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.

*ten years later*

Ten years ago yesterday, I published my first post here.

Early in 2019, when I was on the road full-time in my van, I got a phone call from an old friend and we did some catching up. He was interested in the van travels, and said, “you know, if it were ten years ago, you’d have a blog to report on this whole trip.” Well, I’d missed the memo that blogs were no longer hip, and indeed did have a van-travel blog, as well as an alive-and-well book blog (that’s where you are now, for reference). Nobody had told me it wasn’t cool anymore. And yet here we still are, Brad.

This blog has brought me good things. I used a few of the reviews I’d written here to apply for my job at Shelf Awareness, which has been nothing short of life-changing. (I’ve written reviews for pay for a few other publications, as well, but the Shelf is my longest-standing employer, and I hold dear the relationships I’ve made there.) I’ve been privileged to interview famous authors and authors I greatly admire (frequently these are the same people), and I’ve been offered more review copies than I have time to accept. I’ve felt a part of something larger than myself, and my reading has taken turns I’m not at all sure it would have otherwise. I’ve kept track of every book I’ve read for ten years now, which is itself a feat.

I’ve also lived a life in these ten years. I’d been married a few years when the blog was born, and am now divorced. I was a newly minted librarian, and would later take different jobs in the library system, then move cross-country (away from my hometown for the first time) and leave the profession. I moved back to Texas, then took that van trip and earned a second master’s degree and started a new career, and a new life here in West Virginia.

My friend Liz said recently, “change never doesn’t come,” and I’ve been thinking about that. In another conversation with Liz, we talked about how difficult it is to judge something like, say, a book at two different readings. There are too many uncontrolled variables in the experiment that is life. The world changes (The Stand doesn’t hit the same in 2020 as it did in 2010); we change as people. I have been many versions of myself in the last ten years. Certainly, these are the best-documented years of my life, thanks to this blog (and Facebook), for better and for worse.

I’ve published 2,282 blog posts and reviewed 1,250 books, 111 movies, 59 plays, and a smattering of readings, television shows, and performances of various kinds. (I’ve also occasionally told personal stories or waxed on about bicycles, etc., and you’ve been very patient with me.) It’s overwhelming to think about. I am both proud and humbled that anyone reads this blog at all.

Thanks so much for being here. I guess we’ll just keep going and see if blogs survive another ten years. Books and reading, at least, I’m not the least bit concerned about. Cheers, y’all.

four Hunger Games movies (2012-2015)

They made the three Hunger Games books into four movies, which I watched over a week or so with halfhearted interest. This is a brief review, but tldr: the books are better.

It was neat to see the characters brought alive onscreen. The visual interest of the Capital and its weird denizens was not, I think, exploited to its potential, but it was still worth seeing. And I confess I am as susceptible as anyone to the appeal of seeing the young love play out live-and-in-person (sort of). I was disappointed with the casting of Peeta’s character at first, but he won me over. Gale just looked old – too old for the character’s age – like, as usual, they picked a 30-year-old to play a 17-year-old. (Turns out Liam Hemsworth was 22 when the first movie came out, but this was my reaction.) Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss felt a little unconvincing; or maybe the acting in the final two movies (when her character is herself failing as an actor in the Mockingjay role) was a little too good? Most of my impressions can be summed up as ‘meh.’ The biggest problem, of course, is the one consistent with book-to-movie adaptations: they couldn’t fit the story and all its nuance, backstory, character motivation, interiority, etc. into this format. The movies failed to develop the history of Panem and of Katniss’s own family; they cut too many minor but instructive sideplots; minor characters were underdeveloped (Cinna!!) or missing; and Katniss’s thoughts and feelings, which make her human and complicated and conflicted, were entirely lost. I understand the challenge. It’s hard to do thoughts and feelings without straight narration, which comes with issues and dragginess of its own. But I thought a lot of what was best about Collins’s novels was missing from these films. I can see the appeal, and note I watched all four movies. But I watched them with about 65% of my attention. I think my recommendation would be to just stick to the books.

