Friday, January 13, 2017
Adichie is clear that one doesn't have to be angry or wear un-sexy clothing to be a feminist. A feminist is someone who allows every person, whatever their sexuality, to use all parts of their personality and skill set in their daily life. Men can be feminists, and generally are those we all like the best.
Adichie has a wonderfully rich speaking voice and speaks slowly and clearly enough that even unfamiliar ideas have time to catch hold before the next sentence comes up.
Best of all, Adichie is a black woman explaining why we are not talking now about human rights, or black rights, or any other kind of rights. We are focusing today on women's rights, and she keeps eyes on the prize. Worthwhile.
Adichie had done a 30-minute TED talk of this in 2013, from which the audio script is drawn. She has remastered and smoothed the talk since this time, but the essence is here. She is a lovely spokesperson for women's rights.
So glad this has caught fire. It goes without saying that, around the world, nations and cultures are yearning to hear this message. This talk is available as an ebook, a paperback from major retailers. At the end of January 2017, the 45-minute audiofile produced by Penguin Random House Audio will be available for purchase from major audio retailers.
Here is an excerpt of Adichie reading her essay:
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We may not be in a post racial society but I tell you what: when funky, funny Phoebe can tell us what white people do that makes her crazy, and why she doesn’t want to be anybody’s token black friend, I think we’ve moved the needle since the last century. I remember the first time an African man told me that the only pictures he’d had taken in his years of graduate school were those taken by a Singaporean man who knew how to get the camera to register his skin color and expression. Robinson says something similar here: maybe it’s best if we first acknowledge a color difference before we declare it doesn’t matter.
Robinson does plenty of things in this “breakout book deal” but the thing that drew me in was the chance to learn, unfiltered, how black women had such dope-fantastic hair while white folk have to make do with boring thin stuff that flies away and looks pretty much the same everyday, no matter what we do to it. I first learned a little about the time and energy and money serious black hair coiffeurs require in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah, but now I think I get it. And no, I don’t think anyone should have to do this so that other folks will love them more. It is, however, an art form, another art form that black folk have created, perfected, and strutted.
Shonda Rhimes, in her book Year of Yes, tells us as a teen she tried to get her hair looking like Diana Ross every morning before classes. Oh girl…I did the same thing with some magazine model or other whose look was so far from mine that a million years of evolution wouldn’t have changed that difference between us. It is definitely not worth the effort. And the “creamy crack” or “crack cream” (break me up, girl!) sounds positively dangerous. Forget it immediately. Get a wig if you want to toss straight hair so much and definitely don’t subject yourself to chemical burns. Come on. If that is what’s required, f- them. I wouldn’t do it. Who the heck is calling the shots here?
When Robinson describes a bedroom scene where the woman is wearing an elastic do-rag to protect her afro and she insists that a real man would still get a boner regardless, I laughed all right. But then it occurred to me that is the definition of drop-dead sexy: strong and sexy, when black womanhood doesn’t even need to fling her hair around to get to home base. She commands the stage. I’m impressed. Personally, I’d kill for the simplicity of a close crop and call it quits. But I ain’t no Phoebe Robinson.
Jessica Williams, Phoebe’s “work wife,” writes the introduction to this book. Williams was a writer/correspondent on The Daily Show and now the two perform standup at various locations in Brooklyn and work a podcast (WYNC) called 2 Dope Queens. Robinson had a vision of where she wanted to go and to that end began a blog called Blaria in 2014. When the Robinson and Williams standup routine started to take off, a new piece in the NYT tried to keep track. Robinson also has a talk-show style podcast she started last year called Sooo Many White Guys. She's angling for Oprah's job, and I think she's becoming a worthy successor. She certainly has drive.
