Close Reads Mailbag 2.0

On sports, music, pies, Til We Have Faces, Sprite, and a bunch of other stuff

Greetings Close Readers,

As promised, it’s time for another mailbag. You sent some questions, we have some answers. I can only hope our answers live up to the quality of your questions. Here we go.

Question 1 is from Tabitha and boy is it important: Have you tried the new LeBron James Sprite Cranberry? The new holiday flavor is out/back.

I assume you mean this?

As the resident soda expert on the podcast (for better or worse), I can assure you that I have indeed tried this. It’s better than the Canada Dry cranberry ginger ale and is quite delicious (unlike this travesty), but ultimately the best multi-purpose holiday soda is still this. I’m so glad you asked. This is important stuff.

Question 2 is from Rachel: How do you balance a love of sports and a love of reading/literature/the arts? My nine-year-old is a big sports fan, but we want to foster a love of literature in him, too!

I think about this question all the time. Every day. People who know me (or follow me on Twitter), know how much I love sports. I can watch almost any sport. I played football and basketball and love baseball and can even watch soccer from beginning to end. It drives my wife crazy. Part of this love comes, I suspect, from my family’s heritage in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a city synonymous with the Packers, and a city whose prosperity is wrapped up in the team. In Green Bay the Packers are more than a team you root for. So maybe it’s that. But I also think I love sports because sports are full of stories. Every game is a story, with a form. You could argue that every athletic competition contains the classic elements of story-telling. Conflict. Rising action. Characters. Denouement. Sport is poetry.

I mean:

This, of course, brings us back to your question.

It’s a shame that there’s a divide between sports-based sub-cultures and the more literary ones. Historically, it doesn’t make any sense. A truly classical education was always an education in balance. You couldn’t be educated if you didn’t appreciate and pursue athletic endeavors ( to some degree - you can be educated and be a poor athlete but you can’t be educated if you don’t try). Even our new friend Frank Prescott saw this. Charlotte Mason wrote about it.

So I guess I would show your son that you value his love of sports and that you see why he loves it. But then also keep reading to him. Put great books in front of him like you do great games. Show him the similarities between football games and stories, between athletes and characters. And all that might work. But I’m not sure I really want to give you advice on “fostering a love of literature” because the truth is you can’t guarantee anyone will love books the way you do. You can work hard to give him the gift of great literature, and even if he never truly loves it as much as he does basketball or soccer or whatever, it will still do him good.

One final thought: I would highly recommend you give him some great sports writing. There have been some truly remarkable writers covering sports over the last hundred years. People like Grantland Rice, David Halberstam, Frank Deford, George Plimpton, and more recently John Jeremiah Sullivan, Wright Thompson, Jackie MacMullan, Mina Kimes, and Brian Phillips. They embody the connection between literary pursuits and sports enthusiasm.

Question 3 is from Erin: What is a book that gives you comfort? (Whether it be that the content provides solace, or that reading it helps you relax, or an entirely different kind of comfort...)

Tim and Heidi were actually recording a new episode of The Play’s the Thing when I sent them this question so, hilariously, they paused to discuss. Here is what they each said:

Tim: “A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, a book about Hemingway & his first wife in Paris, making ends meet and having nothing but each other in the greatest city in the Western world.”

Heidi: “The Anne of Green Gables series, which I reread ad nauseum to remind me that an ordinary life is holy.”

For me, it’s either a crime novel by Ross Macdonald or one of the Jeeves and Wooster books by Wodehouse. Also Jayber Crow and True Grit.

Question 4 is from Amy: I know you love to cook and bake (especially pies). With Thanksgiving (aka pie season) upon us, could you share some tips for the perfect pie? Also, what's the most interesting or challenging thing you've ever cooked?

Ah, yes, the most wonderful time of the year. I can’t wait. Some friends put on our friendsgiving every year and I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what to bring. As for the pie . . . these aren’t original tips but these are the musts: 1) LARD. LARD. LARD. You have to use good lard in your pie crust. Makes all the difference. 2) White Lily flour makes the best pie crust. King Arthur a close second. 3). Don’t touch the pie crust too much. 4) Keep it super cold. 5) Bake yoru pie on the bottom rack of the oven. 6) Egg-wash. You have to brush an egg wash on that top crust.

I will have to think about the most challenging thing I have cooked (although it might be getting Pad Thai right, honestly), but some of the most interesting things are various middle eastern and asian dishes. I love cooking Ramen from scratch. You can get really creative with it but it takes all day to do it right, almost like a good bolognese.

Question 5 is from Sarah: How about a short bio of Tim and Heidi so I know who these delightful people are?

