Between the World and Me

If you think I’m going to provide an in-depth review of that which just won the National Book Award, you’re wrong. This book doesn’t need me, a white girl who doesn’t read the news every day, to chime in. This book does, however, need everyone to read it. So, this post is for the couple of people who may come across my blog without knowing who the Award winners are; had a friend of mine not handed me a copy of the book, I’m embarrassed to say I wouldn’t have known about it. (See: aforementioned poor news-reading habits.)

Between the World and Me is directly intended for Coates’ son, to paint him a very clear, detailed, unabridged picture of the world he’ll inherit as an adult. Perhaps it’s also intended for other young black males. It’s definitely not aimed at me, nor does it aim to sugar-coat, pad or soften anything in today’s world for anyone. It’s eloquent and honest and I’m thankful that it exists.

I’m thankful for the discomfort, shame and hopelessness I felt while reading it, because there are things described in the book that I’m sure I do without intending to. Even the most forward-thinking person in the world is still racist, by virtue of living in modern society, which evolved from however society operated in the past. I’m thankful for my consciousness being deepened and my behavior being scrutinized. I’m thankful that Coates’ call to arms, for lack of a better term, is being heard by so many people.

So, read, dammit. It’s one of the most important pieces of writing ever penned.

Frances Ha

Firstly, a couple of jokes that were probably already made about this book:

Frances Ha? More like “Frances Heh.” Or “Frances Ugh.”

I’m kidding. I actually really like the title of this movie. And the reasoning behind it, which is revealed in a very beautiful final scene. But I have a lot of deep issues with this movie, too, many of which I hashed out with a friend who was in total agreement. Let’s get into it, to paraphrase Pete Holmes.

I’ll start surface-level: The black and white filming is fantastic. It’s not used often enough, probably for fear of pretentiousness and because it’s harder to market. But this film was plenty pretentious and still benefitted from it. When you take away the color, you somehow eliminate an element of distraction. It’s hard to quantify. Here, it made the story seem so much more clear and focused, even if its main character wasn’t. Also, the acting itself is great. Greta Gerwig has a unique magnetism about her, and I identified with the way she carried herself throughout the movie — namely in that I, too, am a tall woman. Not insanely tall, but taller than most other women. And Frances, her character, embodied that certain specific awkwardness that comes with knowing how to carry yourself — she’s a dancer, after all — but still acquiescing to the expectations of society that somehow see you as Too Tall. She still slouches. I do too. It’s a weird existence. I also love that, in addition to finding a muse in his actual partner (Gerwig), Noah Baumbach has also found one in Adam Driver. He’s got a magnetism all his own, and I like seeing his face in so many things.

I identified with lots of other things about Frances, too. She’s a late-twentysomething living in New York, with some tunnel vision about her career, with a perfectly nice family back in California that gave her a solid upbringing, and with a need for longstanding friendship that she’s struggling to fulfill for herself. That’s the thing that made me empathize with her the most, actually, the friendship thing. I recognize that in myself, as I cling to many old connections probably long past their expiration dates, because like her, I want things to be as they were instead of as they are. It’s hard to watch, but it’s nice to know that there’s a filmmaker (Baumbach) out there who likely also experienced that. I also really love the line she uses when she’s on a date, and her credit card doesn’t work: “I’m so embarrassed I’m not a real person yet.”

However. Despite being neither Manic (she’s pretty #CHILL) nor Pixie (aforementioned height being a prominent factor there), she falls squarely, roundly, perfectly into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl mould, in the worst way. The aforementioned career tunnel vision is hard to watch, too — she was offered a job by her dance teacher, and she didn’t take it, citing some vague reasons. She knows perfectly well how to deal with adults, because she returns home to Sacramento to talk to her family over the holidays, yet she seeks out a shittier job opportunity at her old college later on so that she can feel younger, and it only makes her feel worse. She enjoys receiving attention when she’s doing what she thinks she does best — being an anomaly — but she ends up looking pathetic. It’s okay for someone just out of college not to have her shit together, and it’s really okay for anyone not to have their shit together, but having it together is all relative. She’s intentionally absent-minded, intentionally impulsive (she flies to Paris for 48 hours and sleeps, what the fuck), all because she thinks it’s charming. It’s not. I think we’re supposed to be the same age, and despite me not being remotely close to finding my Lifelong Career, I know roughly how to spend my money. I know that an impulsive trip to Paris is stupid. I know how to dress myself not to look like I’m twelve. She so desperately wants to be treated like an artist, but she doesn’t quite know what that means. The result is… scattered.

