An invitation to debate ecology, art, human development and enlightenment
The following short summaries distill what I’ve learned or thought about books, films and performances I’ve recently enjoyed. Spoilers alert.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A memoir crafted as a letter to the author’s 14-year-old son, Coates discusses what it can mean — emotionally, culturally, socioeconomically — to be a black person living in the United States. Coates points to multiple aspects of structural racism embedded in our (housing, criminal justice, financial …) system and asserts that the (American) Dream is largely an ignorant fantasy; it is the presumption that (typically “white”) individuals are entitled to prosperity without the recognition that prosperity is not equal access — indeed, U.S. prosperity has only been earned at the expense of generations of black and brown lives. Even more poignant, Coates describes the fear inherent in black existence (which often gives rise to an overcompensating, hyper-masculinity and aggression, particularly in the urban areas where Coates grew up). This fear derives from the “fragility” of black bodies, which are routinely cut down and/or disgraced by racially biased police forces and the very status quo itself. In the end, we must engage in a “beautiful struggle” in which we study and come to understand these invisible forces that impact our lives and society, learning to cope with reality rather than lose ourselves to the deception of the Dream. (9/2016)
The Cabinet of Curiosities by Preston & Child: This thriller is part of a series that tracks the fascinating activities and obsessions of FBI agent Pendergast. In this book, Pendergast must join forces with a quirky subset of New York City’s intellectual elite to solve the mystery behind mass murders carried out over a hundred years ago. In turn-of-the-century New York, prominent men of leisure – amateur scientists and world explorers – were compiling private collections of rare and titillating objects. Mammoth bones, severed heads, taxidermy, fossils, gems and mummies, displays of artifacts both real and fake became known as “cabinets of curiosities.” These cabinets would later become the bedrock for the New York Museum of Natural History. In our story, one cabinet in particular became the site of a macabre tomb for victims of a grisly, life-extinguishing surgical procedure. As similar serial killings throw present-day New York into a panic, Pendergast must face his demons and unite forces to find the killer before he meets his own demise under the knife. (5/2017)
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: One of the earliest and greatest novels in the true crime genre, Capote’s incredible journalistic feat earned him international recognition when it was first published. The book chronicles the lives of scores of people involved in the brutal murder of the Clutter family in a rural Kansas town in the 1950s. Capote peers deeply into the lives of the victims, their friends and surrounding community as well as the two killers in this deeply humanizing account of horrific, seemingly senseless and impersonal violence in America. It’s generally believed that during his research, Capote fell in love with one of the killers, a half-Irish, half-Native American man traumatized in youth and with frustrated aspirations for advanced education and a life of music, art and adventure. (9/2016)
Genius and Heroin, by Michael Largo: What does it look like when the desire to produce original work eclipses the self-preservationist instinct? This book compiles snippets about the deaths of creative geniuses with obsessive and self-destructive tendencies. What emerges are shocking but somewhat predictable patterns of human behavior:
The list is not comprehensive, and certainly not all creative geniuses die of their obsessive tendencies (not even all those profiled in Largo’s book do). Indeed, a certain level of obsession seems necessary for these folks to reach the epoch of their creative power in the first place. But after a heavy, 300-page romp through death and self-destruction, I can’t help but feel what a horrible waste it is to destroy the body in a prison of the mind. (4/2017)
The Holy Thief by William Ryan: This novel explores the psychology of low-level civil servants during the Stalinist regime as it unfolds the eery tale of murders surrounding a missing icon of the Virgin Mary. Korolev, an astute and impossibly good fortuned investigator of Soviet-era murder and mayhem, must tread carefully as he tackles a case that trespasses dangerously on political territory. The truth behind the unfortunate demise by unspeakable torture of an American nun cannot be a simple black-and-white, whodunit matter; in fact, the very notion of truth itself is suffering greatly under the Stalinist regime:
“Being a good communist these days was like following an arbitrary God who required you to believe that white was white one day and black the next. It only made sense if you remembered that the country was surrounded by enemies who were terrified by its very existence. Faced with such implacable foes, sometimes the Party took steps which seemed at odds with its long-term historical destiny. That could be confusing for ordinary workers like Korolev and Semionov, but everyone knew the Party had to keep going forward, no matter what the cost. Korolev believed in the Party line absolutely, even if it required a leap of faith to do so from time to time. After all, unity was as important as truth sometimes – you learned that in the trenches, if nothing else.” (Chapter 9)