Good idea. In this issue, you will get to know Heidi. Next time, Tim. I asked Heidi to answer the same questions I asked Sarah-Jane last week and these were her answers:

Where did your love of literature come from? Who nurtured it? 

My parents were readers and our house was full of books. We were not allowed to watch much TV, so, out of pure boredom and expedience, I became a reader. When I was nine, my grandfather died. His death marked a change in culture in our family; my parents were distracted by fracturing family dynamics. I was often alone. One day I picked up Anne of Green Gables at random. It is not exaggerating to say that this book saved my life. In its pages, I met another lonely girl who was saved through encountering goodness, truth, and beauty in an ordinary life. After that, I was a voracious reader. I’ve never looked back.

What are your three most beloved books? 

Well, the Anne of Green Gables series. Brideshead Revisited is my favorite novel. The Great Divorce is a close second.

If you could have a lunch with three writers who would you choose? 

This is a question to which I have given an inordinate amount of thought. I even have a Google Doc with a list of questions for this imaginary luncheon. C.S. Lewis, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Oscar Wilde. In other news, that same Google Doc has tattoo ideas (I do not have any tattoos, nor do I plan to, but if I did, it would say EX LIBRIS).

What book do you most love to teach? 

I love to teach the epics. Whichever one I’m teaching at the moment is my favorite, but I think that the Odyssey is my favorite-favorite to teach, particularly in making connections between the Odyssey and the life of Christ.

What literary-themed place do you most want to visit? 

Oh, Paris. I have been to Paris once, for one day, and it was wonderful, but a whirlwind. Many of you may have seen my photos of Paris on Facebook a few months ago. It is a beautiful city for any amount of time, but one day is simply not enough. I want to return and linger.

Question 6 is from John: What kind of music do the hosts like to listen to?

I figure if we can discuss sports and Sprite flavors we can talk about music too. Personally, I will always love Bob Dylan, U2, The National, and Bruce Springsteen, and I listen to a lot of Miles Davis, especially when I’m writing and reading. Other jazz I like: Kamasi Washington. And, while they’re not deep dives, I absolutely love Moonlight Sonata and Bach’s Cello Suite 1. I love the cello. Wish I could play. Alas.

Here is Heidi’s response: “Like most folks, I like a lot of different music. We listen to Andrew Peterson every morning while the kids are getting ready for school. Our family likes to browse iDagio, a classical music app, for playlists and composers. On the contemporary side, lately, I’ve been into The National, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton. I’m in love with Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Western Stars. For some fire, I like ZZ Ward and Brandi Carlile.”

Tim didn’t get back to me yet so I’ll include his answer in a future issue. :)

Question 7 is from Hope: Heidi mentioned once that she has students trace a concrete item through the scriptures. Could you share the specifics of how you craft this assignment so as to not be overwhelming and what type of results the kids have? 

Good question. Here is Heidi’s response:

“When I teach the Bible as literature, I emphasize the concrete, physical, earthy nature of the objects and images in Scripture. Things like water, sheep, light, fire, blood, and bread. The students and I make a list together that they keep in their commonplace books all year. The list can be a worksheet as well. Weekly, each student chooses one of these objects/images—it is perfectly fine with me if they repeat an object/image from the list or choose a new one each week. Their assignment is to use a concordance (an online tool like Bible Gateway is fine in my class) and locate verses that mention their chosen object/image throughout the Bible. They copy one verse or passage from Old Testament narrative, one from OT poetry, and one from the New Testament. Then they must write a paragraph that explains why they chose those verses and how they work together to develop the object/image.

Here’s an example:

Genesis 1:3-4: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.”

Jeremiah 4:23: “I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.”

John 8:12: “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ "

At first the world was literally dark and then God created light, and it was good. Later, Jeremiah uses darkness figuratively as a symbol of the sin of the Israelites who had fallen away from the goodness of the light of God. In the New Testament, Jesus is the ultimate Light—the Light of the World—that illuminates our spiritual darkness.

Question 8 is from Hayley: What’s the story behind the lack of love for Til We Have Faces?

I’ve been saving this one for last and I’m so glad you phrased it this way. Because it’s not that I hate that book (although that does seem to be my reputation), it’s just that I don’t think it lives up to his other work, particularly his non-fiction and The Great Divorce. I think it has some flaws in its characterization and dialogue, but I am willing to accept that I don’t have perfect taste. I promise to give it another try sometime soon.

Well, that is all for this mailbag issue, but don’t forget we’ll be starting A River Runs through It soon.

Here’s the schedule:

Week of 11/25: A River Runs through It
Week of 12/2: A River Runs through It
Week of 12/9: A River Runs through It Q&A

At that point, we will begin Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River, with which we will end the year.

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Until next time, happy reading,