movie: Hemingway (2021)

Obviously I was interested in the new documentary from PBS titled simply Hemingway, and appearing in three episodes totaling just shy of six hours. I’ve read a dozen or so Hemingway biographies and almost all of his fiction and nonfiction, much of it repeatedly. Let’s say I’m a fairly serious Hem scholar for an amateur. But it’s also been a few years. This counted therefore as a good check-in and test of my continuing interest.

I think Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and their team did a good job with the nuance and contradictions, the good and the bad, of this intriguing man, his life and his work. This doc isn’t just about his writing or about the man, but both at once, back and forth, because they’re inextricable. Hem was a truly extraordinary talent, a genius; he was also a bully and a jerk in many ways; he could also, apparently, be a lovely person some of the time. He had an unfortunate tendency to be cruelest to those who most helped him. He profoundly and undeniably changed writing in the English language. He was a very ill man late in his life, in terms of his mental health. And that life was full to brimming of wildly improbable stories (two plane crashes in a row?). He was larger than life, by several measures, and so it’s a hard life to write about. And it’s easy to say (because it’s true) that he was the genius, or the asshole; but it’s harder to say that he was many contradictory things at once. This production handles it very well, in my opinion.

Hemingway constructed his myth, to a large degree, and he made the mistake that all mythmakers do: he thought that he could control it. And there comes a time that you can’t anymore. It’s taken on a life of its own. It became very exhausting to be Hemingway, the Hemingway that the public thought, and let’s face it, when he was in the public he was always in the public eye. And people expected Hemingway to be Hemingway.

–Michael Katakis

The film is packed with still images of Hemingway and the characters surrounding him; his original works; and (more limited) archival footage. It relies heavily on his own work. And it includes interviews with other writers (Tim O’Brien, Abraham Verghese, Mary Karr, Edna O’Brien, Mario Vargas Llosa, Tobias Wolff); Hem’s middle son, Patrick; John McCain (a surprise, but he made some meaningful contributions); and biographers and scholars including Mary Dearborn, Paul Hendrickson, and Michael Katakis, manager of Hemingway’s literary estate.

Even in six hours of close study, I was left feeling like this was an abridgement – and of course it is, when so many (different) biographies have been written, which would take much longer than six hours to take in. That’s the Hemingway nerd talking. It’s impressive what they do accomplish in this time (which of course would be plenty for most viewers). It gives a very thorough introduction to a complicated life. I think the only new-to-me information I noticed was the extent to which the Kansas City Star‘s style sheet prescribed what we think of as the Hemingway style: short, declarative sentences, few adjectives. I loved spending time again with the four women who married this man. They’re so different from each other, fascinating, and strong characters themselves.

He weighs about 200 pounds, and he is even better than those photographs. The effect upon women is such that they want to go right out and get him, and bring him home, stuffed.

–Dorothy Parker

In the end I found this a nicely balanced representation, which shares my view that Hem was both superlatively talented and also deeply, awfully flawed. His work and his life fascinate me no less than ever, and that’s really saying something. I do recommend this documentary, which you can stream online for free here.


Rating: 8 strings above the toilet.

movie: 17 Blocks (2019)

A filmmaker meets two brothers – Emmanuel, 9, and Smurf, 15 – at a pickup basketball game in southeast Washington, D.C. They strike up a friendship. Film footage from the following twenty years, shot by both filmmaker and the family members themselves, eventually yields this documentary: 17 Blocks, in reference to the distance between the Sanford family home (at the film’s opening) and the nation’s capitol building. Count that as a not-completely-subtle cue to consider certain contrasts.

The Sanfords and Durants are poor and Black and plagued by social ills including addiction, gun violence, and incarceration. They live through terrible tragedy. Their lives are presented here seemingly unmediated: they speak directly to the camera; raw footage is edited together. (All narratives are mediated, of course. And it’s worth nodding to the feat of culling 1,000 hours of footage to create such an intelligent narrative in 90-something minutes.) There is plenty of opportunity to think through larger issues, beginning with the commentary implied by the title. What is most horrifying about this movie is the pain in the lives of the Sanfords; what is perhaps even more horrifying is that they are representative of so many lives, that their pain is so common.