I wonder if, before indie movies like Baumbach’s and Lena Dunham’s and the Duplass bros’s, people actually talked like how they do in those movies. The intimate bumble of mumblecore has seeped into our speech, and has made us think it’s an okay way to communicate, that every thought should be shared. It shouldn’t. Some thoughts are not interesting. I don’t necessarily hate mumblecore movies, but I do hate how they enable a certain kind of character, and thus glorify a certain kind of person — the aforementioned intentionally absent-minded. I hate those people.

Now that I’ve said the word “aforementioned” to cover myself for the next week, I’ll get off my high horse. Truth is, in case you couldn’t already tell, this movie hit home pretty hard. Funly enough, it’s time for me to also head back to Northern California for the holidays and talk to some adults. Maybe I’ll paint the whole trip black and white in my head. It’s more fun to live inside of a movie, even if that movie evokes complex, annoying feelings.

The Flamethrowers

I wonder if it’s fair to say that The Flamethrowers is a book about a number of people who believe they are living profound, meaningful lives, who may not actually be doing so. That could probably be said about a lot of books (and a lot of people). But their desperation for recognition stood out so prominently to me — and all but one really failed to leave an impression — that I thought it’d be worth mentioning. Leading with, even.

Rachel Kushner is a fucking talented writer. So talented, in fact, that 4 pages in I stopped writing down well-written quotes and instead wrote down “too many quotes to write down.” I even read the praise that preceded the book, thinking it would inspire me in my own writerly pursuits, or maybe take down the epic literary journey that I was about to embark on a few pegs, but it just filled me with envy instead. She did inspire me a little, to attempt to use more creative verbs and adjectives than I’m inclined to, so maybe I’ll try that as I hash out my feelings about this book.

Going back to that all-but-one thing I said before, the “one” is the main character, Reno. She’s a biker, an artist, a person who doesn’t take herself nearly as seriously as the people she associates with. She has context for her life. She knows she needs to work hard because she chose professions that won’t make her rich. She knows that she chose things that aren’t really even professions, actually. And yet she makes plenty of mistakes, because she’s human. She indulges herself by making those aforementioned associations and seeing what life’s like with them.

The biggest “mistake,” and reason for the whole story, is her relationship with Sandro, an older man who’s got family ties to a company that owns racing bikes. (It all works out pretty nicely for her for awhile.) She travels to Italy with him — the plot points of which I won’t get into, because I can’t recall them, and because they were my least favorite part of the book — and mingles with his friends and becomes a different person around him, but never really makes me (the reader) believe that he was worth falling for. Of course, she’s recounting her story after the fact, when the proverbial dust has settled, when she sees him for the dirt he is, when she’s moved on. But, as is customary in prose and in life, even this bad experience gives her a mental manual with which she can go through life, with which she can improve and grow and dream. It all feels very cliche when I say it, but to hear her (er, Kushner), reduce these painful moments into precious gems makes you see how worth it it was. For example:

p. 4 // “People who are harder to love pose a challenge, and the challenge makes them easier to love. You’re driven to love them. People who want their love easy don’t really want love.”

p. 19 // “On occasion I let my thoughts fall into that airy space between me and whatever Stretch’s idea of me was.”

p. 70 // “I was doing that thing the infatuated do, stitching destiny onto the person we want stitched to us.”

p. 204 // “It seemed important to convey that I understood. Isn’t that what intimacy so often is? Supposing you understand, conveying that you do, because you feel in theory that you could understand, and you want to, and yet secretly you don’t?”

p. 344 // “You couldn’t hate someone who saw the world so differently.”

Despite having never been a visual artist, or a biker, or the lover of an older man whose family owns racing bikes, these distillations made complete sense to me. They must make sense to everyone, too. They’re new universalities, reworded from cliche and filtered through Kushner’s eyes.

