Monday, July 20, 2015

21/52 :: go set a watchman.

Last night, I sat down and read Go Set a Watchman

The build up to Harper Lee's new book, as you know, has been enormous. The beloved author had notoriously told interviewers she'd never publish again, and yet, here she is, at 89 years of age, publishing a first draft of the book that came before Mockingbird, a book she has described as the "parent" to the American classic. 

I commented on my Instagram last week how interesting I thought the release day for Go Set a Watchman would be: the publication itself rife with controversy, plus the New York Times book review informing all of us that Atticus -- our dear, beloved Atticus -- had, in his old age, become a racial bigot. It all seemed a bit too much to ask of readers, particularly Southern ones to whom the book has meant so much. No one likes their heroes knocked off their pedestals, after all.  

But The Bookshelf sold 40 copies of Go Set a Watchman the first day, and readers still seemed eager or, at the very least, intrigued. All week long, customers asked me if I'd read it, if I intended to read it, and the truth is, I was hesitant. Atticus, Scout, and Jem are as dear to me as family, and -- if I weren't currently a bookstore owner -- I may have put this one off a bit, waited for the hype and the controversy to die down. 

I am, however, a bookseller. And reading the book is my job. So after a hectic week filled with Harper Lee-inspired events and extroverted days, I curled up in my grandpa's big blue arm chair, and I read the entire thing in three hours flat. 

A full discussion of the book would requite spoilers, some of which I've included below, but for those of you who desire to remain spoiler free, here is my brief review: Read this book. It is as flawed as you've imagined, but it is important, particularly if you -- like me -- are a Southern reader. (Though even if you're not, I suspect it has the power to resonate just the same.) 

Before last week's New York Times review, my biggest concern was Lee's writing wouldn't be up to par with her previous work; I was afraid all of those Truman Capote rumors might be fueled further. I hesitated to associate this new book with the mind of a literary genius. 

I had nothing to fear. 

The voice of Go Set a Watchman is so clearly Harper Lee's. I sat in that big blue recliner for three hours laughing, then crying over its goodness. It's not perfect, mind you -- in some places, the novel rambles, falls flat. It's a draft, and readers seeking perfection won't find it here. Instead, I suspect, like me, you'll find brilliance in its place. The book is quintessentially Southern, filled with details only a born-and-raised Southerner would know. The dialect is pure, the church scenes a complete delight. Written over 50 years ago, the book is also miraculously timely, as if Lee knew we might need a book for such a time as this.

And Scout? She's all I hoped she would be. Sure, she's now called Jean Louise, but every woman knows the girl inside never really dies, and Scout shines through at all the right moments. She is witty and cutting, and her struggle to come home feels so real and true. I'm not sure how anyone could read it and not feel some familiarity with how Scout grapples with adulthood, how she stumbles in her quest to return home. 

There is Atticus, too, and it's true: His words disappoint. But they're also incredibly realistic, and Jean Louise feels as betrayed as we all do, and the book serves as a powerful reminder that humans -- fictional or not -- aren't meant for the pedestals we put them on. The scenes between Scout and Atticus are some of the finest, truest parts of the novel, and if you're like me, you'll turn the final page, the Atticus you know and love still intact, but more nuanced than before. 

Atticus, a racist? Yes, in part. A flawed human being? In full. It's genius, because it's true. 

Go Set a Watchman felt more familiar to me than Mockingbird; Harper Lee was right -- of course -- to call it the parent to her beloved work. That's exactly, exactly, what it feels like. Scout's grown-up, and we are, too. We needed this book. I'd like to think she knew we did. 

A few spoiler-filled observations are below; please don't read these unless you've read the book first (or don't intend to read it at all!). I truly believe you'll enjoy Go Set a Watchman more if you read it with an open mind. The more information you have, the less you'll be surprised by the novel's flawed beauty. 