Anybody read the new prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes yet? Reviews are indifferent; not sure I’ll bother. Oh, well. The trilogy’s pretty great!


Rating: 5 meals.

National Theatre Live at Home presents A Streetcar Named Desire (2014), and other stuff I’ve taken in this week

This week’s release from NT Live is A Streetcar Named Desire, available here til this Thursday, when we’ll get This House. In classic Tennessee Williams style, this play (certainly one of his best-known) is bleak as hell, and frankly it was a little hard to watch, and a little overwrought, possibly even draggy (at three hours long); but I think all of that is as written, and certainly very well produced. Perhaps not to be taken on in the darkest of moods.

This Young Vic production stars Gillian Anderson (yes, of the X-Files) as Blanche, with a hunky Ben Foster as Stanley Kowalski; in my opinion he delivered that mix of sexy, smoldering, and threatening that Brando so beautifully performed in the 1951 film (and presumably in the 1947 Broadway original). I think it’s always an accomplishment when an actor (author, whomever) can convince me that someone is simultaneously detestable and desirable. Vanessa Kirby as Stella rounds out a perfect cast.

The other notable detail is in the set: the entire thing rotates slowly, from the time Blanche takes her first giant slug of whiskey. I dug the way NT Live filmed it, to offer us an experience something like what the live audience would have had: sometimes the actors are obscured; they and we are kept a bit off-balance. It emphasizes the fact that Blanche’s world is tilting and insecure, and she’s not always sure where she stands.

That Blanche is a decidedly unlikeable character. More than I remember. It’s been years since I saw the film, but I feel like Brando’s Stanley was less sympathetic than Foster’s. Blanche grates; but the fact that she grates on Stanley is a big part of the story, isn’t it, so it only makes us more involved if we feel that way, too. It’s agonizing. I took a break partway through, because I was frustrated with Blanche and, to be honest, the play felt a bit long. (Live audiences got an intermission, so it’s fair.) It’s a hell of a professionally produced, totally convincing spectacle, and I admire Tennessee Williams so much, but he doesn’t exactly go easy on his audience. I do recommend this production.


Rating: 7 foxes.

In other news, I’ve become addicted to a show called Shameless, which is silly and quite compelling. (I’m watching the American version, but I’ll hit the British one, too.) This week there was no Patterson Hood concert but there was a Mike Cooley one – I missed his first and was so sorry when I heard he’d done “Daddy’s Cup,” a song I feel strongly about. Oh, man, it was an excellent set on Friday night. Cooley at his best is all beauty and soul and songwriting talent, and sass. These versions of “English Oceans” and “Love Like This” were better than the recorded ones, in my opinion, and I loved his finishing with “Space City.” There is an intimacy to these home concerts – music delivered from the artist’s home to my own, where I seem to sit just a few feet away from him. It makes me feel close to people I’ve felt close to for years, in different ways.

Cooley crooning

This past week, Jason Isbell’s new album Reunions dropped (you can buy it here), and he is one of the bright stars in the sky I see. It’s another good one, with no duds and several real gems. On my first few listens, the tracks that especially speak to me are “Dreamsicle,” “Only Children,” and “Be Afraid.” But they’re all special. A friend asked me the other day what Isbell album she should start with, and boy, that was a hard question. There are now seven studio albums plus his work with the Truckers, and there’s not a one that I’d want my friend to pass up. I ended up recommending “Here We Rest,” because it has several of the songs on it that are most important to me. But it hurt me to choose just one. So, another Isbell album is more to love… I’m still building in my mind the Isbell-related project I need to work on.

That’s it for this past week, folks. Thank goodness for the arts.

movie: The Booksellers (2019)

Thanks, Pops, for making sure I got the chance to see this documentary. The Booksellers is about, yes, booksellers – really, book dealers, those handling antiquarian and rare books and ephemera, rather than the clerk at your local. It therefore covers a handful of collectors as well as the rarefied worlds of New York and London book fairs and dealer circles.