Like Reno, and perhaps Kushner, I do fancy myself some kind of artist, eventually, if I get around to writing that [insert type of written composition here] one day. While I can’t claim to want or be able to make the large-scale visual installations that Reno produces, I also found myself identifying with how she waxed poetic about the creative process. It sucks being one of the many, trying to “make it,” and her words — some of which were downright apathetic — make it suck less. We all know we’re not alone, but it feels that way. A friend, even a fictional one, is comforting.

p. 8 // “It was an irony but a fact that a person had to move to New York City first, to be come an artist of the West.”

p. 154 // “…I had not put myself out there yet. I could delay it until I knew for certain that what I was doing was good.”

p. 364 // “Making art was really about the problem of the soul, of losing it. It was a technique for inhabiting the world. For not dissolving into it.”

And so, throughout this book, I latched onto these nuggets of wisdom, knowing that if Reno felt this way, surely the real person feeding her words did, too — and she produced a book because of it. Yet I also grew frustrated with Reno’s lapses in judgement, probably because they felt all-too familiar to me. One character, Ronnie, Sandro’s best friend and Reno’s one-night stand, was insufferable any time he showed up. He took his art too seriously (of course he was an artist to begin with), he cared about no one, and he found fault with the opinions of his friends for the sake of hearing himself talk. He’s the kind of person you’d claim never to be friends with, and yet you are because there’s no way to get rid of him. Maybe you, reader, would know how to, but I, and Reno, don’t. We’d let this person stick around because he’s not really doing much harm other than annoying us and sucking all the attention out of whatever room he’s in.

And then there was her relationship with Sandro, of course. Letting the romanticism cloud reality. Wasting time in Italy when she should have been in New York, fulfilling her dream. The Italy part of the book, as I mentioned, was my least favorite, because it dragged on. It wasted my time. Maybe it was intended to feel that way. Maybe the author wanted us to grow tired of Sandro and Italy so we’d be able to break ties with it before Reno could. By the time she returned to New York, I felt even more relieved than she did. She got rid of her sensationalist fantasies and she ditched a number of Sandro’s annoyingly political friends — these stragglers dragged her and the plot down as well, and made me feel just as isolated as she probably did. And I was elated to experience her re-discovery of the city she was supposed to love, and know that this time, she really loved it. Maybe I need to leave New York at some point to know if I love it.

I think I might eventually read some of Kushner’s other work, because I love her prose construction so much, and I have a feeling that not all of her books are about racing bikes. But mostly I want to read it to keep reminding myself that she’s out there, and that the feelings of jealousy and admiration can coexist peacefully. And that the latter can eventually blot out the sentiment of the former.

Orange is the New Black, Season 1

Late to the party! Title of my memoir. Anyway.

The primary reason I wanted to post about the first season of this show, which is in that sweet old-but-not-that-old news spot in popular culture, is because it was built up so, so much. If you’re familiar with how I watch television — and if you are, that’s a little weird, I guess — you know that I tend to watch shows like this a few years after they come out. Cases in point: Game of Thrones, Veep, most other HBO stuff because I don’t want to pay $14.99/month yet. I waited on OITNB because the hype bugged me, and because I wasn’t sure I was that interested in the setting or the cast. The last time I tried to watch an all-female cast of something, I could hardly stand the bitchy drama. Maybe that’s anti-my-own-gender, but it’s true. I like a balance. Dudes are funny, too. (What a revelation.) As is the case with most popular television, I hate being told I’ll like something by everyone I meet.

Let me finish the thought started in the first sentence of that previous paragraph, though. It was so, so built up — and I loved it! I couldn’t wait to start the next episode. I was instantly drawn in, both by the good actors (Laverne Cox, Uzo Aduba, Dascha Polanco, Samira Wiley, Yael Stone, Taryn Manning, Natasha Lyonne, Danielle Brooks) and the mediocre (Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon), to a world around which I have no frame of reference. Like The Sopranos — a better show, to clarify — I was willing to forgive inconsistencies and mistakes because, for the most part, I wouldn’t know how to catch them anyway. I’m thankful I know nothing about being in a women’s prison, but I sure am curious about it, no matter how true-to-life the story is.

