The Conspiracy Theory Game

My favorite icebreaker game is one I came up with when I learned that Marion Cottilard 1. almost certainly had an affair with Brad Pitt and 2. is a 9/11 truther. The essence of the game is this: you have to self-assess the weirdest conspiracy theory you could earnestly believe and still be hooking up with the exact same people you could now. In this case, we know that MC is hot enough to believe something like that bonkers and still get with Sexiest Man Alive 1995 and 2000.

This game is very revealing and extremely entertaining. So, for example, I’m probably “grassy knoll” hot, but I’m probably not “chemtrails” hot. Kate Upton is “Jon Benet Ramsey and Katy Perry are one person” hot, but I don’t think that all Playboy models are. We are all attractive enough to believe the government controls the weather. No one is “vaccines are a hoax” hot.

Today, I want to come out of the closet with this new Huey Long truther. Check out this episode of Criminal and tell me I’m wrong. SHOW ME THE RECEIPTS.

 

The Exact Wrong Thing to Discover Today

I’m elbow-deep in this week’s book, Emma Cline’s The Girls, and the Manson vibes in the novel + the creepy Lolita energy I’m getting off this means I’ve checked the locks on my house four times today and it’s broad daylight.

Book Club: The Sellout

When I was home for a wedding last month, I visited my favorite local bookstore, Carmichael’s, a couple times. We don’t have an English-language bookstore in my city in Italy (and my reading level in Italian is roughly that of a ten-year-old), so I luxuriated in a store full of things I could potentially actually read. I’m going to need everyone to stop writing books for the next six to ten years so I can catch up; there’s so much amazing stuff and somehow there’s always more. 

The guy behind the desk recommended three books for me to take home, one of which was The Sellout by Paul Beatty. “You like Josh Ferris, right?” I do, yes. “And you were into Confederacy of Dunces?” Sure was. “Already read the new Ta-Nehisi Coates?” Twice. “Great, here.”

I devoured The Sellout on the plane home, though I don’t know if I would describe my appetite for it as voracious. As you and the rest of the English-speaking world likely already know, The Sellout was the first book by an American to win the Man Booker, which should have warned me. Remains of the Day, A Brief History of Seven Killings, God of Small Thingsand The Blind Assassin are some of my other favorite winners, and they all fall squarely into the category of “things I am glad I read and agree are for sure outstanding art but made me want to die the whole time.”

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Photo of the author holding The Sellout, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s the premise, and let me know when you start squirming:

Continue reading “Book Club: The Sellout”

Book Club: The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad is going to win the Pulitzer this year, of this I am certain. I’m sure you’ve heard about this incredible book by now if you’re not living under a literary rock. I’m not breaking new ground here telling you about it; I saw a copy at the grocery store a few weeks ago, and you can get it at an airport bookstore. Its ubiquity is well-deserved: everyone should read this.

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The Underground Railroad is a very, very difficult easy read, if you will. It’s so riveting that I read this whole thing on a cross-country flight, but you know how people are more susceptible to crying on planes? I was crying by page ten. It’s exceptionally hard to get through in a great many parts, but the writing and storytelling is so compelling that you can’t stay away, even as it shows you things that make your worst nightmares seem like an afternoon at Disneyland.

The book tells the story of a slave named Cora and her journey on the Underground Railroad. We move forward and backward in time and place, learning about her mother and grandmother’s experiences as slaves and seeing what the world is like in different parts of the American South. In Colson Whitehead’s imagining of the Underground Railroad, the railroad part is not a metaphor; it’s a literal railroad. There are actual locomotives and train schedules and conductors and stations.

While the book doesn’t tidily fit into the category of magic realism, it moves back and forth between heart-wrenching, unflinching depictions of American slavery and a bizarre dystopian dreamland, making the reader feel unmoored and uncertain, much like the protagonist. After Whitehead departs from a strictly linear and factual narrative, he’s freed up to touch on things that happen outside the timeline, like the advent of skyscrapers, the eugenics movement, and the Tuskeegee experiments. These slightly out-of-scope elements serve as a prescient warning to Cora (and the reader): this isn’t going to be over when you get out of the slave states and this isn’t going to be over at the end of the war.

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I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I hold a master’s degree in Southern Studies, so I’ve done a lot of reading and studying on how region and history is taught across the country. You were probably taught a very simplified version of events that was at best 20-60% accurate. It’s very tempting to make slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction into a tidy narrative of right and wrong, where everyone was either doing the enlightened and morally correct thing or they were not, and The Underground Railroad is not interested in furthering that story in any way, shape, or form. Whitehead integrated matter-of-fact primary sources that felt extraordinary and exceptional to me, but he periodically reminded me that no, this unimaginable cruelty and horror was pedestrian, and the fact that this is foreign to me speaks to my position of privilege. Whitehead skillfully wove in an under-discussed part of the post-war period in America: the sanitizing of slavery begun almost immediately and continues to this day. I was really in awe of how he drew parallels with the contemporary state of race in the United States with the Civil War; without ever saying it directly, he brought things like “stop and frisk” policies into context.