There’s a quite good review over at Rogerebert.com (although it gets the Sanford kids’ birth order wrong), to which I’ll refer you for a deeper look; reviewer Matt Zoller Seitz makes some good points that I agree with about why the film is excellent, as well as a few mild criticisms. I appreciate his point that the film “probably doesn’t push hard enough against reactionary, Puritan, possibly racist readings of the Sanford family’s misery as it should have.” He also warns viewers of how hard 17 Blocks is to watch, and he’s right: it’s awful, discomfiting stuff, and the discomfort one feels watching it is only appropriate and reasonable. There’s another layer for me, though, too. The first half or so felt awfully close to ‘poverty porn’ (a term I may have first learned when I first started to get to know Appalachia). The problem is that in order to recognize problems in communities, in systems, we have to look at people’s suffering. But there’s something inherently problematic about the looking at – something voyeuristic – that’s discomfiting in a different way. I haven’t quite sorted my feelings about this. Possibly, if we are to make a movie of the Sanfords’ lives and look at it like this, we have a responsibility to work harder to do the work Seitz mentions, the pushing back, “in order to guard it more righteously against bad faith interpretations.” I’m not sure. This is not properly a criticism I’m offering, but a question. Also, it is very relevant that Sanford matriarch Cheryl was an active part of the production and promotion of the movie; the family is on board and involved, which we should keep in mind in considering the complicated situation with this (white) filmmaker and any potential question of exploitation.

I don’t know. But I do know that the film is artful, wrenching, visually intriguing and deeply affecting, and I’ll be thinking about it for some time. If you check it out, please let me know what you think.


Rating: 7 t-shirts.

movie: Escher: Journey Into Infinity (2018)

I had left Italy. I lost the Italian landscape and architecture and something else had to take its place. This stimulated the formation of inner images. I started working with passion when I discovered that I had things of my own that had to come out, that I could express something others don’t have.

What a beautiful, completely absorbing and eventually transcendent film. For starters, something like Fantastic Fungi, there is such a rich body of work in the weird world of M.C. Escher that any proper documentary should turn out to be visually stunning, and this one does the job properly. I loved the animations of his prints, which it turns out he’d imagined happening. (There was a moment when a tessellated lizard clicked, came to life, and clambered out of its print. Hops lost his shit.) What I didn’t see coming was such a fascinating life – I’d known nothing of Escher the man, I guess, and in fact hadn’t realized how recently he lived and worked, and therefore how World War II and the rise of fascism had affected his life. I had not expected Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills and Nash) to be onscreen early, telling the amusing story of Escher’s claiming he was a mathematician and not an artist at all. The Escher that emerges here is grumpy and flummoxed by the hippies’ interest in his work, and their annoying tendency to colorize his black-and-whites with such bright hues. His eldest son is there too, describing (chillingly) how the family chose to leave Italy 1935 after the son (as a small child) showed a disturbing interest in playing the baby fascist. This whole story was fascinating, whimsical, frequently funny and also pathos-ridden.

I appreciated Escher the romantic (in his relationship with his wife), the curmudgeon, and the tortured artist:

What I can say is that no print ever succeeds. They all fail. Simply because I always pursue a vision that cannot be realized… my prints, none of which were every made with the primary aim of making something beautiful, simply cause me headaches… that is the reason that I never feel fully at home among my colleagues. They pursue beauty first and foremost. Perhaps I only pursue wonder.

And this film was simply mind-blowing. The music, the diegetic sound, the still photography, the video of landscapes and architectures referred to in Escher’s work, the animations from his work, the delightfully performed narration (“told in his own words from hundreds of letters, diaries and notes”) by Stephen Fry – it all came together for a very special experience. I’m so glad my parents clued me in. (This has inspired purchase of an Escher art book, so stay tuned for more reviews. Always more.) Definitely recommended.