If the material is sometimes juvenile, well, juvenile can be funny. There is one thing that may eventually limit the range of the women, though: all their references for jokes relate to TV or movies. When it works, it’s very good indeed, but not everyone is so deep into popular culture, or have looked at it with such seriousness and depth of understanding. It is fascinating to watch Robinson deconstruct an old movie like a college professor does a piece of literature, but then our mind starts thinking…what else can this woman do that would be—less fun, maybe—but more important?
Then I remember what she is doing, desensitizing race relations, telling white folk what bothers black folk, sharing some intimacies and some vulnerabilities, and I realize she is doing exactly what she needs to be doing right now, and she is doing it funny, she is doing it sexy, she is doing it in braids, in long soft curls, in dreads, and in a bust-'em afro. She’s strong, she’s sexy, she’s outspoken, and she’s unstoppable now. I’m a fan.
2 Dope Queens 2016 holiday podcast on YouTube:
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Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Matt Taibbi is a helluva writer. Even if you don't agree with his political views, you might kinda wish you did…to see what he sees. He is really funny, and it is inevitable that you will choke out a few guffaws against your will when he goes after someone you fell for, or settled for. Sucker. The only person Taibbi doesn't speak of in sarcastic or cynical tones is Bernie Sanders, who never tried to entertain us so much as educate, inform, and move us.
After the election in November last year, Taibbi wrote a last dispatch in which he heralds some of the thoughts he exercises in this book. Called President Trump: How America Got it So Wrong this article published in Rolling Stone gives you some idea of who Taibbi is and how he writes, in case he slipped your notice. He no longer works full time for that magazine, but has moved to First Look Media, working with Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Laura Poitras. His leaving statement from Rolling Stone is presented here.
Listening to Washington news today, I am getting the burning sensation in my belly again. Trump just had his first news conference (1/11/17) and listening to his incomplete sentences and careless way of speaking started my slow burn. What is he trying to say? Why should we have to have an interpreter? Who should be our interpreter? Breitbart? KellyAnne? My anxiety and frustration will kill me if I have to listen to this straight on. I am afraid I may only be able to view Trump’s presidency through a filter or in the rear view mirror.
In these dispatches, Taibbi makes comment on events as they unfolded, recognizing that the anti-truth candidate might win but still reiterating that he "can’t." It may be too soon for some of you, scarred from that campaign as you are, to even consider laughing at the unbelievable thing we as a country did in electing Trump. But some say to jump right back on the saddle, and Taibbi is a great trail leader.
Taibbi admits, despite his writing eight years earlier a book about a post-truth society based on fake conspiracies and exemplified by Fox News called The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire, that even he did not foresee that a charlatan like Trump could hijack an electorate that voted twice! for Barack Obama, and which had led movements in racial parity and same sex rights. Therefore, while he is critiquing the “childlike” crowds that throng to Trump rallies, faces turned like believers to the clarion call a of television evangelist, throughout the year preceding the vote Taibbi can’t believe this clown can possibly win.
He is disbelieving but accurate and very, very, funny in describing the absurd Republican debates fielding seventeen candidates for president. Clearly some folks weren’t getting the memos, or, as we had surmised for some time already, were refusing to go along with the Party hierarchy. Well, they reaped what they sowed: confusion.
But what Taibbi does very well indeed is show us how long we have been living with our heads in the sand while small indignities were perpetrated upon us, e.g., Fox News Channel the only news network available on some cheap cable packages when free public television was not; news networks hiring attractive airheads who all ask the same questions and parrot one another until we get less accomplished in an hour of watching than if we’d had the TV off, etc. We were victims but we didn’t rise up.
Taibbi helps, along with giving us a few laughs, to chart the train wreck that was the election and pinpoints moments when the cake-icing edifice melted and started to slide off the steaming heap it was hiding. For me in particular, he makes me wonder how we will manage without news organizations worthy of the effort of reading/listening to them. Traditional newspaper outlets have been under stress for many years now, and their ranks are decimated. TV news, you already know, are terrifying in their ineptness & self-satisfaction. They need to hire armies of journalists to back up their newscasts rather than taking big profits and giving such high salaries. They simply must do a better job informing us (and themselves).
