March 2018: Spectacle, or Spectacular

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Illustration by Maria Fabrizio via STAT (more about the article farther down this post)

If I’m being cynical, Boston’s inferiority complex as a“top U.S. innovation city” is why we have a city-wide partnership between 14 museums and galleries called “Art + Tech”…. In truth, there is nothing to suggest that “Art + Tech” came down from local city government, no “presented by Mayor Walsh” or “made possible by the General Electric” tagline…. But why mount this initiative now, Boston, when new technology is so thoroughly interwoven into every aspect of our lives that we barely acknowledge it—and Boston’s personal art history doesn’t seem to be featured?

I wrote about a few venues in the “Art + Tech” initiative for Aeqai this month. The review is more positive than the intro cited above, but I can’t get over my initial reaction, surely stemming from my own personal Boston hang-ups.

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If being surrounded by a cultureless abyss insufficiently communicates to confused tourists that they are in Houston, the bean’s verticality will therefore act as an additional reminder of their poor life choices.

I LOVE the “bean war” happening between Chicago and Houston right now. The above is an excerpt from bitter Kim Janssen of the Chicago Tribune. This article in the Houston Chronicle is a good print-friendly distillation of the barbs, and two funny Chicago protesters picketed with #notmybean signs last week.

While the Chicago bean is better for selfies (I even have one somewhere), I like the Houston bean better as a piece of art. Public art, anyway. I say this from a very safe distance.

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“Skeleton Crew” by Dominque Morrisseau
Huntington Theatre Company, closed March 31

“Skeleton Crew” is the third most-produced regional play in the 2017-18 season nationwide, and it’s easy to see why: great writing that features four affable characters enduring a depressingly American experience. The auto factory (door stamping, specifically) where they work in Detroit is slowly approaching complete closure. I thought the female half of the cast—Patricia R. Floyd as Faye, union rep and crew matriarch mere months away from her retirement benefits, and Toccarra Cash as Shanita, a heavily-pregnant model-worker—shone particularly brightly. Wilson Chin’s slowly disappearing set, with car doors on conveyors hanging above the main break-room action area, was also a highlight. Check out Josh’s review on Talkin’ Broadway for more.

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“And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy” by Adrian Shirk
2017, Counterpoint Press
Memoir – 261 pages

Adrian Shirk’s book is a memoir guided by the lives of religious women throughout U.S. history, highlighting the weirdness and survivalism inherent to woman’s American existence throughout the past 250 years or so. Mary Baker Eddy, Flannery O’Connor, Sojourner Truth, and Marie Laveau intermingle with her troubled brother, an independent, letter-writing aunt, and Shirk’s own tarot-reading, church-going, chain-smoking self as she journeys back and forth across the country. I enjoyed the journey, though I was admittedly more interested in the historical figures and her personal interactions with their histories than the author’s own chapter-long stories. The book also isn’t a great choice for someone looking for more typical, popular memoirs—while Shirk’s artful prose is clear-cut, there isn’t a tidy narrative, no defining moment, no clearly stated truth. That’s part of the point, though, and I appreciated the book as an exploration, and a celebration of overlooked women mystics through a personal lens.

To illustrate Shirk’s tone, treatment, and research, here’s a bit about Linda Goodman, who wrote the first astrology book to make the New York bestsellers list:

[Goodman] wasn’t writing about astrology in 1953, so what was it? Metered poems or short stories? Perfecting her top-notch copy? Coming of age in postwar America, during the years women were being filtered out of the workforce and into the suburbs, into a domestic ideal most closely resembling the Victorian era, I wonder if she knew in advance that shed have to write something larger than life, that in order to do anything professionally creative, she’d have to make a spectacle of herself, or be spectacular. 72

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“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath
1963, Harper Collins 50th anniversary edition
Novel – 244 pages

I remember the older cover of this book vividly from my high school library, where I had free periods as a senior. I think I was a little afraid to read it, since I knew that the author had committed suicide. It felt invasive. But, I probably would have loved it then, as I loved it now, despite its sickly sheen; Plath’s prose is a total joy, deftly, innocently leading us into incredibly dark depths. I certainly would have read it differently in high school than I did now.