Rating: 9 steps.

in memoriam: Sharon Kay Penman

I was sad this morning to read that we have lost Sharon Kay Penman, one of my favorite authors of deeply researched historical fiction, who published her first book the year I was born. She died last Friday at age 75. Thank you to Shelf Awareness for this obit note. I’ve reviewed five of her books here, and read a handful more, and I’m just grateful that there are more of her books I hadn’t gotten to yet – and they’re big, fat ones, too. But I’m sorry she won’t be writing any more. Thank you, Ms. Penman, for The Reckoning in particular. It has helped to shape this blog, and my appreciation for the blurry middle space between fiction and nonfiction, where I often live.

2020: A Year in Review

Here comes my traditional year’s-end wrap-up post; you can see past years in review here. In case you missed it, check out as well my best of the year post from Monday. Welcome to 2021! Let’s hope it’s a better one.

In 2020, I read 103 books, and I cannot remember them all now – this year has been years long, hasn’t it? (Say it again.) My blog turned ten years old in October – that is certainly a milestone. In 2019, I read 88 books, so I’ve managed to go a little further this year, although it’s not my old average of 150!

Of the books I read this year:

  • Only 36% were nonfiction (last year I read 55% nonfiction). 6% were poetry, though, which is a small but significant (new) piece of the pie. I think my need for escape accounts for the unusually large proportion of fiction that I read in this extraordinary year.
  • 46% were written by female authors (41% last year); 51% were by men (59% last year), with the remainder being collections by multiple authors, or variously unidentifiable, or other. I’m getting closer to evening out that number…
  • Of the fiction I read, I labeled 23% as contemporary, 23% historical, 18% mystery, and 10% thriller; I used that silly “misc fiction” genre for 23%. I also labeled a handful as alternative history, fantasy, horror, mythology, noir, romance, scifi, short stories, western, YA and/or LBGTQ. (I sometimes put a single book in multiple genres.) Last year, 25% were contemporary, 22% historical, 18% mysteries, and a whopping 23% were sci fi. (That was all The Expanse, which I did not indulge in so much this year – mostly because I’ve read most of them already.)
  • In 2020, 17% of the books I “read” were audiobooks. This is perhaps the most surprising number, because I spent nine months of 2019 in my van, and commute times have been infinitesimal in 2020 – I thought the audiobooks would have dropped off, but 2019’s number was just shy of 20%, so there’s been little change. I did drive to Texas and back this summer…
  • In perhaps the greatest victory, this year 58% of my reading was for pleasure! and just 40% for paid reviews. Last year it was 36% pleasure and 51% reviews. This is the first time since I started tracking reasons that ‘pleasure’ has made a majority of my reading – the largest chunk has always been either reviews or school. (And I do have a good deal of control, in both those cases. But *pure* pleasure is a different question.)
  • I checked out 13% of the books I read from the library (not much of that in 2019 – again, see vanlife). I purchased 45%, and 40% were sent to me for reviews. (Last year I was sent 54% for reviews, and purchased 24%.)
  • I reread three books this year – same number as last.
  • A new feature of 2020 was my foray into e-books, forced by the pandemic, which saw publishers all but cease sending out print galleys and ARCs. I bought a Kindle. This year, 37% of the books I read were e-books – a shocking and entirely new number. (Those were virtually all my reviews, plus a couple of library books. I haven’t purchased an e-book yet, and I hope not to.) There are some convenience factors (I like an e-book for reading in bed), but I really miss print ARCs, which I fear are gone for good.

Also new for this year I tracked authors’ race, because I hope to make an effort to not read all white dudes, and when they are (known to be) queer. These are imperfect measures (like the gender question), because I don’t always know, or it requires that I judge somebody’s race (which is a social construct), but it’s an effort that I can keep tweaking. So –

  • This year, 17% of the books I read were authored by Black writers; 9% I marked other or unknown, and fully 75% were white. I’ll have to work on this one.
  • And 10% of the books I read were authored by people who identify publicly as queer. Obviously I could be (probably am) missing some, but I chose not to go poking in their lives; instead I took the easily accessed public persona (generally involving back-of-book blurbs and/or related to the subject matter of their books).

