Friday, September 4, 2015

"Go Set a Watchman" Review

It's been sitting on the arm of my sofa for several weeks. My parents brought it to me the last time they came to visit. My dad read it, then my mom, and then they brought it to me, without its dust jacket, probably left at home so it doesn't get damaged in the travel. Dust jackets are to be enjoyed for their aesthetic value and then taken off as soon as possible, because reading books with the dust jackets on is impossibly difficult. I sewed the book into an ugly yellow hand-made cover to protect it from wear and tear instead.

My parents. It's hard to separate Harper Lee from my parents. It was one of the first grown-up movies I remember getting to watch -- one of the ones that really meant something. I think I was in third grade the first time I saw To Kill a Mockingbird. I fell in love with Scout, Jem, and Dill, and the tired old town that was Maycomb. There were tire swings and noble, tall men and things I didn't understand but deeply felt were worth fighting for. I used to want to be Scout so badly. I would pretend I was her and I wanted to be a tomboy so intensely I made my tomboy cousin at a family reunion in Oklahoma teach me how to spit because I thought it'd be something Scout'd do. When I was little, it was something my dad and I shared. We were both overjoyed with its stylized romanticism. It's one of those movies I'd watch over and over again and my dad and I would shoot lines at each other from this movie. "There goes the meanest man that ever took a breath of life." "My word, Mrs. DuBose, don't you look a picture"/"He don't say a picture of what." "Oh no, Mr. Tate, he can't shoot." "My lord, Aunt Stephanie, you nearly gave me a heart attack!"

When I got older, we would talk about the moral and social implications of the book and the movie, philosophizing about its merits and themes. My mother would talk about how her cool aunt gave her the book when she was in middle school and how much she loved sharing a love of literature with her aunt. I myself read the book for the first time when I was in middle school, and have read it several times since then. Really, when I needed to feel comforted while I still lived at home, I would take my dad's hardback copy off the shelf and flip through it until I found a homey scene with Scout and Jem and some trouble. They were all old friends, and even though they suffered and I suffered with them, it turned out just enough alright in the end. Not perfectly, but enough.

The news that Harper Lee wrote another book and was intending to publish it hit me hard. I had very much believed that she should only write one book, and it seemed like she believed it too. To Kill A Mockingbird was a literary masterpiece that has been taught in every high school in America. If I were an author like that, I'd probably never write again, or I would have begun writing again very, very soon afterward, sort of like J. K. Rowling. She began writing new things almost directly after she finished Harry Potter, and although she will always hold the distinguished authorial position in my heart of being Harry's creator, she is no longer superhuman in my mind. I have read everything else she has written, and I still enjoy her but she is no longer infallible. She has stepped down off the pedestal into the world of real people. Harper Lee has now done that, but because she chose to do it decades after her entry into the world of hallowed authorship, it feels like a fall from grace. This book is about smashing idols and has also caused idols to be smashed.

I didn't even really want to read it at first. I had heard so much about it, and it didn't seem like the kind of book that would positively add to my warm and fuzzy recollections of the first book. In fact, it sounded like it would downright degrade them. But I like to try and give things a fair shake, so when my dad bought the book I decided upon borrowing it from him when he was done. Which, for my dad, he did in record time. This is the man who typically gets through one whole novel a year, and he literally blasted through it in about a week. Now, I had a day off from work and no more excuses.

The kindest thing but also the worst thing and the most mundane thing I could say is I'm disappointed.

I'm not even so much disappointed about Atticus, though that's mixed up in there. I'm disappointed that Jem was killed off and absent, with only a few sentences of explanation. I'm disappointed that Dill is gone to Europe (and had to find out about Jem's death through a newspaper clipping! The horror!). I'm disappointed that grown-up Jean Louise Finch is so young, so fiery, so unwilling to listen and understand. I'm disappointed that Atticus has this seemingly new attitude of paternal superiority. It does cast the events of To Kill A Mockingbird in a tainted new light, that he was defending Tom Robinson because of his belief in carrying out the law, not that he did it because he felt that the system was unfairly rigged against a black man and he should do whatever he could to help.

