Monthly Archives: September 2013

Remembering Marcella Hazan, Who Brought A Taste Of Italy To America


Marcella and Victor Hazan in the kitchen of their home in Longboat Key, Fla.


Laura Krantz/NPR

Marcella and Victor Hazan in the kitchen of their home in Longboat Key, Fla.

Marcella and Victor Hazan in the kitchen of their home in Longboat Key, Fla.

Laura Krantz/NPR

Marcella Hazan, whose cookbooks helped revolutionize Americans’ conceptions of what real Italian cooking tasted like, died Sunday at her home in Longboat Key, Fla. She was 89.

As my colleague Linda Wertheimer noted in a 2010 profile of Hazan, “When Marcella Hazan came to America, Parmesan cheese came in cans, we’d never met balsamic vinegar. Marcella Hazan showed us that Italian cooking is simple, healthy and splendid.”

Ironically, Hazan had little interest in food growing up — she was a trained biologist. But meeting her future husband changed all that, as Hazan told Wertheimer in 2010. We reprint the NPR.org story that accompanied that interview in its entirety below. You can also listen to this 2005 story from the NPR archives in which Scott Simon visited Hazan in the kitchen.

When Marcella Hazan came to the United States in 1955, one of her first priorities was figuring out how she would feed her husband, Victor. The American grocery stores, with all their canned goods and prepackaged foods, were a far cry from the markets of her Italian homeland, where fresh produce, meats and fish were easy to find.

Marcella Polini and Victor Hazan in 1952, in her hometown of Cesenatico, Italy, shortly after they met.


Gotham Books

Marcella Polini and Victor Hazan in 1952, pictured in her hometown of Cesenatico, Italy, shortly after they met.

Marcella Polini and Victor Hazan in 1952, in her hometown of Cesenatico, Italy, shortly after they met.

Gotham Books

“I never saw a supermarket in Italy,” she tells NPR’s Linda Wertheimer. “The chicken, they were arriving from the farmer and they were alive. And at the supermarket they were very dead; they were wrapped; it was like a coffin. Everything was not natural.”

Despite limited ingredients — and her limited English — she did her best to re-create Italian food as she remembered it. And, in doing so, she tapped into a previously unknown talent: cooking.

Growing up, she didn’t have much interest in food. She saw it mainly as fuel — getting her through the day and all the activities she enjoyed. But she did not know how to cook and wasn’t interested in learning. Her interest lay in the sciences — at university she studied biology, and she took a teaching position after graduation.

But meeting her future husband changed all that. Victor Hazan was an American who had been born in Italy and lived there as a child. He had returned to Italy to write — and to eat. This was a man who loved food so much, he began planning his next meal before he’d finished the one he was eating.

“He was always talking about food,” Marcella remembers. “For me, a young woman, you think that someone who courts you would talk about other things, not food. Especially when you’re not interested in food.”

Nevertheless, Victor successfully wooed Marcella. They married and remained in Italy for a short six months before his parents called him back to New York to help with the family business. They settled in the suburbs of Forest Hills, where Marcella learned to cook out of necessity.

She was encouraged by her success re-creating favorite foods from home, and Marcella found herself becoming more interested in cooking. She signed up for a Chinese cooking course — a cuisine that she found to be similar to Italian with its pasta dishes and layers of flavor.

A month into the course, the teacher suddenly had to return to China. Marcella’s classmates, eager for another class to take, asked Marcella if she would consider teaching them to cook Italian food.

She recalls getting home that day and saying to Victor, “American women are crazy. Look what they asked me.”

He replied, “Well, you complain that you don’t know what to do, that you have free time — why don’t you do it?”

Her first cooking classes led to a profile by The New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne. That, in turn, led to more classes and eventually brought a book publisher to Marcella’s doorstep. He asked her if she had thought about writing a cookbook, and she replied that she had not. When the publisher asked why not, she replied, “Because I don’t write in English.”

It was Victor who convinced Marcella that a cookbook was possible. He would act as her translator and editor, and would check the recipes that his wife made up from scratch. As he edited and rewrote, he picked up on details that she sometimes overlooked.

Marcella says Victor would often come into the kitchen as she was cooking and interrupt her. “I don’t know,” he’d point out. “All the string beans that I eat in this house — they don’t have both ends.”

“Of course they don’t have both ends,” she’d reply. “I took them out.”

“But you didn’t write that,” he’d say.

Back and forth they went, haggling over small points. But in the end, the attention to detail is what made Marcella’s cookbooks — The Classic Italian Cookbook and six others — so easy for people to use.

Those recipes even saved a few romances. A women’s magazine ran Marcella’s “Roast Chicken with Lemons.” The article got an overwhelming number of responses, including a large number from women who said, “I made this dish for my boyfriend and he proposed.”

The magazine re-ran the recipe, calling it “Engagement Chicken.”

Those newly engaged couples had a model in Marcella and Victor. They’ve now been married for almost 55 years, working partners for most of that time. Their partnership has resulted in six cookbooks, cooking schools in both the U.S. and in Italy, and a revolution in the way Americans cook — and eat — Italian food.

A History Of Love Gone Wrong, All In One Croatian Museum


At the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia, each item is accompanied by a story from the donor on how a romance fell apart.


Sean Carberry/NPR

At the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia, each item is accompanied by a story from the donor on how a romance fell apart.

At the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia, each item is accompanied by a story from the donor on how a romance fell apart.