I can also see why it’s been labeled “the female catcher-in-the-rye.” The comparison between the two books makes me think of a film article I read a few years ago, “‘Bird Man’ is ‘Black Swan’ for Boys.” Although Holden and Esther are roughly the same age in their respective books, unlike Michael Keaton and Natalie Porter in these films, their woes feel like a similarly gendered handling. It is the thirst for authenticity and—in “Bird Man,” anyway—the quest for exceptionalism that drives the male protagonists to madness/suicidal tendencies; with women, it’s a loss of self, a disappearing.

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After Richard Linklater’s Slacker became an unexpected box-office hit in 1991, every major studio in the United States dropped untold amounts of money trying to clone its success…. These films relied, without exception, on two crucial tropes: the cynical cool of rejecting ambition and popularity, and the mopey, tortured Gen X man-child who embodied that cool.

“You’ve Reached the Winter of Our Discontent” by Rebecca Schuman, part of her “The 90s Are Old” series for Longreads

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There are fans who seem to think Rick’s horrible behavior is justified because he’s cognizant of the damage it does and the cycle of self-loathing that attends each bout of emotional abuse. A charitable read on the sitcom, however — and BoJack Horseman probably does this better — would find an argument against taking such dour satisfaction from one’s moral indifference. At their best, both BoJack and Rick and Morty attest that you don’t get points for merely acknowledging how you’re a bad person; you also have to try to change. 

“‘Rick and Morty’ and the rise of the ‘I’m a Piece of Shit’ Defense” by Miles Klee for Mel Magazine

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When we study our participant before planning an Odyssey, we take many approaches. The first is a questionnaire that takes hours to complete…. Next, we conduct phone interviews with the friends, family, children, parents, coworkers, lovers of the participant, after which we go on retreat to spend a week as a team thinking deeply about our subject. We drink their favorite beverages, watch their most beloved films, listen to the albums they get nostalgic over, and even try to dream about them. The goal in this process is to fall in love with them. Yes, they are a stranger to us, but when someone is that vulnerable with us and we have the energy to give them our undivided attention, it is surprisingly easy to become enamored.

“What I’ve Learned from Turning People’s Hopes and Fears into Private Immersive Performances” by Ayden LeRoux for Electric Literature

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Writing, to me, has always been the duty of anyone in proximity to culture…. Words can be our tools for building the architecture of cultural memory, and art without the written word is like a protest without its organisers. Inciting changes requires commitment. And so, I show up, sometimes as a sheepish writer and sometimes as an interviewee. Since the beginning of my career I have been taught that it is an honour and privilege to record and be recorded, but sometimes I dream about how different the questions could be.

“why we need to radically need to rethink the power issues of the art world” by Kimberly Drew for i-D

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It is difficult to admit making a mistake, dear celebs, but this is an insufficient reason to double down on a mistake when it poses a true mortal danger to people in the sex trades. Time is running out as this bill gets closer to a vote in the Senate, threatening to isolate people already at the margins and deprive them of the means of doing their work safely. Now is the moment for celebrities to give up the fantasy of saving “Jane Doe” and do the hard work of seeing and listening to people in the sex trades as fully formed, complex individuals who have actual names. 

“If You Care About Sex Trafficking, Trust People in the Sex Trade — Not Celebrities” by Alana Massey for Allure. This was published on March 7, and unfortunately, SESTA passed in the senate on March 21. The negative consequences Massey and many others predicted are already happening.