  • If online articles and news reports are to be believed, an editor read this draft of Go Set a Watchman and told Harper Lee her flashbacks to Jean Louise's childhood were the best parts. "Make novel out of those," we're told she said. If those rumors or reports are true, I'd certainly understand why. Some of the best parts of Go Set a Watchman are still those with Jem, Scout, and Dill; they're hidden gems in the novel, and the editor is almost as genius as Harper Lee for mining them and turning them to gold. 
  • The novel's weakest parts are some rambling dialog and Jean Louise's love interest, Hank, who -- in my opinion -- simply isn't interesting enough for independent, complicated Scout. 
  • Atticus's racially-tinged dialogue doesn't appear until the back-half of the novel, and although it's incredibly important both for our current history and for a full understanding of his character, some of the novel's best parts are well before we learn about Atticus' failings. There's an entire chapter devoted to Jean Louise's return to her Methodist church that had me laughing out loud. 
  • Jem only appears in flashbacks -- the first chapter tells us he "dropped dead in his tracks" at the age of 30 -- and while this realization is heartbreaking, it fits his character, somehow. I was saddened by it, but for some reason, not surprised. 
  • Yes, Atticus is a racist -- or at least has some racist tendencies -- but his words are both nuanced and familiar if you've been raised in the South. He and Scout discuss politics -- they're both conservative states rightists -- and we see a difference between two generations that feels eerily modern. Perhaps surprisingly, Atticus hasn't been ruined for me. He is still a hero of literature, the quintessential gentleman, but now he is flawed, and I think, somehow, that makes him better (or, at the very least, more real). If you're a Southerner, this book is perhaps more for you than it is for anyone else. It may make you uncomfortable, but sometimes that's the best way to learn. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

spoken in the shop, vol. 23.

"Do you have a paper towel? I'm sweating up a storm."


On adulting
Teen customer: "I teach Sunday school to 2-year-olds, and would you believe the children's coordinator gave the class Dixie cups of water? I wanted to tell her, 'Um, they can't do that yet.' I'm so glad I know something a 30-year-old doesn't."


On Kathleen Kelly and friends
"You'll love You've Got Mail. It's a great family comedy."


On choosing your adjectives wisely
"Oh my god. That pen is delicious. So juicy!"


On age-appropriate literature
Customer: "I have a nephew who's turning five. He's developmentally delayed, so I'd like a classic book his mother could read to him that he'll still understand and enjoy."
Me, heading back to the picture book section: "Great! We have a lot of classic, illustrated story collections, like Mother Goose or these fairy tales. But The Day the Crayons Quit is really fun and cute, too."
Customer, not convinced: "I was thinking maybe The Secret Garden."
Me: "... by Frances Hodgson Burnett?"


On bookseller-customer confidentiality
"Excuse me, but do you have Get Your Loved One Sober?"


On age-appropriate books
Fourth-grade boy: "Excuse me. I am looking for the literary masterpiece Sun Tzu, The Art of War."


On "oh no, you didn't"
"I heard Harper Lee had a new book out; he hasn't published in years, has he?" 


On price point
Bookseller, ringing up an autographed book: "Your total is $31.98."
Customer: "Geez. What'd she do, sign it in gold?"

Thursday, July 9, 2015

20/52 :: thirty.

I have been thinking a lot these days about turning 30. (My entire family is rolling their eyes right now.) The milestone isn't until next year, sure, but I'm notorious for planning my birthday months in advance. Jordan hits the big 3-0 first, in November, and I've also been thinking about how to celebrate on his behalf, about what that milestone might look like for him. 

The truth is, I've looked forward to turning 30. Getting older has always looked better than the alternative, and 30 still sounds young and fun, but without the pressures and the confusion of your 20s. (Or so I thought.) Now, though, I'm noticing online surveys and questionnaires all cut off at 30. Meaning, my age bracket will completely shift: 18-24, 25-29, 30-35, or, in some cases, 40. It's a little jarring, to be sure. And there's the question of children, and the fact that I don't exactly have all the answers I thought I'd have by the time 30 rolled around. 