George Orwell and his concept of “doublethink” haunts this novel. Korolev, amid his honest appraisal of the abysmal living conditions and morally bankrupt institutions governing society, manages to maintain the simultaneous view that progress is eminent and the Soviet utopia is on the horizon. The protagonist’s relentless naiveté, paired with his upstanding approach to criminal investigation in a world of political arrest quotas and prison sentences for thought crime, becomes surprisingly sympathetic; optimism is a mechanism for survival, it seems, an antidote to despair and crippling paranoia. (3/2017)
I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid: An unreliable narrator takes us on a reality-distorting jaunt through a disturbed psyche. As an unnamed girlfriend struggles with the question of should she “end things” with her boyfriend, we’re made to consider the very purpose of relationships to begin with. Is it possible to achieve happiness in a near-complete and unending solitude? Does the significance of your life depend on your connection with others? This is a novel of questions, and one in particular. And if the conclusion of the story is any indicator, some questions are best left unanswered. (5/2017)
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead: A thought-provoking novel that suggests that however absurd it may seem in the day-to-day reality of oppression, racial progress is always just on the horizon. By striving to imagine and bring about a more perfect world – and not continuing to prop up the status quo – we can liberate our society from the profound gravity of persecution. The main character, Lila Mae Watson, is living in an alternate reality in 1950’s New York. Hers is a pre-civil rights society structured around guilds of vertical transport specialists. Watson, a black female elevator inspector, has broken the glass ceiling in an industry with “undeniable macho cache.” After one of the elevators under her purview suffers a catastrophic failure and the establishment is on the hunt for someone to blame, Watson must navigate the dangerous culture clash between traditional Empiricist inspectors and the up-and-coming Intuitionists (of which she is one) in order to find the truth. It’s by peering more deeply into Intuitionism and the veiled world of its founder that Watson realizes the secret to hope and progress.
And how do we reach “the second elevation” and the perfection of our cities, the apotheosis of our struggle for justice? It appears to me the author suggests our success has less to do with changing hearts and minds. Instead we might achieve uplift via the banalities of competition and innovation in a capitalist society. (2/2017)
Mindfulness Meditation Made Simple by Charles Francis: This straight-talking guide to spiritual development makes ancient wisdom accessible and relevant. In addition to prescribing a very specific regimen of sitting, walking and writing meditation, Francis describes how to make mindfulness a part of everyday life. In short, we walk the path to enlightenment by incorporating the “Three Jewels” of Buddhism into our life: the Buddha (your understanding and embodiment of wisdom), the Dharma (your use of proper meditation and mindfulness techniques) and the Sangha (your participation in a spiritual community). From losing weight to volunteering in your community, mindfulness training is a practical method for achieving better health, greater insight and inner peace. (5/2017)
The President and the Assassin by Scott Miller: This engaging work of history delves into important sociocultural and economic trends that shaped the United States at the turn of the 20th century, especially those trends that culminated in the assassination of a very popular president, William McKinley, by the renegade anarchist Leon Czolgosz. This was a period of ascent for the American empire, an empire not built solely on the accumulation of colonial territories (although the acquisition of Hawaii through annexation and Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba and the Philippines through the spoils of war with Spain helped the imperial cause). Instead, the idea of world domination through commanding economic performance was becoming the eagerly anticipated next phase of American “manifest destiny.” Furthermore, US factories were producing goods at such a fantastic rate, they’d saturated the domestic market and desperately needed to export. At the other end of the macro/micro economic spectrum, an exploited labor class was continually forced to suffer inadequate wages, dangerous working conditions, child labor, capricious layoffs and wage cuts and more. A labor movement was gathering steam through strikes and demonstrations, and the radical message put forth by anarchists like Albert Parsons and Emma Goldman also galvanized thousands among the frustrated lower classes. With appearances by such notables as Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, pacifier of the Philippines (and future president) Howard Taft, a feisty war-mongering Teddy Roosevelt (who took the reins after McKinley’s assassination and brokered a deal to construct the Panama Canal by supporting Panamanian separatists in declaring independence from Colombia) and more, this book offers an entertaining and broad understanding of where we are today based on the currents of American confidence and domination that began just over 100 years ago. (1/2017)
