Sunday, January 13, 2019

Educated: A Memoir

In this 2018 account, Tara Westover explores her childhood as the youngest of seven siblings in a Mormon survivalist family in rural Idaho. Public schools and doctors were considered the tools of the devil, and Westover spent the first nine years of her life without a birth certificate. After her older brother, Tyler, left home to go to college, he encouraged Tara to do the same. But even as she worked toward independence by acting in local theater productions and studying for the ACT, family stood in her way: her father did not support her ambitions, and another older brother, “Shawn,” violently bullied and abused her. Against long odds, Westover won a scholarship from Brigham Young University, a fellowship from Harvard, and, finally, a doctorate in history from Cambridge, a process of ongoing education that gave – and cost – her much.

Since its release last year, Educated has garnered praise from the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Gates. It isn’t hard to see why. A raw, messy, yet ultimately inspirational tale, it is at once astonishing and relatable. Not going to the hospital after suffering life-threatening injuries or making it to college without ever having learned what the Holocaust is may seem unfathomable to the great majority of us who did not share Westover’s upbringing. At the same time, balancing affection for family with the need for space, standing up to abuse, battling self-doubt, and trying to find your place in the world are hurdles that many have had to cross, and Westover captures the difficulty of doing so as well has her own often conflicted feelings with clarity and poise. She shows both steel resolve and paralyzing uncertainty as well as a thirst for knowledge and exploration tempered by the lure of the past.

That being said, it is possible that Educated has taken some measure of dramatic license. Westover’s parents have disputed the account, but that can easily be read as living in denial or trying to save face. However, even Tyler, though generally supportive of the memoir, has challenged the depiction of their parents as anti-education (as opposed to merely homeschoolers who disdained public schools). Add to that a 2009 photo of their father that shows none of the facial deformities the book makes clear that he has as well as the author’s admitted haziness regarding some of her own memories, and it is fair to ask what may have been altered to tell the best story.

These concerns do not invalidate the book or make it any less worth reading, nor should it be read for the wrong reasons. Educated is not an indictment of Mormonism or of homeschooling, but rather of the sort of warped mindset that regards rolling up one’s sleeves while working outside in the summer heat as a scandalous affront, BYU as a hotbed of worldly, godless socialism, and being in excruciating pain after narrowly surviving an explosion a divine gift that should be warmly welcomed. The book – and the “Dr.” that now precedes Westover’s name – also affirm that adversity is not destiny, and it is this latter message that is needed now more than ever.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Dead Girls

In her debut essay collection, Alice Bolin examines both America’s cultural preoccupation with dead girls as well as its ongoing mistreatment of living women. In addition to dissecting dead girls as a longstanding literary trope, she casts a critical eye on the narratives surrounding several cultural phenomena. An admirer of Joan Didion, she also traces her own journey from the remote Idaho to bustling Los Angeles and reflects on the path she’s taken.

The relationship between author and subject is sometimes complex and sometimes messy. Some authors eschew the personal while others confront it head-on. Handled artfully, autobiographical digressions can enrich and contextualize a work of nonfiction: Michell McNamara’s excellent I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a good example thereof. But rather than use personal anecdotes to advance her central point, Bolin seems torn between unpacking the implications “dead girls” and telling her story, and the thematic connections that she attempts to draw between the two seem strained. Part memoir and part cultural criticism, Dead Girls suffers from an identity crisis.

Then again, while hewing more closely to a premise may have resulted in a more coherent book, it would not necessarily have been a more insightful one. That premise is that dead girls in noir fiction serve as male fantasies. Stripped of agency, identity, and life itself, they become little more than a means of ennobling avenging male protagonists. Bolin, who is both well-read and culturally well-versed, finds plenty of supporting examples for this idea in everything from the classic noir of Raymond Chandler (whose femme fatales, like his dead girls, were exaggerated forms of male wish fulfillment) to the contemporary drama of True Detective. She also sees right through the performative faux-feminism of Stieg Larsson (who originally titled The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo “Men who Hate Women”) and calls out the Millennium Trilogy for its cringeworthy sexualization of its heroine and reliance on dated tropes.

Problems arise, however, when Bolin attempts to extend this connection to examples that don’t support it. For instance, she miscasts Gone Girl’s Nick Dunne as a “classic male victim” and thus a successor to the misogynistic male leads of yore even though the novel depicts him as culpable and compromised in ways that his forebears were not. Even when discussing the potential for toxicity in close relationships between women, Bolin can’t help but dip into the same well, framing the hurt that women inflict upon one another as a product of a sexist society. Given that Bolin discusses her own such mistreatment of a former close friend, this comes across as all too conveniently exculpatory. And given how many straws Bolin is grasping it in some cases (puzzling, as there are many more relevant examples that would have fit), it is perhaps for the best that the book did not stay on-point the entire way through.