Obviously as a librarian and book lover (and blogger, hello) I appreciate the appreciation for books, the excitement and fascination, the enthusiasm for this or that object; I love the visuals of books and of libraries. I roll my eyes again at predictions of the death of the book; but the film mostly rolls its eyes as well, pointing out why this will never happen. (Quintessential New Yorker Fran Lebowitz is a welcome breath of fresh air and sarcasm throughout: “The people that I see reading actual books on the subway are mostly in their 20s. This is one of the few encouraging things you will ever see in a subway.” Etc.) I guess I didn’t learn anything earth-shattering, but it was neat to get a closer view of what it looks like to really live and breathe books in a different way than I have ever known personally, even though you could say I live in books to a large degree – librarian, book reviewer, MFA student, English teacher. I confess that, while I’m committed to reading print books rather than e-books, the book-as-object is important to me only as a vehicle for the words it contains; I don’t often really geek out on the object itself. I get the appeal, though, and I dig what these folks are into, and I’m so glad they’re out there, documenting the history of print.

On the other hand, it’s a world of great privilege and funding (and the odd bit of nepotism, as frankly stated by one profiled bookseller), and it’s overwhelmingly white and male. Early on, there’s a quick flipping through of pictures of booksellers, as voiceover discusses the stereotype (old guy in tweed with pipe), to demonstrate that they’re actually not all old guys with pipes! – but they were all white. It looks to me like the documentary made an effort to showcase diversity, and good on them; I counted a whopping three people of color in the whole film, with women relatively well represented and with plenty of discussion of the women in the boys’ club situation. (All but one woman were white.) Race was not discussed until the 1:15 mark, by which point I was getting pretty frustrated with that silence. Only oblique reference was made to the fact that this stuff takes a lot of money. I guess I was left feeling a little disenchanted: cool old books and history are awesome, but very few people get invited to this party, and it’s a damn shame not to state that early and talk about it at the forefront.

We are all on our own personal journeys of woke-ness and of noticing what the world around us looks like. These days I’ve been noticing a lot of all-white or almost-all-white spaces.

Very cool documentary, lots of great visuals, and plenty of romance to appreciate about rare and antiquarian books, the quirky folks who deal with them for a living, and the histories we have yet to uncover. I am so glad there are professionals doing this work and continuing to uncover those histories. I love books, and I think I’d be tickled to get to hang out with one of these people in real life. It’s important that we recognize where money and resources keep this field pretty undemocratic, though. The hard work continues in all spheres, and radical book collections are no exception.

Still recommended.


Rating: 7 fabulous plates of fossil fish.

National Theatre Live at Home presents Barber Shop Chronicles (2018), and weekly internet round-up

This week’s release by National Theatre Live at Home was the London Roundhouse 2018 production of Barber Shop Chronicles, viewable here until this Thursday when they’ll give us A Streetcar Named Desire, which I am definitely looking forward to.

I went into this play (by Inua Ellams) knowing nothing, and it was delightful. It took some time to grow on me, though. Initially it felt like a series of distinct vignettes from this barbershop and then this one and then this one, which was a little hard to get into. But over time I saw the connections form, and it got increasingly satisfying. Also, there are a number of accents and dialects and pidgin forms of English – I definitely recommend subtitles. This probably made it a little more difficult at first, too, but it ended up added to the richness of the final product. There is definitely musicality and character in the sounds of speech. I counsel patience – it will be rewarded.

In six barber shops in six cities – Lagos, London, Accra, Haware, Johannesburg, and Kampala – men grouse and argue and joke and talk shit, and get a little hair cut. Five African cities, then, and the London shop is rooted in African culture as well; this is an all-Black, all-male cast, with several actors playing multiple roles. It’s very much about the African diaspora in some ways. (There is one Jamaican character, who is careful to distinguish himself from “you crazy Africans.”) The play runs the course of just one day, beginning at 6 a.m. when the Lagos barber is awakened by a man begging for a special early morning job, and finishing at 9 p.m. in London when a barber agrees to stay late for a customer with a similar request. Conversations range widely but coalesce around themes of family, especially relationships between fathers and sons; government and nations, with some hint that Mandela and Mugabe were symbolic fathers (for better or for worse) to their countries; and with a hint of football (no, the global kind – soccer) running through, as Chelsea plays Barcelona on the day in question. The football thread isn’t overdone, but it’s a nice note of continuity. I won’t say too much about it, but again, look for connections to tie it all together and make meaning (sum greater than its parts).

