The Underground Railroad

October 16, 2016

“The almanac had a strange, soapy smell and made a cracking noise like fire as she turned the pages. She’d never been the first person to open a book.”

This book is not here to encourage your incipient optimism. If you are like me, you will spend its last pages suffused with pride that this country has made such gargantuan advances towards equality and genuine goodness, when compared with the portrait of America you encounter in this novel. You will also find yourself paralyzed with fear and motivated by disgust that this country could have ever been this portrait of America. It made me feel how fragile our advances are and how vital it is to turn our feet in the right direction, never placing one toe towards that world again. cyxltn6waammdqt

It does this by following Cora, a young enslaved woman. The book is divided into multiple sections, each one either exploring a new state Cora runs to or spotlighting a specific supporting character. The first section aims to provide a historically accurate portrait of what it was like to be a slave and what it was like to risk the terrors of escape. From then, Whitehead employs his particularly well-honed talent for magical realism to elevate the novel into something extraordinary. In his conception, the Underground Railroad is made literal. Cora escapes through tunnels beneath the Southern earth on a series of makeshift trains.

Whitehead’s decision to use magical realism rather than a more strict historical realism could have been a risky one. There is so much power in the straight facts and first-person accounts of this time period. The facts are brutal and the accounts are harrowing and humbling. Why then not situate Cora within as exact a representation of slavery as possible? The question, really, is why fictionalize at all? Because, of course, so much can be accomplished by doing so. In hiding Cora in a North Carolina attic while an ethnic cleanse of all African Americans takes place outside her tiny window, Anne Frank can be evoked. Tuskegee can be foreshadowed in another section; the stop and frisk debate can be mirrored in the slave catcher’s actions. whit_978-0385537032_jkt_r1_wide-74fd28218ed06c0f4d87fa6688ce3c44c5722ee1-s900-c85The pages are heavy. They are heavy with import, of course, but they are also physically heavy. It is a beautifully made book with thick pages and elegant script. The cover art evokes both the red clay earth of Georgia and the blood that watered it, a serpentine train track running over and off the sides. I recommend you buy the hardcover because you should read it immediately, but also because there is a pleasure to holding this book in your hands. The novel plays with this pleasure and how many could never imagine experiencing it. Don’t take for granted the unbelieving pleasure Cora takes when she is gifted a brand new book; savor it.

My only advice (beyond to read this without delay) is to be prepared for what you are picking up. Every aspect of slavery was harrowing, and escaping from it is was no exception. It is a legacy we can never expect to fully escape from ourselves.

Mr. Splitfoot

October 2, 2016

Dear Reader,

“Because every story is a ghost story, even mine.”

October is upon us, my dear readers. There are three little pumpkins sitting on my cookbook shelf and I’ve a few shivery reads on tap to get me in the mood: Mr. Splitfoot, The Wonder, and The Doll-Master. As fate would have it, I read the first first and now I am faced with a challenge: what could possibly excel such a novel? Because Mr. Splitfoot is quite quite wonderful.9780544526709

The novel is about Ruth and Nat, two foster children who are raised in a cult-like atmosphere for most of their lives. They knit themselves together, skin to skin and soul to soul. Rarely are two characters so close and so believably so. They have slept in the same bed since they were five, two inverted commas. When Nat starts to speak to the dead, Ruth joins him and they begin to sell their services as mediums, acquiring the enigmatic Mr. Bell as a manager along the way and attempting to escape the atmosphere in which they were raised. This story is intertwined with another one, each chapter alternating between the story of a teenage Ruth and the story of her journey fourteen years later with her pregnant niece Cora. There are so many questions, so many moments of suspense where information is slowly dripped from the metaphorical faucet. The suspense is so well-managed that I happily sat back and let the story unfold deliciously.

Samantha Hurt is a wonderful and surprising writer. Perhaps I have read too many mediocre new pubs recently (looking at you The Hopefuls) but I audibly gasped multiple times throughout the book at the sharp writing. She has a taste for description that I have a hard time describing myself without just quoting the book over and over again. There’s a moment where she writes something like “the walls were the color of brains.” That was a gasp moment.

