For the well-read red

December 15, 2016

Some of's regular contributors offer their suggestions for reading and viewing over the holiday--and some gift ideas for the red on your list.

Danny Katch

TWO SWEEPING novels about the African American experience that came out this year couldn't be more different.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a brilliantly original historical account of slavery that follows Cora as she escapes a Georgia plantation and slowly makes her way north via the famous network that gives the book its title, which in this book isn't just a metaphor.

Along the way, Cora is forced to disembark from the railroad in different states, and the story takes the form of an antebellum Odyssey, with each state presenting a different horror of American racism and slavery.

Whitehead doesn't spare any of the grotesque details of the daily violence visited upon both enslaves and free Blacks, but The Underground Railroad is also a tribute to the collective struggle of African Americans to live against all odds in a country that is terrified of their freedom and humanity.

Early in the story, Cora asks who made the railroad, and the conductor's answer--"Who do you think made it? Who made everything?"--could be interpreted either as Black people or God. In either case, the railroad and everything it represents is a miracle of Black struggle and survival.

Hari Kondabolu performs stand-up
Hari Kondabolu performs stand-up

There isn't anything so divine or high-minded in Paul Beatty's The Sellout, an acidic satire of...uh, everything.

It's your typical story of Boy gets raised by psychotic single father using Boy as a test subject in his Black nationalist sociological experiments, Boy's Los Angeles farming ghetto (that's not a typo) is literally wiped off the map by gentrification, Boy sues Supreme Court for the right to own slaves and re-segregate public schools.

Every page of The Sellout is packed with jokes that range from bitterly funny to funnily bitter. At the National Zoo in D.C., a woman makes a racist joke before she notices the narrator, and then digs herself deeper by saying, "Some of my best friends are monkeys."

"This whole city is a Freudian slip of the tongue," the narrator thinks to himself in response, "a concrete hard-on for America's deeds and misdeeds. Slavery? Manifest Destiny? Laverne & Shirley? Standing by idly while Germany tried to kill every Jew in Europe? Why some of my best friends are the Museum of African Art, the Holocaust Museum, the Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of Women in the Arts. And furthermore, I'll have you know, my sister's daughter is married to an orangutan."

Beatty's extra-caffeinated brand of satire won't be for everyone, but it works for me.

Nicole Colson

OVER THE next four years, we'll need to take our laughs where we can get them. That's why it was fantastic to have comedian Hari Kondabolu's latest album Mainstream American Comic to lighten up election season.

In the tradition of comedians like George Carlin and Bill Hicks, Kondabolu skewers racism and racists, bigotry and the system that breeds it.

Kondabolu heaps scorn on those in power, saving special contempt for Republicans. But Democrats don't escape unscathed either. Recounting meeting Vice President Joe Biden, Kondabolu says that Biden told him, "If I had hair like yours, I'd be president right now." "No you wouldn't," says Kondabolu. "Your hair is the least of your problems, Joe Biden."

"But I didn't say anything to him, you know," Kondabolu adds, "because I didn't want to get droned."

As for our new president-elect? Kondabolu quips, "Donald Trump says things like, 'The Blacks, the women and the gays love me.' I never knew the word 'the' could sound so racist, sexist and homophobic."

My second pick is the Netflix series Marvel's Luke Cage. Set in same universe as The Avengers, Jessica Jones and Dardevil, Cage is a bullet-proof Black man in Harlem who wears a ubiquitous hoodie and stands up for the defenseless against the corrupt--whether they be cops, criminals or politicians.

Some left-wing commentators have taken exception to the kind of "personal responsibility" politics Cage espouses in the show. Yes, the idea that Black men have to "do the right thing" can be a bit preachy at times. But as the series shows, a Black man in a racist world can do everything right and still have his entire life repeatedly ripped apart by the powers that be.

The political climate created by the Black Lives Matter movement is infused throughout the show--and throughout the excellent soundtrack. In an amazing cameo, Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man says, before performing on a radio show, that Cage ran from the police because "Bulletproof is always gonna come second to being Black."

As he launches into the rap "Bulletproof Love," scenes of police violently stopping Black men in hoodies throughout Harlem are shown, underlying the despair of a community under attack, but also its resilience and determination:

Lord, who to call when no one obeys the law
And there ain't no Iron Man that can come and save us all?...
Already took Malcolm and Martin this is the last one
I beg your pardon, somebody pulling' a fast one
And now we got a hero for hire and he a Black one
And bullet-hole hoodies is the fashion

Sherry Wolf

WHEN THE original version of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" came out in 1964, it was a commercial flop. Written by Paul Simon at the age of 21, strumming on the guitar in his bathroom to appreciate the echoes off the tiles, the song's initial failure led to the breakup of the folk duo. But after a remix and rerelease in 1965, "The Sound of Silence" soared to the top of the charts.

Today, the song's complete reimagining by metal band Disturbed takes a pleasantly sad song about human alienation and turns it into an arresting call for global solidarity with refugees. No wonder tens of millions have viewed Disturbed's 2016 video online and their version was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Performance last week.

I've never written about music before--and fully expect to be pilloried for this by the self-styled music commentariat--but of all the culture I've imbibed this past year, I've found myself returning to this piece of music over and over.

