A Brief History of the Modjeska

I went back to my beloved Kentucky home this weekend, for the first time since December. I was there for a family friend’s wedding, and for Father’s Day, and spent a glorious 72 hours eating doughnuts and barbecue, hitting up my favorite bookstore, dancing in a garden, and doing yoga and watching John Oliver and laughing so hard I cried with four-fifths of my immediate family (my sister, sadly, was stuck in D.C.). It was a much-needed break from the stress of daily life. For three days, I looked at the stars instead of my Twitter feed and did my best to tune out the news, focusing on SherlockCars 3, and old friends instead. There’s a particular sweetness to that feeling of comfort and safety, a warm fuzzy joy that only comes when you are home and safe and loved. I wanted to wrap it up and bring it back with me, at least a small piece, to infuse into my everyday New York life. And in this case, as is often my way, that little morsel of home took the form of a caramel, marshmallow confection known as the modjeska.

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Now if you’re not from Louisville, you are probably wondering: “What on god’s green earth is that funky, vaguely-Slavic-sounding term Zelda just threw out?” I can picture the look on your face exactly, because I’ve seen it on roommates and coworkers when I return from the Bluegrass State bearing a slim white box full of neatly wrapped treats nestled in paper beds. “A mo-what-now?” they say, picking up a piece and holding it a safe distance from their mouths, unsure if they dare test it. Now, if I were a more selfish person, I would leave them to their confusion and guard this secret delight for myself. But despite my better judgement, I find myself enlightening them. After all, I have made it an unofficial life mission of mine to spread the word of Louisville’s underappreciated glory to the world — culinary or otherwise (see: this blog). And so, I explain.

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The modjeska, in its simplest form, is a candy consisting of a marshmallow dipped in caramel. It was invented in Louisville in 1883 by Anton Busath, a French confectioner who had immigrated to the Ohio River town. Busath slaved away for years, perfecting his “caramel biscuit.” Around this time, a Polish actress also made her way to Louisville. Busath saw her perform at the McCauley Theater, near his downtown shop, in the debut U.S. production of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” He was so enamored with her that he wanted to give his crowning achievement her name. He asked her for permission, she granted it, and thus, Helena Modjeska found herself the inspiration for a Kentucky classic. She was so tickled, she sent Busath an autographed portrait, which he hung in his shop.

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When Busath Candies was destroyed by a fire in 1947, Busath asked his friend and fellow candy-maker Rudy Muth if he could use his kitchen to produce the caramel treats, as Christmas gifts for his friends and family. Muth agreed, sharing his space, and in gratitude Busath gave him the recipe after deciding he couldn’t reopen his own shop. Another local confectioner — Bauer’s Candies — renamed their own caramel biscuit in a tribute to Busath after they closed. Both Bauer’s and Muth’s Candies continue to produce their own versions of the modjeska in Kentucky today (in traditional and chocolate varieties), shipping them all over the world.

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I discovered the glory of the modjeska when I moved to Louisville at age 11. There was a small market across the street from Scout’s and my school called Burger’s (RIP sniff sniff), and there was a jar of the candies (Muth’s version) right by the register. I still remember biting into it for the first time — the sticky caramel yielding to a soft cloud of marshmallow — and thinking that I had found the perfect dessert. I had always been a caramel lover, but this was on a whole other level. Some people are turned off by the marshmallow, thinking it will be weird when wrapped in a non-chocolate coat. But trust me: It is magic.

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Nowadays, I’m partial to Bauer’s; their marshmallow and caramel are denser, with a richer flavor to the caramel. And every time I go home, I find myself hauling a box back with me. Sometimes I share with my office, or with Scout. Sometimes I hog the whole thing to myself, rationing out the treats so as to savor the experience. For a dangerous stretch of last year’s election, I had a box in my desk drawer for “emergencies,” which proved to be more frequent and not at all far between, resulting in my plowing through the whole batch at an alarming rate. It is a quality candy, to be sure, made the old-fashioned way that follows a now 100+ year tradition. But I think the real reason I love modjeskas so much, and why they hold a particular place in my heart that no other food does, is that they taste like home.

IMAGES VIA: BAUER’S CANDIES, NPRENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA, PINTEREST,  MUTH’S CANDIES

Rooftop Party Essentials

Our calendars have been officially flipped to June for 6 days now, and so even though the weather has been decidedly gloomy and unseasonably cool, we have officially declared it summer in our hearts. Summer in New York means a lot of things: sweaty subway seats, hot garbage smell, throngs of tourists in matching t-shirts. But it also signifies one of our favorite times of year: rooftop season.

Since quitting Bushwick for Crown Heights nearly two years ago, I have found myself blessed with a beautiful rooftop. It’s not the fanciest pad in the world, but it’s big and it’s quiet and it has a view of the skyline from the Battery to Central Park. When the weather gets nice enough, it becomes my private retreat — a place to run away with an iced coffee and a good book and escape the hustle and bustle of the world for a while (perks to working a weird schedule: the neighbors rarely interrupt my me-time). I love it so much, I even wrote a post about it. But while most of my roof time is spent finishing my latest book club assignment or thinking up topics for blog posts, my dream is to one day throw that most New York of fêtes: a rooftop party.