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson: A flamboyant counterpoint to self-help staples like positive thinking and affirmations, Manson tells his readers to cut the bullshit and take responsibility for their lives. First, recognize that suffering is inevitable; you will always have problems. Know that suffering occurs because of friction with your values: You value perfect health so getting sick really drags you down; You value happy relationships so conflict grinds your gears. People seldom identify let alone critique their own value systems, but do so and you recognize that some of your values do more harm than good. If you care a lot about what other people think (or you have some other value that is dependent on people or circumstances you can’t control), then your value system is messed up and you should change it. Instill better values and you start to confront “better” problems. Commit to your values over the long haul and your life has meaning. Because if you must suffer and eventually die anyway, you might as well suffer for something noble and important. And as for the inevitable conflicts, the detractors, the setbacks … who gives a fuck? (9/2016)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: An ambitious catalog of the evils committed against African Americans, especially during pre-Civil War America, as witnessed by a runaway slave named Cora. In a controversial example of artistic license, Whitehead re-imagines the underground railroad as an actual subterranean engineering feat – a set of railroad tracks and locomotives secretly conveying hunted passengers to safer havens across the United States. We watch as Cora traverses plantation life in Georgia, a tenuous freeman community in South Carolina (marred by compelled sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments), weekly blackface minstrel shows followed by a lynching in North Carolina, and an ill-fated agrarian paradise for freed blacks, abolitionist intellectuals and runaways in Indiana. Each state represents a different historical phenomenon in America’s dark past, and Cora must pass through each in her desperate bid to escape the notorious slave catcher Ridgeway. Cora herself is a survivor: a no-nonsense woman who endures tremendous loss and suffering without the pacifying comforts of a spiritual conviction. On the contrary, her life has taught her that poetry and religion alike risk blinding one to the dangers of the ruthless machinations of a cruel and violent world. The Underground Railroad allows us a glimpse into the mind of an eminently normal human being who is so consumed with the struggle to survive that she never quite realizes the opportunity to truly live. (2/2017)
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield: This self-help book for creative types comes in three parts: defining the enemy, turning pro, and the higher realm. Pressfield identifies “resistance” as the enemy of all creatives. An artist may resist the urge to paint, and a writer may resist the urge to write… Resistance may be excuses, familial obligations, self-doubt or any other impulse that draws you away from your creative journey. It might spring forth from evolution, as the creative urge is typically individualist, and individualism runs counter to thousands of years of tribe-mind mental programming. And yet, resistance has become an impulse toward self-annihilation, a kind of psychic death (Pressfield even suggests that it may cause cancer). Defeating resistance requires becoming a professional (Book Two).
A professional starts from a passionate love of their craft and then quickly gets down to business. A professional requires an organized area to work every day, and he doesn’t shirk the real-world concerns of getting an accountant, a lawyer, an agent. The work area becomes your creative territory – the place where you look within and remember who you are and why you’re here. A professional also manages their time differently: the vocation comes first, and urgent life matters come second. A professional doesn’t shirk from the misery they might encounter on their journey. A lofty purpose makes any amount of misery manageable. And furthermore, a professional doesn’t over-identify with the work, nor does he pander to his audience (a hack does). Pressfield believes in an otherworldly source of all creativity, so the creative person is really just a conduit and the work itself belongs to this higher realm (Book Three). Interestingly, Pressfield never addresses the process of deciding on a vocation amid competing interests (Should I be a scientist or an artist? Can I be both?). Instead, he believes that everyone’s calling is innate, embedded in us from this higher realm from which all inspiration emanates. (4/2017)
Elle directed by Paul Verhoeven: This unflinching French film explores our fear of the darkness embedded in humanity – the evils we are capable of committing and inviting into our lives – and the hatred and shame that accompany this fear. Verhoeven’s film has been called “daring” for portraying a strong, intelligent and career-driven woman seemingly carrying on a relationship with a man who brutally raped her. In fact, Elle’s involvement with her rapist tragically makes sense in the context of her shattered childhood and her complex and amoral decisions as an adult; she’s having an affair with the husband of her best friend/business partner, and she’s a big player in a competitive videogame industry that thrives off the fetishization of violence against women. Elle manages to be both complex and unfathomable at first glance while also being painfully consistent in the core of her outlook and behavior. Her glib flirtation with self-destruction highlights the ambivalence she feels about her role in the horrors committed by her father. To paraphrase her exquisite French, “Shame is not a powerful emotion. It rarely influences what we do.” Indeed, much more powerful emotions are at work in Elle. (1/2017)
Gifted, directed by Marc Webb: This touching story follows a child math prodigy and her relationship with her uncle/guardian (Chris Evans). After her mother, another math prodigy of some renown, takes her own life, the girl’s uncle steps in to raise the child. He’s determined to give her a life that won’t produce the self-annihilating angst that destroyed her mother. This plan goes awry when the child’s grandmother sues for custody. The grandmother’s strict and obsessive focus on mathematical excellence seems to have been at the root of her daughter’s suicide, but she’s determined to try again with her granddaughter. The film explores what it might look like to find a balance between childhood and intellectual superstardom. (5/2017)
