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The Last Book I Loved: Miss Anne in Harlem

Do you guys remember back in college when you’d pick up your books for a new class and the first thing you’d do is skip to the back and be thrilled to find out that 100 of the 500 pages you were expected to read were citations and bibliography? No? Just me?

miss-anne-in-harlem-jacket300wSo last night, on the train home, I found myself in the exact opposite position, eagerly anticipating the last 150  pages of Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance by Carla Kaplan, about the highly problematic, complex, fascinating lives of prominent white women in Harlem in the 20s. I was downright devastated to find instead 150 pages of index and acknowledgments. Noooooo000000000.

It is a rare piece of historical analysis, without traditional plot or suspense, that can grip a reader like that. Slow clap to Kaplan for pulling it off and making it look easy.

I was wary of Miss Anne from the title alone. Do we really need to go looking for ways that white people’s contributions to history, particularly black history, have been overlooked? Really? Those are the buried contributions we want to spend time and energy uncovering? Look! More stuff that you thought black people did but actually it was white people! And a white historian writing about and profiting off of a book about white people writing about and profiting off of black identity politics in the 20s? Are we really not going to address the irony? This book had the potential to go seriously, seriously awry.

And yet.

Oh my god, you guys, it was so good. As you might imagine, I’m a sucker for the behind-the-scenes, never-before-revealed, forgotten-by-the-sands-of-time/ignored-by-the-patriarchal-powers-that-be stories of women shaping, influencing, wielding power. This also applies to people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and other members of marginalized groups whose contributions are often painted over by a whiter, straighter, male brush. The story of Bayard Rustin is one example; a gay black activist who organized the March on Washington and is literally standing behind MLK Jr during the “I Have a Dream” speech, but whose name is often left out of the textbooks. Or all these women I read about when I was traveling Peru.

The assumption that history was built by (white, straight, rich) men, is undermined when you get into the nitty gritty of who was actually working, writing, creating. With each such story that ultimately gets told, it feels like a slow expansion of the canon, and goddamn does the canon need expanding.

That very tension between untold stories of fascinating women and appropriation of black culture is literally and intentionally the central struggle of Miss Anne and all of the women it chronicles. Kaplan selected six white women, “Miss Annes,” to illustrate the variety of roles that white women inhabited (mostly uncomfortably) during the 1920s in Harlem.

The women she picks range from writers and journalists to “philanthropists”–like Charlotte Osgood Mason, who financed significant work by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alain Locke while maintaining a dictatorial grip on their social calendars–to playwrights and poets who attempted to “capture the black experience”. Many of them thought of themselves as boundary-breakers and reached into Harlem for certain freedoms they weren’t allowed in upper middle class white society. Some of them craved the spotlight, others were content to work in obscurity (until now) on behalf of the betterment of blacks. There is no unifying thread in their experience, except for their whiteness and femaleness in a period of history mostly discussed from a black male point of view.

It was an era when primitivism ruled and white Americans took tours of “exotic” Harlem to experience the “carefree” music and dance of black dance halls. Some of the women in Miss Anne subscribed to the worst of those primitivist theories. Some of them didn’t. Race novels like Imitation of Life, Passing, and Let My People Go, grappled with the meaning of racial identity, especially when identity was not visibly obvious. The notion of “volunteering for blackness” existed in opposition to passing for white. The dueling concepts of “race pride” and “race is a useless social construction” were constantly being debated in the press, on stage, and in salons. Can you choose how you identify? What happens if it’s in conflict with how others identify you? Why is choosing blackness different than passing for white? What obligations do you owe the members of your group?

In short, it was messy as hell, and to her credit Kaplan ignores none of the mess. Thank God.

There’s only one thing I would add to Miss Anne. If you recall from writing history papers in college, the trick at the end was always to pull the past into the present with some trite sentence like, “And that is why these issues are still ones we are discussing today.” Only better than that, obviously. While Kaplan successfully draws strong lines from 1920s race and identity politics to the present day, there is one piece missing from the puzzle; Kaplan’s story herself. By opening the door to discussing her role as a white historian telling black stories and describing black experience [Note: She is considered an expert on Zora Neale Hurston], she could have added that last complicating layer to an already super complicated, delicious, multi-layered history cake.

Related Post: The last book I loved: The Flamethrowers

Related Post: The last book I loved: The Orphan Master’s Son

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The Last Book I Loved: The Flamethrowers

flameThese are my top five phrases from Rachel Kushner’s strangely compelling, difficult-to-describe, careening novel The Flamethrowers:

“We were a project, a becoming, a set of plans”

“In the way that all buried truths rushed along quietly in some hidden place”

“The important matter of small-town hair”

“Big mustaches, faces barbecued by sun and wind, suspenders framing regal paunches”

“Only a killjoy would claim neon wasn’t beautiful”

Wait, I know the word to describe Flamethrowers: incomparable, literally. I cannot compare it to anything I have ever read before. Sometimes I do a recipe-style breakdown of books–3 parts this, 1 part that, etc– but not with this one. It is no parts anything else, all parts itself. Most books I love occupy familiar space. I love them because they latch on to emotional pressure points, amplifying feelings I already have with new language and insight. SisterlandCurtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, is an example of that kind of book, that lights up pathways in my brain that I like to have lit up.