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See my roof, while lovely, is jinxed. My roommates and I have tried to throw housewarming parties, and Derby parties, and birthday parties, and meetings of the aforementioned book club en plein air, and every single time we have been foiled by the cold and the rain. This past weekend was no exception. I awoke to sunny skies and an optimist spirit. Maybe this would finally be the day! I texted Scout and our fellow book clubbers: “The weather outside looks roof-friendly! So plan your outerwear accordingly.” But a mere two hours later, as we began to assemble, so too did the storm clouds. By the time we were all present, it was full-on raining, and we had to settle for my living room floor.

But still I dream of BBQ’s and coolers of beer, big-batch cocktails and music by twinkly light. And so I have assembled this guide to how to throw the best rooftop bash ever, which I fervently hope to test out this summer…if the rain ever lets up.

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The Basics

Make sure your guests have somewhere to sit. You can go the table and chairs route or stick to picnic blankets, but make sure that whatever seating you have is waterproof and/or portable. I am personally a big fan of Target’s picnic blanket selection; they come in a variety of adorable patterns (I’ve been lusting after these pineapples for weeks), and fold up into a conveniently portable package, complete with shoulder strap. If outdoor furniture is more your jam, IKEA or Amazon are your best bet.

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The Mood

Every party needs a good soundtrack, which means you will need to procure speakers of some kind. Take this moment to assess your roof’s outlet situation, as this will determine what kind of audio equipment you can use and how much pre-party charging of said devices you will need to factor into your timeline. Also important, lights! My roof is lacking in outlets of any kind, and while New York kindly provides enough light pollution to keep it from being pitch black, some electronic assistance is recommended. In the absence of plugs, I recommend battery-operated twinkly lights: festive and convenient!

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The Vittles

Maybe you’re among those lucky few New Yorkers to live in a building with an elevator, which will convey you, your guests, and a feast swiftly skyward. But if, like me, you must climb several flights of stairs in order to reach the promised patio, portable is the name of the game. Anything that requires plates or silverware means more for you to haul up, and back down at party’s end, to stick to finger food. Pigs in a blanket, good. Spaghetti or salad, bad. On my festive to-cook list: cauliflower feta fritters, lemon raspberry pie crust heartsdouble chocolate cake doughnuts.

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The Libations

Much like with the food, the key with rooftop booze is to minimize the amount of stuff you have to cart up and down. This means nothing that requires individual assembly (a good rule of thumb for parties in general). Big-batch cocktails are your friend here — think punches, sangrias, anything that can be poured in a drink dispenser. I recently made this blueberry mint lemonade from Joy the Baker and think it could only benefit from the addition of gin or vodka. Make sure you bring disposable cups, and a couple garbage bags for people’s empties (do not be the neighbor who throws a party and leaves trash all over the roof). And if you’re also going to have beer, bring a cooler or bucket and a couple bags of ice to keep it cold. Bonus: The cooler or bucket will have to be brought back down, but the ice can be dumped out to melt at party’s end!

Zelda’s Favorites: 0% Political Reading from Around the Internet

Many moons ago (ok, not that many), we used to close out our months here on Z&S with a round-up of our favorite things. This included music and movies, things we were eating or drinking or listening to. And it included things we’d read — sometimes books, but mostly articles from around the internet that struck our fancy. I’d keep a running list all month whenever I stumbled across something particularly funny or moving or cool. It was our way of starting a conversation, and, personally, a good way to keep track of some of the best things the Internet had to offer during the past 30 days.

I do not regret our decision to do away with the round-ups; Scout and I are busy, busy ladies, and we’d rather focus our time and efforts on quality versus quantity of posts. But I miss the practice of noting when I read something that struck a chord and sharing it with y’all, our internet kin. And especially these days, when our democracy seems to be in tatters and kids are getting blown up at pop concerts and world leaders are trying out their best Saruman impressions, it’s important to be reminded that not everything is doom and gloom. This can be a particular challenge for me, since my job requires me to spend my days (or rather, nights) inundated by all things news, most of which is far from sunny. So in an effort to salvage my own humanity, and to hopefully bring a little apolitical relief to yours, here are ten of my favorite things I’ve read on the internet of late.

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Drag Queen Story Hour Puts the Rainbow in Reading by Una LaMarche (The New York Times)

Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card! And when it comes to building empathy and celebrating the beauty of difference, it’s always best to start ’em young.

“Children love dressing up and being imaginative in what they wear,” Ms. Aimee said. “They see drag queens as people who are doing the same thing, expressing themselves creatively and having fun with it. Also, kids have a much more fluid understanding of gender than most adults do.”

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Ginned Up: Canada Recalls Bottles Of Bombay Sapphire For Being Extra-Boozy by Camila Domonoske (NPR)

Nope, this is not the Onion. Apparently your gin and tonic really can be too strong.

A single “unsatisfied customer” tipped them off, returning a bottle because it did not “meet expectations,” Canada’s National Post reports.

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Horses Competing in This Year’s Kentucky Derby by Jonny Auping (The New Yorker)

We may be 347 days away from the next Derby, but this still tickles me.