The book’s off-topic segments range from insightful to insufferable. Bolin successfully draws attention to the gaps between perception in reality in everything from Britney Spears’ artistry and breakdown to the Bling Ring case. She also captures the desolation of her home state and the violence (in this case, the Ruby Ridge standoff). And while she lays on her Didion-worship a bit too thick, she does a reasonably imitation, presenting a young life in flux in L.A.. On the other hand, Bolin sometimes comes across as unbearably selfish, whether it is her condescending speculation about where her father fits on the autistic spectrum or her decision to steal a date’s hat and cut off contact because she enjoyed the feeling of finality. Annoyingly, Bolin writes of the privileged place afforded to white women yet never gets around to realizing her own (relative to the larger issues the rest of the book addresses) lack of importance.

As cultural criticism, Dead Girls offers both hits and misses, pointing to a troubling trend while also painting with too wide a brush. As a memoir, it is occasionally evocative though often vapid and alienating. Bolin shows flashes of intelligent, perceptive writing, but that ability begs to be liberated from her self-aggrandizing focus.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

A Special Blend

Located at 3900 West Market Street in Greensboro, A Special Blend offers coffee drinks, chai teas, smoothies, and baked goods. Coffee beans and mugs are also available for purchase. A Special Blend is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8-7 on Saturday, and 10-6 on Sunday.

A Special Blend is one of two (the other being Chez Genese downtown) recently opened establishments geared toward employing adults with developmental disabilities. Both have received unanimous rave reviews, which raises the question of how much of the praise is reflective of the quality of the experience and how much is encouragement of a commendable mission. In A Special Blend’s case, the plaudits are well-deserved.

Housed between Nostra and Mythos in a shopping plaza across the street from Sheetz, A Special Blend is deceptively spacious. The inside is bright and clean with plenty of seating. Tasteful wood trim and blue coffee cup wall accents give A Special Blend one of the most inviting and distinctive interiors since Coffeeology’s original iteration.

Selection and service are both excellent. A Special Blend offers coffees (drip and cold brew), mochas, lattes, chais, frappes, macchiatos, cappuccinos, hot chocolates, and teas. There are about ten different syrups available, including a few sugar-free options. Those wanting something to munch on can find muffins, bagels, scones, and croissants (sweet and savory varieties). The coffee comes courtesy of Carolina Coffee Roasting while the food is sourced from local bakeries. All of it is prepped quickly and efficiently courtesy of hard-working baristas. The cashier was polite, and the manager (?) on duty was very welcoming.

For our first visit, my wife and I went with a mocha and a white mocha frappe, respectively. The drinks weren’t cheap – they ran $4.95 and $4.80 – but they weren’t uncompetitively priced and were very much worth the money spent. The chocolately frappe was among the better blended coffee drinks I’ve had anywhere while my wife reported her mocha as tasty and smooth if a bit sweet.

We had been wishing for a coffee shop in walking distance of home (sorry, Sheetz, you don’t count) to arrive for quite some time, and it looks like A Special Blend will capably fill that role. Good drinks and a comfortable atmosphere would make it worthwhile even if it didn’t have an admirable raison d’etre.

Red Dead Redemption 2

In 1899, Arthur Morgan is a senior member of an outlaw gang led by Dutch Van der Linde, a charismatic self-styled Robin Hood figure. After a botched heist and a daring train robbery, the gang finds itself on the run with Pinkerton agents in pursuit. Dutch presses the gang to take bigger and more dangerous risks in hopes of raising enough money to escape the states for a life of freedom abroad, prompting Arthur to reconsider both his ultimate allegiance and the violent life that he’s lived. Meanwhile, Sadie Adler, a widow who falls in with the gang, seeks vengeance on Dutch’s rivals the O’Driscolls, who killed her husband while John Marston, a younger member of the gang, is torn between the outlaw life and his responsibilities as a husband and father.

A prequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, the latest Rockstar Games offering is less a video game than a sweeping counterargument to nearly every negative stereotype (mindless, cartoonish, shallow, misogynistic, etc.) of video games found in the popular imagination. Beautifully rendered with memorable characters, RDR2 is one of the finest examples of a Western not only in gaming but also in fiction and film.