The Flamethrowers is something else entirely, mapping out new paths altogether, crafting new brain tissue out of matter that it roped in with its bizarre and unheard of magnetic force. It doesn’t fit into any of the rubrics I normally use, and for that, I loved it.

What is it about? Art? Love? Sex? Rebellion? Complacency? Mostly set in the 70s, but dipping into the past to add a little depth here and there, Flamethrowers follows an unnamed young woman (we only know her as “Reno,” so called because that’s where she’s from) who races motorcycles, falls unsuspiciously in love, works as a “China Girl” in a film studio, aspires to artistic innovation, and trips into a life more adventurous and luxurious than she really is equipped to navigate.

And holy hell, Kushner can do phenomenal things with words. I could have picked hundreds of phrases instead of the ones above that have lodged themselves under my ribs.

I also love the way she thinks; read her New Yorker profile. 

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: Orphan Master’s Son

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: The Sense of an Ending

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What I Read in 2013

I read a lot in 2013. Some combination of new proximity to my local library, an enthusiastic book club, and my first shot at the quiet and uninterrupted solitude of single-living has resulted in me cranking through the stacks at record pace.

I believe who we read is in many ways as important as what we read. Which voices do we bring into our homes and absorb into our worldviews? Are they just like us? Older? Younger? Poorer? Richer? Colorful?

Some organizations, like VIDA, formalize this count by comparing bylines by gender at major publications. Here’s how my 2013 reading list shook out:

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Included in that blue chunk in the top right were new books like Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, Junot Diaz’ This Is How You Lose Her, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, and Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanahas well as a few overlooked classics, like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. 

Not that 40 is by any means some sort of definitive line in the sand, but I think it’s interesting that most of what I read (with the notable exception of Veronica Roth’s YA Divergent trilogy) was written by real live grown-ups. You know, not 25-year-olds.

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Lastly, was any of it true? I find that, as I get older, my preference for non-fiction gets stronger. I read more journalism, less bloggery, watch more documentaries, fewer blockbusters, read more memoirs, fewer pieces of fiction. Seems like the real world is plenty full of good stories without having to make them up. Cases in point include Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Katherine Boo) and Random Family (Adrian Nicole LeBlanc). I still read a buttload of fiction, but I only expect the slice of non-fic to get fatter every year.

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So what were my favorites? Read everything I mentioned above (especially the Boo and Adichie). For wild cackling on the train, I suggest Mindy Kaling’s memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? For when you have six solid hours on the couch and you need an epic American tale, pick up East of Edenwhich I finally read and adored this year. For the quirkiest love story of the year about an autistic astronaut and his bald wife, read Lydia Netzer’s Shine, Shine, ShineTo deepen your love of great American cities, read Dan Baum’s Nine Lives (New Orleans), You Were Never in Chicago (Neil Steinberg), or Detroit (Charlie LeDuff). And when you really want to be stunned by what magic tricks a book can do, dare yourself to try Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.
 
What did you read and love in 2013, and what’s next?

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The Last Book I Loved: The Orphan Master’s Son

the-orphan-masters-sonFifty pages into Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son I was like, mom, what did you and your book club get me into? It was so bleak! The double whammy of this grim story and the rapidly-graying Chicago skies was leaving me severely depressed. She told me to stick with it, and so I did, and by the end I was crushing the last 200 pages in a solid Sunday afternoon during which I didn’t drink any water lest I have to peel myself off my couch. When I finished, I was out of breath. And I had to pee. 

The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young North Korean named Jun Do (now that I think about it, I assume that’s an intentional parallel to the English John Doe….God, this book just gets more and more brilliant.) We meet Jun in an orphanage where, as the orphan master’s son, he decides who dies by hypothermia (sleeping too far from the fire) and who dies by ingesting toxic chemicals (laboring at the paint plant). And it only gets darker.

But Johnson is a master. He holds you underwater–you and Jun Do–only as long as you can take it, and not a moment longer. When you think you have to stop, when you need to put the book down and watch Golden Girls, or go to yoga, or listen to Beyonce, he lets you–you and Jun Do–get a gasp of air before you’re shoved back under. There’s a bright spot, something spectacularly brief, but it’s enough to sustain you for the next round in the dark. It’s Jun Do on a fishing vessel realizing that the multilingual voices he hears sporadically through his radio are astronauts circling the globe every few hours.  It’s the elderly woman at the prison camp who shows him how to eat fish eggs out of live fish to stay alive in the dead of winter. It’s the sharing of a can of peaches, a last ditch attempt at dignity and self-determination.