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Cultural Appropriation

A Tom Wolfe Book About the Subculture of Gentlemen’s Duels to Determine Once and for All the Proper Way to Mix a Mint Julep Titled “The Smoking Bourbon”

Ghostface Killah

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Hillbillies Who Code: The Former Miners Out to Put Kentucky on the Tech Map by Cassady Rosenblum (The Guardian)

Speaking of Kentucky, I love this stereotype-busting look at these former coal miners who are looking to turn their fortunes, and those of their fellow Appalachians, around by transforming an economically devastated region into “Silicon Holler.”

The guys at Bitsource also view being a hillbilly is something positive. “A hillbilly is someone who is hard-working, thoughtful, and loyal,” Couch says. “And rugged,” he adds. “Because we’ve seen some tough times.”…“In Pikeville we already moved the mountain,” Justice says. “Nothing really much scares us.”

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Think Baseball is Boring? Maybe a Cat Will Help by Daniel Victor (The New York Times)

Dear Scout, See baseball can be fun and exciting! Love, Zelda

“Look at this cat,” Rich Waltz, a Marlins announcer, beamed on the team’s broadcast. “Terrific stuff by the cat. Outstanding!”

The cat settled itself away from the dirty hands of humans on a gaudy sculpture that lights up, sprays water and does other gaudy things on the occasion of each Marlins home run. It lay down on a portion of the sculpture painted to look like water, but found no tuna or minnows.

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Why the 1980s Anne of Green Gables Is Such a Hard Act to Follow by Joanna Robinson (Vanity Fair)

As Kathleen Kelly tells us, when you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way no other reading in your whole life does. Anne Shirley, with her sass and her love of books and her absolutely voracious imagination, is an indelible part of mine.

I didn’t read Anne (with an “e” of course) of Green Gables. I devoured Anne of Green Gables. At the time, I didn’t understand why Anne’s commitment to her own intelligence, kindness, and disruptive “red hair” meant so much to me. Why watching Anne sit on a bench and stare toward her beloved best friend Diana Barry’s house, crying “henceforth we must be strangers living side by side,” made my heart soar. Now I realize that she was my first heroine.

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Stephen Sondheim and Meryl Streep Side by Side at the Pen Gala by D.T. Max (The New Yorker)

Why does this story exist? I do not know. But it’s a fanciful romp, and I’m delighted to be along for the ride. Also it wins the prize for favorite sentence I’ve read this month (see below).

Out of the gloaming, Streep appeared.

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That’s What She Said: #Professional by Anne T. Donahue (newsletter)

I do not know why I was not subscribed to Donahue’s newsletter until this month — she is consistently one of my favorite people on Twitter, and on the internet in general — but this brassy breakdown of how to be a lady boss who writes shit and gets it published is what hooked me. (Speaking of newsletters, are you subscribed to Bim’s? You should be subscribed to Bim’s.)

So first, let’s squash the myth that you need to know a writer to be a writer. I knew zero people who were writers when I started writing. I was in university, it was the summer, I’d had a fight with my Dad (which pushed me over the edge and made me decide to show him ONCE AND FOR ALL), and I worked at American Eagle. So, upset and frustrated with my life, I went to Craigslist and looked up writing jobs and CORRECT: that was a terrible mistake. But my point is, your career beginning does not need to look like somebody else’s career beginnings. There is no right or wrong way to begin writing as a professional person.

Except maybe by working for $2/piece via Craigslist. But I survived! So we did it, everyone. NEXT.

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Digging in the Trash by David Joy (Bitter Southerner)

Bitter Southerner is basically who Scout and I want to be when we grow up. Their content is consistently well-written, beautifully produced, and humming with empathy. They never met a stereotype they didn’t try to dispel, nary a bubble they didn’t burst with wit and insight and truth. This is no exception.

We drove there on birthdays and holidays. Past farm ponds colored chocolate milk. Past yellow fields of oat grass that waved and flickered in sunlight like heads of windblown hair. Gravel crunched under tires as we eased along a dirt road just a few minutes from where we lived to the trailer where my grandfather survived.

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My Family’s Slave by Alex Tizon (The Atlantic)

Last but not least, this is not a happy story, but it is an important one that will challenge your assumptions about family and love and our responsibility to our fellow human beings.

Her name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido. We called her Lola. She was 4 foot 11, with mocha-brown skin and almond eyes that I can still see looking into mine—my first memory. She was 18 years old when my grandfather gave her to my mother as a gift, and when my family moved to the United States, we brought her with us. No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived. Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly. She wasn’t kept in leg irons, but she might as well have been.

 

Lip Service: Zelda’s Favorite Sticks, Stains, and Balms

I am not a beauty guru (although I sometimes like to pretend I’m one on this blog). My contouring skills are pretty much nonexistent. I have yet to perfect my cat eye. But the one area where I do claim some smidge of expertise is lips. Berry or burgundy, crimson or magenta, I love a bold lip. It spices up any outfit, adds a bunch of panache to any look, and instantly makes me feel more awake, put-together, and downright sultry no matter what else I have going on. My fellow lipstick-wearing pals often ask me for recommendations in the stick, gloss, and stain department, and so I thought I’d share some of my favorites with you, dear readers.