Sean Carberry/NPR

I confess I’m not much of a museum tourist. On a recent visit to Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, I strolled past three museums without feeling any urge to step inside. Then I came across one I just couldn’t ignore: the Museum of Broken Relationships.

“It’s a collection of objects donated by people who have broken up,” says Drazen Grubisic, a co-owner of the museum. “Each item has an accompanying story.”

Some are amusing, others sarcastic and a few are just plain heartbreaking.

The idea came out of his breakup with Olinka Vistica, who is the museum’s other co-founder. As they were splitting up, they couldn’t decide who should take possession of a toy bunny they shared.

“This was kind of a joke that we had,” says Grubisic. “If someone was going away [on a trip] and the other one was staying, you would take the bunny and take photos of bunny in all the places where usually you would take photos of your girlfriend or your boyfriend.”

So, they decided, why not create an art project to display the bunny?

An Instant Success

They reached out to friends who donated items that were symbolic of their broken relationships. The initial, temporary display in 2006 was such a success that they traveled the world doing exhibitions.

In 2010, they set up the permanent museum in Zagreb. Now, they get more than 40,000 visitors a year at the only privately funded museum in the city.

The items at the museum were donated by people who saw the artifacts as symbols of their broken relationships. The museum was founded by Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic after they broke up.


Hrvoje Polan/AFP/Getty Images

The items at the museum were donated by people who saw the artifacts as symbols of their broken relationships. The museum was founded by Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic after they broke up.

The items at the museum were donated by people who saw the artifacts as symbols of their broken relationships. The museum was founded by Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic after they broke up.

Hrvoje Polan/AFP/Getty Images

“For me, the art in this is the way we display the stories,” Grubisic says. “You start with the pretty funny ones, then you go down, then you go really deep down, and then you go up again, and so this roller coaster of emotions, that’s actually what we play with.”

He says the display is limited to around 100 items because they feel that more than that would dilute the impact. The walls are all white and the items rest on white pedestals. The lighting is subdued, and the atmosphere is serene and somewhat austere.

The first room is about casual or long-distance relationships that didn’t work out, which includes a collection of airsickness bags.

“I think I still have those illustrated safety instructions as well, showing what to do when the airplane begins to fall apart,” the accompanying note reads. “I have never found any instructions on what to do when a relationship begins to fall apart, but at least I’ve still got these bags.”

The next room is called Whims of Desire. “It’s about the objects that are left from this first phase of relationship when you’re all into each other, and so it’s pretty sexual stuff,” says Grubisic.

There are things like furry handcuffs and a garter belt on display. The story with the garter belt reads, “I never put them on. Maybe if I had, the relationship would have lasted longer.”

Bad Breakups

Then comes the room called Rage and Fury.

“Here we have items that are mostly torn and broken,” explains Grubisic.

For example, there’s a car mirror on display. A woman broke it off her boyfriend’s car when she saw it parked in front of another woman’s house.

“Later he came home saying some vandals demolished his car and so never knew it was her,” Grubisic says.

There’s also an axe that a jilted lover used to chop up the furniture of an unfaithful partner.

“In the 14 days of her holiday, every day I axed one piece of her furniture,” the note reads. “I kept the remains there, as an expression of my inner condition. The more her room filled with chopped furniture acquiring the look of my soul, the better I felt.”

The next room is about relationships that end in death, and features an old-fashioned, key-shaped bottle opener. The story reads: “You talked to me of love, gave me small gifts every day; this is just one of them. The key to the heart. You turned my head; you just did not want to sleep with me. I realized how much you loved me only after you died of AIDS.”

A key with bottle opener, one of the items on display at the museum.


Hrvoje Polan/AFP/Getty Images

A key with bottle opener, one of the items on display at the museum.

A key with bottle opener, one of the items on display at the museum.

Hrvoje Polan/AFP/Getty Images

That room is followed by one called the Rites of Passage, which is mostly about weddings. There are photo albums, wedding gifts and a dress. There’s also an iron with a note that simply says, “This iron was used to iron my wedding suit, now it’s the only thing left.”

“So, I guess the marriage didn’t last long,” Grubisic says with a laugh.

But the museum just might help some relationships survive, he says.

When couples arrive, they are usually not making physical contact, Grubisic says. But when they leave, “they always go out hugging and holding each other, like ‘OK, this should not happen to us.’ “

On the way out, people pass Nikolina Vulic, the events manager at the museum.

“Some people are smiling when [they] are coming out,” she says. “And some people, you can see they are thinking about themselves and they are really a little bit confused when they are coming out, and you can also see tears in the eyes.”

Hugs For Visitors

I ask her if she ever feels like a therapist — if people leaving the museum want to talk with her and share their feelings.

“This is a normal thing for us,” says Vulic, “but mostly people are joking about it.”

But, she says, some people do need hugs.

“Sometimes there’s hugging, yeah, that’s a part of the job,” she says laughing.

Entries in the guest book say things like, “Well done. From a woman recently ‘set free’ from a bad 25-year marriage,” and “No museum has ever made me feel more connected to everyone else in the world before.”

Daniella Lai, a visitor from Italy, said she didn’t need a hug, but she was moved by the exhibit.

“I think it’s really nice to see a museum that is about something alive and related to what we live every day and not just exhibits from centuries ago,” she says.

Vulic says often visitors come to the museum in their wedding clothes because Zagreb’s City Hall is just up the street. She laughs at the irony of people visiting the Museum of Broken Relationships immediately after getting married.