Between scenes, there is popular music and some dance as the men rearrange barber chairs to indicate a new set. It’s a vibrant, lively play throughout, full of life, whether cruelty or love, gravity or jest. There’s advice to be had on women, sex, parenting, race and racism, the job market, politics, academics, and philosophy. “In dark times, the barbershop is a lighthouse.” It’s truly lovely. By the end, I was beaming, and sorry to see these guys go.

Another fine offering from NT Live; can’t wait for the next one.


Rating: 8 posters.

In other things that have pleased me online this week… I have come across several of these, but here’s the latest: famous works of art recreated in quarantine. Some are astonishing in their faithfulness to the original, some in their creativity; some are delightfully absurd, some are lovely works of art in their own right. (And then there’s the ridiculous comment on Saturn by Rubens that set everybody off, if you’re into hilariously dumb comments). I enjoyed paging through them and will click on such compilations every time.

Likewise the rate my Skype room Twitter account. I was over the moon about this, spent way too much time (be warned) and laughed out loud. I should have been taking notes for if/when I have to do more online teaching in the future (eek). If you have to Skype/Zoom/etc., pay attention.

I attended another Patterson Hood concert (from his attic to my living room) on Wednesday, and I do love this man. The way he slaps his acoustic guitar to add percussion. The way he whoops and hollers – it must be hard to keep that live-show energy playing to the internet in your attic. The way he counsels us on current events and speaks to my heart. It’s like an embrace from an old friend, and those are in short supply these days. He dedicated an emotional performance of “What It Means” to Ahmaud Arbery and made me cry. Next week we’re promised a family-mythology-themed show, and I’ll be there.

Patterson Hood

Weather’s getting warmer and I’ve been outside a lot in the last week; hoping for more of that, for sure. And I am reading like crazy. Stay tuned!

Stratford Festival on Film presents King Lear (2015); and my weekly update

I tried to watch NT Live’s Antony and Cleopatra. I’m far more enamored of Shakespeare’s comedies than his tragedies, and this tragedy/history (with lots of battles and allegiances that I do not find compelling), with which I’m not previously familiar, just didn’t work for me. If you expect a different outcome, by all means give it a look here. I’m sure it’s a fine performance, and Ralph Fiennes looks to be a passionate Antony (who incongruously drinks St. Pauli Girl), and Sophie Okonedo is a powerful Cleopatra. But I couldn’t get into it, and sometimes it works out that way. I’m pretty excited about the next few shows, though! Check those out here.

Antony and Cleopatra: certainly gorgeous.

Happily, my father had just passed on some additional Shakespeare opportunities via Bard on the Beach – truly a wealth of options. I had planned on the Stratford (Ontario) Festival’s production of King Lear until a friend of mine posted up the access to the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of same – starring James Earl Jones! It’s a strange, Shakespeare-rich pandemic we are living through. I was a little tempted to try to watch both, sort of side-by-side, a few minutes at a time, but questioned whether I had five and a half hours of Lear in me.

Stratford’s Lear and Cordelia

Well, I just couldn’t choose, and so I began with the first half-hour of New York and then the first half hour of Stratford. After that sampling, my judgment was: James Earl Jones is an excellent Lear; Colm Feore was an equally excellent Lear, but the rest of the cast at Stratford won by a landslide. (The latter’s 2015 production date, compared with 1974 in New York, didn’t hurt – the more modern was understandably much more slick and visually appealing, and the sound quality much superior.) I settled in to watch the Stratford production. But I couldn’t leave Jones, either, and so every time Lear had a compelling scene I switched over to see Jones’s version of it. I ended up watching about four and a half hours of Lear after all.