I listened to the audio production of this book, produced by Penguin Random House Audio and read by Rob Shapiro. Shapiro has just the right amount of incredulity and snark in his voice to accentuate the disbelief and horror in Taibbi’s tale of woe.
Below please find a short sample clip of the audiobook:
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Tuesday, January 10, 2017
This is such an exciting time in American literature that we can enjoy the gorgeous language and careful craftsmanship of really very fine short stories and novels in English in the American tradition but from traditionally silent participants in our nation’s pageant: immigrants and people of color. These voices began speaking up some time ago, but if you looked at the award lists until recently, people of color weren’t often on them. That has changed, and right now, before cultures become indistinguishable from one another in the wealth churn, the special character and individual voice of different groups is our bounty to reap.
Nguyen just wows me with his capture of the immigrant experience from so many different directions in this collection of stories. Not only is his language clear and expressive and to the point, his stories are rounded and fulfilling. They tell us something, like dispatches from a new world.
A story called “The War Years” is not actually about the war we usually think of. We’re in L.A., in Little Saigon, in a grocery store where we breathe in the smell of dried cuttlefish and star anise in the crowded aisles. Father (Ba), mother (Ma), and Long (do I need to say?), a thirteen-year-old for whom school, even summer school, felt like a vacation, worked at the store every day, even Sundays after Mass.
Ma is the real deal: waking everyone up in the mornings, keeping house, making meals, counting cash. She owns seven pastel outfits, and with makeup and a squirt of scent (gardenia), she is ready to man the cash register. We hear the scratch of her nylons as she rubs one ankle against the other. She knows the margins on every item in the store, even the 50-lb bags of rice in the loft above kitchenware.
Mrs. Hao visits the store regularly to ask for contributions to “fight the Communists,” but Ma thinks that fight is over. She follows Mrs. Hao home one day to confront her and discovers a fight that is all too real.
The story is so richly told, its depths just keep churning up new insights. And yet it is not alone. “The Transplant” introduces us to Arthur Arellano, a man with several overlapping and reflexive problems—problems which influence each other. Despite “transplant” bringing to mind “immigrant,” in this story the word has a more literal meaning.
The characters in all these stories have complex problems, complex attachments, complex lives. In “Someone Else Besides You,” a thirty-three-year-old man lives with his father after his own divorce, but his widower father, despite his own proclivities for mistresses, is constantly urging his son to pursue the former wife. See what I mean? Complex.
One story, “The Americans,” depicts a twenty-six-year-old woman who has been teaching English in Vietnam for two years already, living in a town that also hosts a nonprofit engaged in demining. She invites her parents to visit, to meet her boyfriend, to see her housing, her life. The email inviting them is addressed to Mom and Dad, but James Carver, recently retired as a commercial airline pilot, knows it is mostly meant for her mother, who dreams about Vietnam's “bucolic” countryside. “He knew next to nothing about Vietnam except what it looked like at forty thousand feet.”
Nguyen conveys the silent, withheld anger and confusion that men can often exhibit: an inarticulateness that keeps them angry without them even knowing exactly why. James was so proud when his son graduated from Air Force Academy, but he marks his own decline from that moment: he felt he was growing stupider rather than wiser as he aged. That was just the moment that the torch passed, and it is a new world, not his own. If he could but speak his fears, he’d find he was not alone: the world could still be his, he’d just be sharing it.
His daughter Claire is just like daughters anywhere, thinking they know more than they do, speaking and acting so carelessly, so casually hurtful.
“Although she empathized with vast masses of people she had never met, total strangers who regarded her as a stranger and would kill her without hesitation given the chance, she did not extend any such feeling to him.”Being a parent is tough stuff. One has to have the hide of a rhinoceros.