In the second half of Orphan Master, Jun Do emerges from a prison camp with a new identity and a mission to rescue the actress Sun Moon and her children. That dunking game that Johnson is so good at speeds up, pushing you down into an underground interrogation chamber and pulling you up into the warmth of friendship and love. The pace speeds up, careening over these emotional highs and deep into the pits of despair (yes, like Princess Pride). The effect is crazy-making, exhilarating, gut-wrenching…

When it’s all over, you’ll be sitting there on your couch feeling all the feelings and even though you haven’t peed in 200 pages, you won’t want to move. Just sit. Process. Breathe. Wait for the feeling in your toes to come back and your heart rate to settle. It’ll take a minute.

Unrelatedly, have you seen these uncensored Instagrams from North Korea?

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: The Sense of an Ending

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: East of Eden

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The Last Book I Loved: The Sense of an Ending

Sense_of_an_Ending_Knopf_200Hey y’all, sorry I’ve been AWOL as of late. Much traveling (four states in four weeks), much working, much settling into the new house, excuses, excuses, excuses. Hope to be back at this blog with gusto in the coming weeks!

In the meantime, have you read The Sense of an Ending yet? If you like Ishiguro or McEwan, this slim novel by Julian Barnes is for you. Quiet, pondering, reflective, and philosophical right up until the end (when shit hits the fan like whoa), Ending is, as my friend told me when she recommended it, the perfect book to read in one sitting on a porch somewhere when you’re feeling meditative.

On the surface, it’s a story about an aging Brit looking on his life and contemplating, with the clarity of hindsight (though not as much clarity as he, or any of us, would like) his relationships, how they’ve changed, and how his feelings about them have changed. The writing is beautiful and stately and plays with big questions about cause and effect, and the affects of time and perspective on what we call “history.”

This is my favorite section. As a history major, this paragraph exploring blame is basically like intellectual porn:

“We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it’s all anarchic chaos, with the same consequence. It seems to me that there is–was–a chain of individual responsibilities, all of which were necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody can simply blame everyone else. But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”

And this subsequent conversation between adolescent students:

“History is the lies of the victors,” I replied, a little too quickly. “Yes, I was rather afraid you’d say that. Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated. Simpson?”

Colin was more prepared than me. “History is a raw onion sandwich, sir.”

“For what reason?”

“It just repeats, sir. It burps. We’ve seen it again and again this yeah. Same old story, same old oscillation between tyranny and rebellion, war and peace, prosperity and impoverishment.”

“Finn?”

“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

Ugh, and the language about time is so beautiful tooooooo:

“We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten?”

“Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”

Related Post: The last book I loved, East of Eden.

Related Post: On pairing classics with new classics. 

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S(Monday) Scraps 108

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1. THIRD COAST: Tom Dyja, author of The Third Coast, is interviewed about the Midwest, Chicago, hot dogs, etc on the Freakonomics podcast.

2. COMICS: Bill Watterson, genius behind Calvin and Hobbes, has beautifully illustrated a little life philosophy for all those twenty-somethings (or forty-somethings) trying to figure it out.

3. YEAR25: The blog Wait But Why explains with hand charts, graphs, and cartoons why we millennials are chronically dissatisfied. Yes, it’s talking about you.

4. AUTHORS: What if famous authors had instagram? #malaise #misunderstood (BuzzFeed).

5. BEYONCE: Todrick Hall has created an incredibly elaborate Cinderella parody exclusively set to Beyonce songs. It’s called…wait for it… Cinderonce.

6. CELEBS: Just for kicks, a gallery of celebrity photos from back in the day. Damn, Stephen Colbert, you were fiiiiiine.

Related Post: Sunday 107: Amanda Palmer in the nude, mermaids and workplace discrimination

Related Post: Sunday 106: Hoffman, Delaney, sex ed in Ireland

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S(Monday) Scraps 108

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1. AUTHORS: 50 places every literary fan should visit, according to Flavorwire. I’ve been to one…

2. OITNB: If you are not watching Orange is the New Black I don’t even really know what to say to you anymore. Anyway, Autostraddle has an in-depth look at the differences between the memoir and the show.

3. RACE: After Don Lemon’s awful advice to black people (pull up your pants!) Jay Smooth takes him to task on the Ill Doctrine and explains how pulling up one’s pants does diddly squat to solve institutionalized inequality.

4. PRIVILEGE: Doug Muder’s The Weekly Sift very articulately picks apart the “distress of the privilege” with examples from Pleasantville to Chick-fil-A.