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Ostaseski remembers Agnes as a woman of quiet determination who smoked Camels and kept the pack tucked into the pocket of her short floral apron. It’s tempting to try and imagine her at the moment she fully comprehended the minefield she was about to traverse with both men on her shoulders, while also carrying the grief of a wife and a mother. She stood out to Ostaseski. He trains those who care for the dying, and is interested in the role that family caregivers like Agnes play in the health care setting — how ill-equipped they can sometimes be, and how our culture and medical system might remedy this shortcoming.

“With the help of a loved one, a family finds what is essential in the end” by Bob Tedeschi for STAT. Side note: I loved the illustration for this story, it’s the featured image for this post.

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People justify video game bad behavior … by invoking the pseudo-scientific notion of “blowing off steam.” While I do find what is called the “catharsis hypothesis” to be more than a little troubling, I also find video games to be an effective means of temporarily eschewing real world concerns…. But the PC game A Mortician’s Tale (2017), in many ways, is the opposite of catharsis. In it, you assume the role of a recent funeral direction graduate tasked with operating a mom and pop funeral home. 

“R.I.P.: A Mortician’s Tale”  by Lee Matalone for The Rumpus

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Much of science fiction deals with imagining dystopia. I’ll talk about why that is later, but I strongly believe that, at this moment in time, we need to remember that one of the highest callings of science fiction is imagining utopia. I don’t mean starry-eyed visions of a fairyland that drops out of the sky. I also don’t mean a static society built on some fundamental irony like panopticon or the suppression of free will. I mean honest, earnest engagement with the question of what a better world looks like.

“Instructions for the Age of Emergency” by Monica Byrne on her blog. I’m smitten with this longread/keynote address and the future vision it presents.

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In March, my bi-monthly blood donation coincided with the Bleedin’ 4 Amina blood drive, organized by the Call Your Girlfriend podcast. Beloved co-host Amina has endometrial cancer, and while the blood donations obviously don’t go directly to her, they do help others in need. I’ve been donating or attempting to donate  since the Pulse nightclub shooting (after years of thinking I wasn’t eligible because of living abroad), and went on St. Patrick’s Day this year. I was dehydrated, so it took longer than usual, but thanks to persistent technicians, I managed to fill the bag. If you’re eligible, consider donating, this month or anytime!

A pink rose with beady eyes and fanged mouth drawn on

February 2018: The President of Love

A pink rose with beady eyes and fanged mouth drawn on

Angela Deane via The Jealous Curator

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That horror [of Sandy Hook] cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch.

Ann Friedman shared “Our Moloch” by Garry Wills, originally published in NY Magazine in 2012, in her recent newsletter in light of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Sacrifice. Sacrifice. Sacrifice. I can’t stop thinking about it in these terms, now. God stepped in to stop Abraham from sacrificing his son. Can’t see guns, the NRA, or GOP doing that anytime soon.

The students behind the Never Again movement are mostly theater kids, and there’s been some good writing about that (on blogs and in the New Yorker). And now seems like the right time for some Gawker-ish rudeness, and there’s always a discussion to be had about mental health in schools.

Seriously though, do you get Ann Friedman’s newsletter? (I found the rudeness article there, too.) I’m becoming increasingly dependent on newsletters for reading recommendations as social media becomes less and less palatable. WTF Just Happened Today (news), Jocelyn Glei (creativity/productivity), Submittable’s Submishmash, Literary Hub… all chock full of good (or at least informative) stories and delightfully devoid of internet commenters.

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A line I wrote this month: “In 2018, who even does a double take at a 51 ¾ x 84 inch close-up of a hairless mons pubis?”

Read more about “HARD: Subversive Representation” in my review for ÆQAI , up through March 9.

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I wrote a LinkedIn post for the first time, which is really just a little link round-up of a few cross-professional lessons (including one of my Lunar Cougar interviews): “But Isn’t This Supposed to be Fun?” A Few Widely Applicable Career Tips from the Film Industry

Click for the cute critter-on-video-camera picture I found, if nothing else.