Sandwich Monday: McDonald’s Mighty Wings


Mighty Wings in their natural habitat


NPR

Mighty Wings in their natural habitat

Mighty Wings in their natural habitat

NPR

Chicken wing restaurants continue to pop up everywhere in this country — there’s Wingstop, Buffalo Wild Wings, Aaron Sorkin’s West Wings. Now, McDonald’s is getting in on the act with Mighty Wings. They’re available in three-piece, five-piece, and Who-Am-I-Kidding-I’ve-Got-Nothing-Left-To-Prove-piece.

Peter: I was as surprised to find an actual bone in this as I would be to find a bone in a banana.

Eva: How McDonald’s got the bones in the nugget is the modern version of the classic ship in a bottle mystery.

Ian: Yeah, Mighty Wings are basically McNuggets With Choking Hazards.

Miles: The new advertising calls them “bold,” and it’s not kidding. One of these wings just asked my girlfriend out.

Mouth’s eye view


NPR

Mouth's eye view

Mouth’s eye view

NPR

Ian: When you die at a state fair, this is what your wings look like when you get to heaven.

Eva: I just don’t want to know what horrible workplace accident led to this. “Let’s just call it a wing and sell it!”

Peter: It was genuinely a surprise to see that McDonald’s food comes from actual animals. I thought all this time it was made from the people still sitting there when they close.

We told Robert whoever could pull the bone from the Mighty Wing got to be King of England.


NPR

We told Robert whoever could pull the bone from the Mighty Wing got to be King of England.

We told Robert whoever could pull the bone from the Mighty Wing got to be King of England.

NPR

Robert: This is what happens when a first-year student at Hogwarts spills Skele-Gro on his owl nuggets.

Miles: It’s strange that, in all of the pictures of that pink slime, we never noticed it had wings.

After being surprised by the bone in the Mighty Wing, Eva vows to X-ray all her food before she eats it from now on.


NPR

After being surprised by the bone in the Mighty Wing, Eva vows to X-ray all her food before she eats it from now on.

After being surprised by the bone in the Mighty Wing, Eva vows to X-ray all her food before she eats it from now on.

NPR

Miles: So, if the Hamburgers have the Hamburglar, what do Mighty Wings have? The Bone Collector?

Robert: The only animal I ever heard called mighty was Mighty Mouse. Come to think of it, that might have been a more palatable menu option.

This photograph represents Mike’s favorite Fox Network crime comedy-drama.


NPR

This photograph represents Mike's favorite Fox Network crime comedy-drama.

This photograph represents Mike’s favorite Fox Network crime comedy-drama.

NPR

Ian: The Mighty Shamrock Shake has leprechaun bones in it. So tiny!

Eva: If you get the wishbone, you can wish to go back in time before you ordered this.

Peter: I’m a little worried about the bin that says “PLACE BONES HERE FOR RECYCLING.”

[The verdict: Unsettlingly delicious! If you like a McNugget, you’ll like this, but don’t swallow them whole the way you do with a McNugget.]

Sandwich Monday is a satirical feature from the humorists at Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me.

Valentine Road: A Path To Teen Tragedy


In February 2008, 14-year-old Larry King walked up to fellow classmate Brandon McInerney, and, as a dare, asked him to be his Valentine.

A few days later, on Valentine’s Day, King was killed. McInerney shot him twice in the back of the head during the school day. McInerney is now jailed, serving a 21 year sentence for the crime. The new HBO documentary, Valentine Road, explores the life and death of Larry King.

It is director Marta Cunningham’s first film, and she spent four years making it. Cunningham tells NPR’s Celeste Headlee that her years of research and interviews transformed the way she viewed the crime, the victim, and – most surprisingly — the shooter. “I couldn’t help but feel a tremendous amount of empathy for this child,” Cunningham says, “and I always felt a tremendous amount of empathy for Larry because of how misunderstood he was.”

Interview Highlights

On learning about Larry

From what I found out about Larry, it was really a gender expression and gender identity, kind of, exploration that he was going through. Not so much his sexuality, which I didn’t know until really much later when I started working with the gay and lesbian center in Los Angeles … Two weeks before his death, he was wearing the [school] uniform still, but wearing heels and wearing make up, doing his hair in a feminine manner with a bow sometimes, earrings, you know, dangly chandelier earrings, which were actually pretty cute. So I felt that that was even more shocking to me. That this was something that really was dealing with femininity, and what was so wrong about being feminine?

On shooter, Brandon McInerney

Some people still do feel that he’s a threat to society, and others understand that he was a boy, and therefore should be treated as such. I think it lies somewhere in the middle. I really don’t know. I’m not a psychologist, but I can tell you that, I talked to [prosecuting attorney] Maeve [Fox] yesterday and one of the things that she repeated to me was, “if he’s doing this at 14, then who is he going to be at 24, 34 and 44?”

Brandon is a self-avowed white supremacist, from what his mother says. But I have to say that, being an African-American woman, even with that, I look at the parenting; I look at his environment; I look at the people that he felt were reaching out and helping him. However twisted it may look like to us, that was his family. And so, you know, we have to look at the environments that these people are coming from, who commit these types of crimes. And we have to understand them. Otherwise we are not going to stop the cycle of violence. It won’t end.

On the survivors at school

At the time, when I met these kids, they were 13 years old, and some of them had witnessed this horrible crime in the classroom, and really had no one to talk to. It was unbelievable. They had one day of therapy. It was kind of like this, “So, how’re you doing?” And most teenagers kind of grunt, and they grunted, and they were going, “Next!”