How to track these things? Should we? (Clearly I am answering yes at present. Should we ever get to a place where access to the publishing world is completely independent of author identity, maybe we’ll stop.)

So, 2020 was a weird one, right? From my last year-in-review: “Heading into 2020, I can just imagine that we’ll have another drastically different year, with teaching a literature course – surely this will suck up much of my reading time? – and the at-present-total-unknown second half of that year… All I can say is stick around and we’ll all find out together what the heck I’m doing. Thanks for bearing with me through all the surprises!!” Ha ha ha… what a wild ride it’s been. I’m just glad we’ve made it this far.

Even I am a little overwhelmed by all these numbers; I wonder how many of my readers care! Thanks for sticking around, if you have. I find it useful and instructive to watch these figures change over the years, even if I write this yearly post just for myself. Monday we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled programming. Thanks so much for being here, folks. I wish you a safe, healthy, and rewarding 2021, in your reading and beyond.

best of 2020: year’s end

My year-in-review post will be up on Friday, with reading stats. But first, as usual, I want to share the list of my favorite things I read this year. (You can see past years’ best-of lists at this tag.)

To state the obvious, this year has been different from those that have come before. Every year something’s different: I started an MFA program, finished an MFA program, moved across the country, back again, into a van and then to a new state, started teaching college, etc. This year has seen upheaval and pain and tragedy nationally and globally, and that probably skewed my preferences and ratings some: I gravitated somewhat toward fiction that took me away, even when that fiction handled heavy themes. It’s also worth noting that personally, while I saw some difficulties this year (a serious bike wreck, and the challenge of teaching online), I’m in a fairly good place. I’m still really in love with my new home in West Virginia. And the trails group I’m a part of here has had a banner year of fundraising, land acquisition, trail maintenance and the building of new trails. I’m thrilled to be riding and working with such a great group and in such a cool landscape. The larger world is distressing. My small one here has been fairly good. My reading feels like it reflects that dichotomy some.

With no further ado, back to the business at hand: some of my favorite reading of the year. I’ve divided these into a few tiers, and mentioned some narratives I encountered outside of books that I loved, too. And as is tradition, please also check out Shelf Awareness’s best-of-the-year list here, too (with a couple of titles in common with my own, naturally!).

My two favorite books this year were both novels, and both new publications:

First honorable mentions:

Next round honorable mentions:

Other special mentions outside the world of books:

  • The Wire – television series
  • Shameless – television series
  • The Red Line – television series
  • Orphan Black – television series
  • “Seeing White” on Scene on Radio – podcast
  • The Dark Divide – movie

And a few charities close to my heart just now:

  • the usual suspects: Planned Parenthood in TX and WV, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, and various BLM chapters
  • BINC
  • Nuçi’s Space
  • and the Black Student Union at my own West Virginia Wesleyan College.

Whew. That was a lot of content. I think it’s a good thing that I had so much good stuff I appreciated to share with you. It’s always interesting putting this list together. While I give books a numerical rating when I review them, I don’t do this best-of-the-year list based off those numbers; I try and go back and review the ratings but observe which titles stuck with me over time. (So the books read in the last month or so don’t get the same kind of cooling-off period that earlier reads too. It’s not a perfect system.) I think it reflects patterns not only in my reading but in my thinking. These are the books (etc.) that have proved most memorable over time. I hope you find something here to appreciate, too.

See you Friday with those statistics. I hope you read something awesome this week.

movie: Roald Dahl’s The Witches (2020)

I recently assigned my Comp I class a book, movie, or television review, and then went looking online for examples of movie and TV show reviews, since I don’t so much specialize in those. I came across a review of a new production of one of my favorite childhood reads: Roald Dahl’s The Witches. (Dahl remains a favorite.) The TV channel who *exclusively* owns this movie offers a free trial, so off I went.