Also, this is a love story. On so many levels, it is a love story. Mothers and daughters, men and women, sisters, brothers, friends… rarely do you find a gothic novel that does its love stories so well. They tend to become plot devices, stereotypes of the pale beauty and the Byronic hero. In this novel they worm their way inside of you; I found myself weeping rather freely at the end, blurring the twisting beauty of the last page so I could barely read it.

This is the first of my October book recommendations, and as soon as I finish the other two I will let you know my thoughts, probably right as I have them. Please read this novel.

 

 

 

A Tale Told By An Idiot…

August 17, 2016

Dear Reader,

Full of scorpions is my mind. Or so it seemed, walking out of Suicide Squad. I felt not a little like Lady Macbeth who could not wash her mind of what she had experienced. The mythology of the comic book universes, both DC and Marvel, has the potential to be a lasting commentary on such weighty matters as the battle between good and evil, the desire for power, the consequences of crime, and the inevitability (or not) of fate. Instead, we are treated to dreck like Suicide Squad.

Even now, as we are making movies like this, in which such matters are wildly mishandled and messily slapped up on the screen, we are also still making and remaking the same great stories. And thus I turned to Macbeth.Macbeth_EE_720_367_85shar-10_s_c1

The most recent adaptation of The Scottish Play stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as Macbeth and his Lady. They are both glorious actors in their own right, having proven themselves again and again capable of handling the dark and weighty matters upon which this play must meditate. Their relationship builds their separate characters into murderers and madmen. Suicide-SquadIt makes them strong at first, but their deeds and the power that descends on them are crushing weights. In Macbeth we see the consequences of using the strength a relationship should give as a bolster for wickedness. Their separate and collective madness eats away at them, which is why the audience can feel sympathy for them. In Sucide Squad, the Joker and Harley Quinn are a pale imitation of this insane duo. They too, are the self-styled King and Queen of their universe, roles they took by force and which they do not deserve. But though we want to feel sympathy for the poor tortured Dr. Harleen Quinzel, and even admire the strength of the murderous Harley Quinn, there are no consequences for their actions. We are instead asked to admire the panache and the tattoos and the very madness they revel in. We cannot care when they take lives, but we should.Macbeth-2015Pretenders to the throne do not fair well in Shakespeare. Madness lies that way, for to kill a king is to stain oneself eternally. Fassbender’s Macbeth wastes little time descending into his own private hell. As soon as the crown rests on his head he becomes tenfold more the merciless brute, burning women and children at the stake to feed his paranoia and thirst for revenge. His madness is not funny. It is not bright or garish or stylish. It is the madness of repentance when repentance is impossible and he can see no course but to heap more bodies on the pyre. joker-suicide-squad-trailer-715It’s not easy being king, that’s for sure. This Macbeth makes that pointedly clear. There isn’t a moment when it is even fun. Fun, however, is the Joker’s raison d’etre. And love, perhaps. As the Joker flits in and out of this sad excuse for a story we see that everything he touches is touched carelessly. He maddens his psychiatrist and almost leaves her for dead, he rescues her when she is taken from him but then lets her fall out of the back of a plane, or nearly drown in a submerged car. From what we know of him so far she is a doll he enjoys playing with until he carelessly puts her down or pops off her head. macbeth_header-620x338But what of her? Madness does not give Lady Macbeth her strength. That is not what screws her courage to the sticking place. Her own ambitious humanity does that. It is not madness that compels her or her husband to act, it is the judgment they exercise. How much more powerful then, to have madness follow her as she confronts the consequences of her actions. The alternative mythology offered to us in a movie like Suicide Squad is that madness gives you strength, that it makes you fearless in battle. Perhaps the greatest sin of the movie is to give us the notion that any squad is not a suicide squad. As Macbeth prepares young boys for battle at the beginning of his movie, he knows, they know, and we know that they will all die that day.Harley-Quinn-prisonBut I will end with Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. That, though full of problems in its own right, was the saving grace of this movie. She manages to eke out of the script something I am not sure was ever written in it: fragility. Her madness and the choices that came out of it do have some consequences for her and her toughness hides a dream of normality. “Are you God?” she asks in this shot. The fear and wonder in her eyes mirrors our poor mad Lady’s.

