Required Reading: Volume Nine

My mother collects cookbooks. It started (she thinks) with the Moosewood Cookbook, purchased in March of 1983. She had always loved to cook, and to bake especially, learning hamantaschen and icebox cookies in her mother’s Pittsburgh kitchen. From one book, her collection grew, adding Jewish Cookery and Cookie Cookery (related in name only). When my father entered the narrative, he brought a healthy dose of Cajun cuisine to their marriage and the Joy of Cooking, referred to more commonly in my house as simply “The Bible.”

At some point along the way, one cookbook blossomed into a dozen, which grew to a shelf, which ballooned into two full bookshelves and counting. My kitchen in Kentucky holds an estimated 200 cookbooks at minimum, sprawling across specialties and cuisines. I may have learned to cook in the days before Google, but our house was its own encyclopedia of recipes, with my mom the helpful librarian. I’d ask her how to make a particular dish — say, strawberry rhubarb pie — and without missing a beat she’d start pulling volumes from shelves, not to mention scraps of newsprint and magazine cut outs from her Heinz recipe box.

A tiny excerpt from my mother's collection, the "Family Heritage Shelf"

A tiny excerpt from my mother’s collection, the “Family Heritage Shelf”

This is all to say that I come by my addiction to books — cook- and otherwise — honestly. It’s in my DNA: I never really stood a chance. My parents started me off with the classics: Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volumes One and Two), The New York Times Cookbook, Moosewood, and, of course, my own personally inscribed copy of “The Bible.” In it, my parents wrote, “In our family, cooking is an expression of love.” And while this is definitely true of our quirky little clan, I don’t think it’s a uniquely Zelda trait. Food, in its best form, is weighted with memory and steeped in sentiment. It nurtures our bodies and our souls, providing comfort or piquing curiosity as it tickles our taste buds. And it’s a cultural touchstone, too — perhaps the most essential and elemental piece of what binds a group or a region together. Who we are, as families or communities, so often comes down to the bread we break together.

Take the South as just one example. The first thing most folks think of when they hear the word Southern is food. You know exactly which kind I mean: soul food, comfort food, food of the people that sticks to the bones and comes from the heart. So much of my own personal understanding of my heritage (Southern and otherwise) is culinary: the gumbo recipe passed down from my grandfather, the hot fudge sauce that appears so effortlessly under the touch of my grandmother’s spoon, the hamantaschen that would arrive at our house each year from Queen Esther, who apparently resided in Osprey, Florida. As an adult, I started to explore Southern cooking as a way of understanding the South and my place in it. Some of my lessons were hands-on — Derby pie with a high school bestie, fried chicken from Scout’s Gaga — but many of them were from books.

My grandmother in Home Economics class at her Atlanta school, age 14 (yes, you read that correctly)

My grandmother in Home Economics class at her Atlanta school, age 14 (yes, you read that correctly)

Though I still have a long way to go to match my mother’s collection (and nowhere near enough shelf space to accommodate such a repertoire), I have amassed quite a few cookbooks of my own. I love them for the poetry of their descriptions, the beauty of their photographs, the wry wit and wisdom inked into the page by their authors. And I love them for their potential, all those untapped recipes just waiting to be brought to life. To write up all my favorites would take far too many pages, so I’ll start on theme, with the culture that brings us together in this particular corner of the internet. Some of these I own, some reside on my mom’s shelves, and many are still on my wishlist. If you want to get to know the Southern people, you must get to know their eats. This is where I’d start.


General Knowledge:

The Southerner’s Cookbook: Recipes, Wisdom, and Stories (2015): Compiled by the editors of Garden and Gun Magazine, this recent addition to my shelves runs the gamut from classics to regional delicacies, with anecdotes and advice woven in between. I’m a particular fan of the gorgeous copper detailing on the front cover, and of the glossary titled “The Southern Larder,” which goes through many of the quirkier ingredients called for in the book and explains what they are and where you might find them.

Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking (2012): Winner of the 2013 James Beard Foundation Award for Excellence in American Cooking, this tome is Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart’s answer to Julia Child’s similarly named masterpieces. Dupree calls Southern cooking “the Mother Cuisine of America,” and this extensive guide will walk you through all the essentials, from biscuits to gravy.

The Heritage of Southern Cooking (1986): Camille Glenn, pictured in charming cartoon detail on the books cover, used to be the food editor at Scout’s and my hometown paper, the Courier-Journal. She left no stoneware unturned when compiling this book, which holds 550 recipes, from duck to dessert. My mom swears by her recipe for pecan pie, an essential in any Southern baker’s wheelhouse.

At My Grandmother’s Knee: Recipes and Memories Handed Down by Women of the South (2011): Faye Porter dedicated this book to “all the women in my life who have shared with me the joy of cooking, baking, loving, making a home, and giving from their hands and hearts.” And while we hate to indulge gender stereotypes (Southern dudes can cook too!), it is true that most of what we learned about cooking, and about the love of cooking, came from our mothers, our grandmothers, and the other great women in our lives.

The Taste of Country Cooking (1976/2006): It is impossible to talk about Southern cooking without talking about black Southern cooking and the essential contributions that so many African-American chefs made to the region’s culinary identity, often without receiving any acknowledgement or credit. Edna Lewis, thankfully, is a great chef who did get the spotlight she deserved, and her tribute to the foods of her childhood home in Freetown, Virginia, is considered one of the great classic Southern cookbooks.


Sweet Treats:

The Southern Baker: Sweet and Savory Treats to Share with Friends and Family (2015): It’s the subtitle of this volume, compiled by the editors of Southern Living, that I think gets at the heart of what makes Southern cooking so unique. A Southern dish is not meant to be precious. It is not fussed over or plated with surgical precision. It is meant to be shared, served up in big sloppy spoonfuls or generous slices and always, always with love.

Kentucky Sweets: Bourbon Balls, Spoonbread, and Mile-High Pie (2014): I actually interviewed Sarah Baird, back when I was writing for the Louisville Eccentric Observer and her book was just coming out. Sarah’s training is as a culinary anthropologist, and she told me, “ I have a deep interest in how food impacts culture and society: the intersections between culture, society and food; how those work together; and specifically, underrepresented or underserved stories about food.” This book was her attempt to tell some of those stories, from the often overlooked corners of her (and my and Scout’s) home state.

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Regional Specialties:

Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (1984): My personal Southern heritage comes well-seasoned with Tabasco and filé, and this, my father claims, is the best Louisiana cookbook out there. Whether you’re looking for gumbo or jambalaya or Prudhomme’s famous blackened redfish, this book has all the Cajun and Creole classics your stomach could desire.

The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery (1992): Where my Southern roots come from the bayou, Scout’s are grounded in mountain soil. In true Appalachian spirit, the recipes in this book are interspersed with a healthy dose of storytelling and advice. The recipes in this book are unpretentious and full of flavor, just like the folks that make them.

Community Cookbooks: The South has a great tradition of hometown cookbooks, put together by Junior Leagues or women’s groups and offering the best portrait of a town, an identity, and a cuisine. Some of the best (in my, my mom’s, or Scout’s opinion) include The Mountain Laurel Festival Cookbook (Bell County, Kentucky), Talk About Good! (The Junior League of Lafayette, Louisiana), The Plantation Cookbook (Junior League of New Orleans), and Recipes to Remember: A Kentucky Cookbook (Kosair Children’s Hospital Auxiliary; Louisville, Kentucky).