I've been thinking, mostly, about all the parties I threw in my 20s, and how now? Now I'm not sure who I would even invite to my thirtieth, which is a shame, because a) I throw a really grand party, and b) 30 seems like a pretty big deal. But all of my friends are spread across the states in ways they weren't five years ago, and we've moved, and life is different. 

In her book Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans shares this moment when she looks at her husband and wonders who will throw them a baby shower. They've just left behind the church of Rachel's childhood -- also the church of their first years of marriage -- and they're embarking on an important journey of faith, one that's leading them to a new church, a new home. Rachel's not even pregnant, but no matter: The question is real, and it's there. It's also eerily familiar.

While Jordan and I have been visiting the Anglican church, which we love and appreciate more each week, I've found myself wondering if we'll have what our parents had, what I had growing up and for the first 29 years of my life: a church family, in every sense of the word. And it wasn't perfect, and I don't want to go back, at least not to that particular congregation, but I do wonder if we're missing something. No one calls me "Annie Sue," and if I were to become pregnant tomorrow, I have no idea who -- outside our family -- would take care of us, would host us a shower or show us tangible love. Rachel's question, which only takes up a short paragraph or two in her book, immediately struck a chord. 

In the middle of all of this truth-seeking and life-building, who is going to celebrate with us, weep with us? 

Thomasville has been home for a year and a half now; in February, when I'll turn 30, we'll hit two years. I've met some lovely people, a few I'd even call friends. But it's different, somehow, than before, and I find myself feeling a little jealous of the people I know -- on the Internet or otherwise -- who have built these grand communities and families, who seem to have friend-making in adulthood on lockdown, who will never be at a loss on birthdays or for baby showers. 

I am trying, mind you. I started a book club, and I become a completely extroverted version of myself at the store. I have not given up, but with February looming a bit as a deadline, I'm wondering: Who will I share that milestone with? I'm realizing it might not look like a big, blowout party or a trip to Vegas (which was a long shot, anyway). And that would be okay, if I knew I'd still be surrounded by the people I love, entering a new decade of life. 

But I don't know that, and it's hard. 

I'm not sure what the answer is, so I'll continue showing up and trying. Maybe I'll beg my long-distance friends to meet up somewhere in February in lieu of a celebration at home. Who knows? Living in the moment is not the easiest thing for me, but perhaps it's the best thing for me. Thirty will come along, and when it does, maybe I'll be ready. I suspect I'll at least have learned a thing or two, and maybe that's what's most important anyway. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

reading recap: june 2015.

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O'Connor. This gift-style book came out a couple of years ago, and I received a copy for Christmas, but never quite got around to reading it. A Prayer Journal is exactly what it sounds like; the book is a compilation of Flannery's written prayers from her 20s. If you're a person of faith -- or just a fan of Flannery's -- you'll know what a large role her Catholicism played in her life and in her writing, and these prayers show just how early she began thinking about incorporating her beliefs into her stories. There are also profound truths about ambition and Christianity throughout the book's pages; it's a short read, but it's meaningful, and would especially make a great graduation gift, especially for an English or creative writing major.  

The Rocks by Peter Nichols. So good, you guys. The Rocks debuted this summer, and it's an incredibly well-done epic, summer-time book. You won't fly through this one in just a few hours; instead, I imagine you'll take at least a few days to savor it and enjoy the nuanced twists and turns. The book begins by introducing us to an older couple as they're arguing; they've got a history, but the reader doesn't know what it is yet. Within the first two or three pages, the couple dies in a tragic accident (no spoilers! it's all in the premise), and we're left to wonder why and what led up to such a tense moment. The book travels backwards in time from there, and it's beautifully-written and set almost entirely in Mallorca, Spain -- the same setting as Emma Straub's The Vacationers. (The two would make great companion novels; snag both for your next trip.) For fans of Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins

Me & Earl & The Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews. I read this one on both a customer's and a sales rep's recommendation, and although I'm glad I read it (I want to see the movie adaptation later this summer), it was a tough one for me to get through. The book is written poorly intentionally; the narrator admits as much in the opening pages, and although I appreciate what the writer is trying to create -- a realistic teenage protagonist -- it made it somewhat difficult to endure as a reader. I did appreciate how different this book was from The Fault in Our Stars (which it's of course being compared to), and it was nice to read a YA book that didn't entirely revolved around romance of some kind. Read it if you want to see the movie so you can compare. 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Favorite book of the year, hands down. The "post-apocalyptic" description really prevented me from trying Station Eleven; don't make the same mistake I did and continue putting it off any longer. The book is beautifully written and perfectly paced; I cannot stop raving about this one enough. The novel was up for the National Book Award last year, and now I see why. Station Eleven takes place in the years following a fatal plague that wipes out most of the world's population. What's left is a dying landscape intent on survival, and Mandel does an incredible job of creating a cast of characters we want to see succeed. This book isn't dark or fatalistic; instead, it's so hopeful -- a reminder of what our world gets right. If you've had this one on your list, please go ahead and snag it in paperback. You'll be glad you did.

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. Okay, everyone has raved about this book, and I agree: It's cute and fun and definitely satisfies any royal obsession you might have since it's pretty much a fictional take on the William and Kate love story. Unfortunately, I read it right after Station Eleven, which was a complete error in judgment. I thought it would be fun to have something light after the depth of that novel, but instead, The Royal We left me wanting just a bit. I'm recommending it to customers who want something fluffy to read this summer; I thought the writing was decent and the characters likable (what's not to like about a fictional Prince William and Kate Middleton?), and there were portions of the novel that were downright touching. I think my only mistake was pairing this one with a National Book Award finalist -- it was like a good wine served with the wrong cheese. Make sure you tackle this one with other summer-y fare.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari. I was completely impressed by this book. Even if you're a married person who's been out of the dating scene for a while (or, if you're like me, approximately forever), you'll be fascinated by Aziz Ansari's take on dating in a technological age. Modern Romance is NOT Aziz Ansari's personal story; this isn't a comedic memoir a la Tina Fey or Mindy Kaling. Instead, Ansari got together with a sociologist, and the two have tackled the subject of modern relationships in an intellectual but relatable way (there are charts and graphs, folks). I thought Ansari was a genius for crowd-sourcing stories and anecdotes from the audiences at his comedy shows; those stories add a lot to the already-interesting research. Book clubs would be wise to try this one; the conversations would be as valuable as the book itself, I'm sure.

Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave. I picked this one off the shelf based entirely on the cover design. It's a beautiful book, and I had high hopes; the premise sounds like lots of other novels I love: Dysfunctional family, small business, a little bit of romance, etc. The book opens as a young woman arrives at her brother's bar in her wedding dress a week before the actual wedding. Her dad is in the middle of harvest at their winery, and her mom is in the middle of an affair. Eight Hundred Grapes starts strong, but so many events happen to these characters that I got a little lost -- one customer compared it to a soap opera, and I guess that's the overall vibe I got, too. The bits about the family-owned winery were really interesting, so if you're taking a trip to wine country, this would be a fun guide. Otherwise, maybe check this one out from the library, or buy it to sit pretty on your shelf, because it's gorgeous, even if a little bit wanting. 

Althea and Oliver by Cristina Moracho.  This was my second YA novel of the month, and although it definitely held my attention, the defining moment in the book -- the climactic moment -- was so odd and controversial -- in my mind -- it was all I could focus on for the remaining pages, which is a shame, because the moment comes about halfway through the novel. I was grateful to be reading this one with a book club, because by the end, I only wanted to know their opinions on that one moment. The book is typical YA, but the setting is the mid-90s, which adds a different feel thanks to lots of music references and fashion depictions. (Think Eleanor & Park.) Althea and Oliver have been friends since childhood, but now they're almost seniors, and things are beginning to change and are becoming a little odd, in part due to Oliver's undiagnosed illness, which leaves him asleep for weeks at a time, a gender-reversed Sleeping Beauty (in more ways than one, you'll see as you read the book in its entirety. 