This version blends live-action and special effects to land in a place that is visually rich and simple at the same time. It’s rather beautiful (and often horrifying), but a little cartoonish. Anne Hathaway is the Grand High Witch, Octavia Spencer is Grandma, and Chris Rock narrates as the voice of the older version of the Boy; the Boy himself is played by Jahzir Bruno. The Grand High Witch has a vaguely Germanic accent (nope, wrong again). I found this movie visually pleasing, scary in all the right places, and generally a good, nostalgic return to the novel that I grew up with and loved so much. It matches the book fairly closely, with only a few variations. The pet mice from the book here become a single mouse with a backstory that the novel did not supply. And I regret that they cut the logical argument about (spoiler here; highlight to read white text) the fact that the witch-mice will be twice as dangerous as they were in womanly form, and thus will need to be swiftly dealt with as they were in the hotel, but I guess no one will miss that who doesn’t remember the novel. (The 1990 film version, which I have not seen, changed the ending. That, I don’t think I could forgive.)

What I most missed is one of my favorite details from the novel, although I think I may give it more significance than Dahl necessarily intended: all the ways that witches can disappear children, with examples, as told early in the story by Grandmother. I guess it would have been hard to put that in to a film version, and we get a parallel story instead, that of Grandma’s childhood friend Alice. It’s something I missed, though.

This film does bring race into the story in a way (as far as I know) entirely new to Dahl’s work, and I dug it. It’s just a bit under the surface, but the boy and his grandmother are Black, living in Alabama in the late 1960s, and the fancy seaside resort where they go to stay (and then encounter the massive coven of witches) is a former plantation. They are reminded that perhaps they don’t belong there – for class reasons, of course. The film makes no more of this, but there’s plenty to sit with, anyway.

Perhaps not a masterpiece of film, but a fine story to sink into for an evening. Good for nostalgia; makes me want to go back and read some Dahl all over again. I think I’d started with The BFG.


Rating: 6 drops.

movie: The Dark Divide (2020)

Click that beautiful image to enlarge. Go ahead. Isn’t it lovely?

This film is definitely visually pleasing, but that’s not all it has to offer. The Dark Divide is based on a Robert Michael Pyle book, Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide. I have not read this book, but I have it on my shelf, and I know that I appreciate Bob Pyle’s writing. (Small disclosure, I guess: I’ve met Bob a few times.) A film based on a memoir by a writer I admire is always a solid bet. Plus, a small part is played by somebody else I admire.

Patterson Hood is more or less as niche as Bob Pyle, I guess, and it’s just downright fun that they’ve ended up in a project together, certainly in part because Patterson now lives in the same Pacific Northwest region. At any rate, this was enough to bring me in.

The story is this. Bob Pyle is an academic, lepidopterist and writer, portrayed here as pretty bumbling and goofy. His beloved wife Thea is dying of cancer, and his colleagues are ribbing him about this great butterfly hunting expedition he talks about but never undertakes. Shortly after losing Thea, he gets a grant from the Guggenheim to actually do it: hike from route 12 in southern Washington state, over Mt. Adams to the Columbia Gorge, seeking butterflies (and moths) along the way. It’s intended to be a 30-day trip. “You’ve been camping before, right?” ask Bob’s colleagues. “Cub scouts, or…?” They’re being a little mean, actually, especially in light of the Thea situation, but the viewer has to admit that Bob is unconvincing as a backcountry hiker. (Because I barely-a-little-bit know Bob, and like him, I was a little sorry to see him made fun of. But then, he wrote the book.)

The film follows Bob’s hike through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (aka the dark divide), with flashbacks to life with Thea. There is not a ton of dialog, because for much of the time Bob is alone. He talks to himself a little (less than one might expect), and he occasionally meets with other humans, although this rarely turns out to be a good thing. As a ranger tells him when he asks about Bigfoot: “If you were one of them, wouldn’t you hide from us? I know I would.”