But more than that, I'm disappointed in the way the novel was actually carried out. It felt confused and incomplete. There were issues of consistency between this book and Mockingbird, particularly with the story of the trial of Tom Robinson. Hell, she couldn't even keep pronouns straight sometimes. Every time they would get to the moral meat of the book, the heart of the problem, the center of the controversy, the characters were constantly interrupting each other and talking over one another and misunderstand each other. But unlike Mockingbird, where everything was lovingly laid out and tied neatly together, where the narrator made her point about the mockingbird without belaboring it and it was clearly understood, despite the subtlety and subtext, in this book nothing seemed clear. It seemed like the author thought everything was obvious when nothing was. I'm still not entirely sure what Atticus's position is, or why it's okay, or even really how it impacts the actions of the first book. I kind of get it. I have people I love who very firmly believe in things I see as wrong. It made them human instead of idols to be worshipped, but that was a painful process. And I can gain a lot more by being open-minded and kind instead of yelling.

Mockingbird took the intimate, the familiar, the understandable and projected it onto the difficulties of the world. The world is an ugly place, but you can stand firm in your convictions and attempt to evince as much positive change as possible. Watchman does the opposite. It belittles the larger view, the worldly perspective, the big picture in favor of "just getting along". According to Watchman, lots of people are just going to think of black people as backward and in need of protection because they are childlike and unevolved, and what you can do about it is sit quietly and wait until they realize the wrongness of those notions of their own accord. What if they don't? You sitting there never saying anything so you don't disturb the peace isn't going to affect any change.

But this point is not a good one to make right now. Mockingbird was welcome during the Civil Rights Movement because it made the point that anyone could stand up for the right thing. And simply acts could be moving and poignant and profound. This book makes the point that we should just sit back and ignore the things our neighbors and family members say because that's the way the world is and they won't listen anyway. It won't help. But sitting back right now will only make things worse, I think. The atmosphere is violent right now. Our times are coming to a head, and right now things are kind of ugly. But if good people sit back and don't stand up for what they believe in, bad things will happen and things will just continue as they have been, which obviously hasn't been working. I firmly believe now is the time to stand up for what you believe in. This is a time when you will lose friends. This is a time when you may lose standing in your community for what you believe in. But the consequences are not nearly so severe for the majority of us today and the rewards could be great. We don't, most of us, live in the itty-bitty rigid Maycomb, where if you don't toe the line you will be crushed under the town's collective heel. It's possible to stand up for what you believe in and also not be an ass. It's possible to stand up for your beliefs while not pulling others down simultaneously. Watchman makes it seem like the two are mutually exclusive. It makes it seem like in order to keep the peace you have to relinquish your beliefs.

Instead, I think you should be quietly peaceful in accordance with your own convictions. Be like the tree, which will bend with the wind but not be uprooted. And slowly, quietly, other trees may grow nearby.

I will keep Mockingbird in my heart, alone and unaffected, and I will keep Watchman at arm's length. But I am glad to have read it.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Paper Towns: Another Disappointing Cinematic Adaptation?

So I have a giant nerd crush on John Green.

He's amazing.

He writes teen books that I actually enjoy AND are popular with the general public (can't say the same for Twilight, Beautiful Creatures, Divergent, etc).  His male protagonists are so. . .normal.  They aren't the prancing, sparkling Edwards and Jacobs, but weird, awkward, flawed, delightful adolescent humans.  And let's not forget his wonderful online presence with Mental Floss and Crash Course, which I have used more times than is probably acceptable in my classroom.  But, fortunately, most of my female students also have giant nerd crushes on John Green, so it works out in my favor.

As far as his books go, it's been hit or miss.  I really didn't care for Looking for Alaska or An Abundance of Katherines.  The Fault in Our Stars was good, but I did feel a bit like a cheap violin.  No, my favorite was, by far, Paper Towns.  I love Q and his goofy obsession with his enigmatic neighbor, how he chases and chases and ultimately comes to the self-realization that he is Don Quixote and he stops tilting at windmills.  It is a coming-of-age novel that I can genuinely relate to, and one that I think is well done.  It's interesting enough to be engaging, not so far-fetched that it's not something that could have happened to some of my acquaintances in high school (certainly weirder things did happen to them).  I loved it.

And now they're making a movie of it.  My first question: why not make Looking for Alaska into the next John Green adaptation?  It's certainly more dramatic and packs more of that emotional punch.  So, here is the trailer:

Paper Towns Official Trailer

And here's a very telling promotional photo.  (Also, where's Radar's gf?  And why isn't it easy to see that he's black?  And that she's black?  But that's another question for another post.)

I think this picture very accurately sums up what is wrong with this movie.  Instead of it being about Quentin's self-discovery through the vehicle of Margo, it's about Margo herself.  She's the one who gets the biggest space in the picture; she's the one who Q talks about throughout the whole trailer; she's the reason for his existence, the key to his puzzle.