The technical skill manifest in this story is breathtaking. We are never explicitly told the man is black, married to a Japanese woman while stationed on Okinawa. Their children have grown up loved by their parents, but confused about their identities and disparaged by their schoolmates. James has endured a lifetime of confusion, including his job flying a bomber jet. Unspoken, unresolved resentment is the minefield.
Nguyen’s stories are feasts of insight, generously shared. We’re lucky folk, to have such a talent writing for us. The Sympathizer, Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel out last year, was a big novel is every sense. He shows us here he can write engaging, enduring short fiction, and his nonfiction, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, has likewise garnered critical attention. Nguyen is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He has received residencies, fellowships, honors, awards, and grants from a wide range of admiring and grateful organizations.
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Sunday, January 8, 2017
Krivak takes his own blessed time when telling stories. His novels are quiet, but not especially slow; they are full of drama, generations of crises. It has been five years since the publication of Krivak’s quietly spectacular first novel, The Sojourn, which followed the sharpshooter Jozef Vinich during World War I. This book, it turns out, follows Vinich’s family, based now in the hill country of northeastern Pennsylvania, where they run a mill.
War and its opposite, peace, are inescapable twin themes running through Krivák’s work, lacing the generations together. We are introduced to the Irishman silversmith who landed penurious in New York, only to be conscripted into the Union army, fighting at Gettysburg, one of the last men standing. Afterward he built a snug and comfortable house that lasted well, uninhabited, for many years until it again became a happy home.
Jozef’s grandson Sam goes to Vietnam, a corporal, and is missing in action. But Sam had the noticing, or attention, gene that Jozef had exploited in the earlier conflict to keep himself alive: “Just movement like the breeze, except there was no breeze that day.” No one wants to believe Sam is dead. His brother and mother hold the fort at home, missing him, waiting for him to come back one day.
The family history is complicated, threads overlapping and woven into the fabric of that small area where everyone knew everyone else. But Krivák patiently and clearly relates the relevant histories with their attendant tragedies and small successes until those histories are as clear as our own. When, in the final pages, Hannah stands near the corner of her land and finds a smooth-barked beech with the generations of family carved into its side, we know just who is being described. JV + HP, BK + HV, BK + AD, SK + RY, each set of carving clearer in its presence on the tree’s skin. What is so remarkable is how long the family lasted in that place, without moving or shipping anchor, and the violence done to the dreams of each in that place one might think of as sleepy, or otherwise passed by.
The attention to language, to the unhurried unfurling of a long-form mystery, is Krivák’s special skill. We often ask the question, “how did this happen?” but we rarely have the patience to hear the answer. Krivák makes it interesting enough that listening is no chore, recalling as it does the lives of each of us in its moments of kismet and inevitability, love and violence, birth and death.
What I liked best, perhaps, was the genuine kindness even in the confusion among people. There is no triumphalism over the indignities of failure, but neither is there any abnegation of responsibility. These Americans accept responsibility for their forefather’s actions, strive to understand, and be better for any mistakes made. They are capable of change, of understanding, and forgiveness. It is a remarkably uplifting fiction, despite the difficulties each family undergoes.
One of the more delicious descriptions in the book is the occasion of a day trip to West Virginia from northeast Pennsylvania. Despite nothing out of the ordinary happening, we greet this part of the story with the excitement children might feel when told of a trip away. Krivák’s descriptions thrill us with their clarity and accuracy: we know of whom he writes.
Another description that catches a moment perfectly is this description of Sam's brother Bo fishing with the parish priest, whom Bo wanted to ask for advice:
"The split up on the stream, Bo took the faster water up top and fished with a muddler minnow. Father Rovnávaha worked a black ant in a lower pool where brookies were rising to terrestrials. In all this time from house to stream, they had said no more than five words to each other."They sat streamside on rocks for a coffee break, Bo walking to the edge to pick a mayfly off a stone. They'd been using the wrong flies. Then Bo broached the topic that was troubling him.
