Category Archives: Books

Life after Paris

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“There were no problems except where to be happiest” – Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I spent three nights and four days in Paris last week with my students. All of my travels, trips, and excursions in the States and abroad will hereafter reside in two categories: Before I first visited Paris, and After. After around 72 hours there, it is far-and-away my favorite city in the world. I’ll do a rapid fire of pictures, and then I’ll write a bit about why I loved it so much.

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^ The main entry-way of the Louvre. To say that the museum is big is an understatement. It’s scope and breadth is simply unbelievable. I was tired before I even got through security.

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^ A picture of everyone else taking pictures of a famous picture.

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^ One of the many looooong Louvre hallways.

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^ One of the famous panels of Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musee de l’Orangerie, which was my personal favorite of the museums I went to in Paris.

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^ Not sure why, but this one (Konto by Kazuo Shiraga) really grabbed my attention. I stared at this for a couple of minutes, completely perplexed yet totally captivated.

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^ The amazing stained-glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle.

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^ The best food I’ve had yet in Europe. The schawarma pita sandwich at L’As du Fallafel. Simply perfect.

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^ My students at our awesome, memorable evening picnic on the lawn right next to the Eiffel Tower. A couple of students and I simply walked down the street, found a butcher shop next to a bakery, and told them we wanted to have a picnic. They loaded us up with a variety of meats, cheeses, and breads, and we were not disappointed.

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^ The view from the mid-way point up the Eiffel Tower. From here, we made our way to the very top, just in time for the first twinkle at 10pm. It was a very long process from getting tickets to actually getting to the top (about 2.5 hours), but my students were thrilled and it ended up being worth it.

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^ And, of course, Shakespeare and Company, which might be the most famous bookshop in the world. I was in there three times during my trip, and each time I could have stayed longer. It oozes literary history, and the collection of books (although over-priced) is superb.

Many authors have written about the allure of Paris. I’ve read so many of these, and I’ve never been able to quite understand what it was about this particular place that was so special. Now that I’ve been there, I still don’t quite understand it completely, but I know exactly what they mean. There’s simply something about the city that is perfect for someone like me: someone that appreciates food, art, literature, and more food. Paris is a huge city, and I know that residents do not spend every day walking along the Seine, reading great novels, and eating expensive meals. They have jobs, they have problems, and they have the same daily aggravations that we all have to deal with. But, as a tourist, the city is absolutely perfect. The options for places to eat, drink, and/or read are endless. I spent time outside of cafes right next to the Louvre eating cake and reading; I spent time in the Tuileries Gardens sitting by a fountain enjoying lunch; I spent hours walking down the river, listening to music and browsing through the bouquinistes stocks of old books and random posters. All of this time was peaceful, and somehow I was able to feel comfortable, unhurried, and even uncramped. I don’t know how this is possible, because there were people, cars, and movement all around me. But something about the river, the old buildings, and the cafes creates some sort of subconscious peace for someone like me. To put it simply, it was exactly what I’ve always hoped for in a foreign place.

Most of my students are equally enamored with the city. We didn’t see a fraction of what Paris offers, and most of what we did fits squarely into the “classic tourist-y things in Paris” category. That didn’t matter. We all loved it. We did a Fat Tire bike tour; a boat ride up and down the Seine; and we went to the top of the Eiffel. We ate lots of great food, walked around 35 miles total, and overpaid tremendously for canned sodas. We were able to sit in the same spots and walk through the same door frames as the people we’ve been reading in class, like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin. All of these experiences together created something that I will never forget. I hope they don’t, either.

– – – – – – –

This is our last week in Oxford. The plan:

  • Tonight: Dinner and then Much Ado about Nothing at Wadham College.
  • Tomorrow: Walking tour of New College.
  • Wednesday: A visit to Wheatley to find a specific sandwich shop, and then an attempt to find C.S. Lewis’s house and/or grave.
  • Thursday: Farewell dinner at the Trout.

Once my students head to Heathrow on Friday morning, I am catching a train to Cardiff, Wales for the weekend. I have absolutely nothing planned, but I’ve been told that it’s a great city. Back to Oxford on Sunday afternoon, and then one final trip before I return to Texas: I’m heading back to Paris for two more nights. I simply didn’t get enough last week, and I couldn’t resist the chance to go back. More reading. More walking. More food. And, this time, ample libations.

Cheers.

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Across the Pond

In nine days, I board a plane to London. Once I wake up, get off the plane, go to the bathroom, and make it through customs, I catch a train to Oxford. After getting off at the last stop (Gloucester Green), I take a quick 5-minute taxi ride and end up at the ACU Study Abroad houses, my home for the following 31 nights. While there, I will walk everywhere, eat amazing breads, make a fool of myself, and get rained on a lot. I haven’t actually experienced any of these things; this is just what people have been telling me to expect.

Saying I’m excited isn’t really accurate. Excitement is undoubtedly a large part of what I’m feeling. I’m excited about the group of students with whom I’m going. I’m excited about the books we are reading for the class. About the 3-day trip to Paris to visit the cafes and museums. About the breadth of opportunity I will have at my fingertips. And about the similar opportunities my students are going to have.