It’s a charmingly simple story. Beautiful scenery, elemental challenges (bear, food, water, weather, gravity at cliff’s edge), stark human grief, scant dialog. Look at these stunning views, consider the horror of losing one’s life partner. See the rare endangered species, howl for help from the bottom of a cave. An encounter with a crew of loggers encapsulates some conflicts – a bit simplified, but effective. There are some logical or factual goofs, like the fact that Bob seems to carry a solitary quart-sized water bottle (Nalgene, of course), and we never see him refill it (except when the rangers do so for him). But this isn’t meant to be hyperrealism, nor a how-to-backpack guide (seriously, don’t use this movie as a how-to).

Visually stunning, thoughtful, poignant, funny, honest, and a decent introduction to the Bob Pyle character. Recommended.


Rating: 8 hoots.

television: a new discovery

It’s been a weird year.

Say it again: it’s been a weird year.

I made a post to this effect at about this time last year. The trend continues: I’ve been watching television. (I still don’t own a television, but technology has allowed me to become a TV-viewer on my little laptop; wonders never cease.) I still find this so strange. And I struggle somewhat with the stigma I was taught as a kid: that is, that television is tooth-rotting junk food, while books are healthy and nourishing. Well, there may be something more passive about watching, while reading requires a bit more reader participation. There’s no coincidence in this compliment to one of my favorite shows: “They required a level of attention from viewers of The Wire not normally demanded by television shows… but a level of attention a step closer to the level you might have to apply to reading a book.”* But also, as Liz points out (I paraphrase): “Television was junk when you were a kid. But in the last 15 years or so, they’ve figured out how to make some really good television. And you’ve been watching good television.” And you know what? I have been. There is some astonishingly good television out there.

It’s not normal for me to feel this involved with a television show. But on the other hand, it’s not all that unusual for me to feel really involved with a fictional world, with plot and characters invented by impressive creative minds. And it’s been really exciting to discover a whole new medium for exploring story and character. Not that I entirely had all the craft elements of writing under control! but there’s so much more to watch out for, no pun intended, on the screen. The pure writing alone, from plot construction to lines of dialog to stage direction, is a whole course of study; then there’s the acting, the sound and scenery, and the cinematography. I’m sort of reeling at all of this. I’m a little tempted to sign up for another graduate degree in how to pick apart a television show. (Not really. Maybe a little.)

I’m not sure what’s led me in this direction, toward the screen. I definitely think the pandemic and shutdown and isolation and increasingly depressive news of the world have played a role, but again, I started watching last year. The bad world out there has just pushed me further. I’ve also noticed that in my reading, I crave lightness and fiction to leaven the important but unpleasant reality I take in. But when my favorite novels of the year include Sun a Fun Age, Leave the World Behind and The Prettiest Star, maybe I don’t skew as ‘light’ as I claim to. Maybe it’s just that I’ve finally found a new-to-me medium, and I was ready for it. At any rate, there are whole worlds out there. When television is done well, those worlds are thrilling and enthralling and worthy of all the time and attention I have to offer.

Case in point is definitely The Wire, a piece of creative work I can scarcely wrap my head around after two full viewings – thanks as always to Liz, who not only told me to watch it in the first place, but then sent along a great piece of criticism. The above *quotation comes from “Why The Wire is one of the Most Brilliant TV Shows Ever,” which is spoiler-free, and a better review than I feel able to write. I will say that this show is not only visually appealing, extremely witty and funny, but also very very smart, and tackles the kinds of Big Issues that I like to see tackled in fiction. I’ll watch it again.

My television obsession of the year is Shameless (the US version). Early in pandemic shutdown, I started watching this show and got hooked. This scrappy, resourceful, problematic, crazy-but-real family just got inside my head and my heart, with their struggles and their relationships which are both strong and messy, and their colorful southside Chicago setting. It’s absolutely a comedy and absolutely a heart-rending drama, and it runs for ten seasons, with season 11 delayed by the pandemic but now filming, and set to be the last. I am most in love with the relationship between Ian and Mickey, but many characters’ arcs strike me as nuanced and engrossing. This is less a perfect show than The Wire; there are errors and inconsistencies, but I still find it completely compelling. And while it’s less serious, too, there is no shortage of Big Issues – mental illness, addiction, sexual assault, poverty, tolerance, love – which are here presented as simply the backdrop facts of life, rather than problems to be solved as on The Wire. This is another show I’d take a master course on.