I’m probably not alone in saying that Schilling and Prepon’s acting is mediocre, but I don’t think either of them are bad actors. I like both of their characters, and by virtue of my own background, they’re the two I relate to the most, I guess. Or, I should say, Piper (Schilling) is the one I relate to, not Alex (Prepon), because she’s white and fairly sheltered and relatively happy. Before being in prison, she didn’t know prison. Her experience is completely fascinating, and I understand the actions she takes under the circumstances she’s in. I just think the relationship between Piper and Alex is… cold. Their history feels fake because their chemistry is nonexistent. That’s all.

See, though, the forgiveness comes in because every other actor is incredible. Manning, whom I hadn’t seen in anything in awhile, is so terrifying (as is her makeup) as Pennsatucky, Stone and Polanco are so genuinely sweet as Lorna and Daya, and the energy that Wiley as Poussey and Brooks as Taystee command is absolutely mesmerizing. They’re all so incredibly complex, and they beg you to hear their stories. Bit by bit, we get to hear them, and it’s such a treat. If these were all real women — and perhaps they are, though I haven’t read the memoir on which the show is based — I’d be truly honored to meet any of them. Cox, Aduba and Lyonne are in a league of their own, though, I think. Their portrayals of Sophia, Crazy Eyes and Nicky come from especially deep, dark places.

Oh, and there are dudes on this show. Thank goodness. Matt McGorry, as Officer Bennett, is as innocent as a guy can be when he’s had sex with an inmate. Nicky Sobotka, er, Pablo Schreiber is devilish as Officer Pornstache/Mendez, even if he’s a sick fuck. I honestly can’t hate him because I love the actor too much. Healy (Michael Harney) could have been written either terribly or wonderfully, it’s hard to say. His layers are bountiful. I hope I figure him out more next season, because otherwise I’ll consider him a weak link. In any case, all three provide a level of smarminess that demonstrate just how screwed up the prison system is.

And then there’s Jason Biggs. I absolutely love his performance in this show. His Larry Bloom might even be my favorite character, because he is so whole and honest, and yet so completely benevolent. He’s done nothing wrong (yet?) except for letting himself be destroyed by his own noble intentions. It’s heartbreaking to watch.

What’s also heartbreaking is realizing how stark prison life can be, and how beaten down inmates can get after awhile. The portrayals of solitary confinement, of hazing, of weapon threats, of religious fervency, are all heightened microcosms of the real world. And yet I can’t help but think that the methodology implemented in prison might actually benefit real society. Many of the characters on OITNB, like Nicky and Taystee and Poussey, are so open about their feelings that the pace of the show is noticeably swifter. They’ve cut out that unfortunately-female tendency to stew and passive-aggress (though the show is not devoid of it entirely), and the result is so refreshing.

I can’t wait for Season 2. I don’t even know what I’m waiting for, really.

The Measure of a Man

Reading Sidney Poitier’s memoir, The Measure of a Man, I had a very similar experience to when I read Christopher Plummer’s memoir. Which is to say, the mystery of a man I hold in extremely high regard was sort of uncovered, and it wasn’t necessarily completely flattering. Though Poitier doesn’t ramble nearly as much — thinking back to the physical weight of Plummer’s book, I’d venture to say Poitier rambles about half as much — he still rambles, because he’s an old guy, and he’s an actor. A + B = C.

I think this book was largely targeted towards young black men, with the not-so-subtle intention of showing them what it means to be a real man. But, as with any memoir, there’s a lot to be learned from here. It’s just buried in a lot of philosophical tangents that can be very hard to follow, which I think Poitier was perfectly aware of but chose to push through anyway, since his writing is often punctuated with the actual phrases, “You know?” and “You follow?”

For me, the most fascinating aspect of the book was his recounting of his life in Harlem, which is pretty near where I live now. I tried to picture how thriving and incredible it must have been then, when he was living there, trying to make it as a theater actor and supporting his wife and child by working in BBQ joint. He speaks of it so fondly, despite the hardships, and for that depiction I’m truly grateful. The more I read about this specific place, the more excited I am to be in it, even if it lacks that heartbeat that it once had.

Poitier does a lot of recounting of anecdotes, but he does even more waxing poetic. Some of it is beautiful. For example, he talks about his childhood in the Bahamas, about the drastic differences between remote island life and hurried city life; in returning to his birthplace, he says, “But today the laughter of birds and the chatter of monkeys remind me that the source experiences that trigger delight in each of us are different” (p. 34). What a harmonious thought.

