Step Aside, Pops: An Interview With Kate Beaton

Kate Beaton, by Kate Beaton!
Kate Beaton, by Kate Beaton!

Kate Beaton’s web comic Hark! A Vagrant, includes a strip about Jane Austen that made me spit coffee all over my dorm room the first time I read it. I never really paid attention in history class (it was boring memorizing all those dates and names of people I couldn’t tell apart), but as I poked around her website, I started to read comics about historical figures. There was Queen Elizabeth I and her giant neck ruffs and Nikola Tesla, the Dreamboat Scientist. Hark! A Vagrant taught me a version of history full of vibrant characters and stories I hadn’t learned at school.

Her latest collection of comics, Step Aside, Pops, published by Drawn and Quarterly, features the founding fathers getting stuck in an amusement park, and fascinating people—largely left out of our history textbooks—who are just waiting for us to become obsessed with them.

ANNA FITZPATRICK: What were you like in high school?

KATE BEATON: I was one of those kids who was neither popular nor unpopular. I kind of kept to myself. I had friends, but I could have sat at any table without fully belonging to any of them. People knew me as smart and as an artist. My older sister was probably the most popular girl at the school, so I was also kind of in her shadow all the time. I was “Becky’s Sister,” I didn’t have a name.

When did you start developing that identity as an artist?

Probably grade two. I was tagged as the one who could draw early on. I loved that identity, and it was what I wanted to do. It was easier to stick out when the same people put their art projects on the wall. I knew that I had a talent, and they knew I really really enjoyed it.

When did you start getting into history?

Also early on. I’m from Cape Breton, and I’m from a very Scottish part of Cape Breton. History is embedded in our identity because Gaelic is still taught there, and people pick up all of the traditional arts, like music and dance. You learn that you have a heritage, and that means a lot to people.

What books were you reading in high school?

I got my hands on whatever I could. The library was small, and the bookmobile would show up every month—like a van full of books and you’d just kind of sit there pick what was in there. I remember trying to overshoot my scale at the time and I’d pick up stuff like [James Joyce’s] Ulysses and be like, “I have no idea what is going on.” But then reading stuff like The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, I think I was too young to understand that one, too, but I enjoyed the book. If I would find something that was like, “Oh that’s a classic,” I would read it, like The Color Purple [by Alice Walker]. I had read The Hobbit in ninth grade, and then in 11th grade I found out that The Lord of the Rings existed. I didn’t know that it was a prequel. I didn’t know there were three more books, and they were giant, so that was exciting. It seems kind of crazy not to have known that Lord of the Rings existed, but it was a rural, internet-less place.

I remember reading a book called Byzantium I really liked. It was always these random books that were around. Byzantium was about a monk who travelled with a bunch of Vikings into the city, and he’d been captured by them. I was really enthralled by that one. I have no idea who wrote it. I have no idea if it’s good or not. I just remember liking it.

It’s almost scary revisiting the things you loved as a kid because you don’t know if they were actually good or if you just remember them being good.

Yeah, I’ll pick it up and think, “Oh this book is way too Christian,” or something that I would not have even batted an eye at. Who knows? I mean, it’s about a monk. Maybe it is, I don’t know.

Your new book, when compared to your previous collection Hark! A Vagrant, has a lot more obscure historical and literary references. Was there more research involved in this one?

For sure. The longer I do comics, the more research goes into them. The more that you go outside the realm of what most people know, the more work you have to put in to get the exposition in there so that people will actually enjoy it if they don’t know anything about it. I can make a comic about Ben[jamin] Franklin’s personality because we all kind of have a general idea—I don’t need to explain who he is or what time it is, or anything else about him. With other guys, you can’t just drop a personality quirk onto the page when people have no idea who it is. There’s more work involved in setting it up so people feel comfortable with the character.

Were all of the figures in the new book people you already knew about?

I discovered new people along the way—I always am, I always did before. I didn’t know anything about Ida B. Wells until maybe 2009? And then when I found out about her, it pretty much blew my mind. There are so many people who are overlooked. There’s only room in the history books for so many people, and they’re usually going to be some white guys. As soon as you start opening that can of worms with everybody else, there are going to be all kinds of people that jump out at you.

Were there any people who had to be cut from this book?

The Anne of Cleves Gables joke didn’t make it into the book. It’s either people’s favorite, because they get the stupid pun that it makes, or they’re like, “I don’t understand this one at all.” It’s a mashup of Anne of Cleves and Anne of Green Gables.

[In Anne of Green Gables] Anne shows up as an orphan and is all starry-eyed about how she’s going to be accepted. Then the Cuthberts are like, “No, we wanted a boy,” but they learn to get along anyway. And when Anne of Cleves shows up [in England] from Germany, and she’s all starry-eyed, she’s going to be the queen of England, but then Henry is like, “You’re ugly.” [Laughs]

They were both these focal, cool characters who were not what the person they came for wanted, so it was kind of a fun segment to mash-up. Of all the wives, a lot of people like Anne of Cleves the best because she had a good head on her shoulders. She was just from a totally different culture. She showed up and [Henry VIII] didn’t want her, but she didn’t die; she got to live in a party palace and be the King’s sister. There was a lot of disappointment in that, but I feel like she’s kind of an underdog. You root for her. I hope she was happy.

When you started making Hark! a Vagrant, you had a day job at a museum. Now you’re making cartoons full time—what are your work days like?

It’s different all the time. I wish I was one of those people who were like, “I start work at nine,” you know, “lunch time is this, and then the bell rings.” I feel like I’m always behind. I work all the time. It’s exhausting stuff, sometimes, to be a creative person. I can’t take a day off without feeling immense guilt for it, because no one else pays the bills for me, and then you’re always kind of scared that if you slack off that’s the end. But there are a lot of really amazing things about being a creative person. There’s a lot of freedom. There are a lot of ways in which my life is very charmed. I’ve been trying to normalize things things recently; I realize my constant work is getting out of hand.

What happens when you try to get to work, and you’re just stuck for ideas? How do you get through that?

That happens to me all the time. One of the things about the comic is that whenever there’s an update, it’s a relief, but then there’s another blank page. I have different methods for trying to jog my brain into action, and a lot of it is just reading and absorbing material, and seeing if something clicks, and then going down that avenue hard.

I put on documentaries when I’m working. There are a bunch on YouTube—just go to YouTube and search for BBC documentaries and set the time for more than 20 minutes, and then shitloads pop up.

And you just play them in the background? Or do you learn something when you put them on?

Yeah! It can be a stupid thing to do when you’re trying to work and you’re like, “Oh, I wonder what did happen?” and then you just end up watching the documentary. So I got into podcasts. I listen to WTF with Marc Maron, or This American Life. I like a mix.

Who are some contemporary cartoonists and illustrators that you’re into right now?

Meredith Gran makes amazing comics. Jillian Tamaki, she’s fantastic. Anything she touches turns to gold. Emily Carroll is also at the top of the list. Eleanor Davis is amazing. I’m very excited for Laura Park‘s new book to come out. There’s a whole bunch.

You also had a kid’s book, The Princess and the Pony, that came out this summer.  How did that come about?

I pitched the idea, and then we had to edit it a lot. It was harder than I thought it was going to be.

That pony character has been around in your work for a while. Is it the same pony, or do you have a little stable of ponies that you work from?

It’s the same pony all the way through. It’s just one character I’ve had that stuck around. There’s no accounting for it really, people liked it so it stayed. He definitely gets rounder, more of a perfect little round ball.

I’m trying to find a good wrap-up question that will poignantly reflect on everything we talked about, while also leaving it open ended for the future, but all I really want to know is: Is there any book you’re reading right now that you’re into?

I have these books that I’m like “I can’t wait to read them!” but I haven’t even gotten around to starting them yet. I put one in my bag to read on the plane and I came here and I realized that I forgot it. I just picked up Jack Handey‘s book about Honolulu?

YES! The Stench of Honolulu ! I didn’t mean to yell, I just really love that one.

I’ve been meaning to read it for a really long time.

Every line in that book is so funny. I reread it maybe once a month.