But I’m not only excited. I’m also anxious. A bit unsure of myself. Maybe even a tad bit scared. What if we get to Paris and I lead my class down a wrong street? What if one of my students loses his or her passport? What if Diet Coke tastes different in Europe? I repeat: WHAT IF DIET COKE TASTES DIFFERENT IN EUROPE? I get it: these types of “problems” are what study abroad is all about. Being put in new situations in different contexts is at the heart of fruitful experiences, and I’m totally onboard with that. I look forward to the inevitable hiccups and roadblocks during the month I’m there. Sign me up. But to say I’m not a tad bit anxious would be a lie. I assume that anyone approaching a long trip abroad has that same mix of emotions, and I guess that this is part of what’s so great about it.

I mentioned the Paris trip. I also have a ticket to Saturday’s round of the Open while I’m there, which is at Royal Birkdale in Liverpool. If you watch the coverage, look for the large American rooting on Phil. Once the class ends, I’ve got six days of open travel. Not sure exactly where I will go, but I know that I will be alone, I will be open-minded, and I will definitely spend more money than I have budgeted. Top of my list right now is a week in Amsterdam and Brussels, but Spain also beckons.

Beyond the excitement and the butterflies, though, is an overwhelming feeling of luck and blessing. I honestly cannot believe that I have the opportunity to travel to Europe for a month to teach an American literature class. I get to hang out every morning with a talented, diverse, and challenging group of students, talk about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin, continue the conversations over lunch, and then say, “Okay–go explore! Seeya again tomorrow morning.” How is this real? How do I get paid for this? I guess this is just another moment where those eleven years of higher education feels so much more than worth it.

I’m happy to get any suggestions any of you might have about Oxford, about England, or about European travel in general. My main goals are to eat well, teach better, visit pubs (for their historical value, of course), and help my students have the time of their lives.

I plan on being a duke or earl by August 1. That’s what happens when you marry British royalty, correct?

– – – – – – –

Things to Read, Watch, and Listen:

Read: All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. A classic, but a goody. If that’s not your thing, then read a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri or Lorrie Moore.

Watch: The Keepers (Netflix); Paradise Lost trilogy (HBO); Amanda Knox (Netflix); I recently went on a bigtime true crime documentary bender. I love that stuff.

Listen: Sylvan Esso’s most recent album, What Now, and any Pearl Jam album from the 90s. I recently revisited all of them; I don’t want to say I had forgotten, but I was seriously reminded how good those albums are.

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I forgot I had a blog.

Luckily, I remembered.

The best part of forgetting you have a blog? And not posting anything for over a year? You can actually read your old posts with a sense of distance, which is basically impossible to do while you are in the mode of actually writing them. Weirdly, I stumbled back upon my old blog and read through a few posts as if I wasn’t aware that I was the one that wrote them. Of course, this me of 2015 is not the same me of 2017. [Imagine a few sentences here about ontology, Freud, and various psychological studies concerning views of the self]. There are some parts of my old posts at which I cringe, with the stereotypical “Why’d I say that” reaction, but there are others where I am quite fond of my writing. But this is to be expected, and even though a year away offers a certain degree of objectivity, I’m still biased towards myself. That’s what a blog like this is for, I believe.

Things have happened since my last post in 2015:

  • I finished my first full year as a tenure-track professor. I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed that first year, and I am enjoying this second year even more. I know that at some point in the future (assuming I keep my job and higher education doesn’t totally collapse, a possibility some of my colleagues would argue is more realistic than you might think), I will become disillusioned with the job, bitter at my administrators, and outright curmudgeonly. But I’m not there yet, and I still get excited before each class, anticipate the conversations I get to have with students, and simply look forward to going to work every day.
  • I bought a house. It’s small, it’s old, and it’s simple. In other words, it’s exactly what I wanted. When you buy a house in November in Texas, I feel as if you get a 6-month deferment until you actually have to deal with the challenges of owning a home; specifically, growing grass and rising temperatures. So far things have been smooth and stress-free, minus some ants in my kitchen and a front door that sticks. The biggest challenge of being a new homeowner is that this is my first time to live alone. That might be a surprising thing for a 30-year old to say; nevertheless, I’m just now learning what it is to literally be alone. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it yet, to be honest.
  • I met someone. We got engaged. I’m now married.
  • The Cowboys won a Divisional round playoff game and are playing in the NFC Championship game for the first time since I was a small child.
  • Donald Trump was elected president.
  • Unfortunately, the only of the last three statements that is true is the most frightening and seemingly-impossible of the three. And when you consider the other two, that’s a telling statement.

Anyone reading this blog (which now is probably no one, considering my long absence) doesn’t need updates about me, so I’ll stop there. I’d rather spend a few moments talking about books I’ve read and things I’ve watched on various screens. Rather than give detailed responses about each, I’ll instead provide two lists of memorable titles from the past year or so, in ascending order of quality. In other words, I’ll start with my least favorites and end with my favorites.  *This doesn’t mean that numbers 2, 3, and 4 are things I didn’t like; it just means that I didn’t like them as much as numbers 5-10. For example, I really, really liked Underground Railroad, The Nix, and Hell or High Water; but I liked 1Q84 and Moonlight much more.

