Monthly Archives: December 2013

Not a holiday movie: 12 Years A Slave

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This past weekend, Sean and I went out to see a movie. No, not one of those cutesy, uplifting family-friendly holiday features that are so popular this time of year. Far from it. We went to see 12 Years A Slave.

My God.

This is a film that you can’t really recommend to people because it’s basically asking people you like and appreciate to feel like they are getting kicked in the stomach for two hours straight.

But it is a very important movie that needed to be made. And more importantly, to be seen.

12 Years A Slave is the true story of Solomon Northrup, an antebellum African-American man who was born free and lived as a professional musician with his wife and two children in Saratoga, New York, and then was deceived into a false business proposition that led him to Washington, D.C., where he was then kidnapped and sold into slavery in southern Louisiana. He eventually is freed again and recorded his 12-year nightmare in a published book, thereafter dedicating himself to the abolitionist cause.

This movie is very, very, very, very hard to watch. There are graphic scenes of brutal whippings and beatings, utter dehumanization. It’s the kind of movie people walk out on midway through, and for those who make it to the end, they’re left emotionally vacant, silent, and…transformed.

The film’s choices are deliberately uncomfortable. I started squirming in my seat during one lengthy shot near the beginning of the film, when a character is nearly lynched and is straddling the line between life and death as he dangles among the Spanish moss from a tree, his toes barely supporting him on the boggy mud below. This shot stretched on for what must have been the longest three minutes of my life.

This movie is also very beautiful: featuring haunting panoramics of the Louisiana bayou country, the soundtrack of cicadas throughout. There is something perfectly chilling about the overlay of misquoted Scripture and African spiritual songs. And I’ll be shocked if Michael Fassbender doesn’t get an Oscar for his performance as the sadistic, abusive plantation owner Epps.  I thought Gravity was an incredible cinematic experience (it totally affirmed the existence of 3-D movies, in my opinion), but seriously…give this movie all of the Oscars.

I CRIED ALL OF THE TEARS AT THE END. ALL OF THEM. I heard the collective sobbings of women (and probably men, too) all around me in the theater.

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The fact that this movie follows a free man who must suffer the psychological, as well as physical, brutalities of slavery makes it not just a “black movie,” but a “human movie.” Although admittedly Sean and I had a collective feeling of self-loathing and horror upon boarding the train after, and finding ourselves in an extremely small white minority. White Man’s Guilt. It’s a thing.

Holocaust movies we can stomach despite their very real atrocities because that was them over there, not us over here. Slavery in the South? Well.

(Don’t even get me started on White Southerner Guilt. This is probably what fueled all of Faulkner’s Southern Gothic novel-writing.)

I read Gone With the Wind this summer and didn’t care for it as much as I felt like I was supposed to. This movie and story certainly throws that whole “Mammy” myth into the garbage. Solomon could have been any of those anonymous black, and falsely merry, slaves in the opening credits to Scarlett O’Hara’s story. And that’s the thing: this is one story among many untold stories.

This is the kind of movie that they should be showing in high school history class. But the parents would never allow it.

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Favorite nonfiction reads of 2013

I’ve read 46 books so far this year, toward my goal of 50. I’ve been challenging myself to read longer books, classics, and especially nonfiction this year, so although I don’t think I’ll reach the same book total as last year (52), I have read more pages in less time! This year I participated in two book clubs: the mail-based one with college friends and a neighborhood book and pub club, which have both motivated me to delve into titles I might not otherwise choose on my own.

My main reading goal this year was to read 20 nonfiction books, and I’ve read 18 so far! I haven’t been a big nonfiction reader since high school and college required textbooks made nonfiction seem dull and tedious, although I have remained quite the news junkie and a devoted subscriber to various newspapers and magazines. Not to mention that my entire career revolves around nonfiction!

This year I discovered some truly great nonfiction reads: gripping, moving, inspiring, well-written stories that resonate all the more because they are true. I’ve learned about things I would have never imagined: the astronaut selection process, the intricacies of mountaineering, the social strata of Mumbai slums, the symbolism of street art, the security levels in mental hospital wards. I got a lot of suggestions from the book The New New Journalism, which is an anthology of interviews with contemporary non-fiction writers about their research and writing processes. Highly recommended for writers and readers alike.

Here are my five favorites from this year:

1. Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in The Bronx by Adrian LeBlanc

510TA2HMBJLWow. I cannot say enough good things about this incredible family saga. This is the kind of book that sinks into your skin and stays with you for a very long time after. Random Family is the sprawling tale of three generations of a Puerto Rican family and their intertwining stories as they navigate all of life’s triumphs and obstacles in the South Bronx, one of the nation’s most notoriously rough urban neighborhoods. This book reveals a hidden world of gang culture, state prisons, drug rings and addictions, the welfare and food stamp system, teen pregnancy, and all other intricacies of poverty…right here in New York City.