There is no sensationalism here. Krivák writes about a time long gone, fifty and more years ago. It is a small, almost private novel, about making a wooden hutch for someone as a Christmas present, and when placed in their home, “looks like it had always been here.” The fiction has something of that inevitable feel, as though it weren’t made-up at all, but memoir, and deeply felt. These are beautifully written and constructed novels, and there is room for more, if Krivák wanted to move into the controversies of a modern-day novel. I’d read anything he decides to write.
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Wednesday, January 4, 2017
But of course Rhimes is an introvert. How else could she find all those voices in her head, both in time and creativity? But the introvert part meant that Rhimes was refusing some “best time of your life” invitations to do things where she would be feted, admired, and all that, but she could also find people to admire. She decided, for one year, to say “yes” to invites that she would ordinarily eschew.
She was in a good position to do it. Though it complicated some aspects of her life, she had the family and financial resources to make up any shortfall. It was fascinating when she discovered her children are extroverts, and nothing like herself. She does that humble-brag thing, where she says something like “three hot-as-fire TV shows, three children, sleeping, eating, working, writing has been kicking my ass lately.” Yeah, girl. I bet. Harumpf.
But Rhimes is no humble-brag. Not very long after that she tells us about her struggles to do things that she isn’t as good at as TV shows and imagination, like living consciously, victoriously, really. Here she is, the most successful woman any of us can imagine, with a fun job with fun people in a fun city, and she is pulling in and shutting down, feeling old, getting fat. Good lord, what does that to us?
It’s like a disease. But I get it. It is easier, sometimes, to live in one’s imagination. I do it, too. Not even writing books, me, just reading them. One can do it in a balanced way, or in an unbalanced way. Rhimes is here to tell you (and you don’t have to listen, but then, well, good luck out there) how it feels to recognize and slowly heal that sickness. It might be a little like, “Hi, my name is Jennie, and I am an introvert,” but again, there are healthy ways to be and unhealthy ways, and most of us know instinctively which is which. When it gets bad enough, you might want a little Shonda to brighten your day. She’s funny, she’s smart, and she’s been there.
We certainly get a look into the way Rhimes speaks, and thinks, if we didn’t already get plenty of that through her characters. (We knew she liked red wine, for instance.) She answers for us things she really shouldn’t have to answer—like deciding not to get married. Maybe it helped her to write that part down, at least so she has some ready answers the next time someone comes to her with what she calls “Big Questions.”
Speaking of which, one of the more fascinating parts of this book for me was her response to “Why is diversity so important?” I would never have thought to ask that question, and that is sort of the way she answers it:
"...one of the dumbest questions on the face of the earth, right up there with 'Why do people need food and air?' and 'Why should women be feminists?'There is only one thing that confuses me about this memoir: is introvert now “bad” and extrovert now “good”? Rhimes spent a year
…I really hate the word diversity. It suggests something…other. As if it is something…special. Or rare.
As if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV.
I have a different word: NORMALIZING.
I’m normalizing TV.
I’m making TV look the way the world looks. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal WAY more than 50 percent of the population. Which means it ain’t out of the ordinary. I am making the world of television look NORMAL.
…The goal is that everyone should get to turn on the TV and see someone who looks like them and loves like them. And just as important, everyone should turn on the TV and see someone who doesn’t look like them and love like them. Because perhaps then they will learn from them.”
“trying to be as cocky and immodest and brazen as I can. I’m trying to take up as much space as I need to take up. To not make myself smaller in order to make someone else feel better. I’m allowing myself to shamelessly and comfortably be the loudest voice in the room.”I guess that is not quite clear to me. So this is the goal? To take up more space, to impose one’s will? I understand being happy in the world. I understand not backing down from who you are. I’m not sure why that has to drown out others. But I’m glad Rhimes feels better at the end of it. As long as she isn’t just making that up for our benefit.