The New South:

Tupelo Honey Cafe: Spirited Recipes from Asheville’s New South Kitchen (2011): Brian Sonoskus, chef and founder of the Tupelo Honey Cafe, was one of the founders of the farm-to-table movement, which has since spread from North Carolina to Williamsburg, Portland, and beyond. But what is normally written off nowadays as hipster posturing is in fact a very traditional Southern concept: that you should use the best of what your region has to offer, that you should know the folks who grow your ingredients, that quality ingredients assembled with love and care will offer a far greater reward than your fussiest amuse-bouche.

Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen (2013): Chef Edward Lee was born to Korean immigrant parents and raised in Brooklyn. So how did he become the most famous chef in Louisville, and one of the most innovative culinary voices in America today? This book tells the tale of his unique, Southern cooking, which mixes together flavors and techniques from his heritage with the traditions of his adopted home.

images via: Zelda’s mama’s photo archives, GARDEN AND GUN, SOUTHERN FOODWAYS ALLIANCE, TUPELO HONEY CAFE

Southern Summer Reads

Summer is upon us, those hazy, humid days when the very air seems heavy and time oozes by like molasses. More than any other, this is a Southern season to us, made for iced tea and lemonade, juleps and swimming holes, lightning bugs and thunderstorms. And what does summer demand if not a summer read — those delicious, all-consuming books that sweep you up and away into another world. Sometimes called beach reads, although we find them equally suited to front porches or air-conditioned bedrooms, they are sunnier fare. You can leave your Proust’s and Yanagihara’s for the rain-soaked weeks of fall: When the mercury is up and our foreheads are perpetually sweaty, all we really want is a great, captivating story. Here are some of our favorites.


Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Author: Rebecca Wells

Published: 1996

Setting: Lake Quinault, Louisiana

Features: female friendship, mother-daughter drama, Cajun French, a striptease, an oxygen tank

Quote: “She longed for porch friendship, for the sticky, hot sensation of familiar female legs thrown over hers in companionship. She pined for the girliness of it all, the unplanned, improvisational laziness. She wanted to soak the words ‘time management’ out of her lexicon. She wanted to hand over, to yield, to let herself float down the unchartered beautiful fertile musky swamp of life, where creativity and eroticism and deep intelligence dwell.”


Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

Author: Fannie Flagg

Published: 1987

Setting: Whistle Stop, Alabama

Features: tomboys, vacation bible school, barbecue sandwiches, The Weems Weekly, a railway accident

Quote: “Are you a politician or does lying just run in your family?”


The Help

Author: Kathryn Stockett

Published: 2009

Setting: Jackson, Mississippi

Features: maids, journalistic ambitions, fried chicken, the Junior League newsletter, chocolate pie

Quote: “I always thought insanity would be a dark, bitter feeling, but it is drenching and delicious if you really roll around in it.”


Gone with the Wind

Author: Margaret Mitchell

Published: 1936

Setting: Clayton County and Atlanta, Georgia

Features: unladylike spirit, a brothel, carpetbaggers, architectural horrors, the siege of Atlanta

Quote: “‘Sir,’ she said, ‘you are no gentleman!’  ‘An apt observation,’ he answered airily. ‘And, you, Miss, are no lady.’”


The Little Friend

Author: Donna Tartt

Published: 2002

Setting: Alexandria, Mississippi

Features: a mysterious death, Genghis Khan, Christmas gifts, a black tupelo tree, a would-be girl detective named Harriet

Quote: “A training program. This was Houdini’s secret.”


Prodigal Summer

Author: Barbara Kingsolver

Published: 2000

Setting: The Appalachian Mountains, Virginia

Features: a park ranger, an entomologist, coyotes, mountain women, the extinct American Chestnut

Quote: “If you never stepped on anybody’s toes, you never been for a walk.”


St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Author: Karen Russell

Published: 2006

Setting: The Everglades,  Florida

Features: alligator wrestling, nuns, Swamp Prom, Sleepaway Camp for Disordered Dreamers, the exoskeleton of a giant crab

Quote: “My older sister has entire kingdoms inside of her, and some of them are only accessible at certain seasons, in certain kinds of weather. One such melting occurs in summer rain, at midnight, during the vine-green breathing time right before sleep. You have to ask the right question, throw the right rope bridge, to get there-and then bolt across the chasm between you, before your bridge collapses.”