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From drug store finds to Sephora specials, liquid mattes to sheer balms, these are the staples I consistently find myself going back to when I want to put a little smooch in my step. Whether you’re in search of a new spring look, gearing up for a special occasion (*cough Derby Party cough*), or continuing your quest for the perfect red lip (me, always), here are some Zelda-approved products to get you started. And if many of them happen to be in Run for the Roses shades, perfect for pairing with a certain May Saturday and its atmosphere of Bluegrass glam, even better.

2296157.jpgRevlon Ultra HD Matte Lipcolor (I own this in at least six different shades — I wish I were exaggerating — but my favorites are Passion, Addiction, and Obsession): If you’re looking for bang for your buck, this is your winner. A huge punch of color, creamy texture, and nigh-indestructible coverage, all for under $6. This is also where we first encounter the trend of weirdly oversexualized lipstick color names. Sex sells, I guess?

 

revlon.jpgRevlon Super Lustrous Lipstick (in Cherries in the Snow): I stumbled across this color on some “Best Of” list that I can’t seem to relocate, and it has quickly become one of my new favorites. Teetering between magenta and red, with good lasting power to boot. And only $10!

 

 

Soap-and-Glory-Sexy-Mother-Pucker-Matte-Lip-Review-Swatches-3.jpgSoap and Glory Sexy Mother Pucker Matte-Lip (in Chocoberry): As you’ll notice from this list, I generally stick to the bold berries and reds when it comes to my pucker, but this is one noticeable exception. I bought this on a recommendation from my favorite London-dwelling Canadian beauty blogger Estée Lalonde, and her endorsement rang true. Another drugstore steal, from the cheeky Brits at Soap and Glory, this goes on like a balm, with the color of a lipstick, in an earth rose that hits the millenial pink sweet spot.

800897840310_liquidsuedecreamlipstick_kittenheels_main.jpgNyx Liquid Suede Cream Lipstick (in Kitten Heels): My Girl Scout troupe determined I was a Winter at a formative age, so I have since tended to shy away from orange-y reds in favorite or blue and berry tones (why this was a Girl Scout activity, I do not know, but I hope girls today have done more of the camping and less of the “holding up paint swatches to one’s cheek” of my youth). So I was apprehensive when I received this as a sample in my Birchbox, as it definitely fell more on the Summer side. To my very pleasant surprise, I actually liked it — a bold hit of color with a definite warm-weather vibe — and the incredible staying power tipped me over the edge. It took 26 years, but I had finally found an orange-red I liked.

2306286.jpgSmashbox Always On Matte Liquid Lipstick (in Bawse): When I first heard about this limited edition color, I wrote it off as a gimmick — a collaboration in which Smashbox hoped to capitalize on the brand and audience of YouTube superstar Lilly Singh a.k.a. iiSuperwomanii. But then I started to see the promo photos, featuring members of Lilly’s and the Smashbox teams. Ladies with a whole rainbow of skin tones, eye colors, and hair colors, with lips ranging from razor thin to full-on Jolie, all tried on the lipstick…and they all looked amazing. So I caved, and it did not disappoint. It can be a little bit drying, which keeps it from achieving the status of Perfect Red, but the shade is ultra-flattering (and, I might add, perfect for a Run for the Roses).

Too-Faced-Lady-Balls-Melted-Matte-Liquefied-Matte-Long-Wear-Lipstick-Review.jpgToo Faced Melted Matte Liquified Long Wear Matte Lipstick (in Lady Balls):  I am a huge fan of liquid lipsticks. However, nothing irks me more than a liquid lip that sucks all the moisture out of my kisser, leaving my mouth shriveled and dehydrated. This can be a particular problem with liquid matte colors, and this guy is one of the best I’ve found at avoiding what I call “Sahara mouth.” For my first try, I went with the classic red, but I’ve got my eye on It’s Happening and Bend and Snap as well.

SMASH.jpegSmashbox Be Legendary Lipstick (in Jam On It): I owe this discovery to Z&S favorite Ingrid Nilsen. Watching one of her videos last fall, I found I couldn’t stop staring at her lips. The reason was to be found in the video description — the internet’s version of asking your friend (or, you know, a random stranger on the street): “Oh my god, I love your lipstick! Where did you get it?” A deep berry that layers well, letting you take it from raspberry to plum in a matter of coats.

GS000934.jpgBenefit Full-Finish Lipstick (in Espionage): This is a long-time favorite of mine, the first shade beyond the classic reds that I truly loved. It breaks my heart that Benefit no longer makes it, and makes me incredibly sparing with how I use it and cautious about how it gets tossed in my bag, since one tube is all I’ve got. The color looks intimidatingly dark as a solid but goes on with just the right amount of sheer, while still packing a deep enough punch to make any wearer feel like a goddamn vixen.

TARTE.jpgTarte Tarteist Creamy Matte Lip Paint (in Frenemy): Speaking of dark, this is one of the newest additions to my lip arsenal, purchased for a Halloween trip to Sleepy Hollow with friend-of-the-blog, and my sister witch, Katie. Applying this guy can be a bit tricky, since the color is dark and tends to set very fast, but even so it goes on smooth and doesn’t dry your lips out, plus it has a surprisingly minty scent to give it that extra oomph.