The kids later on…they were the ones who were asking for forgiveness throughout the film. They were the ones who had the regret, and some of the adults really didn’t feel that they needed to be forgiven for the way they treated [Larry]…You know some of these kids are really invisible, and we have to make sure that that doesn’t happen. I mean, that’s our responsibility — I think — as adults.

On what she hopes for the film

The statistics show that more and more kids are coming out earlier, so my goal with this film is to use it as an educational tool, for administration, for teachers. So that they are capable, and you know, managing these types of differences. I mean, if kids are coming out younger, and they’re expressing themselves younger, and there are [transgender] prom queens in Huntington Beach, we need to make sure we are having faculty that understand them.

Music That Moves Rita Wilson


Rita Wilson is the editor-at-large of the Huff/Post50 section of The Huffington Post.


Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Rita Wilson is the editor-at-large of the Huff/Post50 section of The Huffington Post.

Rita Wilson is the editor-at-large of the Huff/Post50 section of The Huffington Post.

Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Rita Wilson is an actress, singer and editor-at-large for the Huff/Post50 website. She shares some of her favorite songs for Tell Me More‘s “In Your Ear” series.

One of her favorite songs is Joni Mitchell’s Blue. “What I love about the song is that not only is it beautiful melodically, but it is beautiful poetically,” Wilson says. “The way she uses words and visuals and strings them all together is — I just think what makes Joni Mitchell Joni Mitchell.”

Wilson also points out Beyonce’s All The Single Ladies. She says, “You cannot hear that song and not get up and try to do those dance moves. It just makes you get up and move.”

Rita Wilson’s Playlist

Blue by Joni Mitchell

I Can’t Make You Love Me by Bonnie Raitt

All The Single Ladies by Beyonce

‘Breaking Bad’ Lands Its Finale A Little Too Cleanly


Bryan Cranston wrapped up his run Sunday night as Walter White in Breaking Bad.


Ursula Coyote/AMC

Bryan Cranston wrapped up his run Sunday night as Walter White in Breaking Bad.

Bryan Cranston wrapped up his run Sunday night as Walter White in Breaking Bad.

Ursula Coyote/AMC

[Hopefully, we don’t have to point out that a piece about the Breaking Bad finale contains information about the Breaking Bad finale. But here we are.]

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan signaled in interviews leading up to Sunday night’s series finale that those who craved some redemption for Walter White were the ones most likely to leave happy.

“We feel it’s a satisfying ending,” Gilligan told Entertainment Weekly. “Walt ends things more or less on his own terms.”

For Gilligan, those things were self-evidently connected: the satisfaction of the ending and the degree to which the terms of that ending are set by Walt. And that’s probably true for broad segments of the show’s legions of fans who continued to root for Walt at some elemental level, or least to root for him to become root-able again.

It’s not just true for the darker elements of “Team Walt” — the holders of the unsettling view that Walt was always simply killing people who deserved it, a brilliant and good man forced into bad deeds by the foolishness of others. It’s also true for fans who fully recognize the monstrousness of Walt’s deeds but craved a glimmer of hope that even people guilty of the worst deeds can find a modicum of grace, perhaps grace in love and death.

This is, for instance, the view taken by Emily Bazelon in Slate, who sees in the finale repeated acts of love: Walt figuring out how to get the money to his family, Walt accepting that he can’t be forgiven, Walt saving Jesse. It doesn’t make up for his misdeeds, but it represents redemption of a kind and the reassuring flicker of his humanity.

I think that’s what Gilligan saw in the finale he wrote: no undoing of consequences, but moments of grace and mercy nonetheless. The show was, to the end, a Western of sorts, and Walt ended his life as the lonely cowboy, the desperado finally able to come to his senses, tragically alone but no longer lost — now found.

I wish I’d been able to love it on those terms. I wish I’d been able to respond to how fundamentally sympathetic the finale was to Walt. I wish I’d felt like I was vibrating on the same frequency Gilligan was. Because normally, I do crave those moments of grace — in fact, here’s what I said about the finale of Lost (which I consider woefully over-loathed and underappreciated):

There is emotional heft to the idea that after all your struggles and battles and mistakes, you will have the opportunity to give and receive love and to gain perspective on what you’ve experienced. And while there have certainly been missteps in the final season (and in previous seasons) and not everything worked in the finale, that last sequence in the church is based on a very old and widely honored idea of grace in death.

Many will see almost exactly this message in Walt’s ending.

Here, however, I could not escape the feeling that by earning anyone’s sympathy, Walt was getting away with one last self-aggrandizing con.

After all, you can see in his trip to Gretchen and Elliott’s house the maneuver of a man manipulating nasty rich people into doing the right thing, even while being too harmless now to really hire hit men.

But you can also see in it Walt’s continuing use of violence to get over on his utterly blameless son one last time, figuring out how to snooker Junior into doing the one thing he most wants to avoid: unwittingly living on his father’s drug money.

Do Skyler and Walter Jr. not have the right to make the decision not to accept the money? Is that not their own choice? Is that not Skyler’s own grasp at grace?

What is the more loving gesture: to figure out what you think is best for someone and then figure out how to manipulate them into doing it, or to accept that they are an individual with the autonomous right to live as they choose, and not as you think they should? To me, Walt’s manipulation of the money was in no way redemptive, or loving, or sympathetic. It was a continuing megalomaniacal scheme to get his way, no matter what, no matter who he had to threaten to kill.