Aesthetically, RDR2 looks and sounds great. The game’s large, open world transports players from snow-covered peaks to lush forests to wide-open plains to a bustling fictionalized New Orleans. From the crack of thunder during a storm to your mount’s whinnying to a bullet whizzing by, the game’s sounds ring true. Woody Jackson’s score is a perfect fit, at times riveting and at times soulful and reflective. The soundtrack has a roots rock/Americana focus but features a diverse group of contributors that includes Willie Nelson, D’Angelo, Nas, Josh Homme, and Rhiannon Giddens.

However, RDR2 is far more than just eye candy. The game is remarkably detailed and deep. As with the previous Red Dead game, RDR2 affords players the opportunity to hunt, forage, gamble, and explore between story chapters. Stranger missions are back too, and these optional side quests range from touching (Arthur can recover a black doctor’s stolen wagon from a gang of racist thieves or help a recently widowed young woman survive on the frontier) to absurd (track down escaped zoo animals for a road show charlatan) to horrific to darkly comedic (more than one mad scientist makes an appearance). The game is also impressively customizable as the player has quite a bit of control over Arthur’s wardrobe and appearance and that of his horse. Speaking of horses, horse bonding is important here: mistreat or neglect your horse, and it is likely to throw you, but feed it and praise it, and it will come quickly when called for. Arthur can’t neglect caring for himself, either. Eating and sleeping regularly are needed to replenish health and stamina cores while Dead Eye – the mechanic that slows down time in a shootout – can be restored through tonics as well as more destructive means (cigarettes and narcotics). Lastly, thanks to the game’s honor/reputation system, a player’s morality (or lack thereof) can make a difference as well. Greet strangers and help those in need, and you will be remembered fondly by merchants; rob and threaten and murder and you’ll find yourself with a large bounty on your head and plenty of ill-will.

Of course, the playing experience wouldn’t be as immersive as it is without a solid story to drive the action, and RDR2 delivers. The plot seems straightforward at first, and the repetitive nature of “just one more big score” will test some players’ patience. However, there are myriad subplots – John’s gradual maturation, Sadie’s quest for revenge, Charles (a half black, half Native man) trying to help the Wapiti tribe amid aggression from the U.S. Army – that complicate the simplicity of the narrative. Anyone who has played the previous Red Dead game knows how some of these stories will eventually play out, but it is a testament to the Rockstar team that the game remains compelling despite that inevitability.

This storytelling is bolstered by well-written and capably voice-acted characters. Whereas Rockstar’s well-known Grand Theft Auto series frequently traffics in broad caricatures, sexist stereotypes, and unlikeable, violent sociopaths, RDR2’s world is filled with more complex and compelling denizens. Arthur may initially seem like a garden-variety brute (albeit a very skilled one), and Roger Clark’s rough voice enables that perception, but his frequent journaling, his lingering affection for former love Mary Linton, and his late-game selflessness all show him to be introspective and deeply conflicted over his place in the world. If Arthur’s arc is redemptive, then Dutch’s is just the opposite. Though a seasoned outlaw at the onset, he presents as a utopian anarchist/communalist, and his adversaries – the corrupt industrialist Cornwall, ruthless Pinkertons, violent O’Driscolls, racist Lost Cause sympathizers – cast him in a favorable light. But as the game progresses, his selfishness and hypocrisy grow and his sanity and rationality begin to wither. Benjamin Byron Davis’s performance effectively captures this unsettling decline. While RDR2 does boast a familiar cheerfully violent psycho in gang member Micah Bell, it thankfully largely (lascivious drunk Karen Jones aside) avoids Rockstar’s lamentable treatment of women. Sadie (voiced by Alex McKenna) is both a fearsome fighter and a tragic endorsement of the view that violence is cyclical. Young gang member Tillie Jackson, on the other hand, escaped a violent and abusive past to become a kind yet savvy thief. Susan Grimshaw, Dutch’s former lover and the gang’s administrator, is stern and matronly yet formidable and deeply committed to those that she cares about. Other notables include Rains Fall (voiced by Graham Greene), the war-weary Wapiti chief, and Hosea Matthews (voiced by Curzon Dobell), the gang’s eldest member and a wily, well-read con artist. Oddly enough, John Marston, his wife Abigail, and his son Jack come across as distracting here. Rob Wietoff does another fine job voicing John, the first Red Dead Redemption’s protagonist, but RDR2 seems to go out of its way to make him important within this game’s story, sometimes at the expense of further developing secondary characters (that and Dutch’s penchant for hijacking in-game conversations are among the very few narrative missteps).