Things I’ve read:

  1. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
  2. Swing Time by Zadie Smith
  3. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
  4. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  5. The Nix by Nathan Hill
  6. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (first time to read it)
  7. The Catcher in the Rye (first time since high school)
  8. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
  9. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (second reading–so amazingly good)
  10. The Sellout by Paul Beatty (this text stuck with me as much as any text ever has; what a reading experience)

Things I’ve seen on screens:

  1. Batman vs. Superman (so, so, so bad)
  2. Hail, Ceasar! (not as bad as it’s proximity to the title above may suggest, but towards the bottom for me in terms of Coen brothers films)
  3. Westworld (meh; so many better options out there for AI, alternative realities, Westerns, and HBO drama series)
  4. The Revenant (I have complete respect for the ridiculous effort it took for all involved for this film to turn out how it did, but I have no desire to ever see it again)
  5. Hell or High Water
  6. The Night Manager
  7. Love (Netflix series)
  8. Moonlight
  9. Manchester by the Sea
  10. It’s a Wonderful Life (I sat down last Christmas eve and watched the entire NBC broadcast, commercials and all, and I can honestly say that I had totally forgotten how perfect this movie is. I almost cried many, many times)

I think that pretty much sums up my last 14 months or so. Teaching, reading, homeowning, and watching. Lots of golf, too. And food.

Teaser titles for upcoming blog posts:

“Pet Peeves: Updated and Expanded”

“Places to Get Decent Beer and Unexpected Culture in Abilene, TX”

“My Case Against TruckNutz: A Manifesto”

“‘Why I Quit Social Media’ and other musings from an adult life lived in 21st century America”

“CDs that I’ve listened to at least 100 times”

“Why Dairy Queen is better than Braums: A Qualitative Study”

“Cereal”

I’m sure you can’t wait.

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11 Years Later: Life as a Professor Begins

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything. Not that anyone has been asking about it or wondering where my blogself has been. And I really haven’t even thought about it at all in the past few months. Instead I’ve been, well, figuring out the basics of what it means to be a college professor. So far I feel like I’ve somehow simultaneously learned tons and nothing at all. There are days when I feel as if I don’t belong, as if someone is going to walk into my office and finally reveal that they’ve called my bluff and that, in fact, I really am not a professor. There are days when I truly don’t know how I’m going to get all of the prep and grading done, or at least how I’m going to be able to do it in any sort of effective, responsible way. And there are days when I still feel like a student. I see groups of people that remind me of my friends when I was a student on this same campus, and my instinct is to walk over and join them in whatever conversation they are having about boring classes, lunch options, or weekend plans. And then I have to remind myself that I’m actually supposed to be teaching these students and that, rather than being another face in the classroom looking to the professor for learning, I’m actually the face that’s supposed to be providing the teaching. It’s crazy. But there are just as many days when the routine of classes, meetings, lunches, workshops, and office hours seems almost normal, as if this is simply the way my life has always been. And, really, I guess that’s pretty much true. Although the amount of time and pressure has increased, my normal duties and activities are the same as they were when I was a graduate students. Lots of reading, writing, and thinking on a daily basis.

Beyond all of the minor details, there’s one thing that the past three months have convinced me of: I’m extremely lucky to be doing what I’m doing. To have the chance to spend my days reading, writing, and thinking (like I said above) on a campus fundamentally based on the idea of community and relationships is something for which I am immensely grateful. Things happen on a small, liberal arts campus that don’t happen on other campuses, and I’m allowed–and even encouraged–to interact with my students on levels that simply aren’t possible other places. Is it perfect? No, it’s not. There are downsides to small campuses, and there are aspects of my own campus that are frustrating. But is it still an unbelievable opportunity for which I still get excited each day? No doubt.

I’m also learning that life away from the big city is particularly great for someone starting a new job like mine. Life in Abilene is smaller than life in Dallas. What I mean is that there are less things to take up time and energy. There are less people to see and interact with. Less miles and minutes to get somewhere. Less choices for places to eat. Some of these decreases are sad, such as now being hundreds of miles away from people that were so important to me for so long. This is an undeniable drawback to moving away from one place to another. But beyond the people, all I’ve really missed so far is Half Price Books and a few of my favorite DFW golf courses. But if missing these a bookstore and some golf courses means spending 90 minutes less per day in my car (and about 1/4 the amount of gasoline each month), then I think I’m okay with it. Amazingly that 90 minutes less per day in my car has actually ended up making my days feel so much longer. Even with a drastically increased work load in my new life, I’ve been able to find ample time to do something I wish I had done more in Dallas: read. I’ve read more novels in the past three months than I probably read in the past year combined, and I attribute this to the smaller life afforded by Abilene.

A list of books I’ve read since my move: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr; The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri; Purity by Jonathan Franzen; How to Be Alone (essays) and Further Away (essays) by Jonathan Franzen; Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle; The First Bad Man by Miranda July; Redeployment (stories) by Phil Klay; Self-Help (stories) by Lorrie Moore; Fortune Smiles (stories) by Adam Johnson; The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins; Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill; and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. This reading binge has been great for many reasons, one of which is the fact that I’ve actually been able to incorporate portions of some of these texts into an upcoming class I’m teaching in the spring.

Many of these books were great, including All the Light We Cannot See, Purity, and Fortune Smiles. I wasn’t particularly fond of July’s novel, although there were aspects of the text that I found really intriguing and insightful. I also wasn’t that impressed by The Girl on the Train–it felt like I was re-watching Gone Girl. But my favorite might be the one I read most recently: Everything I Never Told You.