New York’s Lear and Cordelia

…Which puts the lie to my statement that I find Shakespeare’s tragedies less appealing. This is really an outstanding play, and one I hadn’t revisited in many years. It seems questionable, but I remember studying this one in middle school, and watching a film version? I don’t know. I love that this play has it all: comedy, treachery the wise fool, and truly a quintessential tragedy of hubris and temporary blindness (as well as literal blindness). The father/child relationship is explored in several different plotlines, which I found a pleasing but not overdone parallel. It’s also the play that yields such famous Shakespeare lines as

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!

That way madness lies

I am a man more sinned against than sinning

‘Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind.

As well as the quotable

Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.

I was deeply pleased with the play itself. But also the acting – I was thoroughly absorbed in Feore’s Lear, the compelling Goneril and Regan, and the scheming Edmund. Even Cordelia, who can be a bit prim, was played feelingly by Sara Farb. Albany, Cornwell, and Kent – all memorable roles. The fool was masterful. By contrast, I found the New York company a bit under-dramatic; maybe it was the theatrical fashion of 1974 to downplay the drama. (The Stratford cast was much more white, and I appreciated the diversity in New York’s, but my feeling about the acting remains.) I except Jones from that criticism, of course; he was passionate and resounding, as he is at his best. The two Lears were quite different but both lovely; I loved being able to see them side-by-side. I do recommend this way of immersing yourself in the play, if you’ve the time and inclination! And hey, as usual your mileage may vary as to the relative strengths of each show. Try ’em both. I’m very pleased with how I spent my Saturday night.

In other news, Pops sent me this essay from Orion: “Losers Keepers” by Robert Michael Pyle. I love Bob Pyle, and I love an objects focus (as you may have noticed). This is a beautiful short meditation on objects, loss, and the temporary nature of people and things; he explores the sort of materialism that causes us to love our old and battered possessions even if we maybe don’t entirely fit the standard definitions of materialism. I found the final line spellbinding, and I really enjoyed what felt like revisiting an old friend with this quick read. Thanks, Pops.

Also this week, I attended a Patterson Hood concert on the evening before my birthday (thank you, thank you), livestreamed from his attic. It was very special – he read an excerpt from his memoir-in-progress, and played some deep cuts, and said we should all #runwithMaud, and generally treated us to what felt like a really intimate, personal evening. I loved being able to see this show in my PJs with my dog in my lap, as a special birthday treat.

Patterson Hood in my living room

In other news I’ve been painting and making some solar prints, reading a lot and sort of bouncing off the walls – after a week of up-and-down weather it snowed for two days this weekend, just in case this wasn’t already an exceptionally weird time to be alive. Hops and I will be looking for some good hikes once things clear up again. I’m getting to know my Kindle well. I poked into a few new television series but rejected each of them. I really wish there were more of The Wire. Let’s see… I worked two jigsaw puzzles and I won’t be doing any more of those; I’m too obsessive. In the absence of gym or lap pool, I’ve been doing exercise videos when the weather turns crappy, and Hops gives me the most withering, disgusted looks – I should document his reaction to my workouts for you all! Okay, back to books on Wednesday (and back to NT Live this weekend!). Thanks for bearing with me, all.

best of ENGL 165, and some news

This spring I got to teach a literature course called Short Fiction (ENGL 165), and I loved it. As I said the other day, I’ve also had the chance to work with my friends’ 8th grade daughter: we read one story a week and talk about it on Friday afternoons, as a supplemental to her schooling-from-home. She’s followed along with my college students (freshmen through seniors), and kept up just fine. This was all wonderful: I got to talk about stories I love. (For this class, I made an effort to choose stories from authors of all identities; and I was also careful to only teach stories I like.)