Second Life by S.J. Watson. My book club read Before I Go to Sleep years ago, and I liked it, as I recall. The book was a perfectly good suspense, and I expected the same from S.J. Watson's newest book, Second Life. When Julia discovers her sister has been murdered, she immediately goes into undercover detective mode, which gets more and more dangerous as she enters her sister's online world, including websites designed specifically for brief sexual connections and encounters. The story is pretty predictable, and it was all a little too sexual for me -- I only finished out of a stubborn desire to know the end. This is another book I'm anxious to hear your opinions about (but I'd read Before I Go to Sleep instead).

Monday, July 6, 2015

19/52 :: enough.

I have so much I want to write about: the quirky characters who frequent the shop every day; a fourth of July weekend spent in the presence of good friends; our Wednesday night Bible study which is slowly renewing my faith in the whole enterprise; the bats who flew through our chimney last week; the pre-cancerous mole I had sawed out of my upper thigh the same day as the bats' appearance, resulting in six inches' worth of stitches; and how the national news has me debating all kinds of issues in my own head (though rarely out-loud, for my own sanity and yours).

I want to write about how staffing a store is the hardest work I've ever done; how this summer is nothing like I thought it would be; and how community-building isn't going all that well, either. I want to write about loneliness and entrepreneurship, about home-making and faith-seeking and friend-making and The Bachelorette, but the truth is? I feel like I've written everything I know about those things. I've written about them until I just don't have any words, and I'm too busy, these days, living my life to write about it. 

Writing about it, of course, is how I cope. Even if I don't get the words out well, getting them out has always helped. Imagine, then, these past few months when it's all I can do to make it home in the evenings and get dinner on the table (and even that is rarely -- if ever -- happening like it should). I am tired, and I fear I'm consuming so much more than I am creating, but what else am I supposed to do? All of my creative energy is being pushed into the store, so when I'm home, I'm binging Netflix and reading books -- and any friend-making is virtually non-existent, because the energy simply isn't there. Instead, I'm relying on monthly Skype dates and weekly phone calls with long-distance friends,  plus visits and lunches and the occasional meet-up with an in-town acquaintance. I am trying, but it doesn't feel like enough. 

So here is my current plan: grace, grace, grace, and more grace. Grace upon grace, for others, but for me, too. I want to eat better, to live better, to write better, to be better, but sometimes? Good enough is all I can manage. This summer was meant to be lived more slowly than our other seasons, and for the most part, I think that's happening. So dinner doesn't always include a fresh vegetable, and we have yet to make a day trip to the beach. 

That's okay. 

You know what has happened? I've finished two seasons of Young and Hungry on Netflix. (Silly, but whatever. I wanted to binge watch a show this summer, and BOOM. Done.) I read nine books in June and am happily building my reading queue for July, starting with Kitchens of the Great Midwest. I Marie Kondo'd my closets, which was honestly all I could manage, and it's working for our home, so I'll count it a success. We've seen a couple of really great movies in the theatre, and we're walking around town when the humidity isn't too unbearable. We've made a list of home repairs we want to finish before the year's out, and I bought a new computer with earnings from the store. I'm slowly assembling a new Bookshelf staff, and -- lest I forget -- we took a pretty awesome trip to D.C. and spent some much-needed time with Jordan's family. We had some of our best friends over this past weekend for the holiday, and I slow-cooked ribs without burning down the kitchen. 

I haven't written this year like I wanted to, but I think when I look back, I'll realize I wrote enough: enough to get me through the hard months, and enough to remember the ups and downs I'll want to have on record when a new year rolls around.