All told, RDR2’s plot isn’t breaking any new ground, and its control scheme may even feel dated, but the attention to detail, quasi-cinematic presentation, meaningful characterization, and thoughtful exploration of frontier morality make it very hard to put down.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Bagel Battle Bonanza: New Garden Bagels, Bagels and More on Main, and Bagel Station II

There are some who swear that good bagels do not exist outside of the New York City metro area. That may be an overstatement, but the influx of transplanted Yankees may account for many of North Carolina’s better bagel offerings. Those in the bagel biz who don’t hail from the region at least have an idea of what they should be emulating: firm and crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside, a result of boiling before baking. Some bagel places get this right; some don’t and should probably stop trying.

Three such “haves” are New Garden Bagels in Greensboro, Bagels and More on Main in Lexington, and Bagel Station/Bagel Station II in Winston-Salem. Each establishment has its own strengths and weaknesses, but you can’t go wrong with bagels from any of them.

New Garden Bagels can be found in the New Garden Crossing Shopping Center at New Garden Road in Greensboro. Offerings include bagels, spreads, breakfast sandwiches, and deli sandwiches. The establishment is open from 6 a.m. to 4p.m. daily.

Though tiny enough to preclude dining in and not the cheapest option ($1.09/bagel or $13.08/baker’s dozen), New Garden Bagels offers the best bagels I’ve encountered so far in the Triad. The consistency (crisp outside, chewy inside) is spot-on. New Garden stocks more than a dozen varieties of bagels at any given time, and there is usually a good mixture of sweet (cinnamon crunch, blueberry, chocolate chip) and savory (garlic, onion, salt, tomato basil) as well as several types of everything (egg, wheat, and traditional) bagels. There are also at least ten cream cheeses including lox, all of which, like the bagels, are made in-house. Staff are patient and accommodating of the indecisive. Though a baker’s dozen + cream cheeses has been my default order, New Garden also offers a few sandwiches (Taylor ham, whitefish salad, sliced lox) that I will have to try the next time I start feeling nostalgic for home.

Bagels and More on Main is located at 19 Main Street in uptown Lexington. It is open until 2 p.m. Monday-Saturday and until 1 p.m. on Sunday. Sandwich, soup, and cream cheese specials rotate regularly.

Lexington is best known for BBQ not bagels, and amid these somewhat low expectations, Bagels and More on Main acquits itself nicely. The bagels are a reasonable facsimile of a New York style (in that they aren’t just round bread), and the homemade spreads are quite tasty. We sampled a honey walnut cream cheese that, while very sweet, was hard to resist. Bagels and More is also more spacious than a typical bagel shop and has more of a cafĂ©/coffee shop/sandwich shop vibe.

That said, the selection is a bit more limited (maybe ten varieties?) relative to other bagel shops, and the recent addition of “and More” reflects an attempt at catering to a wider audience (via soups and sandwiches). This might not be the most authentic bagel experience around, but it is a fine fit for the area, and the owner is friendly.

The Bagel Station is located at 129 Oakwood Drive in Winston-Salem while its sister store, Bagel Station II, is located at 1977 Peacehaven Road in the Whitaker Square Shopping Center. Both establishments are open until 2 p.m. daily, and both offer deli and breakfast sandwiches as well as coffee drinks and smoothies in addition to bagels.

I had a chance to sample Bagel Station II’s wares at a recent Yelp event and liked what I tasted enough to pay them a visit. Truth be told, this is a bit of a chewier bagel albeit one that preserves the requisite crisp crust. On paper, Bagel Station II has a lot to offer, but in the flesh (so to speak), it’s a mixed bag.

First the good: Bagel Station II offers a commendably large selection and plenty of seating. You will find more than a dozen bagel varieties here (including a brightly hued rainbow bagel) and nearly a dozen spreads. Add to that the coffee selections and baked goods, and you’re in for more than the usual bagel shop offerings. The sausage, egg, and cheddar bagel sandwich was served hot and fulfilled a craving.

That said, there are a few drawbacks. Pricing ($1.09/bagel or $11/baker’s dozen) seems very favorable at first, but four designated-as-premium varieties run 60 cents more each and can’t be included in a dozen or half-dozen. Bagel Station II can get quite busy, and while counter staff are proficient at keeping the lines moving, they also seem harried and rather curt (the cashier, on the other hand, was polite). On food alone, Bagel Station II is worth a visit, but if you go during peak times, make sure you know what you want and be prepared to order it quickly.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

John Woman

The son of an erudite self-taught historian who works as a ticket-taker, Cornelius Jones is forced to flee New York following a sudden tragedy. He reinvents himself as Professor John Woman, a radical historian looking to shake up the establishment at an Arizona university. If his hostile colleagues or his affair with a student don’t prove to be his undoing, his long-hidden past just might.