You look at some humorists and like, Jack Handey. No one can be him. And his humor is kind and clear, you know? You don’t read it and feel like—there’s no snark in it. It’s just like pure comedy. It’s so lovely to read.

He plays this persona so well of this guy who’s dopey and well-meaning and just doesn’t get it, and the joke is always on him. He’s so good.

Oh man. I’m so excited to read it. ♦

Hero Status: Agnès Varda

Illustration by Minna.
Illustration by Minna, based on a self-portrait.

In the French director Agnès Varda’s 1962 movie Cléo from 5 to 7 the title character says, “Everybody spoils me. Nobody loves me.” The line is perfectly delivered, and encompasses the loneliness and depression that can be felt by somebody who seems to have her shit together. Cléo, a pop star played by the beautiful actress Corinne Marchand, is a little bratty and a lot frivolous. She likes to shop and flirt. She is also, maybe, very sick. The movie follows Cléo in real time as she waits for test results from a doctor that will tell her whether she has cancer. As she goes about her evening, Cléo tries to distract herself from the fact that she is terrified.

The French New Wave refers to a group of directors that cropped up in the ’50s and shone in the ’60s. I first learned about this movement through blogs (what else?) when I was in school. These movies were existential in the most stylish way possible, an antidote to my boring life in Ottawa. I sought out some of the movement’s most iconic titles from my local library, only half understanding what they were about but enjoying them all the same. These were movies made by directors with names like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. I never questioned the homogeneity of these films; when I was 17, I was still being taught that all great, intellectual artists were white men.

I didn’t see Cléo, my first Agnès Varda movie, until I was 21 years old—21!—that’s years after I first became interested in the New Wave. I was three years into an English major and had learned to broaden my scope of literary works and consume more books by women. I decided to make the same effort with film. Cléo looks a lot like the typically stylish heroines of a New Wave movie, the type you might see referenced in fashion editorials or screencapped on style blogs. It is a very aesthetically pleasing movie. I liked that I could indulge in all the quote unquote superficial aspects that drew me into that era of film. (Whatever, I like pretty things, and that’s OK!) But after enjoying so many visually similar movies, I was ready to watch something written and directed by a woman, that gave weight to the daily and inner life of its female lead.

Poster for Cléo 5 to 7 (1962) by Agnès Varda.
Poster for Cléo 5 to 7 (1962) by Agnès Varda.

Over the course of the movie, Cléo does nothing spectacular. She tries on some dresses, she rehearses a song, she sees a movie. In one scene, Cléo gets changed for a rehearsal, but she isn’t just getting dressed, because sometimes an outfit isn’t just an outfit, you know? She is deciding how to present herself to the world while she does her job—a job that demands she look immaculate—while secretly freaking out about her test results. This, after having complained to her friend that men only pay attention to her because she’s beautiful. Also, did you know that she is lonely? Because she is: She’s so lonely. I wanted to hug her when I watched that scene. Even though she is a fictional character in a decades old movie I wanted to call her up and say, “Do you want to come over and forget about putting on a pretty face for a few minutes and just talk about our feelings and listen to music? I have some old French records you might like.” My life is nothing like Cléo’s, but I’ve been lonely, too.

Varda’s films lend small moments magnitude: She knows how to frame a shot and how long to linger on a scene before moving on. In many movies of that same era (like Jules and Jim or A Woman Is a Woman), the female leads show up all beautiful and immaculately coiffed, ready to play their part. Watching Cléo was like going behind the scenes with the type of woman we usually barely get to know. Varda gives Cléo space to dread and ponder, to question life. She turned her camera on a regular woman as if to say, Her daily life is just as interesting as any gangster or radical or Gauloise-smoking dude who has read too much Sartre. Varda didn’t need to make a character who was likeable—French cinema was already filled with female muses—she needed to make a character who was real.

Varda herself is something of a character. She was born in Belgium in 1928 but moved to France with her family during the Second World War. She’s mostly lived in Paris, although she did spend time in Los Angeles with her husband, the filmmaker Jacques Demy. (The two were married from 1962 until Demy’s death from AIDS-related illness in 1990 and she made her 1991 feature film Jacquot de Nantes in his memory.) It was while living in California that she made 1968’s Black Panthers, a documentary short that focuses on the political movement in Oakland at the time, and the imprisoned leader Huey Newton.

Varda has also had the same bowl haircut for decades. She is very sharp and funny in interviews; my favorite is this one in the Believer where she opens by pretty much stating how much she hates answering repetitive interview questions and would rather talk about tennis. She has a background in photography but no official training in filmmaking; in an interview with Lula Magazine, Varda says, “At the age of 25, I had hardly seen 15 films.” She was only slightly older than that when she began shooting her first film, La Pointe Courte, in 1955. She made the movie to record footage of a small town for a sick friend who could no longer visit.

Her most recent film, 2008’s The Beaches of Agnès, gives a sense of who she is as a person. Technically it’s a documentary, but I think it can be better described as a visual memoir. Using old photos and film clips, dramatic reenactments and narration, she retells her life as she remembers it. She pays tribute to her mother and chronicles her artistic coming of age. She is sentimental about her marriage and unapologetic about her involvement in second wave feminist protests. She throws in an anecdote about Harrison Ford auditioning for one of Demy’s movies. She remembers moments from her life both big and small. Varda takes her work and her art seriously—why shouldn’t she?—but I was mostly drawn to how candid she is. I sometimes think of great artists who are at least as old as my grandparents as these untouchable, mythic figures, but Varda is all too ready to share her inspirations and her process, inviting viewers into her brain to explore her memories with her. I also like this film for purely selfish reasons: When I see the reverence with which she reflects her life through her art, I think I wanna do that, too! I wanna archive my life through my creative work.

Varda has a number of movies to her name—films, and documentaries, shorts and feature length movies. They range from traditional New Wave features like 1965’s Le Bonheur to her 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I, in which she traveled around France, often alone, with a handheld camera. Some of her films I have connected with more than others: Perhaps you saw her documentary short Women Reply (1975) circulating on Tumblr last year, in which women answer the question “What does it mean to be a woman?” Like many relics of second wave feminism, it’s an unfortunately dated piece, overemphasizing the ciscentric link between gender and body.

I haven’t seen all of Varda’s movies. I started to binge watch all the gaps I had in her filmography, borrowing Criterion DVDs from cinephile friends, signing up for free introductory membership trials on documentary streaming websites, returning to the library. I quickly learned that Varda’s movies are not to be plowed through in one sitting, the same way you can’t really “binge” through a lifetime of heart to heart conversations with a best friend. Her films movies aren’t slow, but they are carefully considered and need time to simmer.

Take Vagabond, a movie she made in 1985, long after the French New Wave had ended. The movie was called Sans toit ni loi in French, which translates to “without roof or law.” It’s a beautifully shot movie, but isn’t exactly pretty. It opens on the corpse of a young woman, then flashes back to show the life of the woman, a hitchhiker named Mona, and the final weeks of her life. Mona is dirty and described by those who knew her as incredibly smelly. She isn’t necessarily rude, but she is blunt. There is no softness to her; she is not a well-styled New Wave heroine. It’s a dark film, one that makes you pull for a character that you know is doomed. Yet Vagabond posits that even though Mona’s life might appear bleak when compared to a candy-colored ’60s Godard film, even though it might be short and doomed, it is still a life, and one worth documenting.

