The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
YES. Wild slapstick picaresque of a slavery novel, a huge pleasure and a delight that still has some big things to say about America and race and the pre-Civil War era. This is what you want to be reading: A comic story of an accidentally cross-dressing pubescent slave boy who gets caught up in John Brown’s ride through Bleeding Kansas and his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Ohhhh yes.
The language is super sharp and crackling and the scenes are so funny and part of it is just the sheer audacity of James McBride for even doing this, writing an insane hilarious irreverent story about John Brown in which Frederick Douglass cameos as a drunken lech and Brown is a half-insane buffoonish figure, right about slavery and completely off his rocker about everything else. I don’t know about its portrayal of Douglass but its Brown is probably actually uncomfortably close.
One of the things this book does very, very well is portray the stolen conversations among slaves and the private assessments of Brown, their masters and white institutions in general. Given the overall tone of the work I’m reluctant to make too much historical claim about these scenes, but these are conversations McBride is clearly interested in and they work very well within the piece. They are the serious purpose behind the comedy, I would say.
This book rules. It also reminds me, as of course it would, of “Cloudsplitter” by Russell Banks, which is a more traditional historical novel about Brown that is one of my favorites. And wasn’t part of Brown’s historical importance in the first place that he got so many people’s attention and inspired so many stories and arguments?
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The most well-adjusted mass murderer in the film is the guy who explains calmly and brutally that it was war and therefore permitted. Adi Zulkadry is a secondary character, really, pictured here on the left, and he is also the only person in “The Act of Killing” who seems to understand that the killers are not the heroes of the scenes they are re-enacting.
Most of the men filmed do not understand this at all. Zulkadry seems like he does understand but just does not let it bother him too much. Which is chilling — worse, really, than the other characters’ surreal obliviousness.
It is a stunning thing for an intensely serious documentary to adopt some of the form and methods of, like, “Punk’d,” but “The Act of Killing” does. It is a documentary about the making of a film that only exists in order to make a documentary about it. But the men in the documentary don’t know their other film isn’t real.
The story here is the most horrifying story imaginable: After a military coup in Indonesia in 1964, there followed years of political and ethnic purges that killed 1 million people, and then the murderers, those in power who gave the orders and the actual executioners themselves, just … stayed around, and still had a lot of power, and in the course of 50 years the society sort of molded itself around those values: gangsterism, brutality, murder. And this means the murderers, old men now, still believe and have always been told to believe that their actions really are something to be proud of.
The subjects of the documentary believe they are making a film about their important historical roles, their great virtues as men of action, anti-Communists, lovers of American gangster movies who were willing to be even more sadistic than the films. Sure, great idea, you imagine the filmmaker saying, for this scene we will dress you up as Jimmy Cagney gangsters, or John Wayne cowboys. You’ll look great. Show us where you did your killing.
It is a trick. They do not look great. They look like monsters. The film’s dramatic tension, and it is taut and spellbinding, one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen, comes from wondering whether anyone, anyone, will begin to see this.
I read this Obama profile by David Remnick and it is very good and you should read it. It gives a bit of a window into how Obama thinks about a lot of things and also just formally it’s a great example of what a magazine profile is. You kind of don’t think you want to read a piece about Obama in 2014 but it turns out you do.
I have a small, small point about a big subject prompted by this passage and several others in the piece:
“I have strengths and I have weaknesses, like every President, like every person,” Obama said. “I do think one of my strengths is temperament. I am comfortable with complexity, and I think I’m pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am a product of original sin. And every morning and every night I’m taking measure of my actions against the options and possibilities available to me, understanding that there are going to be mistakes that I make and my team makes and that America makes; understanding that there are going to be limits to the good we can do and the bad that we can prevent, and that there’s going to be tragedy out there and, by occupying this office, I am part of that tragedy occasionally, but that if I am doing my very best and basing my decisions on the core values and ideals that I was brought up with and that I think are pretty consistent with those of most Americans, that at the end of the day things will be better rather than worse.”
It is good to be comfortable with complexity and more people should be. But all this “there are going to be mistakes” is rhetoric and in fact the president actually comes off as extremely self-certain in this piece — on Syria, on drones, on the NSA, on and on, even about football. Not necessarily unreflective, but not much in doubt.