And that's just the antithesis of the book, so I'm really wondering how John Green can, in fact, approve of this movie.  I have heard JG quoted as saying something along the lines of, "no no, wait until you see the whole movie before you judge," but this get me wondering on several levels.

Firstly, I don't believe you.  That ain't gonna happen, for the basic reason that it would wound the egos of about a million teenaged, ticket-paying girls who really, really want to be Margo Roth Speigelman.  Because really, who doesn't want to be mooned over?  None of us wants to be stalked or worse, but most girls secretly want someone to be in love with them from afar, mooning over them in the delicious and antique ritual of unrequited love so paramount to the teenage romance novel.  Most girls also want to be: rebellious, dangerous, mysterious, and drop-dead gorgeous.  Margo fills the same purpose that Katniss and Bella and Tris and every other heroine does: we would rather be more like them than the girl with cellulite, frizzy hair, and trigonometry homework.  She is our vessel and we would gladly pay (perhaps multiple times and over the course of several tumblrs) to pretend to be for an hour or two.  So they won't pull away from her in this movie because it would alienate the young lady audience.

Secondly, is this how we have to get people to see this movie?  By painting it as this exotic and mysterious and exciting love story where this girl is (YET AGAIN) romanticized, the main character fantasizing about her and superimposing what he thinks she is onto what she really is, never really seeing her for the person she is?  And thus, we are also saying her (and his) behavior is permissible.  It's okay to lose all interest in school and friends and normal people activities to wander around town looking for CLUES that someone probably didn't leave you anyway about their underage AWOL activities, when really you should stop making shit up and also give more information to the police.  Because what if she hadn't been leaving a trail of clever breadcrumbs to her hiding place, what if she had been brutally taken as a hostage by a pimp or a gang leader, like so many young girls who get sold into sex slavery?  

But more than that, here was a story that was about all the right things: self-realization, growing up, letting go of fantasies and seeing people for who they really are, and all that is gone in this trailer.  Instead, what is left is almost as bad a Twilight or Divergent, in the mixed-up messages about how girls and boys, men and women, should treat each other.  Instead of treating Margo Roth Speigelman like a person, she gets relegated once more to the role of simple fantasy.  And she's not there to speak up for the person she really is, so no problem, right?  Let's just let Quentin off the hook - it's just harmless fantasizing, right?  No.  And not just in the book (a super-long road trip of eighteen year olds holds many dangers).  In society.  It's okay to fantasize about people and not recognize their personhood.  It's okay to make them who you want them to be.  It's okay to silence or ignore their voice on their own state of humanness.  It's okay.  And it's only a short hop from there to: it's okay that he's following her.  It's okay that he's forcing himself on her.  It's okay that he won't take no for an answer.

No means no, even when you're telling the person that you aren't who they want you to be.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Grapefruit Galore!

Recently, I got a haul of grapefruit.  Eight shopping bags, to be exact.  Off of my aunt's tree down in Phoenix.  The smallest one is as big as the biggest grocery store one, and so much sweeter and more delicious!

Fortunately or unfortunately (I'm gonna go with fortunately), my tummy doesn't do super well with plain, straight grapefruit.  I love its tart and zesty flavor but boy! does the acid really roil in my belly.  So what did I do instead? Make grapefruit-infused things.  However, I am looking for more recipes!  So far, I have made:

  • a grapefruit yogurt loaf
  • grapefruit slice-and-bake cookies
  • grapefruit poppyseed muffins

They have all turned out magnificently.  The grapefruit is a light, cirtus-y flavor that brightens up an otherwise heavy pastry.  Add some yogurt or some poppyseed and you have something light, bright, sweet, and scrumptious!

Give me more recipes!  I still have at least one bag and I'm hoping to get more this weekend!

Here are my recipes, from and adapted for grapefruit goodness:

Grapefruit Yogurt Loaf

1 1/2 cups (190 grams) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (230 grams) plain whole-milk yogurt
1 cup (200 grams) plus 1 tablespoon (13 grams) sugar
3 extra-large eggs
1 tablespoon grated grapefruit zest (approximately one large grapefruit)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup (120 ml) vegetable oil
1/3 cup (80 ml) freshly squeezed grapefruit juice

For the glaze:
1 cup (120 grams) confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons (30 ml) freshly squeezed grapefruit juice

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease an 8 1/2 by 4 1/4 by 2 1/2-inch loaf pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper. Grease and flour the pan.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into 1 bowl. In another bowl, whisk together the yogurt, 1 cup sugar, the eggs, grapefruit zest, and vanilla. Slowly whisk the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. With a rubber spatula, fold the vegetable oil into the batter, making sure it’s all incorporated. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 50 minutes, or until a cake tester placed in the center of the loaf comes out clean.