 

Fresh-Sugar-Berry-Lip-Treatment.jpgFresh Sugar Lip Treatment (in Berry): There are lipsticks, and lip stains, and liquid mattes that toe the line. But sometimes, you just want a hint of color, and for those moments, there is Fresh. I have loved these sugar treatments for years, starting with the Original formula. They are incredibly moisturizing, they smell great, and they have just enough color to give your natural lip shade a boost without making you feel overdressed.

 

s683490-main-Lhero.jpgSmith’s Rosebud Salve: Last but not least, if you just want to let your natural lip shine, allow me to suggest this timeless classic. It smells like a Derby winner’s garland and seeps into your lips like rain on a racetrack, leaving them soothed and refreshed. Or, for a twist, you can layer it over a lipstick or lip stain to soften the color and give it a bit of shine.

IMAGES VIA: ULTAWALGREENSYSIS LORENA, NYX, ULTA, MAKEUPANDBEAUTY, GLAMBOT, BLOOM, SEPHORA, MUSINGS OF A MUSE, SEPHORA

 

On S-Town and Stories and Why They Matter

“John B McLemore lives in Shittown Alabama.” That was the subject line of an email that Brian Reed, a producer for the radio show This American Life, received in 2012. John B introduced himself. He talked about his shit town (known more widely as Woodstock, Alabama). He asked Reed to help him solve a murder.

Like millions of other people, I spent the past few days falling headfirst into S-Town, the podcast that emerged from years of reporting by Reed, all sparked by this missive. I’m going to warn you now, if you have not yet listened to S-Town, this post contains spoilers as to the content of the podcast. So please, do yourself a favor, and go spend a few hours journeying through its seven chapters now. I’ll wait.

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The podcast was produced by This American Life and Serial, Sarah Koenig’s true crime wunderkind. I was a huge fan of Serial, so when this new show was billed as an outgrowth of that one, a murder mystery cut from the same cloth, I was intrigued. The actual show would turn out to be so much more.

S-Town is a murder mystery, it’s true. But not of the one the previews introduce. It is also an investigation, an autopsy, a celebration of a life cut short. John B killed himself, you see, a few years into his correspondence with Brian. And what began with one death — that of a local kid, whose murder John believed to have been committed by the son of a local lumber scion and subsequently covered up, and which turned out not to have happened at all — turns into a deep examination of another. The podcast traces the aftermath of John’s death: the battle over his estate, the feud between his relatives and friends, the aftershocks that ripple through his community and, more slowly, through his spiderweb of friends. More importantly, it grapples with who John was and the life that he lived, restoring clocks and rescuing puppies, caring for his mama and seeking human connection, building mazes and inhaling mercury and loving and losing and worrying and hating Shittown.

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The podcast has been described in several reviews as Southern Gothic, and I believe the label is a fitting one. Wikipedia, the internet’s number one source for all cursory knowledge, describes the term: “Common themes in Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters who may or may not dabble in hoodoo, ambivalent gender roles, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.” Its characters, “madness, decay and despair, continuing pressures of the past upon the present.” S-Town unfolds like a novel — even the episodes are called Chapters, numbered I-VII — weaving through time and space, from interviews to digressions into fire-gilding techniques or climate change. It visits characters mysterious and strange (and yes, definitely eccentric), from John’s friends and family to former professors and fellow horologists, his mama and cousin, proteges and friends. While there is very little hoodoo, there is much exploration of gender roles and ambivalent sexuality, especially when it comes to John himself, who describes himself at different times as various percentages of straight vs. gay. The setting is either lush and verdant or horrifyingly decrepit, depending on whose eyes you see it through. There is poverty and crime, violence in the form of murders that weren’t and suicide and self-mutilation that, heart-breakingly, were. And there is madness here, although whether it arises from the environmental decline of the world or the poverty of rural Alabama or too much mercury or simply bad genes, or all of the above, is anybody’s guess.

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But what I think makes S-Town such a vitally Southern story — setting the, well, setting aside — is that its roots are so clearly grounded in the region’s storytelling tradition. The South is rich in lore, a region that can’t shake the shadow of its history and digs deep into its roots, pride mixing with surrender. This tale is one of a town grappling with a complicated history and an ugly present. It’s also the story of a community that comes together, cobbled together from parcels of land and sheer resolve. It’s a saga of families both biological and chosen, of the scars our parents leave on us, of the legacy we leave behind. It’s complicated and messy, and the gears don’t always seem like they’re going to fit. It is exquisitely real.

To be a human being is a lonely thing. We are all, each of us, trapped inside our own minds, starring in a movie of our own making without a ticket to anybody else’s cinema. And we tell ourselves stories, as one of my favorite writers says, in order to live — to feel less alone. The last chapter of S-Town in particular asks a question: “What gives a life meaning?” The question is specific — what did John B think defined a life as worthwhile, and did his own, when he ended it with a swig of cyanide, fit the bill? But it also endlessly broad. What makes a life worth living? What can each of us hope to accomplish with our few precious days on this earth?