Ai Wei Wei and LinkedIn

August 2, 2016

Dear Reader,

LinkedIn is a startling creature, one that I have been politely nudged into taming. Essentially, one translates one’s resume into digestible pieces and then looks hopefully to more successful people for connection. Or so I feel after five episodes of Mr. Robot have turned me cynical and happy to be so. To psych myself up for updating my LinkedIn I decided to first update all my hovering social media presences. What I found in doing so was one simple thing: Ai Wei Wei makes me happy.1074559

Ai Wei Wei is also cynical, and while my cynicism has currently only fueled me to create a better Tumblr (largely featuring his past and present work) his has fueled the lift of a triumphant middle finger to the things he finds unacceptable. So it is in the spirit of Ai Wei Wei that I start writing this blog again. I don’t want to lift a middle finger to you, dear reader, although I will happily share his.Ai Wei Wei

Now if that doesn’t make you feel something again after the slog of this election (so close and yet so very far), I don’t know what will. I discovered him wandering around the Princeton grounds, where his zodiac series was resting for a while, but it wasn’t until I rediscovered them by chance just a few minutes from my office that I gave in fully. If I could have a chance encounter with such an arresting artist on a frozen November Wednesday in a place I never had any expectation of finding myself, then run into the same exact work again five minutes from where I spend every day of my workweek… you get the point.

epaselect epa04932937 Chinese artist Ai Weiwei poses for photographers during the unveiling of his new sculpture 'Forever' outside the Gherkin building in London, Britain, 16 September 2015. The sculpture consists of 1.245 bicycle frames measuring 10 meters tall by 16 meters wide. EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGAAnd then, there were the bicycles. The Third Policeman introduced me to the wonder and menace of the bicycle (read it, embrace the oddity) and Ai Wei Wei turned that wonder and menace into art and protest and optical giddiness for miles.ai-weiwei-golden-age-wallpaper-serpentine-galleries-0And as I searched for a background for my LinkedIn (the most important part, correct?) I came across the wallpaper he had designed to protest Twitter censorship. Naturally, I needed to update my Twitter aesthetics a bit. I filled Tumblr with his joyful self-portraits in the nude, plastered my Pinterest art board with his rainbow dragon creatures and the giant snakes he coils on ceilings. The background of my work computer I illuminated with his chandelier series.Images saturate my world because I am 25 and I use the internet for everything. It is easy to overload and difficult to find what is worthwhile. Ai Wei Wei doesn’t make art so that I can have something pretty to put up as my GooglePlus background, but in a world that is demanding I assert what images I find worthwhile, I am happy to choose his. And to look at this while I write to you.

Cube Light, on display on the opening day of Ai Weiwei's exhibit According to What? at the Hirshhorn Museum on Sunday, October 7, 2012 in Washington, DC.Check out Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry on Netflix. It is a great introduction to him as an artist and as an activist. There’s a great episode on him on the podcast State of the Arts and right here in Boston, at the MFA, there is an exhibition featuring his work. Check out Megacities Asia and report back. Until next time,

 

-K

Back to the Blogosphere

July 31, 2016

Dear Reader,

I’ve been away many months now trying to set up a bit of  a new life. I got a new job working in publishing, the field I have been trying to get into for a while now. I was easily swept up in the the whirlwind of a new workplace and new friends. But, for reasons both varied and frustrating my department in being laid off and relocated to the midwest. As I don’t see myself moving across the country just now, I am starting the process of looking for jobs again. And, I am going to start this blog again.

So look for the new and improved, better than ever, totally rad Person I Am Tonight. I will be writing to you soon.

 

-K