The moments in Varda’s movies that resonate with me most are quiet: Mona conversing with an older woman who picked her up in her car, Cleo having her tarot cards read at the beginning of Cléo from 5 to 7 needing desperately to know her future, subtle moments in the lives of seemingly ordinary people. I see Varda’s movies as radical because they give us the chance to see the lives of women as poetic, as philosophical, as complicated, as having room for depth and lightness together at once. ♦

Great Yarns

urlThe Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco
1983, Harcourt

Ba-ya-ya ba-da ba-ya-ya-ya, ba-ya-ya / Ba-ya-ya ba-da ba-ya-ya-yaaaaaaaah. Wait, what? Oh, THE NAME OF the Rose? Ha ha, I guess I was thinking of the classic Seal tune “Kiss from a Rose” (as usual). You can see how I made that mistake. Ha ha ha…where was I? OH. The Name of the Rose, OK. At first glance this might not seem like something I’d usually talk up to my Roox. I mean, there are basically no women in it, blargarlarghlll. But this novel is really funny and complex, and a great mystery to boot. Set in 1327, Umberto Eco’s masterpiece tells of an English monk and his novice who investigate a spate of murders at an Italian abbey. Eco recreates medieval Italy with playful intertextuality (although the many untranslated Latin quotes challenged my patience for sure) and varied detail (including cool maps of the monastery and its astounding library). His characters, in particular, are wonderful, and they all have their peculiar secrets. Poison! Philosophy! Postmodernism! All this and more in one of my favorite whodunits of all time. —Estelle

urlIn Search of Lost Time
Marcel Proust
1913-1927; 2003, Modern Library

​The problem with Proust, or Marcel to you and I, is that he’s unjustly become a sort of byword for pretension or high-falutin’ worthiness. A seven volume (SEVEN!) life’s work of a novel, written by a sickly and rather neurotic nineteenth century Parisian aristocrat? Mais oui! This rep though, really gets in the way of the basic truth of In Search of Lost Time, which is that it’s one of the most pleasurable reading experiences possible—so addictive and enriching that Virginia Woolf called it, “my greatest adventure.” Long, lushly curving sentences carry you through our narrator’s processes of perception from his rural French childhood to an adulthood in high society—whose absurdities, by the way, he skewers supremely. The time I’m losing (it’s basically a year-long project undertaken with some fellow nerds) to In Search of Lost Time is time I’m happy never to get back. Because the greatest thing about finishing Lydia Davis’ translation of volume one, Swann’s Way, isn’t the satisfaction of slamming a three pound book down on your nearest surface and quietly saying “boom” to yourself: it’s knowing that you have another six volumes ahead of you. —Hermione

LOTR1The Lord of the Rings
JRR Tolkien
1954; 2005, Mariner Books

My first ever copy of The Lord Of The Rings had a blurb announcing that there are two kinds of people in the world—those who have read The Lord of the Rings, and those who are going to. A few chapters in, I understood why; I was transfixed. This vast story begins in the cosy, pre-industrial idyll of Hobbiton and moves into a fantastic landscape of mythical creatures, medieval warriors, and impregnable towers. Tolkien sketches his characters lovingly, but if the books only focused on Frodo’s heroism, Aragorn’s nobility, and Gandalf’s wisdom, it would make for exceedingly dull reading. It’s the supporting cast that makes the text live and breathe with an immediacy that’s remained fresh over decades. Clumsy, carefree Pippin who can never get anything right until he does; Eowyn the Shieldmaiden’s admirable courage; Smeagol/Gollum who’s not quite an antihero yet draws the reader’s empathy all the same in his indelible tragedy.

In the Preface, Tolkien famously mentions that his book had “grown in the telling.” That growth has only continued since its publication: The Lord of the Rings is not just the epic of England that Tolkien set out to write, it’s a modern epic that has influenced popular film, literature, and song. Yet, if I have a complaint 14 years since my first journey to Middle Earth, it involves the subtle, and not so subtle, racism that pervades not just this book but Tolkien’s entire corpus. The overweening whiteness of his characters and the repeated opposition of light and dark from which Tolkien draws his moral conclusions is hard to overlook. As a brown woman reading LOTR I find myself having to navigate an analytic journey alongside the fellowship. Curiously enough, I love the book no less. Perhaps because Tolkien’s rich and intricate universe provides unlimited scope for molding. After all, even if a mythos posits itself as a genuine history, it’s also a history that can be filled in, retold, made richer and more complete. And with the invaluable contributions of fan communities to the expansion of Ardaverse, it can justly be said that The Lord Of The Rings has grown in the telling, far beyond what its author could ever have conceived. —Ragini

James Joyce
1922; 1986, Vintage

If I had a dime for every time I’ve begun Ulysses without finishing it, I’d have mustered enough wealth to purchase my dream home (a mansion consisting entirely of lavender-infused treats). Often ranked one of the best novels of the 20th century, Ulysses is also regarded as one of the most difficult books to finish. James Joyce once told his French translator that he “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what [he] meant.” This seemingly never-ending novel is a struggle to tackle with it’s difficult vocabulary, unique structure, and many paradoxes. While my intentions for reading Ulysses were not pure (I wanted to brag about finishing it more than I wanted to consume a Very Important Piece of Literature), I was surprised to eventually find myself enjoying the process. If you’ve been dancing around the idea of reading and finishing (very important part!) Ulysses I’d recommend a thorough look at the book along with a reader’s guide that helps make sense of the book’s various “episodes.” —Mads

9780374534141_p0_v3_s260x420My Struggle
Karl Ove Knausgaard
2009–2011, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

If you like winding portrayals of “real life” in books (Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Marcel Proust, Sylvia Plath), you might like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel My Struggle. I say might because getting through a six-volume novel of 3,600 pages is a lot to ask of any reader. For me, its length felt like a challenge: Can I pull off reading this? Can he pull off keeping my interest for so long? Although I was initially put off by the controversial title and the eye-roll inducing audacity of a dude writing down every detail of his own life, to date I’ve read three of the four volumes currently translated into English (Knausgaard writes in his native Norwegian).

The books reflect on signal moments in the protagonist’s life—his father’s death, his marriage, his childhood—but in the telling the story meanders all over the place. A memory of a childhood supper skips ahead to a funeral and then morphs into an essay about art. Reading My Struggle is like flipping through the pages of a diary: There are boring parts but every time you mean to stop reading, the growing atmosphere of another scene, another moment, pulls you in detail by detail, and another 100 pages have passed. When Knausgaard writes about being a teen sitting up in his room in the dark Norwegian evenings, cold outside but warm and bright in his house, the particular sound of his father’s footsteps on the stairs, the happiness of listening to a favorite record, I am there with him. When he writes about a complicated plan to sneak beers into a New Year’s party—the anxiety and excitement of it—I am there with him. I forget I am just reading; I am existing alongside him, a shadow presence. —Monika

imgres-1Lonesome Dove
Larry McMurtry
1985, Simon & Schuster

People often say of books “it’s impossible to put down,” but Lonesome Dove is painful to put down, which is why this masterpiece is best ingested during summer when you have fewer restraints on your time. This tale of pioneering and cowboy spirit boasts characters so real, writing so readable and beautiful and funny and gut-wrenching that you’d be mad if you had to set it aside to read a textbook. So don’t. Read it during the summer. You know that thing in books and movies where there are a bunch parallel storylines going on and you’re like, “How is this all going to come together?” Lonesome Dove does this more perfectly than any story ever told. There are fierce female leads, epic journeys through strange lands, romance, and sex (not always of the sexy variety, either), and entire lives lived within its pages. Just read this book and your life will be richer for it, I promise. —Jane Marie

51qFi0rYw7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_War and Peace
Leo Tolstoy
1869; 2010, Oxford World’s Classics

War and Peace is one of the longest novels ever published—my paperback edition has 1,440 pages. It’s divided into four parts (plus a two-part epilogue) and I was assigned to read part one for a college course one spring. My friend and I resolved to read the whole thing even if it took us the entire summer (which it did). This was partially because we are overachieving completists, but mainly because we were SO sucked into the world of aristocratic Russia in the early 1800s. I mean, the book starts with a grand soiree thrown by the closest confidant of the queen where we meet the central character of the book, Pierre Bezukov. He’s the illegitimate son of a dying count, who was educated abroad and feels quite out of place upon his return to Saint Petersburg—though when he comes into money, everyone is suddenly very eager to accept him.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, 13-year-old Natasha Rostov, my favorite character, is living with her parents, also aristocracy, but forever struggling to keep up financially, and she’s in love with a boy who is about to head off to the army. As you can guess from the title, one of the central conflicts of the book is the war between the Russians and the French that comes to a head when Napoleon invades Russia in 1812. However, I will admit that not being much of a war buff, I kinda skimmed through the really battle heavy parts to get back to the family drama, especially the story of Natasha, her romances, and her personal battles through a tumultuous adolescence and coming of age. There are five families, so I’m not even scratching the surface with the characters I’m mentioning. Tolstoy has such a gift for bringing you right into the heart of the battlefield or an elegant soiree that reading this book is like binge-watching five seasons of a great historical drama. —Stephanie

imgres-5Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman
1612/16; 2005, Harper Perennial