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I believe we can listen. I believe we can tell our story. And I believe, if we’re lucky, we can help to tell the stories of others, especially those whose voices are often muffled. That’s why I’m a writer. I write because I do not understand, as a way through the darkness. I write to puzzle the knot of my life into something slightly less kinked, and to tell the stories of the folks I meet along my way. We all live in bubbles — whether in hipster corners of Brooklyn or small towns in Alabama — but stories, both journalistic and fictional, help us to see beyond our sphere. And what Brian Reed does so brilliantly here is to follow the witness marks of John B’s life, to reconstruct as best he can what all the gears and pulleys of his mind looked like, and to invite us inside for a spell. In another’s hands, this would have been the story of a crazy dude in a shitty redneck town, who subscribed to conspiracy theories and wasted his resources on obscure projects and died writhing on his front porch. But Reed tells his story with curiosity and respect. He always questions, never assumes. He listens. He looks at every angle. He tries to find the whole, messy truth.

John B McLemore is dead. He died in the same Shittown where he was born and raised, never straying too far beyond its borders. But his life, which at first glance seem small, left a mark on this great wild world that continues to ripple out. And a storyteller named Brian Reed helped, is continuing to help, him do that. To borrow from another of my and Scout’s heritages, it is one of the greatest mitzvahs a person can do. To really listen to someone. To see them. To celebrate them. To tell their story, without reducing any of its complexities or quirks to stereotype or a cheap joke. To make them remembered.

IMAGES VIA: FORBES, SHEKNOWS, PASTE MAGAZINE, PEDESTRIAN

Six Badass Southern Women You Should Know About

March is Women’s History month here in the United States (and also the UK and Australia), and while we believe that any day is a good day to celebrate women and their accomplishments, we will happily take this opportunity to turn the well-deserved spotlight on some badass, brilliant ladies. These six were trailblazers in their fields, which range from athletics to advocacy, TV to torah. They are brave, they are fierce, and they all hail from below the Mason-Dixon line.

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Wilma Rudolph (Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee): Rudolph was a premie, entering the world as the 20th of 22 siblings and weighing a mere 4.2 pounds. At 4, she suffered a bout of infantile paralysis, which left her with a twisted leg and foot, forced to wear a brace. By the age of 12, she had also contracted polio and scarlet fever, battling back every time. The odds were undeniably stacked against her. But in 1953, while playing on her high school’s basketball team, she was spotted by Tennessee State track and field coach Ed Temple, and everything changed. Temple coached Rudolph, who joined TSU’s summer program and ran with the Tigerbelles for two years. At 16, she went to the Olympics for the first time, bringing home a bronze medal for the 4×100 relay. And four years later, at the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics, she took gold in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, and the 4×100 relay, making her the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympics. She was hailed as “the fastest woman in history,” and her homecoming parade and banquet were the first fully integrated municipal events in her hometown of Clarksville’s history.

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Mae Jemison (Decatur, Alabama): Jemison may have grown up in Chicago, but her first three years were spent in the Deep South. The daughter of a maintenance supervisor and an elementary school teacher, Jemison loved science from an early age. She loved nature and dinosaurs and stars and space, watching the shuttle launches on TV with her classmates. But something bothered her: “At the time of the Apollo airing, everybody was thrilled about space, but I remember being irritated that there were no women astronauts. People tried to explain that to me, and I did not buy it.” Jemison fell in love with dance, went to Stanford, served in Peace Corps, watched Sally Ride shatter that annoying glass ceiling. And in 1987, she was accepted into NASA’s Space Program, one of 15 applicants chosen from a pool of over 2,000. She served as Mission Specialist on STS-47, from September 12 to 20, 1992, making her the first African-American woman in space. With her, she took a poster from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; a photo of Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to fly an airplane; and a few small pieces of West African art, to symbolize that space belongs to all nations. Now retired, she’s a professor-at-large at Cornell and a tireless advocate for science education, especially for young girls and minority students.

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Penny Ann Early (Kentucky): Early earns her place on this list for two famous firsts. Number one: In 1968, she became the first licensed female jockey in the United States. She entered three races at Scout’s and my hometown race track, Churchill Downs, but her male peers were so incensed that they boycotted, refusing to ride with a girl. But Early wasn’t done. Hearing about the controversy, the now defunct Kentucky Colonels basketball team decided to sign Early — all 5’3” of her. Coach Gene Rhodes was less than amused by the stunt and protested to management, claiming he would not let her play (to be fair, Early hadn’t so much as picked up a basketball in her life). But on November 27, 1968, in a game against the Los Angeles Stars, Early got her moment. Clad in a mini skirt and a turtleneck with the number 3 on it (representing the three races she’d been prevented from riding), Early subbed in and inbounded the ball to Bobby Rascoe, who immediately called a timeout. Early was subbed right back out, her basketball career amounting to mere seconds, but it still made her the first — and, so far, only — woman to play on a professional men’s basketball team.