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One way we judge the values we’re experimenting with is via exposure to their consequences. We all need to know how others feel when we treat them one way or another, to help us decide how we want to treat them. Similarly, an architect needs to know what it’s like to live in the buildings she designs. When the consequences of our actions are hidden, we can’t sort out what’s important.

“How to Design Social Systems (Without Causing Depression and War)” by Joe Edelman. A comprehensive, heartening how-to guide for fixing social media.

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Facebook is essentially running a payola scam where you have to pay them if you want your own fans to see your content…. It’s like if The New York Times had their own subscriber base, but you had to pay the paperboy for every article you wanted to see. The worst part is that as an artist, it feels like your own fault. We’re used to a world where if you put something out there that’s good, people see it and share it. But that’s just not true in this world. 

“How Facebook is Killing Comedy,” an interview with Matt Klinman by Sarah Aswell for Splitsider

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“Hack your way to success.” “Meet the right people.” “Become a business superstar”…. What is missed in all of this is the mindset of craftsmanship; that one’s expertise and deliberate focus on one’s craft is actually the primary driver for success and not some crapshoot of a series of hacks.

“Craftsmanship ― The Alternative to the Four Hour Work Week Mindset” by Daniel Tawfik via Medium

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Nostalgia has a dark side. There is a toxic fetishism for the past in America, a yearning to return to a time before everything got so damn complicated. America seems always to believe the past was a purer time. This is of course bullshit; the past only seems purer because we don’t know it anywhere near as intimately as we do the present, and purity cannot survive intimacy.

 “In the Dark All Katz Are Grey: Notes on Jewish Nostalgia” by Samuel Ashworth for Hazlitt. Great long read with a “Dirty Dancing” hook.

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The debates over so-called “color blind” and “color conscious” casting have been heated in recent years, especially when a theatre’s decisions do not align with a playwright’s wishes…. More often, however, the shoe is on the author foot, so to speak. What should you, as a playwright, do when a theatre does ask if they can depart from your character descriptions, leaving you to determine how color- and gender-conscious the play must be?

“Conscious Casting and Letting Playwrights Lead” by David Valdes Greenwood for HowlRound. An thoughtful discussion that doesn’t come to any hard conclusions about this hot-button issue, but takes an interesting, playwright-centered approach.

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January is typically a month when even the most adventurous New York theatregoers brace for the unexpected at the many theatre festivals that coincide with the annual convention of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. I was struck this year by how many works of theatre I saw in January that used words (if they used them at all) in unorthodox ways.

“Do Words Matter on Stage?” by Jonathan Mandell for HowlRound. The whole “plays vs. film” argument is that film is more visual, while plays are dialogue driven, but the new works discussed here turn that notion on its head. It’s good to remember the visual, spectacular capability of plays, and the in-person jolt that films can’t provide.

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We often tell students to write what they know, but in practice, our classes teach them to write what we like. Instead, we ought to be helping them write what they want to read.

“Don’t Make Students Write What You Want To Read” by Michael Noll for the Pleiades blog

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As social practice has increasingly aligned itself with specific community activism—just as it tells you (also increasingly) what to think and how to feel—Bilal and Postcommodity embrace the gray areas thrown up by human behavior through the wider, longer lens of conflict. Their work doesn’t resolve in any pat way…. They make themselves almost painfully vulnerable to interaction and people’s very mixed reactions to the work. The lack of self-righteousness by these artists is—in our era of Instagram egoism, slick self-branding, and market-driven art (even market-driven ‘political’ art)—pretty dazzling. 

“Swimming With Sharks”: Postcommodity and Wafaa Bilal in a Sea of Hammerheads” by Christina Rees for GlassTire

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They fueled each other’s creativity, but Shigeko Kubota’s substantial legacy became overshadowed by her husband’s equally formidable work…. “Even when I did my own stuff, people said, ‘She imitates Nam June.’ I found it infuriating. So I headed further in the direction of [Marcel] Duchamp. When Nam June went populist, I went for high art.”