Don Quixote is MAD OLD. Like, over 400 years old. But it still contains many of the elements we modernes readerz look for in literature today. Rrrrrrrromance. Goatherds! Insults. Someone pooping himself! Multiple times! Do you even need more information before you get started? If you do: This Spanish classic is concerned with the travails of one Don Quixote, who at the tender age of 49 decides small-town life no longer satisfies him. So he dusts off his great-grandfather’s armor and sets off on adventures. Literary critics and academics often call Don Quixote important because it is one of the first examples of the novel as we know it. But I appreciate it because its story is one of radical self-reinvention and a refusal to conform to societal expectations. I will say that some aspects of the tale are pretty terrible—there’s a lot of gratuitous violence, and classism, and ableism. But it’s an astonishing example of a protagonist seeming to create a boundless world for us to see, simply by encountering it and engaging with it. Plus, it gave us the word “quixotic,” for which we should all daily give thanks. —Estelle

6759Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace
1996, Little, Brown and Company

I’m about to attempt to do something really difficult, and that is explain the plot of Infinite Jest. OK. There is an eccentric family. The father is an experimental filmmaker who opened a tennis school for children. His youngest son is a tennis champ and linguistics prodigy who memorizes the dictionary for fun. The tennis academy is near a halfway house for people with addictions. There is missing video, the contents of which are unknown. There is a group of dangerous Canadian radicals who are trying to track down this video to use as a weapon because, oh, right, this is a version of the near future in which all of North America has been turned into one giant unified state and the calendar years have been subsidized by corporations.

In other words, it is a very dense, very ambitious novel in which an entirely new world is created. Ask 10 different Infinite Jest fans to explain what it is about, and you will get 10 different answers. Me, I really connected to the way that Wallace depicts the depravity of loneliness in the middle of all this chaos. There are dozens of little tangents and subplots and side stories throughout the book, each one filled with moments that sum up how strange and weird and beautiful life is. I became way more absorbed in those pages than in the plot as a whole. The book wormed its way into my head until I woke up earlier than usual and went to bed later than usual so that I could have more time with it, until every second I spent not reading it felt like a waste. I finished Infinite Jest after three days of pretty much nonstop reading, and by then my head was hurting and my eyesight was a blur. I did the only thing I knew I could do: flipped back to the beginning, and started it again. —Anna F.

imgres-4The Odyssey
Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore
2007, Harper Perennial Modern Classics

The Odyssey is a long-ass poem, and it’s really really old. It’s attributed to Homer, a man the Ancient Greeks really dug. Maybe the coolest thing about The Odyssey is that it’s survived so long and is still read today, hundreds of years after it was first popular. But the stories in it are also pretty wild. It follows the hero Odysseus, who is trying to get home to Ithaca after the Trojan War (the war is the subject of The Illiad). The story is told using flashbacks, and it switches between Odysseus basically boasting about his own survival skills, and his home, where his wife Penelope is trying to survive without him.

The goddess Athena, who takes it upon herself to guide Odysseus, is my favourite character. She is a master of disguises and can take on any form, which brings me to The Odyssey‘s abundance of magical creatures. All those mythical creatures you might be already aware of? They started here. The Sirens, who lure men to their deaths by singing; the Lotus-Eaters who basically get high on a plant all day, every day; and Cyclops, the one-eyed giant. The Odyssey also takes on very serious human quandaries: Home and family, and the importance of getting back to it; the question of gender, Athena is both male and female; and the love between Penelope and Odysseus, just how real is it? After all, Odysseus spends seven years with the nymph Calypso but Penelope is expected to stay chaste and faithful while not knowing whether her husband is dead or alive. These questions, among many others, make Homer’s Odyssey intrinsically fascinating. —Naomi

imgresA Song of Ice and Fire
George RR Martin
1996– , Bantam Books

This epic fantasy series is comprised of five books: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons (with two more books to come). Each of the five novels numbers over 800 pages, and with over 1.7 million words, it is one of the longest fiction series’ ever written. The books tell the story of power struggles between noble houses in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and Essos. In this medieval fantasy world, each house is determined to seize the Iron Throne, hence the dazzling battle sequences, magical creatures, and prophecies galore.

Reading this series is a PROJECT. Only a few of the multiple and dense storylines intersect at any given time and there are over 1,000 named characters (some with aliases!) to keep track of. But Martin’s crystal, detailed prose that makes it so that Westeros feels like a real place, with all of the beauty and heartache of our own world…plus dragons! I became so devoted to the tales of Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Arya Stark that, over the course of six months, I feverishly read the books every day on the train, during my lunch hour, and every free moment I had. Before you dive into the series know that it contains a lot of sexual violence and misogyny and as much as I enjoy these books, it’s also perfectly legit to avoid them on those grounds, or to at least approach them with critical caution. —Meagan

73.Eleanor Catton-The LuminariesThe Luminaries
Eleanor Catton
2013, Little Brown & Co.

Here is everything that I understand about the Zodiac: I was born in early May, which means that I am something called a “Taurus,” and whenever stuff goes wrong in my life I like to blame it on “Mercury in retrograde,” regardless of the time of year. Eleanor Catton understands the Zodiac way better than I do, and she has used it as a really clever structure for her magnum opus.

It’s late 19th century New Zealand. Walter Moody, a prospector who has just arrived to town in the hopes of striking gold, enters a hotel, where 12 men of different backgrounds and professions are puzzling out a series of mysterious events, which include a suicide attempt and the discovery of a small fortune. The men are there to corroborate their stories, and the novel shifts between their perspectives on the events. This is where it gets neat: Each man is assigned a zodiac sign, and the interactions of the characters mimic the positions of the stars and planets in the night sky. Do you need to understand all that to get into the story? Not at all—many of the book’s mechanics went over my head as I read it, and it wasn’t until some nice strangers on the Internet explained this to me that I was able to kind of appreciate it (thanks, internet strangers!). The Luminaries is a plot-heavy page-turner, an homage to massive Victorian novels. —Anna F.

51gmnZ6Ta6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Almanac of the Dead
Leslie Marmon Silko
1991, Penguin

There is a lot of raw ugliness in this story—racism, misogyny, homophobia, arms trading, drug dealing, murder, sexual violence, even black market organ selling. That’s the world that Seese is living in when her baby is kidnapped. In order to find him, she seeks out a celebrity psychic named Lecha, a Yaqui Indian woman living outside Tucson. Seese begins to work with Lecha on transcribing an ancient manuscript which foretells the end of the world—or at least the world as we know it—filled with crime and greed and ruled by white people. Almanac of the Dead is a story of many, many characters and that makes it a tough read because it is also non-linear and weaves a number of plots, subplots, and mythologies. What holds it together is its setting in the American Southwest and Mexico, and its focus on how capitalism destroys and disenfranchises people, especially those native to the Southwest. This is a story about the evil people (especially white men) do and a search for spiritual justice; it’s a powerful, honest portrait of America. —Stephanie

LittleWomen13Little Women
Louisa May Alcott
1868-9; 1983, Bantam Classics

I first read Little Women in fourth grade; it was so captivating and exciting that I spent the whole day powering through it until I finally discovered who ended up with who (this wasn’t the point of the book, but still). Little Women treats the lives of four sisters—Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy—and their various lovers, friends, missteps, and celebrations. I fell in love with Jo right away, and I still think of her fondly as one of my book-soulmates (how I refer to characters in books to whom I feel very connected). Jo is a general kick-ass whirlwind who cuts off and sells her hair when her family needs some money, and can never keep her evening gloves clean. But each of the sisters is compelling in her own right. Meg is the nicest and toughest sister—one of those secretly tough types—and she has a tender love affair. Amy and Beth both managed to surprise me, too. I’ve re-read this book many times over the years, whenever I needed a long, pleasant read to fill me with nostalgia and the good kind of treacly-ness. It’s funny how much Little Women has changed as I have: The words stay the same, but the book evolves with me, and I find something charming and new about it every single time I read. —Tova

a-little-lifeA Little Life
Hanya Yanagihara
2015, Doubleday

A Little Life starts off delightfully. Four best friends from college—Willem, Malcolm, JB, and Jude—have moved to New York, anxious to start their careers in their dream fields of acting, architecture, art, and law respectively. Young and idealistic in the big city, they don’t know what adventures life has in store for them. “Hmmm, what a lovely story,” I said after the first 20 pages, having started the book knowing nothing about the plot. “I can’t wait to get lost in this ripping tale over the summer!” BUT THEN!!!! Yanagihara slowly reveals the backstories of the four characters, and we learn that one of them had a brutal upbringing, filled with abuse and traumatic events that I don’t want to spoil for you, but please consider this a trigger warning. A Little Life is not a jaunty little story about four best friends trying to make it in the big city; it’s a beautifully written, tender, and terrifying exploration of PTSD, survival, resilience, self-destruction, and, yes, friendship. —Anna F. ♦

Creative Solutions

Illustration by Minna.
Illustration by Minna.