Perhaps the one thing Walt did that was truly satisfying for me was his admission to Skyler that he set all these events in motion not out of a desire to help or provide for his family, but because he liked his life as an all-powerful drug lord. He enjoyed himself. Heisenberg was created not out of desperation, but out of desire and ego. None of this was need; it was all want. That means Hank and Gomez wound up dead, Andrea wound up dead, Drew Sharp wound up dead, and Jesse spent all that time locked in a dungeon, all so that Walt could feel like a big, powerful guy. That admission, late in coming as it was, meant something.

But then we move to the final confrontation with the Nazis.

It’s only fair, I think, to acknowledge that if most of us tuned into an episode of a network cop show and it ended with “the hero rigged up a remote-controlled robot machine gun that popped up out of the car trunk by itself and shot all the bad guys,” we would snort and say, “This is why I don’t watch broadcast television.” I generally think plausibility is overrated, but this did go rather beyond implausibility and directly to Silly Plot Devices, as did the fact that Jack insisted on bringing Jesse out of the dungeon just to show him to Walt before he shot Walt in the head, to prove he wasn’t a liar, making Jack a very selectively ethical murdering Nazi.

(God bless Aaron Paul, though, whose heartbreaking stumble across the driveway in chains gave the last sequence a grounded importance that it had lacked until then.)

So Walt killed everybody, but he saved Jesse, and Jesse got the satisfaction of killing Todd with a chain around the neck. Walt called to check on the dying Lydia, and Jesse drove off after the two shared a sort of a nod, leaving Walt to die in the meth lab.

There came an immediate social media conversation Sunday night about the contrast between finales that provide closure, like this one, and finales that don’t, like The Sopranos. It’s less accurate, I think, to say that finales are divided into closure and no closure, and more accurate to say they tend to be divided into those that end in tension and those that end in balance. (Stephen Sondheim does amazing, confounding things with this divide in Into The Woods, but that’s for another day.)

The Sopranos ended in tension, except for people who believe with certainty that Tony Soprano died at the cut to black, who believe it ended in balance. Breaking Bad was very different. It ended in balance. Balance doesn’t have to mean justice in the simplest sense, as tightly connected as those things are in tradition and iconography. Balance just means that there’s a kind of equilibrium that settles in, whether it’s a largely miserable one or a happy and just one. Lost ended in balance, even though lots of good people died, some of them in pain and fear. Balance mostly means the story is over and the universe has taken on whatever shape it’s going to have in the wake of that story. Tension means the story is ongoing and cannot or will not end: The Wire ended in tension also.

But in addition to the balance of conclusion, there’s also a more elusive balancing of elements, which you see in the many, many finales that echo shots and scenes from pilots. Balance, well executed, requires that your story have an internal logic that’s consistent with whatever the show’s ethic (or mission statement, or worldview) is. Breaking Bad has always been profoundly moral, deeply concerned with the inevitability of consequences from actions, so its challenge is to present consequences that seem inevitable based on actions.

What kept the Breaking Bad finale from being entirely satisfying for me was that because Walt’s grotesque behavior came largely from his desire for power and control, a balanced ending would be one that denied him some measure of control. I wanted the balance to emerge from Walt not ending things on his own terms. I didn’t crave a happy ending for him, and he got about as happy an ending as he possibly could have. If I could have believed in any redemption for Walt, it would have been through surrender, through being stripped of power (or giving it up voluntarily) and choosing grace then.

Anything else framed as redemption was going to feel to me like a con ending in Walt emerging as the victor. After all, he got to kill his enemies, terrorize and manipulate his former business partners, break into his wife’s house and get the final conversation with her that he wanted and she had thus far refused, put one over on Marie one more time by standing by as Skyler covered for him, force his drug money on his family, decide whether Jesse lived or died, and ultimately get a sort of nod of understanding from Jesse, despite the fact that he got people Jesse loved killed and sent Jesse himself off to be murdered, which only fortuitously didn’t happen.

It was just a little too … tidy, for me. Not because plot threads were wrapped up, but because Walt was suddenly such an uncomplicatedly good man. He suddenly was self-aware, generous, compassionate, patient, and capable of building — did we mention? — a robot that could mow down a house full of Nazis from the trunk of a car. The delights of the show have so often come from Walt’s plans going awry, but all of a sudden, they all worked perfectly. Better, in fact, than expected.

None of this changes the brilliance with which the show is directed and especially acted; Bryan Cranston was absolutely phenomenal in that finale. The execution was spectacular. It’s just that I wish they’d made different choices.

For whatever reason, it’s popular to place the weight of a show’s entire run on the ending, and to conclude that if the ending isn’t your favorite episode — perhaps if it’s one of your least favorite episodes, as this finale is for me — you are suddenly an aggrieved party in a breach of contract lawsuit, demanding your time back, your years back, your life back. I’ve written before about how crazy this makes me. This is still one of my favorite shows of my whole life. I don’t listen to a symphony, after all, and say, “I wouldn’t have put the trumpets there. That guy is a hack. I hate that guy. I want my money back.”

For people still having the argument about whether television is firmly established as a legitimate art form, this is perhaps the best argument that it is, or that this show was, to me. Art contains elements that satisfy and ones that don’t. If you’re churning out cheap entertainment, you can do that forever; it’s very low risk. Art is harder, but it buries itself deeper. I wouldn’t have had the finale go this way, but I wasn’t ever watching Breaking Bad to have it go the way I wanted. It’s not Judge Judy; I don’t need every case to be decided as I’d have decided it. It’s art. It’s complicated.

I didn’t really like it, but I still loved it.