The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Author: Carson McCullers

Published: 1940

Setting: an unnamed mill town, Georgia

Features: best friendship, legal insanity, deaf-mutes, a piano, a diner

Quote: “She wished there was some place where she could go to hum it out loud. Some kind of music was too private to sing in a house cram full of people. It was funny, too, how lonesome a person could be in a crowded house.”


Salvage the Bones

Author: Jesmyn Ward

Published: 2011

Setting: Bois Sauvage, Mississippi

Features: pit bull puppies, canned goods, the myth of Medea, the eye of a hurricane, motherless children

Quote: “In every one of the Greeks’ mythology tales, there is this: a man chasing a woman, or a woman chasing a man. There is never a meeting in the middle.”


An Abundance of Katherines

Author: John Green

Published: 2006

Setting: Gutshot, Tennessee

Features: a child prodigy,  a paramedic-in-training, road trips, tampon strings, the supposed grave of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Quote: “He liked the mere act of reading, the magic of turning scratches on a page into words inside his head.”


Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Author: John Berendt

Published: 1994

Setting: Savannah, Georgia

Features: voodoo, murder trials, a historical mansion, an antique pistol, Lady Chablis

Quote: “Rule number one: Always stick around for one more drink. That’s when things happen. That’s when you find out everything you want to know.”

Required Reading: Volume Seven

Happy Friday, and welcome to a (slightly different) edition of Required Reading! We’re still at the beginning of this year of 2016, and so in the spirit of resolutions and goal setting, I thought that this week instead of sharing some of my favorite works of Southern or New York literature that I’ve already read, I thought I would compile a literary to-do list of books that have been sitting on my shelf or my floor, in my Goodreads queue or my Amazon cart, for far too long. I may not hit all of these this year, but it’s a worthy goal. And even if I don’t make it all the way down the list, I’ll still get to experience some fascinating, thought-provoking, imagination-consuming stories in the process.

Now my original plan was to make a list of both Southern and New York books for this post, but there were just too many great options to choose from — this whole post would have been a novel in and of itself. So instead, here are a dozen of the Southern works I’m most eager to read. New York edition coming soon!

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A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson: I’ve been a big fan of Bill Bryson for years, ever since I read Neither Here nor There as a study abroad student in Paris. His razor sharp observations and wry sense of humor never fail to leave me chortling out loud, often to the amusement of my fellow subway passengers. This book, about his experience hiking the Appalachian Trail, has been recommended to me by family members and friends alike, and it’s high time I took them up on it.

All Over But the Shoutin’, Rick Bragg: Rick Bragg was a dirt-poor kid from northeast nowhere, Alabama, who grew up to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times. This book, consistently named as one of the best memoirs about the Southern experience, spins the tale of Bragg’s childhood — booze and cotton fields, joy and bitter heartache — with incredible compassion and unflinching honesty. I received a copy for Christmas and can’t wait to crack it open!

A Death in the Family, James Agee: I read Agee’s non-fiction tome, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, my last semester of college, and was blown away by its searing look at the oftentimes bleak but still richly human lives of Southern sharecroppers in 1936. In this novel, published posthumously and largely autobiographical, Agee turns his pen to the experiences of loss and grief as a Tennessee family grapples with the sudden death of Jay Follet.

The Color Purple, Alice Walker: Yes, I realize it is a crime that I have not yet read this essential member of the American literary canon. Winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this epistolary novel weaves together the stories of several women of color living in the South (mostly in rural Georgia) in the 1930s. As someone whose own (white) grandmother lived in Atlanta during that very period, I’m particularly eager to read this one.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston: Another classic still missing from my library, this novel follows 16-year old Janie through three marriages and a murder trial in the town of Eaton, Florida. It has been deemed a favorite novel by numerous people whose literary opinions I trust (John Green and Zadie Smith among them). It’s high time I took my own crack at it.