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Mia Hamm (Selma, Alabama): Hamm moved around as a kid, bouncing base to base as an Air Force brat. At one such base, in Florence, Italy, she was first introduced to soccer. Hamm had been born with a club foot and wore corrective shoes as a toddler, but she immediately took to the sport and quickly excelled. As a student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, she led the women’s soccer team to four NCAA championships; of the 95 games she played on the team, they lost only one. But the truth is by the time she got to UNC, Hamm had already made a name for herself as a soccer star. She joined the U.S. women’s national team at just 15, the youngest player ever to do so. In 1991, she played in the first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup — at 19, again, the youngest member of the squad. She scored the game-winning goal in their first match. She scored again in their second. And in front of 63,000 spectators, she and her teammates beat Norway 2-1 to become the first ever women’s world champions. Hamm would go on to lead the U.S. to another World Cup victory in 1999, as well as two Olympic gold medals. She was twice named the women’s FIFA World Player of the Year, was one of two women on FIFA’s list of the 125 best living players, and until 2013 she held the record for the most career goals ever scored by a soccer player, of any gender.

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Paula Ackerman (Pensacola, Florida): Born and raised in Pensacola, Ackerman moved to Meridian, Mississippi, in 1922 with her 15 month-old son and her husband, a rabbi. The family was active in the Reform Judaism movement, and Ackerman taught confirmation classes at their congregation, Temple Beth Israel, and would fill in for her husband when he was sick or out of town. Then in 1951, when he died, the congregation asked her to take his place. She accepted, making her the first acting female rabbi in the United States. Although she was never officially ordained (that wouldn’t happen for a woman until 1972), she led the synagogue until 1953; even when the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations rescinded his permission for a woman to assume such a role, the congregation insisted on keeping he. At the time, when asked about her appointment, Ackerman wrote to a friend, “I also know how revolutionary the idea is—therefore it seems to be a challenge that I pray I can meet. If I can just plant a seed for the Jewish woman’s larger participation—if perhaps it will open a way for women students to train for congregational leadership—then my life would have some meaning.”

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Laverne Cox (Mobile, Alabama): You may know her from “Orange is the New Black,” from “The Mindy Project” or “Doubt.” You may know her from the wisdom she drops on Twitter or the love she spreads on Instagram with the hashtag #TransIsBeautiful. Cox grew up in Alabama, bullied and harassed throughout her youth because she did not fit in. At 11, she even attempted suicide. But, luckily, things got better. After graduating from Marymount Manhattan College with a degree in acting and working as a drag queen at a Lower East Side restaurant, Cox entered the public scene when she was cast in Jenji Kohan’s Netflix blockbuster as Sophia Burset — a hairdresser serving time for credit card fraud. Both Cox and her character are transgender women; in 2014, she was nominated for an Emmy for her performance, a first for an openly trans actor. But it’s her advocacy off screen that truly earns her a spot on this list. Her role on OITNB gave her a platform, and boy has she used it: to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, for trans awareness, for women’s rights, for intersectionality, for suicide prevention — just to name a few. She takes her position as a role model, especially for trans youth, very seriously, telling them that things get better and that self-love can be a radical act.

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Required Reading, Volume Nine: Love Stories

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all! I know this holiday can be controversial, whether you’re aggressively single and feeling lonely, or in a relationship and resentful of the capitalist complex that compels you to drop wads of cash on flowers, chocolate, stuffed animals, and more on an arbitrary February day. But personally, despite my usual status among the perpetually single, I love it. And I’ll tell you why.

Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love. But while traditionally that love is directed at a romantic partner, a boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse or lover, I choose to use this day to celebrate all of the love in my life, particularly for the family members and friends who we maybe don’t tell we love them as often as we should. Just because you’re not involved with anybody in a non-platonic way does not mean you don’t have beloveds in your life, and this day can be a day to honor that…and to eat massive amounts of chocolate.

In the Heart Day spirit, this month’s Required Reading is a compilation of love stories (most of them in the traditional, Big L sense). From classics to newcomers, young adult to experimental, non-fiction to graphic novels and everything in between, these are some of my favorite books about what it means to love and be loved.

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Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen: A classic for a reason. Whether it’s your first or fifth or fiftieth time reading it, you can’t help but get swept away by Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth and their tempestuous path to love. The movies are great, the web series delightful, but nothing beats this masterpiece in its original form.

“To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love.”

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The History of Love, Nicole Krauss: I’ve mentioned this book in a post before, and with good reason. It is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read; I’ve recommended it to countless friends and bought it for birthdays and Christmases and just because. It tells the story of romantic love, yes, but also of the love between parent and child, brother and sister, friend and friend in a multi-layered narrative that spans continents and decades.

Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.”

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The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman: The most accurate portrayal I’ve found in literature of what it’s like to date in New York in your 20s. If you are a twenty-something, or you were once a twenty-something, you will find characters and misadventures here that you recognize.

“Dating is probably the most fraught human interaction there is. You’re sizing people up to see if they’re worth your time and attention, and they’re doing the same to you. It’s meritocracy applied to personal life, but there’s no accountability. We submit ourselves to these intimate inspections and simultaneously inflict them on others and try to keep our psyches intact – to keep from becoming cold and callous – and we hope that at the end of it we wind up happier than our grandparents, who didn’t spend this vast period of their lives, these prime years, so thoroughly alone, coldly and explicitly anatomized again and again.”

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Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro: Warning: Read this one with a box of Kleenex. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy grow up together, students at a strange boarding school called Hailsham. But what starts as a seemingly typical love triangle quickly devolves into something much darker as the trio discover their history and grapple with their inescapable reality. Like the best of Ishiguro’s work, it will devastate you, enlighten you, and make you reexamine your humanity.

