd be surprised given the time period in which the book was written.  The original book is problematic in its stereotypical dealings with race anyway, something I always talked about in my classes.  The book's heart is for sure in the right place, but it is has influenced our cultural desire for a white savior quite a bit. I've always loved the book for its quiet lessons about courage and empathy as much as the big courtroom drama anyway.  Scout is a naive and unreliable narrator, learning about evil in her town for the first time.  Interesting that maybe her understanding of her father as an adult was different.

However, all of these questions and concerns are based on the unanswerable problem that Harper Lee didn't ever want to revisit this story herself during the prime of her writing life and so she didn't.  I don't believe it will really resolve for any of us what happened to these characters in any satisfactory way, and I'm not sure that is an author's job anyway, unless she thinks they still have stories to tell.

All signs point to Harper Lee being a lot more like Boo Radley than Jean Louise Finch. From what I've read, her sister Alice protected her the way Atticus recommended that Boo be kept protected, because "it'd be a sin to kill a mockingbird."  Alice died not too long before the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was "discovered" in a safety deposit box that belonged to Alice and Nelle Harper Lee.  I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say anyone is out to overtly manipulate Lee, but it does feel like she's no longer being sheltered the way she preferred for so long.

I look forward to reading the entirety of Go Set a Watchman, but I didn't pre-order it.  I had it in my head I'd take my time to get to it and enjoy it for what it is.  I'm worried about my ability to stay away from loud opinions about it in the coming days, so it seems I'll probably have to get to it faster than I planned.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Like the rest of the universe, I fell in love with the podcast Serial this fall.  If you haven't heard of it, it is a program produced by some of the journalists from the super popular radio show This American Life.  Instead of spending one show on a topic, it followed a story for a week by week discussion.  In this case, it was an investigation in the murder case of a young woman, and the man convicted in her murder.  It was compelling story telling, for sure.  Just last evening, I had a very lively discussion with the women in my Bible study about the series.  We had all sorts of opinions about what actually happened, weighed in on our observations about the shortcomings of the defense, and were thrilled to find new links to interviews (want to hear more from Jay if you haven't yet?) and parodies of the program. (Seriously, this SNL skit is right on target.) It even led to a compelling discussion about the presence of Islamic leadership in public debate.  I love the idea that thoughtful, passionate discussions are being generated all across the country by programming like this.

I've been listening to podcasts for a number of years now, my habit often keeping me from listening to audiobooks as much as I would like.  I am constantly subscribing and unsubscribing to podcasts, hoping I'll find the time to listen to a new series, trying to keep up with old favorites, and being disappointed by the majority of new finds that I hope will be winners.

I find myself googling things like: "Why is Mark Garrison no longer co-hosting The Sporkful?" (no satisfactory answer there) "When will Alton Brown have a new episode of The Brown Cast?  (Also unclear).  "What are Mike Birbiglia's stand up tour dates?"

I love that the popularity of Serial has led to a surge in the production of new podcasts and a broad availability of quality, well produced podcast programming with thoughtful and timely content.  I keep finding new ones that I would like to listen to, so that I may never be able to update my phone again due to lack of available memory.

The podcasts I listen to on a regular basis continue to be Radiolab, This American Life, and Spilled Milk.  I can't keep up with The Moth or The Splendid Table, though I do really enjoy them both.  I listened to quite a few of Andrew Zimmern's (of Travel Channel fame) Go Fork Yourself, and liked it, but ultimately gave it up.

I am also quite enamored with Alex Blumberg's chronicle of his venture in creating a podcast business, StartUp. He's just so likable, honest and self deprecating, and makes what could be a really boring   Must be because he's originally from Cincinnati. I would have never thought I'd be hooked by stories of a business venture, but since they are going at it from a human interest perspective, it definitely works.  Recommended episodes: "We Made a Mistake" and "Burnout"

The now successful podcast business started by Blumberg and his associates, Gimlet Media, has also produced the podcast Reply All, which looks at lesser known aspects of the internet.  I've found it really informative and fascinating so far.  The hosts, like me, are old enough to remember what the internet looked like back in the age of dial up, chat rooms, and a CD from AOL everyone received in the mail. The show so far has been a good mix of history lesson on the evolution of the internet and a peek into some aspects I never knew even existed on today's web.  Recommended episodes:  "Follow the Money" and "Anxiety Box."

I have recently discovered Poem of the Day podcast, put out by the Poetry Foundation.  I used to subscribe to their daily email, but found I rarely got to it, and ended up getting rid of that particular email clutter.   I like the fact that these are read aloud, one of my favorite ways to experience a poem. A poem a day seems like a definite good thing to add to the otherwise ridiculous things that fill up my head.  BuzzFeed, I'm looking at you.