I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Peck: The perfect compliment to Ta Nehisi-Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, this searing documentary engages the life and thought of African-American writer James Baldwin as he witnessed the violence surrounding the civil rights movement in America. We explore the adversity and eventual murders of notables like Malcolm X, Medgar Evers (NAACP) and Martin Luther King, Jr. in their fight for a more equitable world. This struggle unfolds in a climate of institutional and cultural racism based on segregation and ignorance of the “other” (the complete lack of knowledge about how the other half lives) and the necessity to dehumanize an exploited class of cheap labor. With clips from popular media of the era as well as Black Lives Matter protests today, the barely recognizable voice of Samuel L. Jackson suggests a complex moral argument that the white ruling class must wake up from their simplistic fixation on material wealth and progress to take an honest look at the conditions that have always made their cultural and economic ascension possible. This important work, of course, must coincide with renewed efforts to counteract modern day segregation and finally acknowledge the human dignity of the continuing black struggle. (2/2017)
Jackie directed by Pablo Larraín: This film explores the immediate aftermath of the JFK assassination from the perspective of the president’s wife, “Jackie” Kennedy. The film meditates on two themes, I think: grief, of course, and powerlessness. The first theme is rather obvious, but immediately piercing and moving (from the very first frame, in my opinion) thanks to Natalie Portman’s spectacular portrayal of the first lady in crisis. Interestingly, the relationship between Jackie and her husband is not explored in great depth, so the audience must grasp for meaning to contextualize how we see her behaving in her grief. This confusion, I think, in effect does an even more effective job at allowing us to better empathize with the grieving experience. Even Jackie, it seems, is bewildered by the complex and not altogether happy or unhappy relationship she shared with JFK.
Jackie is powerlessness not only in the implacable face of death and unfathomable violence, but we also see her powerless in the socio-political context of government intrigue and patriarchy. Her attempts to outfit the White House with historic American artifacts are dismissed as budget-wasting vanity projects. Her great beauty is made an excuse to downplay her intelligence and label her as little more than a “debutant.” Throughout the film we see her attempts to empower herself by taking command of her story. Again and again, the film questions the existence of a determinable “Truth.” Really, there is no such thing as a truth that encompasses the full reality of complex events and emotions … or there certainly is no such truth that a mass audience can digest. Instead we have stories, and as Jackie implies in the film, it’s the writers of history who often have the last say. Working with a prominent journalist (played by Billy Crudup), Jackie makes a bold final attempt to take command of her own life by putting forth her own story. (1/2017)
Manchester by the Sea directed by Kenneth Lonergan: A film about how tragedy, grief and guilt can transform a fun-loving family man into a pugilistic recluse, as well as the power of youth and innocence to pierce through a nearly unrelenting gloom. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a Massachusetts native who lost his family after a tragic mistake, must return to those painfully familiar, close-knit neighborhoods where the unthinkable occurred to pick up the pieces following his brother’s sudden death. Haunted by memories and treated with extreme prejudice by some locals aware of his dark past, Chandler is further shocked to learn that his brother intended him to serve as his nephew’s legal guardian. Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges), a plucky 16-year-old with charm, friends, and girlfriends to spare, may be the last thread of hope preventing his estranged uncle from surrendering completely to the dark void of despair. (1/2017)
Neruda directed by Pablo Larraín: This film follows a young, idealistic police officer and his attempt, on behalf of an oppressive government regime, to capture the popular and illustrious Chilean senator, poet and communist agitator Pablo Neruda. We see how the pursued dissident blisters in the confinement of safe house after safe house, how he compulsively seeks out booze and naked parties and gratuitous allusions to his talent and self-importance. We see his great rotund belly, incongruous next to the sleek sexiness of undressed women half his age. We see him, obstinate and ungrateful toward those who risk their lives and freedom to help him. And yet, amidst this stark and unflattering portrait of a man who truly did care for the suffering of his people, we see the immense power of an artist dedicated to his craft. This power can create movements, uplift hearts, and even give life, meaning and beauty to a humble policeman whose mission is futile. (2/2017)