I don’t know if it’s a bad thing and maybe it is just a requirement in politicians. Also maybe you just have to be a bit defensive in any interview with a magazine journalist guy. It is just an observation that even though Obama’s rhetorical style is the opposite of George W. Bush’s, what he really says throughout the piece is, nope, we pretty much got all this right.
Of course this makes Obama (or Bush) not much different than anyone else. Who ever changes their minds about anything? One lesson might be that certainty as such is not the problem; the problem is feeling certain about things you are wrong about. How we figure out which ones those are I do not know.
10. Floss. Yeah, so this resolution is back.
9. Play less chess. I did not do my 2013 resolution of actually learning about the game and working at it. But that means it is just staring-at-the-phone, time-wasting time. Obviously that’s not always bad but I feel I would be happier if I opened my kindle app more and my chess app less.
8. Play a video game. Seems contradictory, I know. But here is the problem I want to solve: I work too much at night. My idea is that if I had a video game I enjoyed I could play it a couple of nights a week and improve my general well-being a bit. Have tried World of Warcraft and Sim City but lost interest. May try them again, or find something new.
7. See more art. This was a 2012 resolution and it went pretty well, then it was not a 2013 resolution and I did not do it as much as I would have liked.
6. Make time for non-work writing. Blogging counts, but really I probably mean fiction writing or creative nonfiction. Works different muscle groups. Is good for the soul.
5. Make robertmentzer.com something. I realize this suggests a follow-up question and no I do not know what.
4. Travel. We have a good start for this one. We are going to New Orleans this month! With Forrest and a couple of friends who have a son the same age. A great adventure/great experiment.
3. Snowshoe more than twice.
2. Take more photos, videos. Including selfies. Whatever. I am talking about making images a bigger part of what I’m posting anywhere. We all carry around these incredible devices now. We should be documenting our daily lives, including boring parts.
1. Keep a cleaner desk. Nowhere to go but up on this one.
Some better than others.
Let’s do this.
Resolution: Grow a beard.
Resolution: Go snowshoeing more than once.
Result: Success! I went twice.
Resolution: Eat pho.
Result: Success! I ate pho with my friend Nick Taborek when he visited Wausau.
Resolution: Watch basketball.
Result: Abject failure. The weird thing is I still think I want to do this. A little-known fact about me is I actually like sports — just not, based on my actions, watching them or paying attention to them.
Resolution: Learn more about chess.
Result: Failure. Pretty sure I actually regressed. I am terrible, just the absolute worst.
Resolution: Read more poetry.
Result: Very satisfying success. I read “High Windows” by Philip Larkin, discovered the hilarious and amazing poetry of my new favorite James Tate, read this book City of Rivers and that David Rakoff novel in verse and more stuff. It worked, too; I believe it has improved my life. This will not be a 2014 resolution because I have actually incorporated it into my life.
Resolution: Get more twitter followers.
Result: Ugh, what kind of resolution is this. Forget I said this. Also, success. I guess.
Result: Really a pretty thorough failure. Expected to be a repeat resolution.
Resolution: Devote time to fiction writing, submitting.
Result: Abject failure. It is okay though. Don’t worry about me.
Resolution: Do new things with Forrest.
Result: Great success. To be fair, not actually sure it would have been possible to fail.
I am no kind of authority on any of these things, but that is sort of the point, or it should be. Lists are fun and I still do (sort of?) look forward to doing these, a neat little summary of the culture I’ve eaten this year and the exercise of trying to arrange it and toss out things I didn’t like and order things I did.
The world is so big and it feels like there is not really that much here. But here is a try.
(Singles are much better than albums. This is the main list. The albums list is the secondary list.)