LeBlanc won all sorts of journalism awards for this work, and with good reason. The portraits of her characters are rich and honest: I found myself rooting for somewhat naive, optimistic teenage Coco and her various children, clinging to every hope that they would just survive. But some of the other characters I absolutely loathed. Yes, there are welfare queens and crack addicts in this book, but there are also just people. It helps the reader understand the crippling hopelessness and insurmountable challenges of poverty in a way that mere statistics and headlines can’t capture. I raced through this book in three days and didn’t want to let go…and I still can’t, really. Read more about Random Family here.

(P.S. The New York Times just published an absolutely wonderfully written, LENGTHY expose on the current state of homeless children in the city, focusing on a portrait of one girl, Dasani, and her family. It’s like a crash course for Random Family. Check it out here. Hope for print journalism!)

2. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

emperor-of-all-maladiesConfession: I’ve never been that interested in science. It has never fascinated or enthralled me the way it has a number of my peers. But I think if a book like Emperor of All Maladies had existed when I was studying, say, high school biology, my entire outlook would have been transformed for the better.

This is an incredible feat of historical and scientific research: a massive biopic of cancer from its first recorded victims, throughout the constant battle for a cure, to modern-day medicine’s astonishing abilities — and shortcomings. What I loved about this book is that it wasn’t just about the development of chemotherapy or experiments conducted on childhood leukemia victims, it also analyzed the intersection of the disease with culture. Mukherjee, an oncologist himself, delves into the origins of cancer’s first poster child, the foundation of the American Cancer Society, the explosion of fundraising for breast cancer research. It is all truly, truly fascinating. A book for everyone because I am certain that everyone has had their life impacted by cancer, in one way or another. Read more here.

3. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

220px-DWCityI love books that focus entirely on one specific moment in history and really dig deep into the details. This book juxtaposes the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect in charge of constructing the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair, and H.H. Holmes, America’s first known serial killer. The biographies intersect only slightly — Holmes constructs a “murder hotel” to lure in his victims who are visiting the nearby World’s Fair — so the construction of the book is a little odd, but as Larson explains, he chose these two contrasting stories to highlight the stark contrast in how men choose to live their lives. There are men who live to illuminate the world (literally, in Burnham’s case) by sharing their genius, and there are men who live only to bring darkness and death.

The H.H. Holmes chapters were obviously edge-of-your-seat material, and the kind of thing that infiltrated my nightmares for a bit after, but I really enjoyed the World’s Fair bits, too. Burnham and his team — which included Frederick Law Olmsted, the genius who gave us Central Park in New York — were racing against the clock, limited resources, an uncooperative climate and landscape to construct a miniature city so magnificent and inspiring that it would put all the nay-sayers in NYC and D.C. (two much more developed and reputable American cities at the time) to shame. A treat for all history buffs. Read more here.

4. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

urlI wrote a lengthy post about this book earlier this year after reading it. I would still heartily recommend it. So, so, so powerful. After you read it, watch this CBS story about Louis Zamperini, see what a humble and grateful man he is and his relationship with the author of his biography, and cry all over again. GAH.

You will have a lot of feels from reading this book, but the good feels outweigh the bad ones, I promise. Zamperini is incredible, his story is incredible, this book is incredibly put together and well-researched. It has also sparked my interest in reading Seabiscuit (Hillenbrand’s other bestseller) and other military nonfiction, like Flags of Our Fathers, which is awaiting me on my bookshelf. Check out Unbroken here.

5. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

urlThis darling little gem is a must for book lovers! This is the record of letter-based correspondence between Ms. Helene Hanff of New York, an avid reader, and stodgy bookshop employee Frank Doel of London that begins as purely business relationship and blooms into a charming long-distance, long-lasting friendship. (Warning: Quite a bittersweet ending.) It’s almost too whimsically wonderful to be true. Check it out here.

What are your favorite non-fiction reads?

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Happy almost-weekend!

I have a serious book-related post in the works, I swear.

This has been such a loooong week. Aren’t post holiday breaks always like that? Today at work we had a very serious debate in our bullpen area: Which is the more attractive Franco brother?

James?

Or Dave?

Dave won by overwhelming votes. Glad that’s settled. (James has a special place in my heart though, since we both went to see Scarlett Johanssen in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the same showing. He also has been seen by co-workers outside NYU’s Tisch School, bumming cigarettes off students. Poor guy.)

More recently, I posted a link to an article to Facebook about where the Gilmore Girls cast are now, and inevitably, a fierce debate broke out about who is the best of Rory’s boyfriends. I’m Team Jess, and apparently that makes me a party of one because he’s not “good enough” for Rory and just “means trouble.” Whatever. He fulfills my three important criteria: 1) reads good books, 2) listens to good music, and 3) has dark hair. I think it’s because as a goody-two shoes, the boy with the perpetual smirk and the overwhelming sarcasm and the leather jacket is intriguing. I can understand what Rory was thinking here, OK?

In other news, by the end of the week, I revert into a 16-year-old girl (we all do, apparently). So ready for the weekend. Hope you spend it doing something better than debating the merits of fictional boyfriends from the early-aughts.

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