That said, I had some favorites, some stories I can’t get enough of, that are deep and layered and complex enough to bear 10 and 15 readings and hours of discussion, that I can’t stop talking about, that I love to read aloud… and I thought I’d share that shorter list here. (Linked where available.) I have a top three:

And some honorable mentions:

What a privilege, to assign extraordinary literature and to talk about it. And I’ve had some lovely feedback from the students. In fact, maybe it’s time to share this news: I’ve landed the Irene McKinney Fellowship for a second year, and will be teaching again this fall. I’m honored and thrilled. Maybe I’ll get to teach Short Fiction again, or maybe it will be a different lit class… and I’ll have more stories to explore. Lucky, lucky me.

movie: The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

Again thanks to my mother’s urging, I watched this introspective film online the other night. It was odd, slow-moving in that way that art films often are, but visually beautiful, thoughtful and poignant.

Jimmie Fails is a little bit obsessed with the family home – that is, the house that his family lost some years ago. He and his buddy Mont hang around and work on the house when they can get away with it – the white lady who lives in it now is apt to throw croissants when she catches Jimmie touching up the paint on the trim. Jimmie lives with Mont and his blind grandfather as sort of a charity case, in an outlying part of the city. A group of young men hang out on the sidewalk outside Mont’s house, talking shit as the pair comes and goes. There’s less action to this movie than there are scenes, even montages. Mont works at a fishmonger’s; we see him killing and wrapping catfish. Jimmie works at an old folks’ home. They wait on the bus. Jimmie rides a skateboard. The men on the sidewalk talk their shit. And Jimmie worries over the house.

Jimmie’s grandfather built this house – “the stairs, these windows, the columns, the archways, the witch hat, the balustrades, the fish scales, this balcony… all of it by Jimmie Fails the First with his own two hands.”

the house in question (click to enlarge)

And Jimmie’s determined to have it back. Accompanied by the eccentric (but who isn’t?), loyal Mont, he’ll get back there.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco showcases footage of the city and one completely extraordinary house (with a built-in organ in the front hallway, a hidden room behind a bookshelf, and all the flourishes), and takes time and attention with faces and personalities. Again, just visually, it’s a striking series of studies. See the white men in full haz-mat suits cleaning up sidewalks where Black children play among street preachers and those sidewalk loiterers, who form a Greek chorus of sorts… Jimmie and Mont spend as much time standing, sitting, riding, and musing as they spend in action, but their actions are momentous. Jimmie is driven, single-minded. Mont is an artist, a writer, and an unusual soul. When Jimmie asks why he’s lovingly drawing the sidewalk guys, who are basically bullies: “I shouldn’t get to appreciate them… ’cause they’re mean to me?”

Obviously, this movie is a commentary on race relations and on gentrification, the plague on San Francisco in particular but on many or all of the cities in this country. It’s about class and exploitation and how we value history, and family relationships. It’s also about friendship: the friendship between Jimmie and Mont is something really special.

I was fascinated to learn the backstory on this movie. Jimmie is played by the real Jimmie Fails, whose life story closely matches his character’s. (The house is not his family’s house, though.) Director Joe Talbot is his longtime best friend; together the two decided to tell this true story in fictionalized film form, and it’s genius. It also means that actor/character Jimmie has bared his soul in a pretty big way. Mont is played by Yale-trained Jonathan Majors, and I’ve seen indication in two different places that he both is and is not based on a real-life friend of Jimmie’s. Whatever the case, he’s an indispensable part of this story, as Jimmie’s foil, and partner both in musings and in action. His artistic inclinations move the plot along and allow for important commentary.

I’d say the only criticism to be made here is pacing, and that’s a qualified criticism; it’s just got that art-film thing where there’s plenty of space and time for ideas to expand, which is not for every viewer. But this movie is beautiful, thought-provoking, important, wise, and funny. I do recommend. Bonus points for SF lovers, of course; and for those of us with strong commitments to place, check out Jimmie’s line: “you don’t get to hate [the city] unless you love it.” Indeed.


Rating: 8 brush strokes.

National Theatre Live at Home presents Frankenstein (2011); and my weekly update

Last week’s NT Live release was 2011’s Frankenstein, which is viewable here until this Thursday night, when we get a chance to see Antony and Cleopatra.