Meanwhile, cook the 1/3 cup grapefruit juice and remaining 1 tablespoon sugar in a small pan until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is clear. Set aside.

When the cake is done, allow it to cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Carefully place on a baking rack over a sheet pan. While the cake is still warm, pour the grapefruit-sugar mixture over the cake and allow it to soak in. Cool.

For the glaze, combine the confectioners’ sugar and grapefruit juice and pour over the cake.

Slice-and-Bake Grapefruit Cookies

Makes about 50 cookies (no, I'm not kidding)

2 sticks (8 ounces; 230 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoons vanilla or almond extract
2 cups (280 grams) all-purpose flour

    Mix in grated zest of 2 oranges and 1/2 cup dried cranberries (I finely chopped them)

  • Mix in grated zest of 2 lemons; coat with or mix in 1/4 cup poppy seeds (I mixed the poppy seeds in)
  • Mix in grated zest of 2 limes; coat with 1/4 cup cornmeal
  • Mix in 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots; coat with or mix in 1/2 cup finely chopped pistachios
  • Mix in 1/2 cup mini chocolate or peanut-butter chips
  • Mix in 1/4 cup finely chopped candied ginger; coat with or mix in 1/4 cup sesame seeds
  • Swap 1/4 cup of flour for unsweetened cocoa
  • Swap 1/2 to 1 cup of flour for ground almonds, pecans, hazelnuts or walnuts
  • Mix in grated zest of one big grapefruit; coat with sugar

  • 1. Put the butter in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat at medium speed until it is smooth. Add the sifted confectioners’ sugar and beat again until the mixture is smooth and silky. Beat in the egg yolks, followed by the salt and any dried fruits, zest, nuts or seeds. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour, beating just until it disappears. It is better to underbeat than overbeat at this point; if the flour isn’t fully incorporated, that’s okay just blend in whatever remaining flour needs blending with a rubber spatula. Turn the dough out onto a counter, gather it into a ball, and divide it in half. Wrap each piece of dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

    2. Working on a smooth surface, form each piece of dough into a log that is about 1 to 1 1/4 inches (2.5 to 3.2 cm) thick. (Get the thickness right, and the length you end up with will be fine.) Wrap the logs in plastic and chill for 2 hours. (The dough can be wrapped airtight and kept refrigerated for up to 3 days or stored in the freezer for up to 1 month.)

    3. Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

    4. While the oven is preheating, roll cookie logs in any coatings of your choice. Then, using a sharp slender knife, slice each log into cookies about 1/3 inch (10 mm) thick. (You can make the cookies thicker if you’d like; just bake them longer.) Place the cookies on the lined baking sheets, leaving about 1/2 inch (1.5 cm) space between them.

      5. Bake the cookies for 12 to 14 minutes, or until they are set but not browned.  In Flagstaff, this time is about half of that. Transfer the cookies to cooling racks to cool to room temperature.

      Grapefruit Poppyseed Muffins

      Makes 9 to 10 standard muffins
      5 tablespoons (2 1/2 ounces or 71 grams) unsalted butter , softened
      1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces or 100 grams) sugar
      1 large egg
      3/4 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
      1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
      1 1/2 cups (6 3/4 ounces or 191 grams) all-purpose flour
      1 1/2 teaspoon (7 grams or 1/4 ounce) baking powder
      1/4 teaspoon (1 gram) baking soda
      1/4 teaspoon (2 grams) salt
      2 tablespoons poppyseeds
      Zest from 1 grapefruit (two if they're babies)

      Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a muffin tin with 10 paper liners or spray each cup with a nonstick spray. Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat well, then yogurt and zest. Put flour, baking powder, baking soda, poppy seeds, and salt into a sifter and sift half of dry ingredients over batter. Mix until combined. Sift remaining dry ingredients into batter and mix just until the flour disappears. The dough will be quite thick (and even thicker, if you used a full-fat Greek-style yogurt), closer to a cookie dough, which is why an ice cream scoop is a great tool to fill your muffin cups. You’re looking for them to be about 3/4 full, nothing more, so you might only need 9 instead of 10 cups. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes (approx. 15 in Flagstaff) until tops are golden and a tester inserted into the center of muffins comes out clean. Let cool on rack, or you know, serve with a generous pat of butter.