I hate talking about plots of books because I sincerely don’t like it when people spoil my own reading of novels by giving things away in flippant 30-second summaries. But Ng’s novel negates this potential problem, because she basically deflates the main potential point of plot-based suspense with her two opening sentences: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So rather than spend an entire novel creating a suspenseful journey leading ultimately to a climax, Ng’s novel unravels the story of Lydia’s family: her parents, her older brother Nath, and her younger sister Hannah. It’s a sometimes suspenseful but always gripping story about relationships, individual identity, ambition, failure, and loss. On a more general level, it’s a story about the nuances of familial relationships. It uncovers the ways in which seemingly mundane comments or facial expressions eventually transform into deeply-rooted bitterness, and how individual perceptions too often create ill-formed understandings of the people closest to us. It’s a quick and easy read, and now that I’ve finished it I’m amazed that Ng was able to pack so much emotion and raw coverage of interpersonal realities in such a short text. But I really enjoyed it, and while surface-level interpretations of the book will probably point towards its depiction of Asian American and biracial experiences, it ultimately is a book about how every person–regardless of race, gender, or background–deals with the constant tug-of-war between personal desire and societal expectation, and how this battle influences the individual psyche. My favorite line: “What made something precious? Losing it and finding it” (280). Ng has a direct bead on human emotion, and Everything I Never Told You will stick with me for awhile. It’s a book that makes you want to call the people you love and speak openly and honestly with them, and it simultaneously calls you to be open and honest with yourself.

– – – – – – – –

Other quick thoughts:

  1. The Martian (film) and Spectre were both big disappointments for me. As someone that read the former, Ridley Scott’s adaptation wasn’t horrible, but it failed to capture the magic of reading the book (i.e. the most common criticism of any adaptation ever). And the newest James Bond movie reminded me of the Pierce Brosnan era: horrible one-liners; overly-ridiculous sexual aspects; surface-level and stock characters (that weren’t there in Skyfall). I was really excited about Spectre, and when I walked out my reaction was similar to the one I had about The Dark Knight Rises: Make it one hour shorter and give me at least a little bit of dramatic substance that isn’t overwrought, and I would have loved it.
  2. Two TV series that I surprisingly loved: Catastrophe (Amazon) and Scrotal Recall (Netflix). On the surface neither of them are very promising (or publicized), and the latter might be the worst title of a show ever. But both series end up being quite heartfelt and, well, good. They also each only consist of around six 30-minute episodes, which makes them very easy to watch in a relatively short amount of time.
  3. KACU (ACU’s radio station) streams NPR all day long, and while I always listened to 91.7 in Dallas (the NPR music station), I was unfamiliar with the actual NPR broadcast. It’s fantastic. Fresh Air and All Things Considered are so good that I don’t know how I only just now started listening to them. And on the weekends, A Way with Words is my personal favorite. Yes, I get it: the English professor talking about how much he likes NPR is about as cliche as it gets. Oh well. In this category, I fit the cliche.

Now that the beginning madness of professor life has seemingly subsided, I hope to post more often. Until then, cheers to employment, colder weather, and the upcoming holiday season.

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Harper Lee in 2015

Unless you’re a reader of The New Yorker, it’s rare to see a news story or headline focused on something having to do with literature. If you don’t count instances in which books are banned or highly controversial, I personally can only think of two literary events making the uncommon ascension to popular news: 1) the publication of the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography in 2010, which came 100 years after his death; and 2) the publication last Tuesday (7/14/2015) of Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman.

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It’s hard to think of an American text that is taught or read more than To Kill a Mockingbird, at least in the United States. As someone that has lots of friends that don’t normally read literature, Mockingbird is usually the one text that I can pretty much assume that everyone’s read. If a question about literature or writing or a certain literary device comes up in normal conversation (which, granted, is an amazingly rare thing to happen), it’s great to have Mockingbird to rely on as a source of characters and references that will actually resonate with most people. “Well, a foil is a character that basically stands as an opposite of another character. For instance, Mr. Ewell is a foil for Atticus, and his role as foil functions as a way for Lee to accentuate the positive aspects of Atticus’s character. Whenever we see the lack of dignity, decency, and goodness on behalf of Mr. Ewell, we are actually further reminded of just how decent and good Atticus really is.” But let’s be serious: it’s a large stretch that the literary use of the world “foil” would ever come up in a normal conversation. Still, the point remains: in this country, pretty much everyone has read To Kill a Mockingbird.

Not only has everyone read it, but Lee also pulled a pretty unheard of move after it was published: she never published anything else. Mockingbird won the Pulitzer, it was made into an Academy Award-winning movie, and–like I already said–pretty much every American kid between the ages of 10 and 14 began reading it basically as soon as it came out. And how do you follow up a book like that? You don’t. At least not for 50+ years. And, honestly, I don’t blame her. How could you possibly follow a book like that? It reminds me of J.K. Rowling following up the Harry Potter series: was there really any way for her to write a book that wouldn’t immediately be compared to HP and, in turn, be shred to pieces by critics and fans? When a text reaches such heights as those reached by Mockingbird, its author undoubtedly reaps all sorts of benefits and also consequences, including forever being compared to their previous masterpiece. Maybe Harper Lee found the loophole: you wait 55 years to publish something else.