Well, it had to happen: there had to be an NT Live production I was less taken by. I found less to revel in here than usual. I’m sure the acting was very fine, but it felt a little indulgent, in terms of theatricality. Opening scenes in which the Creature discovers himself and the world around him went on a little long for my patience. The pacing in general felt a bit draggy, and the themes of trying-to-be-god and man-is-monster not terribly uplifting… which might have been my feelings about the novel, too, actually. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate playing the two lead roles, Victor Frankenstein and the Creature; this film version offers Cumberbatch as the Creature. Again, very good acting I’m sure, but I often felt a little impatient; I didn’t buy into the drama as I usually do. This production also included just a few musical sequences and the odd spot of comedy, both of which felt a bit out of place in a story that’s otherwise, well, quite serious. If you love Frankenstein, do check this out, of course, and I’d be interested in your take. This one was not so much for me. Ah, well. This week will be better.

In other news, since around the beginning of shelter-in-place orders, I’ve been having weekly literature talks (by phone) with the 8th-grade daughter of some friends of mine. We are heading into our seventh week together. L has mostly read short stories that I’ve also taught to my Short Fiction class (semester wrap-up coming later this week!), and our discussion follows what I’ve done in class; I’ve found her to be at least as ready as my college students (freshmen through seniors) to handle the elements of fiction and the real-world implications of the themes of these stories. It’s been an absolute pleasure – and now that my own semester has ended but my chats with L continue, I’m still more grateful for this small-scale opportunity for a little teaching, a little talking, a little contact with a lovely, clever young woman. Last week I asked her to assign me a reading, based on our recent discussion of dystopian fiction (following stories by Shirley Jackson, Ursula Le Guin, and Lidia Yuknavitch), so we discussed chapter 3 of The Hunger Games. And now I’m going to be reading that book. Good job, L.

In other news, I have been sorry to learn that my book review gig with Shelf Awareness will be moving to a digital reading format due to the pandemic and resulting difficulties with printing galleys and ARCs… it all makes perfect sense and there are far bigger issues to be sad about, but still I was sad to realize that all my reading-for-review will be moving away from hard-copy. My first e-reader arrived in the mail last week, and I’ve been loading my e-galleys and DRCs (that’s digital review copies, previously advanced review copies which were printed) onto it and doing my first reading. The Kindle Paperwhite is much smaller than I’d expected. But it’s pretty easy to use, once I got it set up, and the small, lightweight physicality of it is nice, I admit. I guess I’m torn between feeling grumpy about this new development, and committing myself to liking this, since it’s going to happen regardless. I’m trying hard to commit myself to liking it. And to be fair, nothing about the reading experience is hateful so far – although I definitely miss the feel of pages and the ability to take my notes on a bookmark and even underline passages on real paper. (I’m aware that the e-reader has highlighting & note-taking functions. It’s not the same; and it’s not nearly as easy.) Well, we’ll see, but I’m trying to get happily on board.

In other news, let’s see… I’ve enjoyed a few TV series online in the last two months (already!) of work-and-everything-else-from-home. I fell in love with Luther and then even more in love with The Wire – I may very well turn around and watch the latter again. I ripped through season six of Bosch, and was glad to see that my enjoyment of that series has not suffered from my recent disappointment with a Connelly novel on audiobook (that review to come).

Spring is off-and-on here in central West Virginia, and when it’s on, Hops and I walk miles and I ride my bike on the local trails, which have been mucky for weeks and weeks but are super fun nonetheless; I’ve also put in some trailbuilding & maintenance with my new friends here. Oh, that’s right: I’ve begun a new little project via a new Instagram account, wvwildlifewanderer, where I document the plants and animals (mostly plants, much easier to observe and photograph) that I see around here. I’m trying to learn how to recognize trees and flowers, which does not come easily to me, but it’s been a rewarding process so far.

What have you seen, onscreen or in the world, that intrigued you lately?

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