Perhaps the podcast I'm most excited about currently is a new one also produced by NPR.  Invisibilia has hosts who are from two of my all time favorites: This American Life and Radiolab.  This show mixes two of the things I like most: science and human interest.  Now if they could just add some food to the mix, it would be perfect.  I've liked all of the episodes of this show so far, but the one that has had me thinking well beyond the hour I listened was the episode "Batman."  I highly recommend it, but if you would rather not listen to the full podcast, you can read the text of it in the written transcript which can be found here and here.

The gist of this episode is that our expectations of others can absolutely define what they can and cannot do.  They begin by describing an experiment with rats, in which rats that were labeled as "smart rats" did twice as well on learning tasks than ones labeled "dumb rats" even though the rats were actually no different.  There is mention about the fact that our internal ideas of people subconsciously effect how we treat them, but then we are off to the meat of the story.  Which is, that blind people actually can be trained to see, even if they do not have eyes.  You have to read or listen to the whole thing to get the full effect of this line of reasoning, but there is a very convincing case made here.

More importantly, the piece goes on to discuss, is that many of the limitations that blind people have in our society are there solely because we do not expect blind people to be able to do certain things.  So says the man at the focus of the story, Daniel Kish, a blind man who regularly hikes as well as rides a bike.  He uses a series of clicks he makes with his mouth to produce a form of echo location to find his way around the world.

Daniel is convinced that most blind people can be taught to use these clicks and then can experience a great sense of independence in the world that many blind people today do not.  He is today working to teach as many people as he can, and overall trying to change our society's perception of the abilities of people without vision.

As I listened, I found myself waiting for the episode to return to its opening premise, which was that in general, our thoughts about others define not only our own expectations and perceptions, but actually influence those people and literally change them or create who they become.  It did not really ever come back around to that, to the point that I started to wonder if I was making a bigger deal of that generalization than I should.

But the thing is, when Daniel was describing working with a blind boy, who had never been allowed to climb a tree, and in effect bullying him to keep going and going up that tree, not allowing him to give up and jump down until he finally caught on to finding his way up to a high branch, I nearly cried.  Not because I felt sorry for the child, but because I found myself thinking: what experiences have I kept my own kids from having, merely because of my own thoughts of what they are not capable of doing?  This show really hit me in the parenting gut.

Have you seen the television show Master Chef Junior?  It's a cooking competition featuring children ages 8-13.  The kids on that show are amazing: whipping up complex dishes using elaborate cooking techniques and well honed knife skills. Every time I watch it with my kids, I find myself thinking that the parents of these contestants much have coached them so hard, maybe just for the chance at fame.  My kids certainly could never do such things.  They can barely get a sandwich made, or pour themselves a bowl of cereal.  But what if, what if, it's really less about coaching intensively and all about expectations.  I don't imagine that my kids are capable of adult level cooking skills, so I don't even give them the opportunities to learn them alongside me.  How many chances have I really given them?

I know of course, that there is no reason for me to beat myself up over this kind of thing.  If my kids show an interest in anything, I'm more than glad to offer to help them learn, and I don't think I can ever be accused of denying my kids opportunities I don't approve of somehow.  I try hard not to narrowly define who my children can and should be in all areas including expected gender roles, intellectual and physical ability, and their future selves.

But this episode really got me thinking about all the tricky ways that our expectations influence so many things around us.  It made me think I need to not only be sure I don't discourage them, but also more intent on encouraging them.  Who knows in what ways I've shut doors even based on the positive attributes I see as defining of them? Give them as many chances to do and try things even outside their comfort zone, and to actively push them to do things that they think are kind of hard.  I do know that I am guilty of not always pushing them to complete tasks that cause them to struggle.  But if I have every confidence that they can and will finish things, of course they more likely will.  This is the Tiger Mom principle at its heart, which of course can go astray, and lead to some ridiculously brutal experiences for kids and not enough chances for grace.  But, I'm definitely thinking about the areas of my kids' lives where perhaps I've already given them some labels that I could change up to less limiting descriptors of their selves.

I don't want to get all "The Power of Positive Thinking" here, and apply the equivalent of cheesy motivational posters to my parenting style.  But, the more I can positively expect of the people that I'm responsible for, the better.  This "creating good, kind, smart, successful people that love God and want to help make the world a better place" job sure is not that easy.  Who knew a story about a blind guy riding a bicycle would be yet another place to remind me of that?