The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor: Maybe I won’t get through every single one of Miss O’Connor’s stories — 576 pages is a lot in one go — but as a master of the form, and one of the preeminent voices of the Southern Gothic movement, she indisputably deserves a spot on this list. In her 39 years on this earth, the Savannah, Georgia, native managed to produce an incredible body of work including novels, letters, and essays, but short fiction is where she thrived. The 31 tales in this book spin stories of love and loss, flowers and hellfire, suspicion and lust and hope.

All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren: In this completely bananas election year, full of bombast and farcical characters who would be uproarious if they weren’t so terrifyingly real, fact can seem to verge on fiction. Better, it seems, to stay in the satirical world of power and corruption in Depression-era Louisiana, and to remember that this too shall pass, like the Huey Long’s that came before. Hopefully we at least get a great book out of it.

Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison: A coming of age story about the indomitable Ruth Anne Boatwright, otherwise known as Bone. This is also a family saga in the Southern tradition, set in the wilds of Greenville County, South Carolina, and a particularly honest look at the often hard and violence-strewn lives of Southern women, particularly in the poor, rural corners of the region.

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Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward: I absolutely adored Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones, and her memoir, centered around five men in her life who she lost to drugs, accidents, murder, or suicide over the course of four years, is no less gripping, or so I hear. Ward takes the searing humanity and beautiful prose that made her tale of Esch and her family so engrossing and turns them to her own life, grappling with love and loss and the painful legacy of systemic racism and disenfranchisement in her hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi.

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole: a mad-cap comedic classic, this is the story of Ignatius J. Reilly as he traipses from mishap to adventure. Brimming with the kinds of colorful characters that make both the fiction and the reality of the South, and particularly in a city like New Orleans, so delightful (and debauched): Miss Trixie, Myrna Minkoff, Patrolman Mancuso, Darlene, etc., etc., etc.

Coming Through the Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje: Speaking of New Orleans, I’m dying to get my hands on this fictionalized account of the life of Buddy Bolden, a New Orleans trumpeter and one of the unsung godfathers of ragtime and jazz music. I’m a big fan of Ondaatje’s memoir Running the Family, about his childhood in Sri Lanka, so this novel, which combines Ondaatje’s experimental style with Creole culture and jazz history, seems like it could be just my cup of tea (or chicory coffee, as it were).

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell: Last but not least, I am ashamed to admit that while the movie version of Scarlett O’Hara’s triumphs and tribulations is one of my favorite films of all time, I have never actually read the novel on which it is based. A travesty, I know. This year, I plan to stop thinking about it tomorrow and just read the damn thing, today.

Required Reading: Volume Five

This post is part of our “Required Reading” series, in which we share some of our favorite tales and tomes of New York and the South — classic and contemporary, fiction and nonfiction, short form and long. These are the stories that open our eyes to other walks of life, that shape who we are, and that make us feel at home no matter where we may be. Check out Volumes One, Two, Three, and Four for more of Zelda’s favorite tales of the South and New York.

“It's a road trip! It's about adventure! . . . It's not like we have somewhere to go.” — John Green, An Abundance of Katherines

“It’s a road trip! It’s about adventure! . . . It’s not like we have somewhere to go.” — John Green, An Abundance of Katherines

I want to talk about road trips. Maybe it’s the summer warmth that’s lingering in the September air, but lately I’ve had an itch for a steering wheel in my hand, a sing-along song on the stereo, a breeze through my window, and an open road ahead. Scout and I are both fans of road trips, having undertaken a few (moderate ones) as a twosome, and she’s written of her love of the road narrative on the blog before. There’s something inherently Southern about a road trip — big expanses of highway cutting through rolling hills, roadside stands offering up peaches or peanuts, John Denver serenading you about the country roads that take us home — and there’s something inherently literary about it too. This is our 21st century Odyssey, a hero’s journey battling toll booths and traffic snarls and Cracker Barrel wait times, before returning home a little older, a little dirtier, a little wiser, a little closer to who we are becoming.