Paterson directed by Jim Jarmusch: This superb example of “slice of life” art follows a young bus driver and his artistic girlfriend over the course of a week in Paterson, New Jersey. The bus driver is also named Paterson, which invites some easy comparisons between this kind-hearted, soft-spoken poet and a quiet town that gave rise to such literary and cultural luminaries as William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg and more. Visually, the film revolves around a meditative, atmospheric exploration of the town and glimpses of its eclectic residents (including surprising, even mystical numbers of twin siblings) as well as intense close-up shots of everyday objects – a glass of beer, a bowl of cereal, a matchbox. Like Paterson’s poetry, these objects are cast in a new light by the searching, emotional tenor of the main characters. The matchbox turns into a love poem. A glance toward a street corner becomes an ode to gratitude. Recurring references to the town’s illustrious former residents cast our titular character’s extreme modesty in sharp relief; we’re left with a conviction that there’s actually greatness in his modest life, and there’s immense beauty in the mundane. (2/2017)
Toni Erdmann directed by Maren Ade: This German-Austrian film seems to sell itself as a comedy, but instead delivers a deep character study of a driven career woman pushed over the edge of sanity by her job, her lifestyle and a meddling, eccentric father who’s trying to bridge the chasm between them. Ines works as a consultant to an oil firm in Romania; her current aim is to formulate a plan for her client to outsource their operations elsewhere with minimal public relations fallout, especially from the communities set to be harmed by the transition. Aware of the moral issues inherent in her work, Ines seems resigned to the status quo, rather than oblivious to the human cost of her work like her male peers. Indeed, resignation pervades every aspect of Ines’ lifestyle, from her empty sexual tryst with a coworker, to her vapid female friendships and the relentless sexism of her industry. Her father Winfried, reeling from the death of his beloved dog, decides to try and bridge the yawning gap between them by surprising Ines in Romania. Apart from learning more about his daughter, Winfried also seems intent on inserting a bit more whimsy and fun into his daughter’s life by assuming his alter ego, Toni Erdmann. The pair barely communicate, but the words they exchange go deep. Winfried wants to know what his daughter is living for, but Ines dismisses the question impatiently and demands that her father answer it first. He can’t. As the stress of her work and her father’s intrusions drive Ines to the breaking point and beyond, what’s on the other side is a tenderness and humanity that was previously unattainable. Toni Erdmann reminds us that the meaning of life might not reside in our ability to get things done, but in those subtle precious moments of human connection. (2/2017)
Margaret Glaspy at High Watt in Nashville: This powerful show paired daring and emotional vocals with magnetic melodies for a spectacular night of original music (and a couple covers). Glaspy is not afraid to growl, to pant and to huff her bittersweet lyrics about an independent woman with mixed ideas about romance, mostly to good effect. With her eyes closed and body swaying a white electric Danocaster guitar, she seems to hypnotize herself onstage. Coming up for air, she rarely engages the audience and seems a bit uncomfortable doing so, until a quirky coincidence (an audience member yells “Save the puffin!” between numbers, and she shares her knowledge of Icelandic puffin-eating and her personal preference for the gluten-free cereal) seems to break the wall of vulnerable indifference, if just for a moment. Glaspy’s music has power and heft, and she rarely holds back even when her exhortations seem strained or incongruous with the song (to this untrained ear). If there’s any justice in the music industry, her art will continue to develop and she will go far.
Distinct from but complementary to Glaspy’s no-holds-barred delivery, her opening act Bad Bad Hats embodied the sing-songy pop melodies of infectious Indie rock. Front woman Kerry Alexander enchanted the audience with cute asides about all manner of quirky experiences, including a time when, working as a barista, she mistook the word “couple” for a range of quantities, including but not necessarily equal to 2. Oh, the shame! Bad Bad Hats delighted their audience without challenging them like Glaspy. Their nineties rock sensibility cuts to the quick of this nostalgic millennial. (2/3/2017)
Lauryn Hill at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville: Ms. Hill’s lightning performance had at least two distinct phases: the first, what felt like a natural evolution of her political and artistic preferences, and second, a powerful return to Fugees and Miseducation classics. Out the gate, an eight-plus piece band pounded out Afro and Afro-Caribbean beats with impeccable execution and style, while Hill warped hit songs like “Everything is Everything” into the new paradigm. As Hill rapped her lyrics at an incredible speed, I oscillated between thinking she was at her authentic, creative apex and thinking she was rushing. Those characteristic Lauryn Hill runs were still there, only abbreviated. Still, prowess and supreme command over all aspects of the performance was eminent. Ms. Hill creates an impression of exacting control; she knows exactly what she wants ahead of time and has the skill to execute it precisely. On the one hand, this makes for a truly arresting, virtuosic performance. On the other, one could be excused for wishing the reigns would loosen a bit to afford the thrill of artistic spontaneity. As the second set wound up, Hill slowly edged her way into the climax of the night, proclaiming our collective march to Zion. Her ageless, inimitable voice careened back into 90s soul and my mind completely melted into disbelief, awe and ecstasy at her unearthly mastery. (2/9/2017)