What Terrifies Teens In Today’s Young Adult Novels? The Economy


Shailene Woodley plays Beatrice Prior in the upcoming movie Divergent (March 2014), based on the dystopian young adult novel by Veronica Roth. The hugely popular book contains themes of economic struggle and class warfare.


Jaap Buitendijk/Summit

Shailene Woodley plays Beatrice Prior in the upcoming movie Divergent (March 2014), based on the dystopian young adult novel by Veronica Roth. The hugely popular book contains themes of economic struggle and class warfare.

Shailene Woodley plays Beatrice Prior in the upcoming movie Divergent (March 2014), based on the dystopian young adult novel by Veronica Roth. The hugely popular book contains themes of economic struggle and class warfare.

Jaap Buitendijk/Summit

If you think kids are too young to worry about unemployment numbers, consider this: some of our most popular young adult novels fairly shiver with economic anxiety. Take Veronica Roth’s Divergent, this week’s top New York Times Young Adult bestseller and a perennial on the list since its publication in 2011. Divergent‘s heroine, Beatrice Prior, braves hazing, groping and punching in order to enter the militaristic “faction” that she admires. She endures these dangers willingly because in Roth’s dystopian, all-or-nothing Chicago, Beatrice would be thrown into the streets if she fails her initiation. There, among the ruined buildings and the reek of sewage, Beatrice would be forced to join Roth’s “factionless,” the working poor who perform the scutwork of Divergent‘s society. The prospect makes Beatrice cringe. For her and her peers, she explains, to be factionless is “our worst fear, greater even than the fear of death.”

In The Hunger Games, Katniss and Gale — played by Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth in the movie adaptation — become friends while they are both struggling to feed their impoverished families.


Lionsgate

In The Hunger Games, Katniss and Gale — played by Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth in the movie adaptation — become friends while they are both struggling to feed their impoverished families.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss and Gale — played by Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth in the movie adaptation — become friends while they are both struggling to feed their impoverished families.

Lionsgate

Financial terror also motivates Suzanne Collin’s blockbuster novel The Hunger Games. In a world of predatory Capitol-ism, Katniss Everdeen and her family exist on the edge of starvation. Her most famous skills — hunting and foraging — are developed to keep her mother and sister alive. Economic desperation tinges even her romantic connections. Peeta first makes an impression when he throws Katniss two warm loaves of raisin nut bread. Gale meets her while poaching in the woods, and their friendship springs from one shared truth: “Gale and I agree that if we have to choose between dying of hunger and a bullet in the head, the bullet would be much quicker.”

Reading these books, I find it hard not to remember that The Hunger Games debuted in September 2008, the same month that Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. Or that the number of American children living in poverty jumped by more than three million in the four years preceding Divergent‘s 2011 publication. Financial stress in young adult novels may be nothing new: Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic Little Women opens with “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” But to me it seems clear that the economic anxieties keeping today’s adults awake at night — income inequality, food insecurity, downward mobility, winner-takes-all competition — have also invaded the literature of their children.

“I do think that when we’re talking about dystopian fiction, there’s always going to be conflicts between the haves and have-nots,” says John Sellers, the children’s reviews editor of Publishers Weekly. He mentions Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince (2013), where the rich literally live above the poor, and Alex London’s Proxy (2013), in which personal debt has gotten so enormous that the poor volunteer to serve as physical proxies for the rich, taking all their punishments. But inequality hasn’t always been the favored background for dystopian fiction. During the Cold War, books like A Wrinkle in Time (1962) were more concerned with the dangers of Communism, brainwashing, and conformity.

In recent years, realistic YA depictions of poverty and economic disparity have also turned much darker. The kinds of truly desperate characters that Little Women kept on the margins now often take center stage. In Coe Booth’s award-winning 2007 novel Tyrell, the protagonist lives with his mother and little brother in a roach-infested homeless shelter. Tyrell works hard to maintain appearances, but he’s always hungry. In one of the novel’s most poignant scenes, he shows up at his girlfriend’s apartment “looking and probably smelling as homeless as I am.” His 15-year-old friend, Jasmine, is so broke that a middle-aged man persuades her to give him a lap dance for $20 and half a sandwich.

Marcela Valdes is serving her second term on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.

Marcela Valdes is serving her second term on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.


Pedro Valdes

“These are the realities of many of these young kids’ lives,” says Luann Toth, managing editor of School Library Journal’s Book Review. “What we read in the headlines is the kind of gritty stuff that even a decade ago nobody would have made it up because nobody would believe it.” She cites Paul Griffin’s Stay With Me (2011) and Paul Volponi’s Rikers High (2010) as two other worthy novels about teens in economic distress.

As the situations get more desperate, so do the characters’ reactions. Little Women stressed the importance of facing poverty with sweet temper, integrity and Christian charity. “When you feel discontented, think over your blessings, and be grateful,” Mrs. March tells her daughters. It’s hard to imagine any contemporary YA character uttering such advice.

In place of gratitude, today’s bestselling YA novels imagine a world aflame with uprisings led by angry, self-sacrificing young women. In both The Hunger Games and Divergent, rage replaces religion as the best way to confront economic distress, and sentimental notions of marriage are pushed aside by fantasies of romance amid revolt.

More on YA Literature

Such over-the-top outcomes may actually spur these books’ tremendous success. Despite the hunger and the poverty, dystopian fantasies are still a potent escape from reality. As Salon.com writer Laura Miller explains, “They’re not about coming to terms with working life in a really unfair economy. They’re just about those very strong, but not very practical, teenage emotions.” Dystopian novels, in particular, she says, are “narratives of disillusionment and escape.” The teenagers who read them, she argues, aren’t thinking about economics.