I grew up listening and appreciating this song. I was born the year it hit number one, and Simon and Garfunkel's version always struck me as a plaintive ode to the alienation of modern society, even before I knew what that word meant. The original is an urban tale of loneliness amidst a crowd, a description of indifference where there should be empathy.

Without changing a word, Disturbed creates a political call for humans of the world to come together--to literally reach across waters to the millions of people discarded as refugees. Where Simon and Garfunkel's lyric "silence like a cancer grows" is directed inward, Disturbed's seems more a political warning--a call to take action to literally save our sister and fellow humans in the face of the cold hostility of governments.

As we head into a new Trump era where more than anything human solidarity will be desperately needed, I find inspiration in this version. Its rage at systems, its love for humans who are suffering and its call to take action to help each other seem precisely the type of thing we need more of right now.

Lance Selfa

IF ALL of the pundits now writing multiple useless analyses of the toxic 2016 election had read Thomas Frank's Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People before the election, they would have been able to see how Donald Trump could pose a challenge to a status-quo Democrat like Hillary Clinton.

As I wrote at greater length earlier this year, Frank's book uses insight and wit to skewer the Democratic Party's reinvention as the party of elite, neoliberal professionals.

While Frank evinces nostalgia for the New Deal Democratic Party, he's spot on when he shows how the Democrats' thrall to Wall Street and Silicon Valley has coincided with their abandonment of working people. In 2016, millions of working-class Americans abandoned the Democrats.

Two recent books, Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous People's History of the United States are prime examples of the novelist William Faulkner's remark that "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Baptist, using historical records and oral histories with former slaves recorded by the 1930s Works Progress Administration, tells the big story of expansion of U.S. slavery from its Eastern seaboard origin to the old "southwest" from Tennessee to Louisiana. He makes clear the debt that modern U.S. capitalism owed to the economic production that was literally beaten out of slaves in the South.

As the water protectors at Standing Rock have shown in practice, Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous Peoples' History also reminds us that today's U.S. rests very much on land and resources stolen from millions of Indigenous people. The book, which I think is more aptly described as an interpretive essay on American history, also forces us to see that the U.S. military became a global superpower, based on a war-fighting doctrine rooted in the conquest of the North American continent.

Finally, I'd recommend the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura's masterful historical novel The Man Who Loved Dogs (El hombre que amaba a los perros). It interweaves three stories--the exile of Russian revolutionaries Leon Trotsky and Natalia Sedova in the 1920s and 1930s; the recruitment and training of Ramón Mercader, the Barcelona-born communist who assassinated Trotsky in 1940; and the 1990s-era story of the narrator, an editor for a Cuban veterinary journal and amateur vet, who recalls his encounters with the elderly Mercader, during the assassin's exile in 1970s Cuba.

Padura creates remarkably human portraits of all his characters, even the historical figures like Trotsky and Mercader. It's a novel that ruminates over many issues from idealism and failed dreams to the role of Stalinism in smothering the emancipatory core of socialism.

Amy Muldoon

LOOKING FOR something special for that geek/activist in your life? The recent explosion of young adult fiction and comics that break out of stereotypical genre confines has yielded some great entertainment for those seeking escape (or inspiration for fighting some very real super-villains), but don't require readers to leave your anti-oppression at the door.

Launched in 2014, the Ms. Marvel reboot starring the first Muslim headliner in a comic follows Kamala Khan as she acquires inhuman powers. A Pakistani-American teenager, she has to balance her family's expectations against periodic local and global apocalypses. Funny and sensitive, the series riffs on the dismissiveness of society at large toward millennials. Winner of Hugo Award in 2014, story arcs are available bound in multi-issue volumes for binge reading.

Probably most famous for the first cover of a comic to depict breastfeeding, Saga--written by Brian K. Vaughan and with art by Fiona Staples--deftly depicts all the challenge of modern parents. If those modern parents are star-crossed lovers from warring sides of an interstellar war, some of whom have magical powers and others who are television-headed robot aristocrats.

If you prefer your magical adult stories to come without pictures, Ilona Andrew's Kate Daniels series delivers action of multiple kinds.

The series follows down-on-her-luck mercenary Kate through Atlanta's magical politics and an apocalypse of the week. The best of the crop of Urban Fantasy series, Kate and her very diverse cast of friends, allies and enemies provide page turning mysteries, large doses of magic-fueled violence, and all-to-rare humor.

While many titles in this genre feature exceptional female leads, this series shows an unusual social awareness, from clearly defined sexual consent to acknowledging genocide against Native Americans. And while there are vampires and werebeasts galore, Andrew's plumbs the depths of Slavic, Hindu, Indonesian, Native American, Celtic and other mythologies for boogiemen and women.

For something gentler, the final installment of Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching young adult series The Shepherd's Crown is a beautifully crafted story about loss and taking the last steps toward adulthood. And battling elves.

The novel is set in Pratchett's Discworld, and was his final completed work before his death. It's a fitting final work for an author who used fantasy to deliver biting social satire, but wrote with a deep affection for people and wonder at life itself.

And if you can't be bothered to pick up a book, stream HBO's Westworld. Lush and complex, the unraveling mystery of artificial intelligence in a Western theme park loosely evokes issues of slavery, rebellion and human agency. But even if you ignore those elements, the acting and writing is breathtaking.

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