During my first day of high school, my new English teacher had everybody get to know one another by sharing a couple of facts about themselves to the room. The first girl who went— well, I can’t remember what she said, beyond, “I hate math.” The teacher responded by saying, “That’s OK. I find people who hate math tend to do really well with English.”

This was news to me. Math and English had always been my two favorite subjects. I found numbers and logic problems to be reassuring, almost soothing. (Like Cady says in Mean Girls about math: “It’s the same in every country.”) My teacher probably only said that to make my math-averse classmate feel better, but it added to my mini-identity crisis that had begun the year before, when my portfolio application to the writing program at an arts’ high school was rejected for not being “creative” enough. I wanted nothing more than to be a writer when I grew up. I had this romantic belief that I was born to be a writer, but pop psychology seemed to be telling me that “left-brained” people (i.e., people who tend to be more logical and analytical) are less suited to creative, “right brained” endeavors. The whole right-brained vs. left-brained duality has no grounding in actual fact, I later learned, but having fully believed this myth at the time, it seemed to support I was doomed to a life of being an unimaginative bore.

I am 25 now, and I work full time as a professional freelance writer. I publish all sorts of things: essays, reviews, criticisms, but my favorite things to publish are creative humor pieces. I don’t think I was born to be a writer, but I don’t think anyone is really born to be anything. Creativity is a skill that can be learned and strengthened. And because I am a person that thrives under structure, of course I had to dissect why and how I work the way I do.

1. Rethink the whole idea of “creativity.”

I. Recognize that creativity is not limited to the arts. Being a creative person doesn’t mean you have to be an artist living La Vie Boheme in Paris wearing a beret (though if you do decide that’s your style direction, more power to you). No matter what you want to be when you grow up, it is a helpful skill to be able to make something out of nothing, or to approach topics from unpredictable angles. I am reading a book with the best title right now: It’s called The Joy of X, and it’s all about how some of the most essential mathematical formulas were developed by people who stretched their brain powers like Silly Putty to work out solutions to equations. A lot of the math that I learned in high school—like the Pythagorean theorem or the value of pi—was initially discovered by people who looked at regular triangles and circles once upon a time and were able to think outside the box (or the “regular hexahedron” if you will—just some geometry humor for you!!).

I think a lot about Rookie writer Hazel’s interview with tbe astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson—specifically, the part where he says:

In the history of science, there are three kinds of discoveries you can make. One of them is what you expected to be there—confirming your understanding of nature. Another one is, you don’t find what you expect to be there, so you have to go back and rethink everything. And sometimes when you’re forced to go back and rethink things you end up making discoveries you had not previously anticipated.

The sciences, obviously, involve a lot of analysis and and adhering to rules, but it also involves constantly restructuring the way you think about the world and finding new ways to approach old matter in order to better understand it. (It doesn’t hurt that the universe is endlessly fascinating as well, which Tyson also gets into in the end of that interview.)

This is true for other careers as well! Last year, I interviewed a taxidermist at a natural history museum named Allis Markham. Her job combines sculpture, craft, and biology. She spoke of styles unique to iconic taxidermists that she admires, and says about her work, “If you look at a Venn diagram of science and art, taxidermy is where they meet.”

These jobs are just two examples out of many, but I love them because they prove that the different skills and interests don’t have to be mutually exclusive. When science and math work together with art, magic happens (but not MAGIC magic. Logic magic).

II. Recognize that being analytical can fuel creativity.

The arts are filled with math geeks. Sometimes this manifests itself in obvious ways, like when an episode of Futurama created a functioning mathematical theorem to make a wacky plot work. Going back a few more years, Leonardo da Vinci (you know, the guy who painted the Mona Lisa?) was a mathematician who filled his visual art with references to math and science. Even if you are the type of person who is constantly falling asleep during your first period calculus class, how neat is it that this (not-so) secret language of numbers permeates cartoons and other lauded works of fine art?

Technological Advancement

hbrHBR IdeaCast
Harvard Business Review

At my first office job, I delighted in instructing my co-workers to address me only as the “bad boy of business,” showed up in a swimsuit on one occasion, and kept a fake fur possibly made out of carpet on the back of my rolly chair at all times. While I still firmly contend that these core professional standards and practices were AMAZlNG for quarterly revenue market PowerPoints (?…not a thing, really and TRULY not a thing), I’ve upped my “biz whiz” techniques even further, thanks to this straightforward and pragmatic podcast. You will NEVER hear the host, Sarah Green, or her fascinating guests use a string of jargonistic drivel like I did just above! Instead, the show breaks down the most nebulous-seeming detriments to my productivity, like how to schedule my workload most effectively and how to maintain true zeal and avidity for my chosen tasks instead of being like UGH FUCK THIS I’M LAYING THIS FUR/RUG ON THE FLOOR AND TAKING A NAP UP ON IT. More specifically, HBR taught me to prioritize my own tasks in the morning, rather than responding to emails, because that makes you feel HUNTED all day. I also learned to treat work as its own reward (I know—CAPITALISM!—but I truly love what I do, so…) and how to be a kinder colleague. They impart all these wisdoms (bizdoms!!!!!!) in succinct, comprehensive 30-minute episodes. Now that’s what I call a quarterly revenue market PowerPoint. —Amy Rose

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 10.44.47 AMHeadspace

I’ve tried a bunch of different meditation methods, but I haven’t stuck with any of them…until a friend raved about a guided meditation app called Headspace over dinner, and the next day I set out to try it. Once you download it, there are 10 10-minute meditations to complete over the space of 10 days. It seemed super down to earth, and harbors a real “no pressure!” *shrugs shoulders* approach, so I shrugged my own shoulders and settled into an upright position in my chair to listen. They’re all about focusing on breathing, on the body, and on accepting and acknowledging thoughts, but not letting them affect you. The dude who narrates them is called Andy, and he has a pleasant British accent.

Headspace is an easy, low-maintenance way to start to incorporate meditation into your daily life. The first 10 sessions are free, but the rest, well…they cost money. Initially, a subscription seems expensive (about $70 for a year) but I justify it by thinking, You can’t put a price on your wellbeing!, and, I truly feel as though the meditations have been helping me feel calmer and more collected. Worth it! —Minna

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 10.47.19 AMDuolingo

I first downloaded Duolingo for my iPhone a couple of years ago when a friend told me about it, and I thought it would be a good way to refresh myself on the French I learned in school. The app (which can also be accessed through your internet browser on their website) teaches you how to read and write basic phrases in other languages and gives you points every time you complete a level. It’s like a video game, except instead of Mario defeating the threat of Bowser, you are defeating the threat of miscommunication!

After using it idly for years to review French words I already knew, I was playing around with it one night when I couldn’t sleep. I realized I could take a break from French and beginning a new language course. There was nothing stopping me from learning any language in the world!!! (OK, or one of the 10 available for English speakers on Duolingo.) I started learning Spanish. Then German. Then Dutch. Then Danish. I became obsessed.