20. “This Summer,” Brad Paisley
19. “People Mover,” James T. Cotton
18. “Timber,” Pitbull feat. Ke$ha
17. “Nosetalgia,” Pusha T feat. Kendrick Lamar
16. “Cruise,” Florida Georgia Line feat. Nelly
15. “You Song,” Lil Wayne feat. Chance the Rapper
14. “Mirrors,” Justin Timberlake
13. “The Wire,” Haim
12. “She Will,” Savages
11. “Merry Go Round,” Kacey Musgraves
10. “Birds,” Death Grips
9. “Hive,” Earl Sweatshirt
8. “New Slaves,” Kanye West
7. “Get Lucky,” Daft Punk
6. “Pusha Man/Paranoia,” Chance the Rapper
5. “We Can’t Stop,” Miley Cyrus
4. “Counting,” Autre Ne Veut
3. “Grown Woman,” Beyonce
2. “Diane Young,” Vampire Weekend
1. “Royals,” Lorde
So. “Royals.” What a cool song. Just badass, massively confident its sparseness. It managed to be the song of the fall, which I did not even know was a thing but which fits this song perfectly, it is so slinky and bright.
"Grown Woman" was the song I was most excited about when it came out, the kwaito Beyonce, the killer beat.
Chance the Rapper had the best, most haunting couplet of the year in “Pusha Man,” about life on Chicago’s south side: “Everybody dies in the summer/ So pray to God for a little more spring.”
I notice I liked the “wrong” singles compared to many other people’s year-end lists — I picked “New Slaves” over “Black Skinhead,” “We Can’t Stop” over “Wrecking Ball” and “Hive” over “Chum.” WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME??
And while I guess I think the Death Grips album is a bit of a slog (though worth listening to once!) the song “Birds” is really cool.
Also “Diane Young” by Vampire Weekend and “Counting” by Autre Ne Veut are weird-pop perfection. They are great.
8. Tim Hecker, Virgins
7. Kanye West, Yeezus
6. Beyoncé, Beyoncé (probably, I mean I will need to listen to it more but I think so)
5. Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap
4. Savages, Silence Yourself
3. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City
2. Danny Brown, Old
1. Rhye, Woman
So smooth, so mysterious, so like Sade, the short first album Woman by Rhye was my most played record and probably the most pure enjoyment I got out of music this year. I loved the super-raw honking vocals of Danny Brown’s XXX in 2011; Old is more technically accomplished and slightly more mature, luckily only slightly.
I liked Yeezus and I loved the two singles but I think a lot of people are going to be looking back at 2013 and saying, “Yeah, we overrated that somewhat interesting EDM rap album Kanye made.” No offense anybody. Something can be both really good and also possibly overrated.
Also, shout out Transcendental Youth by The Mountain Goats, which came out in late 2012 but which I enjoyed a lot in 2013.
10. Game of Thrones (HBO)
9. Vice (HBO)
8. Mad Men (AMC)
7. Family Tree (HBO)
6. Veep (HBO)
5. Mysteries at the Museum (History)
4. House of Cards (Netflix)
3. Breaking Bad (AMC)
2. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
1. Drunk History (Comedy Central)
Well there was no show that I looked forward to as much or enjoyed as much as “Drunk History,” at which I laughed until I cried multiple times and from which I actually learned a little bit of history. “Orange is the New Black” was a tour de force and exciting because of the ways it did not follow all the now-well-worn prestige-TV tropes.
The same cannot really be said of “Breaking Bad,” but damn it was taut as hell, despite the ridiculous wish fulfillment of the final episode (or was that the point?). I think “Family Tree,” a Christopher Guest joint, was a little slept on but it was very funny and subtle.
And you guys, “Mysteries at the Museum” is such great basic-cable fun.
5. 56 Up
4. Happy People
3. Behind the Candelabra
2. 12 Years a Slave
1. Much Ado about Nothing
I don’t watch many movies but these are good ones. As someone who lives in a cold place I enjoyed the Herzogified Siberia documentary “Happy People,” which is simple but beautiful and includes a scene of a man making a canoe out of a tree trunk.
Five good books I read, one of which I haven’t quite finished.
5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie
4. Very Recent History by Choire Sicha
3. Tenth of December by George Saunders
2. The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
1. Good Lord Bird by James McBride
P.S. The book I most wish I’d read this year was the Scientology book “Going Clear” by Lawrence Wright. I would read it but now it is too late to put it on my list so, you know, what is the point.