I promise this is the last you'll hear from me on podcasts for a little while, but I do hope that you'll be encouraged to seek at least one out and give it a listen.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

No Picnic

I mentioned in my last post that I'm a regular listener to the podcast of Molly Wizenberg and Matthew Amster Burton, Spilled Milk.  Check it out if you haven't: it's always an entertaining way to spend 20 minutes or so.  They focus on one food per episode, sharing their childhood recollections of the food and offering recipes for that food from their current cooking life.  Occasionally they just taste test a whole bunch of junk food.

A recent episode was about sandwiches, and each shared their top five favorite sandwiches.  I have never been a big sandwich fan, if you think about sandwiches in their typical, what you would pack in your school lunch iteration of a sandwich.

But, I am definitely drawn to the sandwich listings on a restaurant menu, and would definitely prefer something like a chicken sandwich over an entree of fried chicken, for example. Many more opportunities for varied taste experiences throughout the eating of that kind of a sandwich.

It got me thinking about my own top five, so here is the list I settled upon. (in no particular order)

1. Pulled Pork sandwich, preferably from Eli's Barbecue, but I'm not above one from a lesser establishment.  Jim shakes his head at me when I order this in a place like Frisch's, mostly because I'm so predictable, but also because he'll just stick to the safe burger, thank you very much.
I think what I like about a pulled pork sandwich is again, the varied taste experiences in each bite.  I definitely want slaw on my sandwich, not just on the side, and I hope it's a slaw with more vinegar than mayo.  Pickles on it might even be good.  The best pulled pork is smoky and crunchy in places, with not too much sauce, but enough that you can taste it.

2. Turkey Reuben.  Never with corned beef:  too fatty, and the sauerkraut is the star here anyway.  I like it on grilled rye for sure, with plenty of thousand island dressing.  When I was in young, when bagels were a new and fascinating thing in the Midwest, there was a bagel shop near a bookstore I liked.  They had a turkey reuben bagel on their menu that came on a pumpernickel bagel, and had red russian dressing instead of thousand island.  I'd still choose that sauce over thousand island in a heartbeat, but it's not something you see all that often anymore.  

3. Chicken Sandwich:  I debated whether or not to even include this on the list, because for some reason, a chicken sandwich feels more like a meal, less like a "sandwich" made with bread, etc.  I don't think you'd put a hamburger on a list of sandwiches, for example.  It is its own category.  Same with a chicken sandwich in all its iterations.  However, a good, marinated chicken breast grilled or fried properly on a chewy bun will always be tops on my list of a food to enjoy, so I think it has to have a place on this list.  A Buffalo version with ranch dressing: always a good idea.

4. Hot Pepper Turkey.  This is a sandwich on the menu at the sports bar down the street from our house that we have been regularly visiting since the week it opened.  N. literally has grown up there, as it was probably the first restaurant she visited in her little pumpkin seat at three weeks old or so.  The hot pepper turkey features peppered sliced deli turkey, pepper jack cheese and a chipotle mayo, on wheat bread, which is then grilled.  I get mine without the cheese, so it's a little less spicy than as intended, but nonetheless delicious.

5. Pot Roast Sandwich at Bob Evans.   Okay, you might as well just graze on a salt lick for a while as eat this very salty sandwich.  But the fall apart beef, onions and carrots (grated, not big chunks that would overwhelm the rest of things) is so yummy that I pass up the breakfast menu at Bob Evans to order it.  We don't go here very often, but when we do, it's usually because I've been thinking about this sandwich.  I get mine without cheese of course, and I really do not think the slice of American cheese it's supposed to be served with would improve it in any way.

List established, I realize that there is not one sandwich on this list that I make, or would really try to make at home. Not surprising.  It's why I'm not so much of a packed lunch girl.  Perhaps it's the no cheese necessity, but there is just nothing exciting or interesting to me about a cold sandwich, whether it's with lunch meat, some sort of spread, or even a collection of vegetables.  Food, unless it's a fruit or vegetable meant to be eaten raw, or a chip or a cracker meant to be eaten out of the box, should be warmed and prepared in some way.  If you're not going to cook it, what's the point?  I almost included the day after Thanksgiving leftover sandwich, but even that would involve me warming up the turkey and filling before putting it on toast spread with cranberry sauce.  This is one of the reasons packing my kids' lunches is one of my most dreaded tasks: it's so disheartening assembling that food meant to stay the same until they can get to it.  (I know, I know, I could pack them a thermos or some artful bento box.  That's a topic for another day, though)

All right, now I'm hungry, so I'm off to heat up something for second breakfast.  I won't be making a sandwich, I guess.  What's on your top five?  I'm sure I've made some glaring omission, so I'd be interested to hear what you like to eat between slices of bread.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Starting off the reading year...