Some of it, however, isn’t so much beautiful as it is bitter or forceful. As he was coming up through the acting ranks, he experienced a lot of prejudice and hardship, something to which I cannot speak but for which I have a lot of sympathy and respect. And so, reading the life lessons he gleaned from those experiences is just… very difficult. He seems simultaneously at peace with his life and not over the struggles that he had to overcome. Without the context of race, his bits of advice appear generically useful. With it, there’s this brutal tone of sadness over them, desperation, anger. It’s an eloquent but very real reminder of how things were not too long ago. Here are a few passages:

p. 43, on creating opportunities for success // “My motto was Never leave home without a fixed commitment.”

p. 60, on keeping a level head // “I wasn’t yet ready to accept that environment compromises values far more than values do their number on environment.”

p. 91, on what young black men like him were dealing with // “Conflicts that had little or nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the cultural forces rooted inside him and the multitude of daily surrenders demanded of him by their social surroundings.”

p. 124, on channeling rage // “I have great respect for the kinds of people who are able to recycle their anger and put it to different uses.”

And then, about 2/3 of the way through the book, he enters into the real Preachy Old Man Zone. He abandons the anecdotes altogether and practically sits you on his knee. For statements like this, I wish I had opted for the audiobook version, as I think it would have been more impactful. I found myself in agreement with him a lot, but got lost in his hypothetical. He’s clearly a very deep, profound, methodical thinker, and hearing his voice reflects that more than seeing his words on a page.

p. 188 // “You don’t have to become something you’re not to be better than you were.”

p. 196 // “I simply believe that there’s a very organic, immeasurable grand consciousness of which we’re a part.”

p. 211 // “It appears that we are all killers of one kind or another and that life beings in the darkness of a total ignorance that is peeled away slowly, little by little.” (Wait, what?!)

p. 224 // “Collision is essential, that opposites create an energy, and that maybe nature has no preference for either of the opposites.

I don’t think it’s talking out of turn to say that he’s an intense guy. Hardworking, honest, artistic, yes, but also intense. He’s seen a lot, and he’s cultivated wisdom. But he’s not the perfect, stoic figure that I always imagined. Which is fine. He never claimed to be; this was just the conclusion I came to myself, based on seeing his movies and painting a certain picture of him in my head. It’s hard for actors to live up to the personality we project onto them; even though, as he said on p. 147, “Acting isn’t a game of ‘pretend.’ It’s an exercise in being real,” there’s still a layer of fake in there. That’s the point. It’s the way the two combine that forms the best product. He seems to know exactly what he’s doing, in any case. He’s still way up there with Plummer and Paul Newman on my list, too, and he knows that guys like him are few and far between. Here’s hoping that a few younger ones did what he wanted, read his book, and are destined for greatness with his advice in their back pockets.

Oldboy (the 2003 version)

I put this movie on an “I’ll get there” type of pedestal for about four years, because it’s the favorite of my Most Trusted Media Recommendations Source. (I’m not naming names.) I felt like I needed to work my way up to it somehow. By what means, I still don’t know, because I’m not even sure I was ready for it when I did watch it. The Spike Lee joint came and went, too, without me throwing that my $10-14.50. I guess it just hit me one day: I need some Korean subtitles to kick-start my brain.

According to my very detailed internet research (read: Wiki, obviously), Park Chan-wook, the director, and his fellow writers, Hwang Jo-yoon and Im Joon-hyeong, adapted this thing from Japanese manga. God, that must have been hard. The story is incredible, and twisted, both in its chronology and in its contents. But the finished product really is a masterwork, albiet one that might be difficult to swallow for some folks.