You won’t become fluent in a new language through duolingo alone, but I see it as kind of a gateway drug to expanding your mind. It’s a great first step in getting the sense of how a new vocabulary works. It unlocked a curiosity within me about the languages of the world and led me to seek out more resources from the library. It also inspired me to start researching more countries and sparked a serious case of wanderlust. Am I telling you that Duolingo is the best? Let me put it this way: If Duolingo were a person, I would elope with Duolingo and for our honeymoon we would go to every country and communicate with ease. I know these aren’t starred reviews, but I’m going to give Duolingo a million stars anyway; étoiles, as we say en francais. Viva Duolingo!!!!! —Anna F.

rachelMSNBC Rachel Maddow

I live life on the edge, man—and by the edge, I mean, I don’t have cable. In these futuristic times we’re living in, it’s easy to get away with not watching TV because there are things like apps and podcasts to fill those needs. As a huge politics nerd, I’m so, so addicted to the Rachel Maddow podcast because it allows me to enjoy her nightly show without watching MSNBC. The podcast plays back an audio recording of the previous night’s program, so when I listen to it in the mornings, I can get caught up quickly on the most important news.

Listening to her podcast is much more interesting than reading the news online, because her enthusiasm comes through in her delivery: She’s full of jokes and puns and the occasional laughing fit when the world is particularly absurd. I’ve learned so much about governmental policy through her show because she explains it in such awesome depth with an infectious enthusiasm. Her reportage is top-notch: She breaks down incredibly complicated policy into easily understandable, factual information (sort of an outlier in cable news!), along with superbly investigated pieces that span all sides of the political spectrum. While she is best known for her cheerfully wonkish approach to politics, she also delves into environmental news, foreign policy, and takes a special interest in national security.

The Rachel Maddow Show is my single best source for the news. I am so delighted that is is available to everyone free of charge, so we can all get our learning on! As an added bonus, she covers election nights on her program, and nothing is more exciting than listening to her report on election returns. I have watched two presidential elections with her, and wouldn’t get my coverage anywhere else! —Meagan

Sporcle, Inc.
In my college’s Political Studies lecture on decolonization in Africa, my professor announced that there was no way we could pass if we didn’t know every single capital city. Our continent is huge, and we were expected to know the name and position of each country when presented with a blank map—as if I weren’t panicking about this assignment already! Luckily, my tutor told us about Sporcle, an educational site she pretty much lived on when she was trying to get her geographic orientation together. Not only did it help me do really well in the course, but Sporcle is a site that I go back to often. It has all these cool quizzes and trivia games in different categories, with timers and multi-player options—I spend most of my time on the site playing the hip-hop quizzes. You’re able to search for what you want, and if you really, really want to, you can create your own quiz! How awesome is that? —Nova

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 12.34.25 PMStop, Breathe & Think
Tools for Peace

Studies suggest that short periods of mental relaxation might boost your ability to learn and retain information in the long run. Since the last time I wrote about the calming benefits of meditation, I’ve found an extremely helpful app called Stop, Breathe & Think. You first “check in” by dimming your screen and closing your eyes for 10 seconds to get in touch with yourself, then you assess your mental and physical state, and finally, you choose one to five more specific mood descriptors from a long list. Based on what you’ve input, Stop, Breathe & Think will deliver a selection of appropriate five- to 10-minute meditations designed to calm and center you before you go back to hitting the books. Sometimes when you’re working hard, the best thing you can do for your giant brain is give it a rest, and Stop, Breathe & Think is definitely a great (and free!) option. —Meredith

littleLittle Alchemy
Little Alchemy
This scientific game app has taken over my life. At its start, the game gifts you four elements: air, earth, fire, and water. The aim of the game is to combine elements to make new elements and products. For example, combining fire and water makes steam. From there, steam + ? = ??? The goal is to create all 520 products, which include Christmas trees, double rainbows, and the internet. Many of the results may catch you off guard (see: Medusa; lightsaber), but there’s nothing like being able to throw your head back and cackle, “I created life!” Warning: In fierce competition with my coworkers, I once sat in my room for four hours straight in order to create as many products as possible (I’m stuck at 438). This may happen to you. Little Alchemy is a creative brain workout that will make you laugh as you question your knowledge on how everyday items are scientifically composed. —Tyler ♦

Friday Playlist: All of Me

In his poem “Songs of Myself,” Walt Whitman writes, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” It’s possible for one person to be tough and vulnerable, self-sufficient and needy. These song pairings are about exploring multiple sides of yourself.

Illustration by Briana.

Playlist illustration by Caitlin H.
Playlist illustration by Caitlin H.

In a Sorry State

Collage by Minna.
Collage by Minna.

Whenever I’m bored—on a long bus ride where I’ve forgotten to bring a book, or when I’m procrastinating on a particularly unexciting writing project—I often end up playing this game with no winner. It has only one rule, and it is to come up with as many reasons I can think of as to why I suck. (Fun game, huh?) A montage unfolds in my head of all the mean and petty things I have ever done, as I become the world’s crappiest hero in an edited version of my life.

Let’s quickly *woosh* back in time a dozen years or so, when I was but a mere sixth grader desperately looking for approval from whomever was in the immediate ranks above me on the social ladder. I told two of my best friends—let’s call them Lila and Elena, characters in a book I’m reading—that I had a special announcement to make, and then watched as the anticipation in their eyes turned to confusion when I said, “I need us to stop being friends.” I acted like a jerk. Scratch that, I was a jerk. Their sins were that they didn’t care about clothes and boys the way the popular girls did, and I wanted to distance myself from them to prove my coolness. I thought (secretly hoped?) that they would agree that we were drifting in different directions, that we would now sit in our respective new social circles come lunchtime with no hard feelings toward one another. Instead, I made them cry.

That night, Lila called my house and left a voicemail in a sad, quiet voice, saying she was confused and wanted to talk more. My mom heard the message, asked me what had happened, and admonished me for my cruelty. “I did not raise you to treat people that way,” she yelled, and I started to cry as well. Feeling guilty for what I had done, I called Lila back and apologized.

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” I said. I just wanted to fit in with the popular girls, I told her, conveniently shifting the blame. Even my apology was motivated by selfishness: I truly did feel ashamed of what I did, but in that moment, I needed Lila to alleviate my guilt by forgiving me. I needed her to make me feel OK about myself. I needed to be able to hang up the phone and tell my mom that I had made it all better. My feelings continued to be the top priority, trampling over everything else. I can’t even remember what Lila said after she told me it was fine. Lesson totally learned, right?

Lila and Elena (who I called next) both forgave me, and I went back to sitting with them at lunch the next day, but the rest of the year was off. There was distance between us: They shared less with me, our mutual friends (who knew what I had done) didn’t trust me as much, and I was invited to fewer get-togethers. Our friendship was fizzling out—which, ironically, was what I’d once wanted, but made me feel lonely when it happened—and it was my fault. At first I was frustrated that they were leaving me out of things, but any time I started to get angry at them, I remembered my past cruelty and thought, Would I want to be my friend after that happened? I wanted everything to go back to normal after I apologized, to delete that incident from my mind and move on, but I couldn’t. My actions had consequences, and I had to live with them. The next year we ended up going to different middle schools. We kept in touch sporadically over chat, but never went back to being the close friends we once were.

When I apologized to Lila and Elena, I wanted to be a good person, but more than that, I wanted other people to think I was a good person. I still want that. I care so much about being liked, probably more than I care about being respected. Being liked is a nice feeling! Apologizing when you’ve hurt somebody, especially your friends, is important! Yet the more I have screwed up and apologized over the years (it has happened, ahem, a few times), I have learned to ask myself whom the apology is serving the most.

A couple years ago, I was back in my hometown for Thanksgiving, and I went with my mom to the grocery story. I recognized the cashier: She was a girl I went to high school with. In the eleventh grade, a rumor went around that at a party, she got so drunk she slept with an older guy without knowing his name. I stayed quiet while some of my classmates called her a slut—even though I knew in my gut there was something off about a situation in which a girl was vilified for having sex and nobody was giving the guy hell.