Whitehead has done copious research to place you in the direct path of the horrors of slavery, and he’s not about to let you off the hook with some story where everything works out great in the end and there’s a tidy moral. Things are not easy for Cora and her trials aren’t even close to over when she escapes the plantation. Many of the people who help her along her way meet gruesome ends. Some of the white railroad conductors are at best reluctant (with many deeply resentful of the circumstances that forced them into service) to help. The more well-intentioned pretty plainly don’t see former slaves as human beings, but rather something significantly less than they and exist almost completely in made up environs. It’s hard to read; you get to a point where you want badly for Cora and her friends along the way to eke out a win, but Whitehead withholds that because you know what? This is not Meet Addy or Dear America: 1863. You’re an adult and you need to acknowledge that slaves did not get an easy win, and racism is very much alive and well.  There’s hope, to be sure, but there aren’t any promises.

It’s important to read books that challenge you and expand your world view, and this book absolutely did that for me. Considering slave narratives in this surreal milieu shone a bright light on some things I hadn’t previously considered, to say nothing of how incredible his writing is. There’s so much to say about his research and storytelling that you almost forget, but paragraph for paragraph, the Underground Railroad was stuffed with beautiful prose that lunged off the page at me.

Next week, I’m reading this. Please join me!

Have you read the Underground Railroad? What did you think? Did you also cry to yourself for hours after finishing it? Tell me in the comments.

Getting Out: Charleston

Charleston Harbor and the Ravenel Bridge
Charleston Harbor and the Ravenel Bridge

Ah, the Holy City, my current home. I’ve been living in the tourism capital that is Charleston for about a year and a half now, and I’ve got designs on staying a few more months. We welcome scads of visitors every year who arrive by the thousand via tour bus and cruise ship, eager to take in the beautiful architecture, rich history, and world-class food.  The weather’s not bad, either. Truly, I run out of things to complain about. Founded in the 1670, it’s one of America’s oldest cities, and it’s still a functional port today. Though things have changed a lot here over the past few centuries, it remains a gorgeous city that is much more progressive, zanier, and more diverse than the rest of the state. Nicknamed the Holy City because of a nearly-embarrassing overabundance of churches, Charleston has played an important role in several faith traditions– Reform Judaism was born here, the country’s oldest Unitarian church is here, and it’s one of the most important cities in the Bahai’i faith.

A Charleston pocket park.
A Charleston pocket park.

It’s also routinely listed as one of the best vacation destinations in the world, so we get a true cross section of the population visiting, though they seem to fall almost entirely into three distinct categories: people who want to look at the beach, people who want to eat our food, and people who want to interact with a friendly kind of slavery. I’m always happy to see the first two, but believe me: I am not sympathetic to your position that the Old Slave Mart was “a downer” or your weird obsession with plantations. If you’ve got a soft spot for John C. Calhoun or want to tell me how human bondage wasn’t so bad, please just stay at your house and do not give money to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

After the jump, check out some photos I’ve taken around town and get my recommendations for the best places to eat, drink, stay, shop, and do in my adopted hometown.

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Lazy Sunday: 10 August 2014

Y’all, I had a rough. week. I’m treating myself to some day drinks, a new dress, and an afternoon at the Gibbes. Enjoy these reads!

Book Club: Eating Animals

When I was a freshman in high school, my friend Andrea bought me Everything is Illuminated for my birthday. I was instantly smitten, and a long love affair with the work of the then very young Jonathan Safran Foer was born. I devoured the entirety of his output, and I have the weird cutout book to prove it.

As I’ve gotten older and the hysterical realism vein of contemporary literature has bled out a little, I’ve come to see his work a bit less romantically and its flaws are more apparent. A tendency toward self-righteousness is inborn in people who are very good at their chosen craft at a tender age, and he’s no exception. It’s for this reason that I put off reading Eating Animals for five years.

Sidenote, in case you hadn't guessed: Yes, I have a tremendous crush on him.
Sidenote, in case you hadn’t guessed: Yes, I have a tremendous crush on him.

I was a vegetarian for five years in my late teens and early twenties, but I was never that enthused about meat before that. A stint in Spain where ham is considered a vegetable and a desire to impress a particularly omnivorous beau cured me of what my mother loved to call “the vegetarianism.” Though I dabble in veganism and am extremely watchful of what I eat, I don’t place much in the way of restrictions on my diet these days.

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Lazy Sunday: 20 July 2014

I don’t have internet in my house and so I’m working at this lovely bakery for the day. Unfortunately, the couple next to me is talking about how date rape “isn’t a real thing” and that the current situation in Gaza could be neutralized with by flying in some bacon. Imagine I typed this very, very loudly.