Go Set a Watchman is a phenomenon for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the number of copies it’s already sold. The back story to its publication is fascinating in many ways. It was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird, which is particularly interesting if you’ve read both texts and think about some of the overlaps–and major differences–in some of the characters. For me, the most phenomenal aspect of the text is the unique reading experience it allows considering the incredible things surrounding it, including the various things I’ve discussed above. I can’t remember another time when I’ve approached a text with such an unsure feeling of how exactly I was supposed to approach it. I had tried hard to not hear anything about the book before I read it, but I still knew bits and pieces going in. Most importantly: I had heard bits and pieces about Atticus being a racist, which has clearly been the central topic of conversation surrounding the book since its publication. But even beyond this, I was a bit hesitant about reading it. Did Harper Lee herself really even want the book published? I know the controversy about whether or not this was the case, and this was problematic for me. And, to be honest, my biggest concern had to do with the quality of the book itself. What if Watchman simply wasn’t any good? What if it casted doubt on the quality of Mockingbird?

Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m still a bit unsure of how I feel about it. Fortunately, some of my hesitations were proven wrong: I no longer am worried about the book being bad, and Watchman does not cast doubt on Lee’s skill as a writer or on the quality of Mockingbird. The story of Watchman is not nearly as engaging or intriguing as Mockingbird, and I must say that the book itself almost seems more like a classic dialogue rather than a novel. I use that term lightly, because I don’t mean that it reads necessarily like a conversation between two characters. Instead, I reference dialogues just because the book is so light on plot and, really, any sort of story. Instead, Watchman is a cultural critique and reflection in the form of a short novel. There are characters, and things do happen, but these are clearly secondary to the moral and ethical conflicts that Lee is trying to take head on. With this in mind, I’m not quite sure exactly how I felt about the book as a novel because, to be honest, now that I think about, hardly anything actually happens in the text.

I’m also unsure about how I feel about it in relation to Mockingbird. I don’t like the fact that I’ve compared the two texts, and I told myself that I would read Watchman as its own text rather than a sequel to the other. But it’s basically impossible to do that considering the fact that Scout Finch is the main character of both, that both of them take place in Maycomb, Alabama, and that so many of the characters from Mockingbird play important roles in Watchman, including Jem and Dill (in flashbacks), Calpurnia, and, of course, Atticus. I simply don’t see how it’s possible for someone that has read the first book (which, like I said above, is pretty much everyone) to not constantly think back to it as he or she reads Watchman. And the reason this is problematic for me is that the two books, just like their characters, are actually vastly different. On top of that, the world in which we now live is also much different from the one that existed 50+ years ago when the text was actually written.

And yes, we learn that Atticus is a racist. He is a bigot. The unflappably perfect man from Mockingbird turns into a somewhat typical old Southern man in Watchman, complete with rantings against the NAACP, the inferiority of black people, and a fundamental nostalgia for the traditions–both good and bad–of the South. The book is nothing more than the story of Scout’s realization that Atticus feels this way, along with basically everyone else in Maycomb. All of the people that helped raised her, all of the people that stand as beacons of the love she feels for Maycomb, end up representing this “separate-is-equal” view of race. Her father, her aunt, and even the man she planned on marrying. Theirs is a more typical form of racism: they don’t hate black people, and they don’t support lynchings or deny their humanity. Instead, black people are simply inferior, different, and separate–and that’s just the way it is.  The book depicts Scout’s realization of this, followed quickly by her disgust, and then a few long conversations with the people closest to her, most notably her father.

Watchman crystallizes and solidifies Lee’s views on racism and the South. In Mockingbird, racism and bigotry are just pieces of Scout’s coming-of-age story, and Atticus’s defense of Tom Robinson is secondary in relation to the overall story of a 10-year old growing up in Maycomb during the 1930s. But in Watchman, there is no Boo Radley or bildungsroman; the book is a pointed examination of racism in the South, and its focus is solely on uncovering the realities of the subtle, dangerous ways that this racism actually plays out in the hearts and minds of seemingly good-hearted people. Scout takes Atticus to task head-on, and the last 100 pages of the book produce some rather memorable scenes of Scout confronting Southern racist subtleties.

Watchman walks a dangerous line at the end, and Lee puts her reader in a troublesome spot. What are we to do whenever the people closest to us exemplify beliefs and tendencies that we see as morally reprehensible? To put is simply, what do we do if our sister, or aunt, or father is a bigot? For Lee, you still love them. You hug them, you eat meals with them, and you help them when they need help. And this is the difficult part, because as hard as it is, I think that Lee has the answer right. The only way to defeat bigotry is through love, or at least that how it seems to me. And by the end of Watchman, Scout’s only recourse is to keep loving her father. “I think I love you very much” are the last words Scout says to her father in the book, and it seems as if a certain level of peace has been reached between the two. But this scene isn’t as peaceful for the reader, at least not a reader in 2015. It’s not as easy to confront bigotry with love in our world, and doing so is something that we seem to rarely see. And, unfortunately, the racist tendencies that Lee investigates in Go Set a Watchman–a book set in 1950s Alabama–don’t seem to have changed much 55 years later. I’m not saying that lynchings and flat-out racism are still the norm, because they aren’t. But this isn’t the type of racism that Lee is looking at in the book. She’s looking at the more common types, and these are the ones that are still around. So the questions she raises in the text remain. What are the various ways in which racism takes residence in a person’s heart? How exactly do we, as a society, do the work of eradicating these various aspects of racism, especially when so many of them seem to be so deeply born into people’s subconscious? And how do we respond to these instances of racism? How do we, as a society, find some sort of peaceful outcome between all parties involved, in which individual agendas and preferences are secondary.