“How Shigeko Kubota Pioneered Video as a Personal Medium” by Karen Kedmey for Artsy. Another good (but basic) Artsy profile of a female artist I hadn’t heard of: “The Unlikely Success of Edmonia Lewis, a Black Sculptor in 19th Century America.” 

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I know several women who easily ignored the grim warnings, who used The Baby Book purely as medical reference. Not me. In those dark winter weeks after giving birth, I became increasingly gripped by the story’s central conflict: Mama’s desires are dangerous; Baby is vulnerable. 

“The Baby, the Book, and the Bathwater” by Heather Abel for the Paris Review

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The possibility of enormous ice caps melting, releasing pressure, and contributing to volcanic eruptions remains. And with the world warming and glaciers disappearing, the possibility of powerful eruptions to come is growing. 

— “Volcanoes Get a Kick from Climate Change” — Michael Tennesen for Hakai Magazine

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“Red Clocks” by Leni Zumas
2018, Little, Brown and Company
Novel – 368 pages

Hadn’t heard vaginas referred to as “red clocks” before, so I appreciated the yonic cover illustration here. But now I like the term, as I liked this book and its five central charactersyes, I count the fictional 19th-century Arctic explorer, Eivør Minervudottir, as a central character. She is the research subject of one the book’s four speakers (“the biographer”each speaker has a label), and excerpts from the biography-in-progress separate each speaker’s chapters.

Each character navigates a near-future where abortion has been made illegal, and the impending “every child needs two” act prohibits single parents from adopting. The biographer, a single high school teacher, desperately tries to conceive via artificial insemination before the act takes hold. The daughter, one of her students, seeks an abortion. The mender, a “young crone” who has separated herself from society, is jailed and tried for allegedly performing an abortion. And “the wife” deals with the middle class trappings of motherhood we’ve come to expect from novels like thisthe ones that hang their stories on complex (read “unlikeable”) female protagonists.

When the voices become too many, Eivør’s hardship in the wilderness is grounding. When the characters evade confrontation that would make for a more explosive storyline, Leni Zumas’s sentences and research save the day.

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“Some of Us Did Not Die” by June Jordan
2003, Civitas Books
Essays – 320 pages

Abridged feelings: every person should get a copy of “Notes Toward a Model of Resistance,” and the immediate aftermath of 9/11 feels like so long ago.  Probably a book I should buy so no one reserves it out from under me at the library again.

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“Priestdaddy” by Patricia Lockwood
2017, Riverhead Books
Memoir – 352 pages

It is hazardous to read “Priestdaddy” in bed with another person who is already asleep, as it’s hard to contain your laughter. Beyond that, I would often just *have* to wake up my husband sometimes because I knew he would appreciate some loopy anecdote or wordplay, namely about dad rock or pooping your pants while on a hunting trip. But “Priestdaddy” is not a run-of-the-mill check-out-my-nutty-family memoir; Lockwood’s poet heart makes sure of that.

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“Nomad Americana,” a new play by Kira Rockwell
Fresh Ink Theatre Company at Boston Playwrights Theatre

Love seeing new plays from Fresh Ink, and “Nomad Americana” had some beautifully rhythmic scenes and an especially wonderful performance from Khloe Alice Lin as Stormi Echo, the younger daughter of the nomadic Echo family. But the play is pulled thematically in a few too many directions, and a lack of tension makes some storylines fall flat. Super enjoyable characters, but I think this one has another workshop left in it.

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Last week, it was my great honor to be elected President of Love, a tradition that began in 2014. I ran on a platform of reforming the love-bank, and abolishing all love-debt on an annual basis. It would be a bit too ambitious to propose a gold standard of love. Still radical, though, to admit love’s currency, and how much we have in circulation.