There’s some dark, dark shit in here. I’m a squirmy person once I see tentacles of any kind, and the octopus scene (I shall say nothing more than that) barely made me flinch compared to what came later. It’s not necessarily about visuals here, either, though the visuals are stunning and stylistically varied. It’s all about mental anguish instead, and it’s other-worldly. Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), released from 15 years of inexplicable, torturous solitary confinement, seeks out his daughter (who was 4 when he was kidnapped) and his captor. His captor, Lee Woo-jin, played by the insanely attractive Yoo Ji-tae, is basically three steps ahead of him all the time, though, setting him up to be in the hands of Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), a woman from Dae-su’s past. Yoo is so physically captivating that I kept forgetting to hate him as I watched the movie — his eyes are so still and kind, despite the evil that his character perpetrates on Dae-su. And Mi-do has such a calming presence over Dae-su that it’s easy to forget about… trying to figure out what she’s all about. By the time you reach that point, alongside Dae-su, you feel as wiped-out and backstabbed and blindsided as he does.

And yet there’s a certain lightheartedness to the movie. It’s in the coloration, and the confidence that oozes through the screen. I sensed a Tarantino-iness here, perhaps because ol’ QT might be an influence on the director. Coincidentally, QT was the president of the jury when Oldboy won at Cannes in 2004, and he dug it majorly. Park doesn’t always let emotional moments lie, especially early on. There are tons of quick cuts and jumps, especially at the start of the film, which heighten the intensity and speed up the pace. He saves the lingering shots for the end, when emotional reactions have a bigger payoff. And he plays with different styles, as I said before. Even though everything is logistically believable, there’s a supernatural element lurking in the background. The nightmare that Dae-su lived — and continues to live — is far too mysterious to be devised by a human.

I can’t recommend this movie highly enough, though I would not recommend it to everyone. It’s not just for people who like “foreign films” or “action films” or “film noir.” It’s for a special kind of viewer, who finds pleasure in delicate, deliberate mindfuckery.


Been watching a lot of Amy Schumer lately, folks. Been loving it, too. This is one of my favorite sketches of all time. Among the many things she skewers well is the way women are portrayed and the way women carry themselves. It’s so goddamn twisted out there, in the media, and she does the loveliest, most honest job of untwisting it.

Trainwreck was her first foray into the big-screen world, and for the most part, she nailed it. Her character semi-satirizes how women behave in courtship (did I just use the word “courtship”?) by being the one who pulls away — i.e., the man. It’s refreshing to watch someone who’s relatable, both emotionally and physically, be the object of a dude’s desire. (And for that dude to be relatable, emotionally and physically, too!) Amy ain’t anyone’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and thank Yeezus for that.

It’s just that… hold on, Amy isn’t really a trainwreck! She’s not! I was discussing this with a friend of mine recently, and we agreed that the Amy in the movie, while maybe promiscuous for the length of a montage, isn’t the hot mess she proclaims to be. She has a good job as a journalist, and seems to be pretty good at it — though sleeping with your source and not getting in trouble for it is entirely unrealistic — and she has a good relationship with her sister, and her father, and… she’s good! She’s a good person! She chooses the good guy in the end, thereby falling back in line with the rom-com tropes she tried to defy, but who cares? Why does she insist on calling herself a “trainwreck”? No one else is.

The real Amy isn’t a trainwreck, either, but she sort of implies she is in her comedy. Perhaps she’s doing it so that no one else can, and I get that. It’s a preemptive label. “I make fun of me so no one else makes fun of me.” But that sucks. No one should judge us, least of all ourselves.

Anyway, back to the movie. The aforementioned dude/guy is the one and only Bill Hader, who just continues to amaze and awe me with how incredibly versatile he is. He’s such a goddamn good actor. In Trainwreck, he is sweet and sexy and sympathetic and smart, without being entirely unattainable or ridiculous. Except for the part where he’s best friends with LeBron James. That part I could have done without. (Go Warriors!)

I also loved seeing the bevy of New York comics strewn about the cast. Dave Attell as a homeless man, Colin Quinn as Amy’s too-capable handicapped father, Nikki Glaser as the ever-logical friend, Vanessa Bayer as the birdbrained friend, Bridget Everett looking like a politician’s wife… it’s delightful. Amy really knows how to treat the city like a character, however overused that trope may be. Comedians are sorely under-used, and she knows it. Speaking of characters, let’s give it up for the almost-unrecognizable Tilda Swinton and her incredible wardrobe. Her entertainment-rag-editor-from-hell wasn’t anything close to Meryl Streep, but it sure was shocking.

Congrats, Amy. Let’s see what you do next.


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