5. BRAZIL: Suketu Meta (author of Maximum City) writes for the New York Review of Books about his experience traveling in the favelas of Brazil.

6. ADVICE: George Saunders, who I love, gave a stellar commencement address to Syracuse about kindness.

Related Post: Sunday 107: Millennial worry, mermaids, Amanda Palmer, etc.

Related Post: Sunday 106: Dustin Hoffman, sex education, Rob Delaney and more

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S(Monday) Scraps 106

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1. WEIGHT: How not to be a dick to your fat friends. Spot on advice from Marianne at XOJane.

2. HOLLYWOOD: This clip is old, but man is it good. Watch Dustin Hoffman have a few on-camera epiphanies while talking about dressing like a woman in Tootsie.

3. RACE: Kiese Laymon on multicultural writing, what it means to be a “real black writer,” and the state of modern publishing. For Guernica.

4. ABORTION: My second favorite dude comedian, Rob Delaney, writes for the Guardian about why he’s pro-choice.

5. SEX ED: The always excellent Marianne Cassidy on the sex education she wish she’d had (but never got, because she grew up in uber-Catholic Ireland).

6. WRITERS: Roxane Gay at The Rumpus applies the Vida test to race and publishing. Guess what percentage of NYT book reviews were of non-white writers?

Related Post: Sunday 105: Bodies that matter, old cities, tiny islands, literacy tests

Related Post: Sunday 104: Bookish pie charts, bro Venn diagrams, the Girlfriend Zone, etc.

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Everything is About Everything

A few months ago I went to hear the artist Kara Walker speak about her work. Her art is primarily about race and racism and identity in American history, and in the interview she was asked about inspiration and influence. She’s a bit of a rambler generally, and this question really got her going. She mentioned postcards she’d found of black pin-up models, advertisements playing on stereotypes about black people and watermelons, illustrations of lynchings. She was reading Huckleberry Finn at the time, and that was floating around in her brain too. Finally, frustrated by all of the things she wanted to include in her list of influences, she threw up her hands and said, “Everything is about everything!” That’s pretty much how I feel about, well, everything.

I’m having an Everything is About Everything kind of week. For me, you know you’re having an EiAE week when you encounter at least three major pieces of media from different platforms simultaneously discussing the same themes and questions. For example, I tried to draw out this week’s Everything is About Everything Map:

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Acronyms much? OKC = OkCupid, PUA = Pick-up Artists

The three anchors are:

  • Battlestar GalacticaTV show about a post-apocalyptic world in which a small band of humans are battling humanoid robots called Cylons.
  • Shine, Shine, ShineA novel by Lydia Netzer about an autistic astronaut, his pregnant wife, and the future of the human race.
  • Geekfest: How to Hack a Conversation – A presentation in my office on how to apply engineering logic and programming rules to human conversation to talk up strangers and meet new people.

None of them are asking exactly the same questions, but it all feels inextricably tangled. What makes a human a human? If a Cylon looks like a human, talks like a human, dies like a human… how is it any different? What can robots do that humans can’t? What can humans do that robots can’t?* Can we code a robot to sound exactly like a human? Can a conversation really be broken into if/then statements? Can humans use that code to have better conversations? Is that manipulative? Is it just brilliant? Does it matter if you’re filling in a “deficiency” to reduce your own anxiety vs. trying to get someone to bend to your will?

Oh, and look at that, I’m reading Mr. Penumbra now, which also adds some layers to this. Humans and robots working together. Will robots ever replace humans? WHAT. TOO MANY THINGS.  I guess I need to expand my map.

Welp,  this is about the nerdiest post I’ve written in a while. Happy Tuesday!

*According to Maxon, the astronaut in Shine, Shine, Shine, the three things robots can’t do are a) Show preference without reason (LOVE), b) Doubt rational decisions (REGRET), and c) Trust data from a previously unreliable source (FORGIVE).

Related Post: Another week where Everything was about Everything: Tigers and Grandparents

Related Post: My friend builds robots

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Sunday Scraps 103

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1. READING: Tumblr called Awesome People Reading is a bunch of pictures of awesome people reading.

2. WEALTH: The opposite of awesome people reading, I bring you Rich Kids of Instagram

3. BOOKS: Summer is the time of books! Yippee! Famous authors like Louise Erdrich and Junot Diaz reflect on their influential summers of books.

4. AUTHORS: In a fundraising pitch for charity English PEN, fifty authors have returned to their first editions to annotate and note their thoughts on those early efforts.

5. SEX APPEAL: Pin-up founding fathers from the blog Publius Esquire.

6. CHICAGO: How the housing crisis in Chicago has created a new kind of activism with the Anti-Eviction Campaign.

Related Post: Sunday 102 – Depression comics, war photos, and Rihanna’s hairstylist

Related Post: Sunday 101 – Colbert, Obama, and Lean-In Drama

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