In the store, we exchanged small awkward smiles of recognition, but I couldn’t maintain eye contact for more than a second before looking at my shoes. By the time she had graduated high school (she was a year ahead of me), the accepted theory was that she was still “that slut,” and I hadn’t kept track of what had been going on in her life in the years since. (I myself had spent those years sitting in a university classroom taking Women’s Studies and reading blog posts about slut shaming and rape culture, and proudly declaring that I was against all those evil, evil things.) I wanted to say something, tell her how bad I felt about what had happened to her in high school, even if that meant putting her on the spot at her job in front of my mother, just so that I could convince myself I was no longer the person I was in the eleventh grade. I ended up saying nothing.

My old classmate probably had no idea whether I’d spoken up for her back in eleventh grade, and maybe didn’t even care: Who actually stood to benefit the most from me apologizing? An uncomfortable but important question that I’ve since had to learn to ask myself every time I want to say “I’m sorry” is: Am I doing this because I want to atone for the hurt I’ve caused someone, or am I doing this because I want to make a public showing about How Bad I Feel? In determining whether it’s the latter, I think about whether I’m apologizing only because I want things to go back to the way they were before (like I wanted with Lila and Elena)—or with a willingness to accept that, because of my actions, people might not forgive me (like what actually happened with Lila and Elena), as is their right?

I like to imagine that every personal screwup of mine is some roadblock to overcome on my personal journal to Total Enlightenment™—a phrase that I definitely just coined for the first time ever right now. And yes, maybe I would like to get to a place in which my Totally Enlightened™ self is adored by all and all my mistakes can be universally recognized as merely character building blocks and all is forgiven and nobody points out when I mix my metaphors. But regardless of how much I may have changed or grown or how many Women’s Studies courses I have taken, sometimes the best thing I can do is recognize that even when I’m REALLY, truly sorry, nobody owes me their forgiveness. ♦

Weird Territory

the-way-way-back-poster1The Way Way Back (2013)
A sort of shy, ungainly 14 year old called Duncan is forced to spend a summer at a beach house with his mom (Toni Collette), and his mom’s sucky boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Early on in the film, Trent antagonistically asks Duncan what he’d rate himself on a scale of one to 10, and then tells him that he’d give him a three. Understandably, Duncan wants to stay the hell away from douche lord Trent, and he eventually finds a way to occupy his time: at a water park run by a slacker named Owen (played by the consistently fantastic Sam Rockwell), who unlike Trent instantly accepts Duncan and gives him a job. The Way Way Back is brimming with phenomenal actors like Maya Rudolph and Allison Janney; Carell plays the jerk beautifully; and the movie showcases Oscar-winning writing duo Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s gift for melding real human drama with comedy (they’re also talented comedic actors, look out for them in the movie). Duncan begins to flourish once he’s under the wing of someone who has faith in him, and he gradually becomes more self-assured. You’ll giggle, you’ll cheer, and you might sob (I totally did). The Way Way Back is way, way great. —Amber

jinx-key-3The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2015, HBO)
Last week I hadn’t even heard of The Jinx; this week, I’m obsessed. When the final episode of this documentary miniseries aired and everybody was talking about the explosive finale, I couldn’t stop thinking, what is it all about??!??!? I decided to stream the first episode before I went to bed. The next thing I knew, it was three in the morning and I was in deep. Here’s what I know so far. In 1982, Robert Durst’s wife disappeared, her whereabouts still unknown. In 2000, Durst’s friend Susan Berman was found murdered in her home. In 2001, Durst’s neighbor was brutally killed. Somebody might look at all these cases and say, “HMMMM, I WONDER WHAT THE COMMON DENOMINATOR IS??” But Durst wasn’t charged with any of these crimes. The filmmaker Andrew Jarecki was obsessed with Durst’s case, he decided to create this series—which includes reenactments and archival footage of the murder scenes—around two interviews he did with Durst himself (who, by the way, looks like the human equivalent of a shark). It’s terrifying. But it’s also fascinating to know that the act of making The Jinx has impacted the case itself. —Anna F.

Survivor-PosterSurvivor (2000–, CBS)
I am not an outdoorsy person. I don’t like camping, or sleeping on the ground, or cooking over an open flame, and, truth be told, I prefer swimming in a pool to diving into the ocean. But for some reason, I can’t get enough of watching other people do these things, especially on Survivor, when a bunch of strangers are split into two camps and forced to compete against each other in ridiculous challenges. How many variations on giant puzzles and obstacle courses can there be? The number is unlimited, according to this show. The best part, always, is watching the contestants align themselves with each other during the first few days, and choose who to trust even though these allegiances almost never work out. They will eventually lie and cheat just to make it through the game, and then sit around boasting about who lied the best! It’s a terrible way to live, but just like camping, fun to watch on TV. —Emma S.

XFiles-fight-the-futureThe X-Files: Fight the Future (1998)
This is the first (and best!) movie based on The X-Files TV show. It’s a treat for rabid fans of the show and a great introduction for anyone who hasn’t caught it yet. At the start of Fight the Future, agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are investigating a bomb threat in Dallas. Sure, it seems like typical FBI work, BUT then it turns out that the bomb is just part of a cover up. In fact, an alien virus has been discovered in a small Texas town, where it had been buried since 35,000 BC! This is just the start of an incredible adventure that goes from cornfields swarming with virus-carrying bees, all the way to Antarctica, as Mulder and Scully attempt to unravel this government conspiracy and get to the truth they know is out there. The film is action-packed, and while you might wind up feeling uncertain about trusting the government, you might also come to share my faith in Mulder and Scully. —Stephanie

220px-A_Summer's_Tale_FilmPoster-1A Summer’s Tale (1996)
I’ve been a serious fan of the director Éric Rohmer for a while, and A Summer’s Tale has to be my favorite of his films. Gaspard, an aspiring musician, arrives at the seaside in Brittany, France, for a three-week vacation before he’s due to start a new job. He’s waiting for his kinda-girlfriend Dinard, but while he wanders around the beach resort he gets involved with two other women, and ends up in a summer love triangle…or rectangle…or something. Basically, romantic complications on the beach ensue. The characters are just trying to find out who they really are, and they do that by making mistakes. A Summer’s Tale a beautiful, honest film, and Rohmer manages to show just how difficult it can be to start over. —Dana

MV5BMTg0MTU5ODkwM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMzgxNzY3._V1_SX640_SY720_Holes (2003)
Did you think Holes was just about digging holes? Well it isn’t. OK, it is…but only a little. This film adaptation of the novel by Louis Sachar, is mostly about the struggle for trust that exists between young people and adults. Stanley (played by Shia LaBeouf) is in deep trouble; he’s catching the blame for a crime he may or may not have committed. Since nobody believes he’s innocent, he’s sent to a Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention center where the main activity is searching for treasure in—OK, you guessed it—holes. Obviously this sucks as a way to spend your days, and even worse, the relationship dynamics in this film are fraught. The power hungry warden of the camp and her henchmen corrupt the trust that the kids have invested in them, and as a result, the youngins really only have themselves to rely on. Who really runs the world? Watch Holes and find out. —Chanel

theamazingraceThe Amazing Race (2001–, CBS)
The Amazing Race has won the Emmy award for Best Reality Show 10 separate times. Even on a purely logistical level, the show deserves awards: Imagine if it was your job to figure out how to get a dozen pairs of contestants from country to country; to buy airplane and train tickets on the fly; and do country-specific challenges at every stop, on and on, for weeks at a time. Every episode, pairs of contestants (some are romantic couples, some are friends, some are family) must complete a task—learn a dance routine, memorize sake bottle labels—while simultaneously navigating the nuances of their personal relationships. This season Jonathan Knight, of ’80s super group New Kids on the Block fame, was on Amazing Race with his boyfriend. Watching them cuddle up on trains and planes was a gift to my 10-year-old self, but I’m astonished that any of the pairs can even bear to look at each other once it’s over! —Emma S.