But the outlandish sci-fi trappings of The Hunger Games and Divergent (trackerjackers, anyone?) might make them more comforting to teenagers actually experiencing economic distress, suggests Sheila Smith of the National Center for Children in Poverty. “You’re not confronted as directly with situations that are so close to yours that they are going to be painful,” she speculates. “A lot of difficult emotional challenges of adolescence might be processed by them more easily in a fantasy context.”

As YA editor Lizzie Skurnick points out, “Anyone who’s actually experienced their parents losing a job knows that it feels just like it would feel to stand in a stadium and have to kill your friends. It’s actually scarier than that.”

Book News: Marcella Hazan, Italian Cookbook Author, Dies


The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

Marcella Hazan and her husband, Victor, in the kitchen of their home in Longboat Key, Fla.


Laura Krantz/NPR

Marcella Hazan and her husband, Victor, in the kitchen of their home in Longboat Key, Fla.

Marcella Hazan and her husband, Victor, in the kitchen of their home in Longboat Key, Fla.

Laura Krantz/NPR

  • Marcella Hazan, the author of bestselling cookbooks that brought Italian food to America, died Sunday at age 89. A scientist by training, she began cooking after moving to the United States and finding that much American food was sold prepackaged at the supermarket. “I never saw a supermarket in Italy,” she told NPR’s Linda Wertheimer in a 2010 interview. “The chicken, they were arriving from the farmer and they were alive. And at the supermarket they were very dead. They were wrapped. It was like a coffin. Everything was not natural.” NPR’s Scott Simon had visited Hazan in 2005 while she was teaching at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. He reported: “Marcella Hazan’s cooking is traditional Italian — nothing nouveau. She believes in cooking vegetables until they are limp, but not lifeless. She ladles on butter and olive oil generously enough to make anyone say a pre-meal prayer. And she believes that salt sharpens everything.”
  • Chris McCandless’ death in the Alaskan wilderness was the subject of Jon Krakauer’s investigative bestseller Into the Wild. Almost two decades later, McCandless’ sister, Carine, is writing a memoir titled The Wild Truth, which The New York Times reports will be published in 2014 by HarperOne. She said in a press release: “In the decades since Chris’s death, my half-siblings and I have come together to find our own truth and build our own beauty in his absence. In each other, we’ve found absolution, as I believe Chris found absolution in the wild before he died.”
  • The Circle, Dave Eggers’ latest novel, has been excerpted in The New York Times magazine. The funny (and familiar) excerpt follows Mae, who has just begun work at the Circle, a tech corporation on the scale of Google or Facebook: “It was 6 o’clock. She had plenty of hours to improve, there and then, so she embarked on a flurry of activity, sending 4 zings and 32 comments and 88 smiles. In an hour, her PartiRank rose to 7,288. Breaking 7,000 was more difficult, but by 8, after joining and posting in 11 discussion groups, sending another 12 zings, one of them rated in the top 5,000 globally for that hour, and signing up for 67 more feeds, she’d done it. She was at 6,872, and she turned to her InnerCircle social feed.”

The best books coming out this week:

  • Inspired by the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate follows 10 women and men who were tried and hanged for witchcraft in 17th century England. The story itself is grimly fascinating, but Winterson is at her best when creating a sense of place — the “untamed” North of England where Pendle Hill sits “low and massy, flat-topped, brooding, disappeared in mists, treacherous with bogs, run through with fast-flowing streams plunging into waterfalls crashing down into unknown pools.”
  • In The Kraus Project, Jonathan Franzen translates and annotates the vicious Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, who was legendary in his time but has been largely forgotten now (at least, in the English-speaking world). It would be easy to dismiss The Kraus Project as one grump meditating on another, dead grump. But Franzen’s work is careful, scholarly and engaging. And best of all, like his late friend David Foster Wallace, Franzen elevates the footnote to the status of art.

Kombucha: Magical Health Elixir Or Just Funky Tea?


Kombucha made by artisan tea brewer Bill Bond in Akron, Ohio, comes in an array of flavors, such as lemongrass, ginger, blueberry and watermelon.


Peggy Turbett/The Plain Dealer /Landov

Kombucha made by artisan tea brewer Bill Bond in Akron, Ohio, comes in an array of flavors, such as lemongrass, ginger, blueberry and watermelon.

Kombucha made by artisan tea brewer Bill Bond in Akron, Ohio, comes in an array of flavors, such as lemongrass, ginger, blueberry and watermelon.

Peggy Turbett/The Plain Dealer /Landov

Chances are, you’ve seen it in your local grocery store. Maybe you’ve even mustered the courage to taste it — or at least take a whiff.

Once mostly a product of health food stores and hippies’ kitchens, kombucha tea is now commercially available in many major grocery stores.

And people aren’t necessarily scooping it up for its flavor. Its taste has been described as somewhere between vinegar soda and carbonated apple cider.

The SCOBY: Bill Bond, of Bucha Bill Raw Kombucha, shows off the “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast” in his fermented tea. The microorganisms of the SCOBY convert the sweetened tea into the fizzy elixir.


Peggy Turbett/The Plain Dealer /Landov

The SCOBY: Bill Bond, of Bucha Bill Raw Kombucha, shows off the "symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast" in his fermented tea. The microorganisms of the SCOBY convert the sweetened tea into the fizzy elixir.