My favorite line in the book comes from Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother. He tells Scout, “Remember this also: it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.” Will Watchman will be taught in schools? I don’t really know, and if it is, it definitely won’t reach the level of Mockingbird. It’s a much different book, and it’s really not even a book for young people. It’s a serious book that looks at serious things in our world. Would it have been published today if it hadn’t been written by Harper Lee in the 1950s? I seriously doubt it. But there are parts in there that threw me aback in terms of how applicable they still are today. And I can’t think of a more astute assessment of human nature’s ability of purposeful denial of present realities as the one made by Uncle Jack above. And it is here where I think Watchman gives us its most important lesson: rather than spending time acknowledging the mistakes we made in the past, perhaps we should be more focused on identifying the mistakes we are making right now. Maybe this is the way for us to “get along,” as Uncle Jack says. Lee was ahead of her time, and I for one am glad that Go Set a Watchman finally found its way to publication.

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Shopping Carts in Parking Lots

My last few posts have swayed more towards the serious side of things, so I figured I’d lighten it up a touch. With that in mind, here’s my most recent list of things that annoy me:

1) Empty ice trays

I am fortunate to live with people that are also my close friends. I’ve always been fortunate in this category. I’ve lived with 10-15 different people over the years, all of whom I consider my close friends. I’ve been Best Man in two of their weddings (soon to be three); I’ve traveled abroad with some of them; I’ve even been fortunate to live with my own brother. In other words, I consider myself extremely lucky so far in terms of who I’ve been able to live with.

But if you’ve every had roommates before, you know that at some point in time you find things about people that annoy, bother, or straight up anger you. Shoes left in the living room; dishes left uncleaned; music turned up too loud in the bathroom during a shower. I’ve heard people get mad about things like this, and usually I’m indifferent. But I’ve found my main roommate annoyance, and that’s whenever an ice tray is left unfilled. I don’t get it. You might be thinking, “Wait–people still use ice trays?” Yes, they do, especially when they live in an apartment that isn’t blessed with an icemaker. It’s not a problem; I actually like the intense, exhausting labor that is making your own ice. Trust me, it’s really not hard to do. And when I get home from a “rough” day of reading books and grading papers, I expect one thing: 1) there to be ice in the ice bucket. If not, then I have another expectation: 1a) I expect the ice trays to be full of water that is either frozen or is in the on-the-way-to-being-ice stage. These really should be the only two options. But, for some reason, I sometimes come home and find something else, which I’ll label as 2) Empty ice trays in the freezer serving absolutely no purpose. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to expect either 1) or 1a).

2) People that strand their used shopping carts in the parking lot.

This phenomenon is an embodiment of all things I see wrong in the world. Okay, that’s clearly an exaggeration. But seriously, leaving your cart in the lot is nothing less than pure selfishness. Every time I go buy groceries I see carts stranded in the parking lot. This creates extra work for grocery store employees that most likely are already underpaid and are undoubtedly under-appreciated, and it also isn’t efficient for shoppers as it leads to problems with re-stocking the in-store supply of available shopping carts. The worst? When someone leaves their cart directly in the middle of the adjacent parking spot. I’ve caught myself yelling horrendous profanities whenever I pull into a spot only to realize it’s already occupied by an empty shopping cart. A few weeks ago I witnessed firsthand a beautiful woman consciously make the decision to leave her cart in the lot. I saw her go through the moral dilemma of whether or not to return it to the designated “Shopping Carts Here” area, and she made the lazy decision to just leave it. I walked over and returned it for her, but not after making sure she saw me do so. She tried to withhold her shame, but I saw a glimmer of it in there somewhere.

To put it simply, I think it’s just a selfish thing to do, not to mention being extremely lazy. It’s another form of the “My time is more important than yours” sickness, closely related to the “I’m going to bypass this line of traffic in the shoulder and then eventually have to merge in at the front of the line thus creating longer waiting time for the people already in line” thought process. Both are equally worthy of profanity.

3) Rewinding VHSs. So what if I haven’t done this in 10+ years–it will always remain an annoyance to me.

4) The revision process.

I teach college composition courses, and a huge part of what I teach is the writing process. If you’ve taken a course like this then you’ve probably heard someone talk about how important revision is in this process. And I stand by this lesson: writing is, in fact, a process, and an irreplaceable step in this process is revision. Without revision, writers can’t find what needs to be better (something always needs to be better) and they can’t confront the uncomfortable admission that things need to be changed–an admission that must be made in order for writing to reach its potential. I teach this, and I teach it as often as I can.

But as a writer, I hate that it’s true. I hate the revision step, especially whenever the document you are revising is 215 pages long (give or take a few pages). Sure, there are moments when it hits you: “Hey–this part can be better,” or “Aha! I’ve got it!” But, for the most part, it usually feels like drudging through page after page, making sure that what I’ve written is good enough to suffice. I hate to admit that, but that’s how I feel most of the time. Of course there’s one great thing that revision means: the process is almost over.

5) Dating

It’s the worst. I wait longingly for the return of arranged marriages.

– – – – – – – –

On another note, here’s this post’s edition of “What to Read/What to See”:

Read: Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son (2013)

This is one of the more fascinating books I’ve read in a long time. It won the Pulitzer in 2013, and I feel like it will stand out amongst some of the recent winners as a book that finds a way to simultaneously cover a particular, current topic and also speak about broader, timeless aspects of the human experience. If that isn’t a good enough sales pitch, maybe this will be: it’s about North Korea. I don’t know much more about North Korea than the next person, but this book had me hooked from the first pages. The way that Johnson conveys an experience complete different from the one that I know–the experience of living in a world of political and intellectual captivity–is noteworthy, especially considering the fact that he’s from South Dakota. I have no idea if the North Korea he depicts is accurate or not, but I do know that his exemplification of the way that we tell ourselves stories in order to create an understanding of the world we live in is brilliant. This is, in essence, what the book is about: stories are how we make sense of our lives, but oftentimes these stories are made up for us–for good or for bad. As Johnson shows, it’s each person’s choice whether or not to believe the stories that we are told must define our lives.