“I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how it is with us.”

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The Shipping News, Annie Proulx: A quiet love story set among the cliffs and crashing waves of Newfoundland, this novel sneaks up on you. Quoyle is a man who has grown accustomed to being overlooked, scathed into submission by his unstable, unfaithful wife. When she dies in a car crash (having abandoned Quoyle and their two children to run off with one of her lovers), he moves the small family back to his family’s ancestral home where they all set about the task of learning to love and be loved. The colorful cast of village characters will amuse you, the descriptions of the desolate landscape will dazzle you, but it is the love story at the book’s core that will creep quietly into your heart and sit there long after you’ve turned the last page.

“We’re all strange inside. We learn how to disguise our differences as we grow up.” (I also love “One of the tragedies of real life is that there is no background music.”)

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Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed: The best book I’ve found yet that teaches you how to love and be loved. Strayed is gentle but firm, kind but unflinchingly honest. This is another favorite one of mine to give friends or family members as a gift; there is something in it for everyone. My only regret is that there isn’t a way to bring the real Strayed with me everywhere as my fairy godmother and advice dispenser to guide me through life’s ups and downs.

“Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”

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The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern: This star-crossed tale about two young illusionists is positively enchanting, much like Le Cirque des Rêves where it takes place. Celia and Marco have been trained their whole lives to compete against each other in a magical duel (which, unbeknownst to them, only one magician can survive). But when they meet, their connection is instantaneous, passionate, and spell-binding. And the book is as enchanting as the illusions they weave, spinning whole worlds from paper and will.

“Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case.”

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The Lover’s Dictionary, David Levithan: Brilliant and beautiful and sad, this slim volume, as the title suggests, tells the story of a relationship in dictionary entries. Each definition treads the line between prose and poetry, and as the words pile up a picture of a romance (and, spoiler alert, its demise) gradually emerges. It is a deceptively fast read the first time through, but deserves many a revisit (and as a bonus, Levithan continues to write new entries on his Twitter).

“The key to a successful relationship isn’t just in the words, it’s in the choice of punctuation. When you’re in love with someone, a well-placed question mark can be the difference between bliss and disaster, and a deeply respected period or a cleverly inserted ellipsis can prevent all kinds of exclamations.”

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Why We Broke Up, Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman: Not all love stories last forever. Min and Ed’s is ending, right now. As she writes him a break-up letter to accompany the box she will drop at his house, filled with the detritus of a relationship, she goes through the objects one by one, weaving a tale of first love that will take you right back to adolescence. Maira Kalman’s gorgeous illustrations add another dimension to this intimate, sweet, honest portrait of first love.

“Ed, it was everything, those nights on the phone, everything we said until late became later and then later and very late and finally to go to bed with my ear warm and worn and red from holding the phone close close close so as not to miss a word of what it was, because who cared how tired I was in the humdrum slave drive of our days without each other. I’d ruin any day, all my days, for those long nights with you, and I did. But that’s why right there it was doomed. We couldn’t only have the magic nights buzzing through the wires. We had to have the days, too, the bright impatient days spoiling everything with their unavoidable schedules, their mandatory times that don’t overlap, their loyal friends who don’t get along, the unforgiven travesties torn from the wall no matter what promises are uttered past midnight, and that’s why we broke up.”

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Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell: Speaking of first love, this is another utterly wonderful, not the least bit sappy book about a first romance. To the outside world, Eleanor and Park are an unlikely pair, but these misfits discover that their weird and quirky pieces fit together like a perfect puzzle. That’s not to say that everything is hearts and roses — Eleanor’s home life in particular adds a dark element to their love story — but they love each other, as much as they can, for as long as they can, and they don’t give a damn what anybody else thinks about it. This book is sweet and will give you all the warm fuzzy butterflies of a delicious 16 year-old crush…but you might want to keep some tissues handy, just sayin’.

“You saved my life, she tried to tell him. Not forever, not for good. Probably just temporarily. But you saved my life, and now I’m yours. The me that’s me right now is yours. Always.”

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This Modern Love, Will Darbyshire: Yes, this is yet another YouTuber book, this one courtesy of angsty British charmer Will Darbyshire. But unlike his peers, whose books tend to fall into the memoir/humor category, Darbyshire follows in the tradition of Post Secret with a crowd-sourced compilation covering all things love. Over the course of six months, he posed various questions to his viewers — What would you say to your ex, without judgement? How has technology affected your relationship, either positively or negatively? What single word sums up your love life, your partner, or someone you like? — and then distilled the responses into this book. The letters range from funny to reflective, sarcastic to sincere, and together form a portrait of what it looks like to navigate love in the 21st century.

“Dear —, You are like that one piece of artwork in an art gallery that people spend a little longer admiring. Rosa, UK.”

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Soppy, Philippa Rice: And last but not least, now for something completely different, a graphic novel! British artist Rice documents the everyday life of herself and her boyfriend, a parade of small, everyday moments that add up to intimacy and love. It’s sweet but, despite the title, not saccharinely so. Rice doesn’t shy away from the fights or inconveniences of sharing your life with another person, and the portrait she paints is a complete one, true to the quiet reality of true love.