The SCOBY: Bill Bond, of Bucha Bill Raw Kombucha, shows off the “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast” in his fermented tea. The microorganisms of the SCOBY convert the sweetened tea into the fizzy elixir.

Peggy Turbett/The Plain Dealer /Landov

So why shell out $4 bucks for a small bottle of the stinky tea?

Many folks are banking on the potential health benefits of kombucha, including disease prevention, energy improvement and perhaps even turning back the clock and inhibiting aging.

“I’ve seen claims that kombucha might help kill cancer, is a powerful detoxifier, even a fountain of youth,” says Monica Reinagel, a nutritionist and creator of the podcast Nutrition Diva.

Sound fantastical? Well, it probably is.

The bottom line is that we know very little about kombucha and how it may affect health.

“There is really very little evidence to support any kind of claims about kombucha tea,” says Andrea Giancoli, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “So we don’t know if it does anything at all.”

Nevertheless, most kombucha drinks contain live bacteria. And evidence is mounting that friendly bacteria or probiotics aide digestion and possibly even strengthen the immune system.

These good bugs “actually live inside of us and help digest our food, digesting particles we can’t digest on our own,” nutritionist Reinagel says. “And they actually produce certain nutrients for us, which is a very nice trick.”

Kombucha was popular back in the early ’90s, when health-minded consumers produced the tea in their home kitchens. Many HIV-positive individuals consumed it in hopes of boosting their immune systems.

The process of making kombucha is fairly simple. Black or green tea is sweetened with sugar. A concoction of bacteria and yeast is added. The mixture is then fermented in a glass or ceramic container for at least a week.

During this time, microbe production speeds up as the bacteria feast on the added sugar, grow and multiply. The end result looks like a rubbery disc that forms on top of the tea, called the SCOBY, or “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast.”

It’s a thriving colony of microorganisms — billions of them, converting sugar into vinegar and other aromatic compounds. The sheer number of bacteria makes it very difficult to know for sure if the concoction includes only the friendly, good bacteria.

One of the most popular brands of kombucha tea, GT’s Kombucha, sells millions of bottles a year. Officials say they test their tea and know it contains at least two important strains of good bacteria.

But that may not be the case for all products now available in supermarkets.

And if you brew it at home, dietitian Giancoli has a warning: “You’ve got to have really very sanitary conditions and know what you’re doing.” Otherwise, she says, your tea could get contaminated by not so friendly — or even harmful — bacteria.

In stores, the bottled versions are produced in carefully controlled environments and are likely safe. So if you like the idea of kombucha and if it makes you feel better or more energetic, then there’s probably “no harm” in drinking it, nutritionist Reinagel says.

As for the extraordinary health claims — we’ll just have to wait until researchers test them out.

How Two Brothers Waged A ‘Secret World War’ In The 1950s


The Brothers

A former longtime New York Times reporter, Stephen Kinzer teaches journalism and foreign policy at Boston University.


Deborah Donnelley/Courtesy of Times Books

A former longtime New York Times reporter, Stephen Kinzer teaches journalism and foreign policy at Boston University.

A former longtime New York Times reporter, Stephen Kinzer teaches journalism and foreign policy at Boston University.

Deborah Donnelley/Courtesy of Times Books

More on Stephen Kinzer

John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles were the forefathers of using covert operations to upset foreign governments — with the aim of overthrow.

They learned the reach of American power abroad when they were partners at an influential New York law firm. Later, with John Foster Dulles serving as secretary of state and Allen Dulles as CIA chief, they shared power in the President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration.

In August, the CIA admitted to its role in ousting the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, back in 1953. That was just the first in a long line of foreign governments toppled by the influential brothers during the Cold War.

In The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, journalist Stephen Kinzer examines their rise to power and how their personal relationship influenced their professional partnership.

“The remarkable thing about the Dulles brothers in power was that they functioned so closely together that no other kinds of consultation were necessary in order to launch these terribly far-reaching operations,” Kinzer tells NPR’s Arun Rath.

Kinzer, formerly a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, focuses six covert operations. He calls those targets the “six monsters” — from Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh to Fidel Castro in Cuba.

“Looking back, you can see that the Dulles brothers were waging a constant war during the 1950s, and we’re paying the price of the blowback of that war right now,” he says.

Interview Highlights

On their sibling cooperation

“John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles carried out operations together. It was the only time in American history that siblings controlled the overt and covert sides of American foreign policy. You’d have Foster Dulles setting the diplomatic background for some covert operation, and then Allen Dulles carrying out the operation behind the scenes.”

On how the brothers triggered a six-year occupation of Cuba

“John Foster Dulles was a young associate, still in his 20s at Sullivan and Cromwell, when one of the partners called him in and said, ‘We’ve got problem in Cuba. There’s been an election. And the liberals, who want to limit the power of American companies in Cuba, have won.’

“So John Foster Dulles got on the train. He went to Washington. He went to see his uncle, the secretary of state. And he told his uncle, ‘We need to send two warships to Cuba and land marines in Cuba to force the liberals to call off their revolution demanding that the election be recognized.’

“Those warships were sent. The next day they began a six year occupation of Cuba. That all began because of a threat to American companies that were represented by the Dulles brothers.”

On what’s changed in the American mindset since the Dulles era

“Particularly in the reaction to the Syria bombing, I’m beginning to wonder if something profound isn’t changing in the minds of at least some Americans.

“People are looking at each other and saying, ‘I can’t get a job and my leaders are telling me I should be focusing on fixing Syria.’ I think the disconnect that that represents is slowly dawning on some Americans. Maybe we finally are burying John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles.”