Wanting to cast off the restrictive label of genre is commendable, but some writers should know their strengths. Walter Mosley is a prime example. His socially conscious detective novels — the mid-century exploits of self-made Los Angeles P.I. Easy Rawlins or the more contemporary tales of redeemed former fixer Leonid McGill — are well-crafted with memorable characters, sharp dialogue, and a keen sense of time and place. On the other hand, his science fiction novels tend to be pompous, hopelessly abstract, and ponderously slow while his erotic thrillers are cringeworthy. John Woman, unfortunately, represents a mix of the worst of all of the above. There is a murder, a political conspiracy, plenty of bloviating, and awkward sex, none of which coheres into an enjoyable whole.

The problem starts with the protagonist. John/Cornelius is deeply flawed, which wouldn’t be a problem if the narrative was not constantly trying to ennoble him. The history professor commits a crime about which we are told that he feels guilty, yet his only real regret seems to be that his father is no longer around. He commits numerous ethical breaches, including sleeping with a student. His view of history as belonging to everyone, including/especially the common man is framed as something bold and revolutionary even though Howard Zinn published A People’s History of the United States more than three decades ago. Every single female character save for his mother seems to be attracted to him. Most glaringly, those who oppose him are presented as insecure (the student’s suspicious boyfriend) or jealous (skeptical fellow professors) and given no redemptive traits. Mosley has spoken about the need for more black male heroes, but sadly, he has not realized that this book’s lead character is decidedly not one.

While the book’s problems might begin with John, they do not end there. A statutory rape is glossed over, long-disappeared characters randomly reemerge, and the Platinum Path, an improbable and hokey Illuminati imitator watches over everything, secretly grooming John for a leadership role. All of this contributes to the sense that Mosley had about five novels he wanted to write, and, not being able to decide among them, decided to merge them into one.

Were John Woman a debut from a nascent writer or the latest putrid offering of a talentless hack, it would be easily forgettable. But Mosley, who has shown himself to be capable of doing much better work, has left an impression for all the wrong reasons. Here’s hoping his next book is, if not a return to form, at least a return to lucidity.


In Castle Rock, Maine, web designer Scott Carey develops a mysterious condition that causes him to rapidly lose weight despite no apparent changes to his physical appearance. He turns to his friend, retired doctor Bob Ellis, for insight, but the latter is equally baffled. Meanwhile, Scott also tries to repair his strained relationship with his neighbors, lesbian restauranteurs who have been ostracized by much of the town.

Writers as prolific as Stephen King are susceptible to self-plagiarism. Just as From a Buick 8 evoked Christine, so too does Elevation call to mind Thinner. But beyond the rapid weight loss conceit, the former is tonally different not only from Thinner but from much of King’s oeuvre. Here, King trades in despair for a more hopeful message. This makes Elevation hard to hate even though it is in many ways one of King’s weaker efforts.

No matter how far removed from his prime King may be, he continues to show a masterful grasp of small-town dynamics and local color. In this case, he captures the paradoxes of blue-collar Maine provincialism: on the one hand, conservative and hostile to (geographic and cultural) outsiders but on the other hand community-minded and neighborly (or at least valuing the appearance thereof). However, one wishes King had not revisited Castle Rock here. The oft-used fictional backdrop has seen so many threats and oddities (some supernatural, some not) over the years that the lack of explanation for Scott’s condition as well as its disconnect from other Castle Rock capers seems like an oversight.

This omission is one of several unfortunate ways that form dictates function. Elevation is a trim 144-page novella rather than one of King’s 1,000-page doorstoppers. As a result, we are given a protagonist that we don’t get to know very well and a conflict that resolves improbably quickly: the outcome of a local footrace seems to have a disproportionate impact on everyone’s attitude.

King has been a vociferous critic of President Trump, and a rebuke of Trumpian politics is showcased prominently in this novella alongside a message of acceptance. The treatment of theme is pointed here, but Elevation mercifully spares us the obnoxious filibustering of Sleeping Beauties. Characters are presented as being flawed without being entirely unsympathetic, and they are allowed to grow and change. This latter quality is what imbues Elevation with a hopeful tone and also makes its ending bittersweet.

Closer in spirit to It’s a Wonderful Life than to prior King works, Elevation is both an optimistic reminder of our ability to do good as well as a compressed and compacted tale that leaves us wishing there was more.