My love for Shameless character Mickey Milkovich led me to seek more work by the actor who portrays him, Noel Fisher, which led me to other shows and movies, many of them good – The Booth at the End, The Riches, The Long Road Home – but most remarkably, The Red Line. This series of just eight episodes begins with the shooting of an unarmed Black man by a white cop, and just keeps adding in the Big Issues from there. It’s jam-packed with them, in fact, which could be seen as a liability, especially in less capable hands (these are very capable hands – Ava DuVernay is a producer); but I decided it felt rather like life, in which we are indeed surrounded by Big Issues that we don’t get to fully untangle. (I was also charmed by a matter-of-fact background element: one of our protagonists has a BFF who is non-binary in their gender identity and uses the pronouns they/them. I expected this would become another Issue but no, it’s just a fact of life. Which is part of what representation means. Hat tip.) A little more time would have been great, to see these stories more deeply explored, but I’m very impressed by what is here.

Finally, Orphan Black is a mind-blowing story and set of characters, including some of those loving, messy, built-family relationships I love as in Shameless. It’s addictive in many ways, but what I can’t miss mentioning is that a whole slew of characters are played by a single actor. Some of these characters then play each other within the show, so that the completely masterful superstar Tatiana Maslany not only plays Sarah and Allison (and others) but also Allison pretending to be Sarah, etc. It’s the big bad world against our heroine, iconoclastic rebel Sarah Manning; episodes and seasons keep twisting and riffing on that basic plot structure in a way that might be tiresome, if there weren’t so much imagination in the twists and riffs, and humor and love (and completely genius secondary characters like Sarah’s sidekick Felix). I was bereft when I finished the final season.

Liz tells me there’s plenty more great television for me to catch up on. What a world. I wouldn’t say Noel Fisher’s body of work makes up for what’s going on out there in the real world, but it’s pretty thrilling to continue to discover works of creativity that change the way I think and feel. Thank goodness. Keep ’em coming.

podcast: the “Seeing White” series from Scene on Radio

“Seeing White” is a 2017 series on the podcast Scene on Radio, from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (in a very podcast-rich part of the country, it seems to me). Host John Biewen (a white guy) is upset by racial injustice in the United States, and curious about the invisible forces that go beyond simple, mean, interpersonal racism and account for the systemic, institutional forms that do still more damage and are less easily identified. Noting that our discussions about race tend to manifest as discussions of people or communities of color, he wants to “turn the lens” back on whiteness. What the heck is that?

My father recommended this podcast series to me, pretty forcefully, and my first reaction was to say, 2017? His recommendation came in the height of this summer, the summer of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and a new energy behind BLM protests, and it felt a little weird to look back three years for an angle on these events. Three years is kind of a short time, but also rather a long time, in the evolution of our (national-level) thinking on race. Well, I was wrong about the timeliness concern. While the most recent event markers have changed – Charlottesville being the landmark event when this podcast was released – the conversations we need have not. I’m adding my voice to my dad’s: this podcast presents ideas, facts, and history to help along that conversation, one that I found thought-provoking and useful, and that I absolutely still think is useful – nay, imperative – in 2020.

John Biewen and Chenjerai Kumanyika

Biewen examines whiteness via conversations with experts and scholars, including historians, researchers, and educators. On each episode (save one, I think), he then consults and reviews his new content with Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika, professor of critical cultural media studies, cultural industries, “and things like that” at Clemson University and then Rutgers. Kumanyika (a Black man) serves as a sounding board and a gut-check for Biewen, there to offer both a personal and an expert perspective and make sure Biewen doesn’t head off in any funky directions; he’s the Black friend, which is a concept that should give us some pause. (I hope he got paid for his role here.) But the two are friends in the real world, and Kumanyika signs on for this project eyes-open. The two do share a joke about his role: “You’re not asking me to speak for all people of color, are you?” “Yes! of course!” “Well good. Because that’s what I do…”

Big, complicated topics here; writing this review/response is intimidating, but here’s my best effort.