110491-b-les-saignantes (1)Les Saignantes (2005)
Majolie and Chouchou are best friends, so what else can Chouchou do when it turns out Majolie has (accidentally?) killed the Very Important Politician she was having sex with, except help her friend get rid of the body, and then retrieve the body, and then attend the guy’s wake in a bid for political power? The Cameroonian director Jean Pierre Bekolo’s speculative, comedic thriller Les Saignantes (or Bloodettes), opens in 2025. Nightlife in Yaoundé amounts to attending the wakes of rich people, and two girls are trying to avoid being killed and maybe negotiate themselves a better life in the process. It’s the future, so naturally everybody moves like they’re in a glitchy video game and the cars are voice automated. Some of the themes are harsh, and Majolie and Chouchou are in pretty much constant danger, but for every cadaver, there’s a fight-slash-dance routine in which they channel their sexual power to squash their enemies. Les Saignantes also contains a getting-dressed-to-be-the-flyest-friends-at-the-party montage that makes the sometimes slow-moving plot 100 percent worthwhile. —Derica ♦

Saturday Links: All That Jazz Edition


The 14-year-old activist Jazz Jennings is the new face of Clean and Clear’s “See the Real Me” campaign. Jazz is on the up and up. Last year, TIME magazine celebrated her work as an activist for transgender teens by naming her one of 2014’s most influential teenagers. Jazz will also film her own reality TV show, All That Jazz: A Family in Transition. The show will follow Jazz and her family as she navigates high school. As Identities Mic notes, the show is an important opportunity for “a trans person to tell her own story, on her own terms.” Get it, Jazz!

Image via Feministing.
Image via Feministing.

#BLACKOUTDAY was a party. Photos of black people—in all our diversity, and from all over the world—filled Tumblr dashboards and Twitter timelines everywhere. Commentary about why the day was necessary accompanied the images. Afterward, Sesali B reflected on #BlackOutDay for Feministing: Since Western beauty norms were constructed in direct opposition to blackness, #BlackOutDay was an opportunity for black people to define, and assert beauty for themselves. In her words, “nothing beats self-representations. Flooding the internet with self-recorded footage is the most authentic way to add complexity to the way we see Black folks […] Black Out has created a central online location to witness Black people existing in the ways that they think are important, necessary, and beautiful.”

Photo of Terry Pratchett by Eamonn McCabe, via the Guardian.
Photo of Terry Pratchett by Eamonn McCabe, via the Guardian.

The British writer Terry Pratchett, author of over 70 books, has died at age 66. Pratchett had a prolific and celebrated career as a writer—in 1996, he was the UK’s top-selling and highest earning author. Pratchett created outlandish worlds like Discworld, which spawned an entire series of books. In 2007, he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, which he referred to as “the Embuggerance.” He campaigned for research funding for the condition, and was an advocate for the legalization of euthanasia, or assisted dying, in the UK.


Y’all, I am so hyped on this new M.I.A. tune, “CanSeeCanDo”. The track has the political edge of so much of her music: The lyrics are all about seeing both sides of a debate. “CanSeeCanDo” sounds less produced than songs from her last album, Matangi, and M.I.A.’s voice is clearer and more raw.

Pitchfork hosted a roundtable on “CanSeeCanDo,”, which includes lots of great insights from the likes of Safy-Hallan Farah, Jessica Hopper, and Mia Nguyen. On Twitter, M.I.A. hinted at some new tunes coming this summer. I’m waiting ever so impatiently for more bangers!

Photo by Francois Durrand for Getty Images, via Vogue.
Photo by Francois Durrand for Getty Images, via Vogue.

Hansel and Zoolander served major blue steel realness on the runway at Paris Fashion Week. Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller surprised the audience by staging a dramatic walk-off to close Valentino’s Fall/Winter ’15 show. Apparently a Zoolander 2 is in the works, and I guess this is great PR for the sequel!

Emma D.

Grimes released a new song called “REALiTi”, which she recorded back in 2013. The track is accompanied by a dreamy, pastel-hued video, collaged from footage taken during her tour across Asia. In the video description, Grimes says the track was “never meant to be heard by anyone, so it’s a bit of a mess.” Well, I’m glad we did get a chance to hear it, because REALiTi is a perfectly orchestrated sound-world. It instantly got stuck in my head, and it’s gonna be my main jam this spring.

The full range of Hyo Hong’s Cindy Sherman-icons, via Hyperallergic.
The full range of Hyo Hong’s Cindy Sherman-icons, via Hyperallergic.

The New York-based designer Hyo Hong created a set of emoticons using the artist Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits. It’s the perfect marriage: Emoticons don’t quite offer the full spectrum of feelings; it’s still hard to convey subtle emotional undertones in that chat box. Cindy Sherman is known for adopting different personas who each have extremely expressive facial expressions. Hong’s project is ongoing, so we can expect more than 20 icons in the future, but for now, you can download all of the Cindy Sherman faces you need to properly express yourself.


There’s a new single out from the mighty Tame Impala!!! It’s an eight-minute disco jam that sounds like a cross between a Phoenix track, and a track by one of my all-time favorite bands, the Pretty Things. I’m gonna be turning up “Let it Happen” LOUD in my headphones as I take my jaunts around the block.


Graphic of Biggie Smalls by Gijabyte, via Deviant Art.
Graphic of Biggie Smalls by Gijabyte, via Deviant Art.

March 9 marked 18 years since the death of Biggie Smalls, who passed at just 24 years old. Christopher Wallace—aka Biggie, aka Notorious B.I.G., aka Big Poppa—is widely recognized as one of the greatest rappers in the history of hip hop. He pioneered a sound and style that continues to influence musicians across genres. Musicians and celebrities posted their remembrances on Twitter, with tributes celebrating his life and work.

The rapper Kendrick Lamar paid tribute to Biggie by putting down a MINDBLOWING freestyle over some of Biggie’s classic beats. That’s f-r-e-e-s-t-y-l-e, as in, he’s making it up as he goes along. Good lord! And just to add good news to good news, Kendrick announced that his second album, To Pimp A Butterfly, will be released on March 23. The album will include the single “The Blacker the Berry,” which premiered last month.

From the mean streets of Rochester, NY comes the band Green Dreams, fronted by the sequin-sporting, solo-shredding Jesse Ames. The band released a new music video for the track “Richman/Poorman”, on which Jesse speaks about her everyday experiences as a woman in a dude dominated music scene. Spoiler alert: Jesse is frigging fed up with it, man! Watch their witchy, psychedelic music video above—it makes me think of Alice in Wonderland.


Photo of Danielle Bowler, via Eyewitness News.
Photo of Danielle Bowler, via Eyewitness News.

Finding a book that speaks to who I am and my experiences can feel like a treasure hunt. That’s why this opinion piece caught my eye: The cultural critic Danielle Bowler has decided to read only books by people of color this year. Her piece speaks to the need to see yourself, and all of your intersecting identities, represented in the books you read.

Anna F.

Photo of Chastity Belt, via NPR.
Photo of Chastity Belt, via NPR.

Currently on repeat: Chastity Belt’s latest release, Time to Go Home. This album is perfect if you love guitars on guitars, plis lyrics about being bored of condescending dudes. Listen, and then revisit Chona Kasinger’s interview with Chastity Belt.

Still from the movie "Girlhood," via Buzzfeed.
Still from the movie “Girlhood,” via BuzzFeed.

This essay by Durga Chew-Bose on the movie Girlhood, Jessica Williams, learning to scat with Ella Fitzgerald, and brown-girl exclusivity is sweet, tender, incisive, and biting.


Photo of members of the Mad Men cast, and the show creator, Matthew Weiner, via the Hollywood Reporter.
Photo of members of the Mad Men cast, and the show creator, Matthew Weiner, via the Hollywood Reporter.

April 5 marks the beginning of the end of Mad Men—well, the beginning of the second half of the show’s final season. I’m excited to know how the story ends for Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, and especially my favorite onscreen teen, Sally. But how will I live without these fabulous characters in my life? At least the end of the show also means great Mad Men retrospectives, like this one in the Hollywood Reporter. The piece takes an in-depth look at how Mad Men became a cultural touchstone, and reveals which actors originally auditioned for the show. Reading it made me want to hole up and binge watch all of the previous seasons.


Photo from Comme des Garcons Fall 2015 show, via
Photo from Comme des Garcons Fall 2015 show, via

The Japanese fashion house Comme des Garçons showed their Fall 2015 collection. The looks are more otherworldly and conceptual than most of Rei Kawakubo’s recent designs: One piece looks like a rectangular lace-filled cage that resembles a coffin. Another one features tiered cascading lace that reminds me of Victorian mourning garments. I’m into it! ♦