as i lay dyingClassic Fiction: As I Lay Dying

Author: William Faulkner

When It Was Published: 1930

When I Read It: in the summer of 2013, during lulls at the coffee shop, while I decompressed from Paris and prepared to take on New York

Where It Takes Place: the fictional, and delightfully named, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi

Why I Love It: Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: This is not your average road trip. In fact, there are many who would argue that the Bundren family’s journey by wagon as they prepare to bury their matriarch, Addie, in her hometown of Jefferson, is not a road trip at all. And while it’s true that there is nary a rest stop, car snack, or game of Punch Buggy to be found in this book, it’s also true that the question of family and what it means is inherent both to this masterpiece of Southern Gothic literature, and to any hours-long trek made in obscenely cramped quarters with the half dozen or so people who share your immediate gene pool. This is the story of a family coming together and apart, of the importance of heritage and tradition, and of the things we owe each other even in our brokenness. And it’s all told in the distinctive voice of Faulkner, who more than any other writer, for me, embodies the rhythm and the soul of the South in his every patient sentence.

paper townsContemporary Fiction: Paper Towns

Author: John Green

When It Was Published: 2008

When I Read It: at some point in college, on Scout’s recommendation

Where It Takes Place: Orlando, one epic day on the road, Agloe, New York, and back down the coast

Why I Love It: This is Scout’s favorite book, in the world, so when she told me I had to read it, I took her at her word. Green’s work often gets written off by those who sneer at tales of teenagers and their “adolescent concerns,” but I would argue that there are few things as universal as figuring out who you are and what you want to do with your life, forging an independent path, learning to imagine other people complexly, valuing friendships, and embracing the moments along the journey rather than the destination. This book is not all road trip, but the road trip is my favorite part. A true classic of the genre, it balances whimsy and urgency, life and death, white-knuckled spins off the highway and the paper heart of romance. And dick jokes.

lost continentNon-Fiction: The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America

Author: Bill Bryson

When It Was Published: 1989

When I Read It: my first year in New York, in subway cars I pretended were rolling down a highway instead of under the Hudson

Where It Takes Place: all over the United States, on a 13,978 mile journey from Bryson’s hometown of Des Moines up and down the coasts, across the Plains, and back again

Why I Love It: I first fell in love with Bryson through Neither Here nor There, his 1991 travelogue covering his tour through Europe. Bryson has a very particular sense of humor, dry but loving, like an older brother who loves you dearly but has a way of narrowing in on all your absurdities and quirks with laser-beam precision. It’s the heart that you feel when reading The Lost Continent, his very first travel book. He was a seasoned expat at this point, having built a life for himself in England, and the trip was taken in response to the death of his father and as a test run to see if the country that birthed and raised him could ever welcome him back again. Some of the passages reek of a bygone era — had the trip been undertaken today, the book might well have been a blog, with a Twitter and Instagram account where you could follow along with Bill’s journey — which makes the palpable nostalgia of Bryson’s observations even more poignant. He laments the loss of the America of his youth, even as the America he wonders and cringes and scoffs and cheers at has now gone the way of payphones and TripTiks. This is not a specifically Southern story, but it is an American one, and in its Americanness it embodies so many of the things that endear the South to me: eccentric people, everyday wonders, big skies and big hearts and big hair, and really excellent food.

rolling junkOn My Wish List: The Cruise of the Rolling Junk

Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

When It Was Published: 1924 (republished in 2011)

Where It Takes Place: on the road from Connecticut to Zelda’s home in Alabama

Why It’s Awesome: I am positively baffled, and more than a little concerned, that I did not know this book existed until approximately two weeks ago. Now that I do know it exists, I must read it, and as soon as possible. Originally written as a series for MOTOR Magazine, the book follows a road trip Fitzgerald took with his wife (and the inspiration for my nom de plume on this here blog), Zelda, in a claptrap old car he dubbed “The Rolling Junk.” The book blends fact and fiction, Scott’s vignettes and Zelda’s illustrations. Amazon delivered it yesterday, and I cannot wait to dive in.