I thank my parents and my upbringing for the fact that I’m not new to concerns about race and racism. But it’s clear to me, too, that nobody (and most particularly no white person) can sit back contented, thinking that she’s got it all worked out. To be a good anti-racist means being constantly ready to keep learning and finding out where I’ve been wrong. One of the greatest offerings of “Seeing White,” for me, was its help in wrestling with a certain concept. 1) I see and understand that race is a social construct in our society, rather than a biological fact; that makes sense to me. 2) And yet race is also a reality in our society and culture: it affects people’s experiences in education, law enforcement, finance, real estate, health care, and so much more; we have a (wildly imperfect) system of identifying people by race just by looking at them. So 3) How can race be both made up and a reality at the same time? …I don’t think I would have articulated this philosophical puzzle before listening to the podcast, but it’s definitely been a puzzle for me for some time. After listening, I feel like I have a better handle on it. Race is indeed both a reality within our culture, and something we made up. We’ve manifested it. Suzanne Plihcik of the Racial Equity Institute, episode 2:

We know, for example, since the human genome project, that we are 99.9% genetically the same. There is more genetic variation in a flock of penguins than there is in the human race. There is more genetic variation within groups that have come to be called races than there is across groups that have come to be called races.

However, after more than 400 years of entrenched racism, discrimination, and enforced segregation on this continent, we have built in differences that weren’t there. Health disparities are not a result of racial difference, but a result of different treatment over lifetimes and generations.

From episode 8, Dorothy Roberts, professor of law, Africana Studies and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and leading scholar on racial science:

The sickle cell example is the resort of people who know that there’s a mountain of evidence showing that race is an invented category, and so they grasp at sickle cell all the time… Peoples who live in areas where there’s malaria have developed this mutation, or have a higher prevalence of this mutation, because it protects against malaria. But it’s not confined to Africa, it’s not present in all of Africa, and so it simply is not a ‘Black’ disease. It just says nothing about race whatsoever. It’s linked to groups that developed in areas where there’s a lot of malaria, that’s all.

This was a lightbulb moment for me: sickle cell has nothing to do with race! It’s about where the mosquitoes are!

So yes, 1) race is a social construct and simultaneously 2) race is a reality in our culture because 3) we have made it one, over centuries of social construction. Which means that 4) we have to consciously, purposefully, effortfully, and over years, decades, possibly more centuries, deconstruct it. Race and racism will not go away because we wish them to, and they certainly won’t go away because we turn our gazes in another direction and claim to not see color. We made this, and it’s now on us to unmake it, at personal and collective cost.

There is much to be gained and learned here, no matter how openminded you think you are.

I think perhaps the best single episode to catch might be the penultimate, episode 13: “White Affirmative Action.” This episode spells out in hard facts and figures and a thorough study of history how white people have gotten ahead, methodically, throughout American history, how we’ve been given advantages at the expense of other groups. It offers some good answers to those who would say “How could I owe reparations? I was born in 19–. My people didn’t even own slaves. My people only came over in (whatever year).” Etc. Answer: if you’ve been white in this country for more than a few minutes, you’ve benefitted from institutional racism, period. Even if you’re well meaning. Even if you didn’t want to. Even if you’re not, personally, racist. Even if you grew up poor! (I’ve linked to it before, but still good: “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.”) To become better versed in explaining this concept, I highly recommend episode 13. (For the record, I am absolutely in favor of paying reparations to Black Americans.)

I’m barely scratching the surface of what’s available in these 14 podcast episodes, of course. I am not particularly qualified to teach this content to you, but what I can do is offer my review: this is deep and rich and complicated content, excellently explained and articulated and discussed, in fairly manageable chunks. Spend some time with it. Improve yourself and try and improve the world.

Good tip, Pops. Thanks.


Rating: 9 questions to sit with.
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