See: Whiplash

I was on the way to see this movie in December when I got stuck in unexpected traffic, and I ended up having to wait until it came out on Netflix last week to see it. This type of movie is usually right up my alley, and Whiplash isn’t an exception. There were times when I was questioning whether or not I liked it, but it eventually clicked for me. I like Miles Teller, although I still see him as the goofy young guy from some of his previous movies; I think I need a few more roles like this from him before I really buy into it. J.K. Simmons was great, and I have no problem with him winning the Oscar (although, I have to say, Mark Ruffalo was fantastic in Foxcatcher). I’ve read a few articles hating on the movie because of its depiction of jazz. But I’m not a jazz purist, so that criticism doesn’t resonate with me. And, honestly, I thought that the last act of the movie was perfect. It brought the entire film to a resolution, and the last ten minutes had me hooked.

Watch: Hello Ladies (HBO Series)

I recently tried to get one of my friends to watch this show; she hated it because it was so hard to watch. And I admit that each episode has more than one especially cringe-worthy scene, in the same vein as parts of Meet the Parents or the scene in The Family Stone where Sarah Jessica Parker’s character fumbles her way through an unintentionally homophobic and quazi-racist diatribe around the family dinner table. If you find yourself struggling through scenes like that, then Hello Ladies might not be the show for you. But if you enjoy the original British version of The Office, you’ll love it. This makes sense, of course, as Stephen Merchant (creator, writer, and lead actor of Hello Ladies) is creative partners with Ricky Gervais. Hello Ladies chronicles the struggles of a single man looking for love in L.A. It’s awkward, it’s painful, and it’s hilarious. And if you’re able to stick it out through the entire series (including the movie-length ninth episode), it’s rewarding even beyond the laughs. There’s a sense of compassion and gentleness underlying the awkwardness, and I think that Merchant does it perfectly.

 

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Really, Sarah Koenig?

I’m going to give my thoughts and reactions to the NPR podcast, Serial. If you listen to the podcast and you haven’t finished it yet, I guess I should tell you that you shouldn’t read this post in fear of any “spoilers.” The show recently ended, and by recent I mean earlier this morning. I listened to the final episode within the last hour, and I would usually like to wait until I actually give my thoughts on something like this. But, to be honest, Sarah Koenig and the producers of the show didn’t do any waiting, and I’m going to follow their lead.

I was really into the podcast when I listened to the first episode (late to the game, I didn’t begin until the week of Thanksgiving). Multiple friends had told me about this new series on NPR called Serial. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first: was it about a serial killer? Breakfast cereal? Either one of these topics sounded great to me, and I’m always a fan of things NPR does, so I downloaded the first four episodes and listened to them all on my drive home for the holiday. I was hooked. The crafting of the first episode was perfect, I thought, and I literally couldn’t wait to keep listening. I remember getting to my parents house, saying a quick hello, and going straight upstairs to “use the bathroom”–which was actually me sitting in my old bedroom finishing Episode 4. The story itself is fascinating: a murder case from 1999 that resulted in a 17-year old kid being sentenced to life in prison without a single shred of hard evidence linking him to the crime. And the idea for the show is equally intriguing: rather than being recording months previously, the show was going to basically air in real time, with each week’s episode being no more than a week or two behind the actual research and reporting. This is where the title, Serial, comes from–a story told in serial format, each week building off of the previous one, with an ultimately unknown outcome. And I really like the intro music; it’s eerie and catchy and perfect for the subject matter.

But, now that I’ve finished it, I have to say that my fundamental reaction is frustration. I’m frustrated at Sarah Koenig, at NPR, and at the entire idea for the podcast. Did they do lots of things well? Yes, they most certainly did. The production value was on par with all NPR productions. The reporting, the interviews, and the tone of the show worked well for me. But, for me, the problem is something that I guess I should have realized from the first episode: the outcome was unclear from the beginning. Granted, Koenig and NPR did not hide this fact from me; I mean, the entire structure of the show is based off of that premise, so it’s my own fault for expecting any sort of outcome at all. That was the point. An interesting case with lots of fishy details and huge question marks, and NPR was going to spend twelve episodes digging through those details and shining a big, bright, Ivy-League educated light on those question marks. They never said: hey, we are going to have a nice, clean answer for you by the end of the twelfth episode. And they knew what they were doing by not promising this.

The weird thing is, I’m usually completely on board with any and all things that involve unknowns and non-resolutions. I’m a PhD student in literature, for God’s sake, so dealing with questions of epistemology is my version of fun (as embarrassing as that is). Open-ended questions about meaning, and about perspective, and about [T]ruth–these are the types of questions that I see as the most important, and the most intriguing, in our world. Give me a situation that produces multiple opinions over a black-and-white answer any day of the week. But something is different about Serial. In the final episode, it’s clear that Koenig is aware of the fact that her listeners are probably reaching a point where they are asking, “Okay, there’s 12 minutes left in this episode. I’ve given about 6-7 total hours of my time listening to this podcast, and I want to know what the point was.” Her answer: it’s up to the listener to decide.