And an Update: Guys! Guys. How did it take me so long to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay?! Many friends, whose literary taste I trust and respect, had recommended it over the years, but I kept relegating to my wish list of To Be Read’s. And then one day in July, I picked it up, and I couldn’t put it down until the whole epic whirlwind had come to close. This book, by Michael Chabon, has everything: adventure, romance, bromance, history, comic books, a Golem, magicians, a house in the suburbs and romance at the top of the Empire State Building. It was just delicious, and such fun: It had been a while since I’d gotten swept up in a story like that, and I loved it so much that when I discovered I had forgotten my copy at work the night before I left for New Hampshire, I bought the ebook on Kindle rather than wait a whole week to continue the story. It’s fun, and it’s sweet, and it’s smart, and it made me think about New York and art and what it means to be creative and the value in the work. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

In Defense of Lindsey Lee Wells

A few months ago, I was surfing the quiz section of Buzzfeed (as one does when it’s a slow Thursday night at work) when I stumbled upon a post titled “Which John Green Heroine Are You?” Now while The Fault In Our StarsHazel Grace Lancaster is easily Green’s most recognizable female character, Margo Roth Spiegelman inhabits my favorite of Green’s books (Paper Towns, coming to a cinema near you July 24), and Alaska Young has the allure of tragic mystery, Lindsey Lee Wells of An Abundance of Katherines has always been my favorite of the John Green gals. Naturally, I took the quiz. On my first try, I was dubbed an Alaska Young, which is just completely inaccurate. So I took it eight to ten more times (I can’t remember the exact amount), playing around with my answers to see what the possible outcomes were. Now I’m not wholly apprised of the Buzzfeed quiz algorithm and my experiment was informal at best, but several minutes and many frustrated clicks later, I concluded with a relative degree of confidence that Miss Wells was not an option.

Let’s back up a little. John Green — author, vlogger, teen whisperer, pizza enthusiast — has written several books, the second of which is An Abundance of Katherines. Perhaps the most overlooked of Green’s novels (second only to Will Grayson, Will Grayson, penned with David Levithan), I’ve always thought Katherines was the funniest of his works, and the one in which I connected most with the female characters. The premise of the book is that child prodigy Colin Singleton has just been dumped by his nineteenth girlfriend named Katherine (K-A-T-H-E-R-I-N-E). He and his best friend, Hassan, decide to embark on a road trip, driving south from Chicago in an attempt to get over Katherine XIX and to make his actual prodigious mark on the world (have his Eureka moment, as it were) before he becomes just another washed-up former prodigy.

They stop in the very rural (and fictional) Gutshot, Tennessee, where they meet Lindsey Lee Wells and her mother Hollis, the CEO of Gutshot Textiles, purveyors of America’s finest tampon strings. Colin and Hassan end up staying in Gutshot for the summer, helping Hollis with a project about the oral history of the town and getting to know the people who live there (especially their hosts, the Wells women) in the process. Colin does successfully get over Katherine XIX (and Katherines in general), but I am not here to talk about Colin. I’m here to talk about Lindsey Lee.

Lindsey Lee Wells, veritable princess of Gutshot and eventual object of Colin Singleton’s affections, has always struck me as the most relatable of Green’s heroines. One of the first things Colin notices about Lindsey is that she’s different around different groups of people: she turns her accent on when she’s around the old folks of Gutshot; she’s giggly and girly around her boyfriend, TOC (The Other Colin); and she’s straightforward and to the point with him and Hassan.