One of my goals for the new year is a recurrent one: to read more.  It's always easier over the holidays because there's more time to lay around and read while I'm eating and drinking too much.  Plus, people know that when all else fails,  they can always buy me a book from my Amazon wish list.  I've always got a few goodies lying around to get to on the first of the year.  Hoping this jump start signals a start to a year with more reading, less time wasting.

This year, my first book down was Delancey by Molly Wizenberg.  I love Molly Wizenberg, in a much too familiar way that includes following her on Instagram and feeling like I have an actual reason to know that she is currently on vacation in Mexico with her husband.  I particularly enjoy hearing her laugh on the podcast she hosts with fellow food writer Matthew Amster Burton, but more on that later.  I enjoyed Delancey, as I'm pretty sure I would enjoy most things Wizenberg would ever write.  She is funny, and clear and honest, and doesn't have a lot of BS or arrogance.  I liked hearing about the process of conceptualizing and opening a restaurant, and she is open about the difficulties that even a successful venture can bring to one's life, marriage and livelihood.  I felt a little something missing from this one, and am still trying to nail it down. I thought it was the lack of distance, time wise, from these events, and thus perspective.  But I think there's a little more to it than that.    

The story of Delancey is her husband's story, probably because Delancey the restaurant was and continues to be his passion, and not necessarily Molly's.  She is upfront about that in the book, and tries to wrestle with what that means for her, for him, and for the two of them together.  However, it still feels like an unresolved, and perhaps somewhat unexplored issue.  That status probably makes for a better marriage than it does a satisfying read.  But still and all, it's exactly the kind of book I like to read: a story laced with recipes, exploring the world of food, and people that love it.  Since it's not written by a cocky bad ass chef with something to prove, I liked it all the more.  I've cooked a few of the recipes from the book: they are not recipes from items on the restaurant's menu, but rather food that Molly and Brandon cooked at home while they were in the process of planning and opening the restaurant.  Simple, come together easily kind of things, which is great for me.  At first glance, these seem like things that don't even need recipes, like throw in the leftovers fried rice.  But I'll be glad to return to her description of the technique of these dishes, and I really enjoyed the sweet-hot roasted pork as an alternative to some of the other braises I like to make during the winter.  Overall, a winner of a book.

I'm also trying to use downtime to listen to audio books. Say, when I'm folding laundry and L. is watching SlugTerra at top volume on the iPad two feet away from me.  Who's to say I can't have my ear buds in then, right?  If he needs a granola bar, he's going to let me know, ear buds or not.
Using this logic, I'm currently halfway through Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.  As with many audio books, and let's face it, many regular books, this one started slow for me.  If it's not a fast paced page turner, I just have a harder time wading into books these days.  Once I get into a book, I have a hard time doing anything else but read it.  I love the more literary reads, just need a way to dive in over my head a little faster.

As I said, I'm only a little more than halfway through this book, but it's had me thinking more than any book I've read in a good long while.   It's a book that got a lot of attention on the "best of" lists at the end of 2014.  I was surprised, because I actually received this book free as an audio book as part of a promotion on Good Reads, and often I don't think giveaway books end up garnering a lot of critical acclaim.
It's a heartbreaking book in many ways, I guess any book that begins "Lydia was dead.  They didn't know it yet" is bound to be sad.  But it isn't just the death and loss of Lydia that is getting to me about this book.  Instead, it is the fact that there is so much miscommunication and inability to listen to each other in the family at the center of it.  Everything I Never Told You, indeed.  For James, the husband and father, everything is filtered through his experience as a Chinese American boy, alone and hurt by racism, and determined that life for his children will be different.  For Marilyn, it's about not following through with her dream to one day be a doctor, and terror that she will turn out like her mother, a disapproving and sad presence, who left nothing behind after her death aside from a few lines highlighted in a Betty Crocker cookbook.

It's a book about defining yourself based on the expectations of someone else, whether you decide to accept them or rebel against them completely.  Ng shifts the perspective in this book from character to character, and back and forth throughout time.  Each time I saw how differently each person was experiencing each event, I wanted to yell "Just talk to each other!"  But of course, we often don't, do we?  We live our lives so much in our own heads, certain our understanding of ourselves and others is correct, and if we do have doubts, afraid to ask in case our worst fears might indeed be confirmed.  How many of our memories, when we bring them out to light with others, are shown to be so different than the recollections of others, trapped up in their own biased filters?

So, I keep wanting to stop listening to this book, but keep getting pulled back in.  The writing is beautiful, even to listen to, so I imagine would be even more so on the page.  Lots of images that seem fresh but yet so exactly right: a near impossible feat.  I can only hope to find a few more treasures of reading experiences like this one throughout the year.