 

June 2017: The Pixel Forest

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Collage by Sarah Gerard, accompanying her excellent “Mouthful” column on Hazlitt

This summer, the MFAH continues its series of grand-scale, immersive exhibitions. Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest and Worry Will Vanish brings together two mesmerizing works newly acquired by the Museum. Under the direction of the artist, these light-based and video-based installations transform the vast, central gallery of Cullinan Hall into a cosmic journey through time and space. —MFAH website

My review: I’ve been having a lot of fun imagining the entire internet as “the pixel forest” since experiencing this exhibition. Except, it’s much more magical to get lost in this installation than the internet.

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“The Pixel Forest” with “Worry Will Vanish” playing in the background, by Piplotti Rist

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Even more dreamy than the pixel forest? The Propeller Group at Blaffer Art Museum, as they rebrand communism, journey beyond death and write a cross-cultural narrative for Vietnam. I wrote a full review for Aeqaiand I really did hear a song from “Miss Saigon” on the way to the show.

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Still from “The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music” – film by The Propeller Group

 

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“Homebodies: Coverature” – gut-punch comic by Arwen Donahue on The Rumpus:

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From “Homebodies: Coverature” by Arwen Donahue via The Rumpus

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What do many lone attackers have in common? Domestic violence – The Guardian

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Why eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts would hurt rural Americans the most – Hyperallergic

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On the one hand, I can certainly appreciate why a comedian might look at the score awarded to their latest comedy special by a particular publication and complain that it’s a reductive way to summarize years of their work, and yet I also understand why an outlet like The A.V. Club—one which is in the business of art criticism—might not see it as a huge stretch to attempt to evaluate comedy using the same metrics that they apply to other art forms.

Hershal Pandya for Splitsider

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After 49 days, the cat couldn’t take it anymore, bit his tongue, and bled to death on [his owner’s] grave. Leave it to a cat to take the most metal route to death.

—Louise Hung for The Order of the Good Death

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And then she said something that kind of blew my mind: “You know, [Mary Magdalene] was the first one to whom our Lord appeared on Easter Sunday morning. In that time, a woman’s witness was worth nothing — so that Jesus would choose to appear to her and say ‘go and tell the others’ is huge! Of course, they didn’t believe her, but Jesus was making a point about the importance of believing women.” —Anne Therieux for The Establishment, speaking with Sister Bernadette and other nuns about feminism and their calling. Consider my mind also blown.

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“In Other Words” by Jhumpa Lahiri
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Memoir
2016, Alfred A. Knopf

I think that my new language, more limited, more immature, gives me a more extensive, more adult gaze. That’s the reason I continue, for now, to write in Italian…. When I began to write, I thought it was more virtuous to talk about others. I was afraid that autobiographical material was of less creative value, even a form of laziness on my part. I was afraid that it was egocentric to relate one’s own experiences. In this book I am the protagonist for the first time…. A little like Matisse’s “Blue Nudes,” groups of cutout, reassembled female figures, I feel naked in this book, pasted to a new language, disjointed.  215-6

Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir of life in another language — Italian — is a work of art in itself. Lahiri is most comfortable in English, but also speaks Bengali with her parents, and began learning Italian later in life. This memoir was written in Italian, with her original text flowering from the left side of the page; employing a translator removed temptation to revise or correct.

The book is a beautiful exploration of identity, intention and vulnerability. Her ruminations will resonate with anyone who has studied another language:

When I read in Italian, I’m a more active reader, more involved, even if less skilled. I like the effort, I prefer the limitations. I know that in some way my ignorance is useful to me. 43

Behgali is my past, Italian, maybe, a new road into the future. In both I feel like a child, a little clumsy. 157

Beckett said that writing in French allowed him to write without style. On the one hand I agree: one could say that my writing in Italian is a type of unsalted bread. It works, but the usual flavor is missing. 179

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Last but not least: I’m so happy that Sasha Velour won RuPaul’s Drag Race! Loved this “magical bitch” all season—all of the final four queens were fantastic, but I’m glad an art weirdo has been crowned. From the sound of this article, she is going to do great things.

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