What I love about Lindsey Lee (and her mother Hollis, too) is that while she could have been just a two-dimensional, sheltered, small-town Southern girl — an easy foil to Katherine XIX, Colin’s big city ex-girlfriend — she’s not. The first thing Colin notes about her is that she defies stereotype: “He’d always thought people in Nowhere, Tennessee, would be, well, dumber than Lindsey Lee Wells,” Green writes. She’s a girl who loves her town, who wants to be a cynic and embraces (or tries to) her own insignificance in the grand scope of human history — in contrast to Colin, who desperately wants to “matter” on a macro scale. Lindsey Lee is a girl doesn’t quite know who she is, a girl who desperately wants the approval of her mother, her friends, her boyfriend, and a girl who feels she’s lost herself trying to be what they each want.

The Skullbone General Store, Skullbone is one of the real inspirations for Gut shot (Via HelloGiggles)

The Skullbone General Store: Skullbone is one of the real inspirations for Gutshot (Via HelloGiggles)

I connected with Lindsey more than I did with any of the other heroines in Green’s books. I knew her because I was her, to a certain extent (while Louisville is more Memphis than Gutshot, going to college in Maryland and then moving to New York, there is a similar eyebrow raising when you tell people you’re from Kentucky). I had been that girl who went through the middle school, vaguely-emo, shopped-at-Hot-Topic “outsider” phase. I got along better with adults than I did people my own age. I had a strong mother whose approval I’d do anything for. And I was the girl who acted one way around one group and a different way around another: adopting an accent around my Eastern Kentucky friends and family, hiding my nerdy tendencies with my field hockey teammates, trying to listen to cooler music than I actually liked. And I felt for a long time, like Lindsey Lee, “full of shit.”

While the main focus of the novel is about Colin figuring himself out, for me it was always more about Lindsey. Unlike the rest of Green’s books, AAOK is written in the third person, so our focus isn’t as exclusively on Colin and his thought process, but on all the characters. Lindsey Lee’s primary “Eureka moment” comes in the line “You matter as much as the things that matter to you.” Once you realize what’s important to you, everything else will work itself out. By the end of the book, she stops trying to be what other people want, to make herself matter to them, and starts being what she wants instead. Colin has a similar realization: “What you remember becomes what happened.” I like that the moral of the book is that you are the author of your own story — you decide what is important.

Lindsey Lee’s life wasn’t suddenly transformed; there wasn’t any grand finale or sweeping deus ex machina. But if I had to pick a tipping point, it would be when she breaks up with her cheating boyfriend, and then realizes dating him wasn’t what she wanted in the first place. For me, that moment came while doing a summer art program in Providence, Rhode Island. Doing the program meant missing the bulk of summer hockey training, and I had spent weeks agonizing over whether or not to go, worried that by missing pre-season I would be jeopardizing my shot at playing time that fall and letting my teammates down. It wasn’t until about halfway through the summer that I realized I had absolutely made the right decision. I was infinitely happier than I had been during all my previous summers spent in gyms or on the hockey field: It took shaking off worries about other people’s expectations to realize what made me happy for me. We almost never realize we aren’t being our best selves until something happens that forces us to look at things in a different way. And then, hopefully, we learn that who we were in order to please everyone else isn’t who we need to be to please ourselves. We all deserve our best chance at happiness, and we are the only ones who can give it to ourselves.

I found Lindsey Lee at a time when I needed her, and I think that’s why it makes me so upset that she often goes unappreciated. I liked her because she wasn’t exceptional, or a mystery, or something that Colin felt he had to figure out. She was never an ideal the way the Katherines were, so he didn’t have to come to the realization that she was a person, not a fantasy (the way the Quentin does about Margo in Paper Towns). Lindsey is always a person to Colin. She just has to figure that out for herself.