I get this. There’s lots of facts about the case, and there’s even more speculation. That’s what the entire podcast was: an investigation of the facts, and a survey of the hypotheticals. Maybe the call to that one girl was a butt dial! What if Adnan was in the library at 2:26 and was at track practice that day? But how did Jay know where the car was?! They are all interesting questions, and Koenig addresses these and many more ad nauseam. And, really, this is all the last five episode were: Koenig going back through the facts and hypotheticals, revisiting these same questions over and over. She tries to make the last episodes as interesting and intriguing as the first six or seven, but I think that she clearly lost steam. The low point for me was actually in the final episode, whenever Koenig spends something like ten minutes (at least it felt that long) explaining how the one call made from Adnan’s phone to a girl–a girl that only Adnan knew–could, in fact, have been a butt dial, even though it lasted for two minutes, twenty-two seconds. She goes through old AT&T contracts and even a Supreme Court case, showing how the company did, in fact, charge users for missed calls if they lasted for a certain amount of time. Ten minutes later, Koenig asserts: this call, in fact, could have possibly been a mistaken call from Adnan’s phone, which proves that he didn’t necessarily make that call. Really? Ten minutes to prove a point about a hypothetical that could potentially shine kind-of definitive light on one aspect of an already-proven-to-be shaky prosecution? This is the point where I realized that she really had nothing more to say about the case, and that Koenig and her colleagues were doing everything they possibly could to manufacture an interesting episode.

Beyond the drop in quality in the last four/five episodes, though, is this question: what was the point? In one of the last episodes, during a phone conversation between Koenig and Adnan (who’s in prison), Adnan says that he is ready for Serial to be over. He doesn’t really care what Koenig or anyone else has to say about him, or whether or not anyone believes his claim to innocence; he just wants to return to his “normal” life. His words conveyed a sense of dejected doubt towards Koenig, as if Adnan himself had lost momentum in talking to her and was just left wondering, “Why did you do all of this, Sarah Koenig? Why did you spend a year interviewing me and dredging up old details and ruffling everyone’s feathers?” And I feel the exact same way. What was the point? Clearly the point wasn’t to make ultimate declarations about the case, or to have some big reveal at the end. Maybe this was the hope at the beginning of the show, but about halfway through it was clear that this wasn’t going to be the case. So this begs the question: does journalistic interest warrant the level of exposure that Serial created? What I mean is that I’m not sure if Serial is fair to the people that are really involved in the case, the people’s whose lives were actually affected by what happened in 1999 and the years since, and whose lives have undoubtedly been affected in the past few months because of the popularity of the show. All of this for what? It’s not as if new facts were presented, or new evidence was found. Yes, Koenig and her colleagues make lots of valid points throughout the show, and they even point out significant faults in the case against Adnan and raise valid questions about whether or not the evidence used against him in 1999 would stand–or would even be allowed to be used–in a case fifteen years later. But none of these things prove anything, and even Koenig herself isn’t convinced of anything by the end of the show. In the meantime, Adnan sits in prison asking to be able to return to his life, Jay and others are now being confronted with who knows what type of ridicule, and that young girl is still dead. A young girl, by the way, that really gets hardly any presence in the podcast.

I think that all of my problems with Serial, and all of the faults that I personally see in it, come back to the format and structure of the show. For instance, I think that it would have been so much better if there wasn’t a set amount of episodes. I could have done without probably two hours or so of the broadcast, and I have no doubt that everything meaningful and intriguing could have been fit into seven or eight episodes. Beyond the length, I simply don’t know if I agree with the idea of an open-ended format to the show. It’s unique, and it’s immensely intriguing, but I think there are problems, as evidenced by this first season. I think that if Sarah Koenig from a year ago would have known that the show would end in such an ambivalent, undecided way, she would have structured it differently. I don’t see this as a problem from a narrative standpoint, because I think that many of the best stories end with uncertainty. But I do see it as a problem from an ethical standpoint (ethical is a really strong word, but I don’t know what other word to use). The fact that the show ended the way it did raises questions for me about whether or not it was worth it, and whether or not the fact that millions of people wanted to listen to the podcast was enough to justify all of the realistic repercussions for the people involved in the story.

For me, I can simply write this blog post and be done with it. My fellow listeners of Serial and I can listen to the show, have our thoughts, and then move on with our lives. But what about the people whose lives were subjected to scrutiny, and whose mental and emotional states were thrust back to 1999 and put under the microscope? I can’t imagine it was easy or pleasant for these people to talk about these things, especially considering the fact that so many of them said things that did nothing more than create more doubt and confusion. Koenig ended Serial by telling her listeners that it was up to them, that they could decide what they thought about the case. But that seems so voyeuristic, and it seems wrong. Who am I to get to decide what I think about the case? Who am I to get to jump directly into this case, root around and disrupt things, only to say, “Oh, yeah, he’s guilty,” or “No way–she’s definitely lying.” Whenever an author ends a book in a way that leaves the meaning up to the reader, this leads to conversations and discussions about things like belief, and perspective, and truth. And I guess that Koenig wanted the same conversations and discussions to happen after people listened to Serial. But these aren’t characters that she created, and these aren’t plot points that she came up with. These are real people, and these are real lives. And I’m not sure if it’s fair to use real lives to simply ask questions like, “What do you think?”

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