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Monday, January 2, 2017
This book is not brief; it has many more than seven killings; it redefines what a novel is. As a reader I was gratified to read in the Acknowledgements that James himself didn’t know this was a novel, either, until someone pointed to possible parallels for the style in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. James drew inspiration from Roberto Bolaño, Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, and Gay Talese among others, and the work is staggering for sheer inventiveness.
The storyline is anything but simple, told from multiple viewpoints, but basically some people killed ‘the Singer’ and nobody knows why. But while we are looking for answers, we get a whole lotta reasons for why people want to be close to the Singer or are jealous of him or are afraid of him. And it is these things that become the story.
I began by listening to the HighBridge audio production of this novel, performed with enormous skill by an exceptional actor ensemble, but soon found I wanted to see the text. James had me in such awe of what he was doing that I wanted to see the overall structure, introduction, dedication, every little thing. It is a game-changing piece of work. It won’t change most novelists work—James is in the master class—he changes how novels function.
And his voice…it is hard to describe the seeing-ness of his voice. It seems almost trite to say he got the woman thing. He got everybody’s thing. James says Nina Burgess was the voice that most clearly expressed what he as an author was thinking, but it was Kim Clarke speaking in February of 1979 (the first voice in a section called Shadow Dancin’) that broke my heart in two.
The violence…James says "violence should be violent"... and he obliges. It is a reflection, hard to believe, but a reflection of how we do not have to live. Set alternately in Jamaica, New York, and Miami, this is what happens, what we have in store with bad judgement and poor leaders. The book is very violent, and the language is both terribly funny and terribly ugly, the emphasis on terrible. It is gut-punching, air-sucking, awe-inspiring terrible. Shocking.
I am not entirely sure the book needed to be so long, but the sheer genius of the characterizations meant we didn’t really care if it was all meant to be there or not. It was a ridiculously over-the-top banquet with lots of extras. It is a little hard to get one’s arms around the novel, what with all the pyrotechnics, but like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity's Rainbow, or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, who the heck cares?
There are references to Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia in here when the CIA operatives were speaking, as well as other nefarious activities and dirty tricks by representatives of other countries, but James warns us not to read this work as history. It is fiction on a framework of research into a time that was interesting to James.
In the 2016 Charlie Rose interview James makes the comment that Jamaica’s racism is very different from America’s: “In Jamaica [racism] is endemic. We never faced it, but we didn’t have to, if everyone was bleaching their skin & trying to get their skin whiter and whiter until we’re full free.” That interesting and provocative comment doesn’t entirely explain the differences between the slave legacy in America and colonialist racism in Britain, but gives us something to ponder.
In an interview with Kima Jones and reprinted on her blog, James tells us that the post colonialist mindset and unconscious racism has been picked up by white women:
"I have very little patience for…stories and…movies [that use white characters to legitimize the experience of black characters]. The traditional ‘white guy goes through a three-dimensional experience served by one-dimensional black people.’ Funny enough, the people who are doing it a lot now are white women. I’ve spoken about this, and I’ve never been shy to talk about it. I had a Facebook post where I said, ‘White women, please don’t become the new Orientalist, because we didn’t like it when white men did it.’ This sort of ‘I had my three-dimensional, life-changing experience surrounded by all of these Negroes or all these Asians or all these people from the South Pacific.’ Enough…I didn’t want the existence of my white characters to be validation or justification or proof of the existence of these other, many Jamaicas within Jamaica."See what I mean? Provocative. Interviews with Marlon James have left me like a deer in the headlights, too stunned to complete my next thought straight away. I am more used to his answers to common questions now, but he can still be utterly surprising and completely absorbing. A few links to some of his interviews, all of which are interesting, are below.
Indie Wire, Dec 24, 2015
GQ Review, Oct 13, 2015
Rolling Stone Review, Jan 6, 2016
Charlie Rose interview, Aug 25, 2016
The Guardian , October 14, 2015
The Telegraph, Oct 13, 2015
Kima Jones Blog, undated.
NYTimes, Sept 21, 2014
Vogue, Oct 28, 2105
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