Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

I liked, but did not love this book.

The book begins with failure. Or “my humiliation” as the narrator, a young woman, puts it. The young woman has been sent back to London by some unknown employer. She is hiding in considerable affluence and is tasked with avoiding the public, not to escalate a situation. From the beginning it is obvious that the narrating woman is familiar with London, affluence, the public, but not at home in these spaces. To distract herself from her predicament, she spontaneously attends an event at the Royal Festival Hall that includes a screening of the movie Swing Time, starring Fred Astaire. Watching her childhood favorite, she is transported back to a space she did feel at home in, and her love of dance. In this nostalgic moment she realizes that she has always defined herself through the “light of other people.” that her experience of herself is “a kind of shadow.” After the event, she returns to her doorman-secured-hideout and is joined by Lamin, a beautiful man from Senegal who is connected to the failure and someone for whom the narrator scandalously can’t have feelings. Still enthusiastic, she wants to share Swing Time with him. Lamin disapproves, for a reason our narrator only now realizes: Fred Astaire is dancing in black face. Her escapist space is based on a well-made minstrel show. This prologue ends with the narrator receiving an email from a childhood friend titled “WHORE.”.

The prologue is exemplary for the strengths and weaknesses of Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s 2016 novel about two biracial girls in North London. Beginning in their troubled childhood, both girls are in love with dance, and feel more at home in the studio than in the estates they grow up in. One of them has actual talent, and a dance mom; the other has more (non-financial) resources and becomes the longtime personal assistant of a Madonna-like pop superstar. The latter is our narrator, and the novel follows her to a village in a West African Nation where the superstar sets up a school for girls and influences the life in the village. The stories of the narrator’s job as a jet-setting gofer and her background in London are told in alternating chapters.

The strengths of Smith’s novel are obvious: Her prose is engulfing and almost flawless. The narrator’s observations, especially of the role of dance and body performativity in a girl’s coming-of-age process,  are insightful and absorbing. Smith’s treatment of race, class, and gender is smart and unique.

Unfortunately for a book over 400 pages long, the plot development is Swing Time’s biggest weakness. I couldn’t truly connect with the characters, but character development was okay. In comparison to the aforementioned insights and flawless prose, however, the plot was rather unimaginative. The big ““humiliation” hinted at in the prologue and the commentary and insights create high expectation in the first two thirds of the book, and the actual reveal in the end is then oddly banal. As a collection of observations and commentary I really enjoyed Zadie Smith’s book, but as a novel I was a bit disappointed.

Success as sole basis for respect can be ultimately dangerous. From Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann and the Holocaust. The thin volume includes the core of the Arendt’s reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the bureaucracy of the Holocaust, and the banality of evil. Arendt’s perspective is certainly controversial, but this small volume is required reading in dangerous times. And we are always in dangerous times.

 (Penguin Books Great Ideas (2005)) 

This is not simply a war language; this is an American language. In Sharif’s rendering, “Look” is at once a command to see and to grieve the people these words describe — and also a means of implicating the reader in the violence delivered upon those people.

A Poet Subverts the Defense Department’s Official Dictionary Natalie Diaz reviews Solmaz Sharif’s poetry collection Look for the New York Times.

of course i want to be successful
but i don’t crave success for me
i need to be successful to gain
enough milk and honey
to help those around
me succeed

From rupi kaur’s milk and honey

Milk and honey is equally heart-wrenching and heartwarming. Some of it, especially the first part “the hurting,” is a terrifying, intense depiction of abuse. “The hurting” and the closing part, “the healing” (including the quote above) are the strongest. In it’s middle it gets a bit repetitive, conventional in a way I did not expect after the first part. Thus, the four parts – the hurting, the loving, the breaking, the healing – are somewhat unbalanced. However, the middle is only conventional and repetitive relative to the rest. All in all the kaur’s work is fascinating, and probably a book I will return to again.

https://open.spotify.com/track/4KDXh5ocFmL4sKLs3UN7fB?plead=please-dont-download-this-or-our-lawyers-wont-let-us-host-audio

Daughter: “Doing the Right Thing" 

While sad, if not depressed in tone, the breadth and breath of life in this song is astounding. The narrator, while isolated, has a way of talking about the world and herself that reminds me of a Margret Atwood character. This song’s dynamic doesn’t just develop, it ages. “Doing the Right Thing,” off of Daughter’s new record Not to Disappear, is my first favorite song of the year.

“The Gray Complexity that is the Real Dixie”

Errin Whack,in an article for NPR’s Code Switch blog, reviews Harper Lee’s new novel Go Set A Watchman and argues that it is a revelation on race, even if that is uncomfortable for many fans of To Kill A Mockingbird:

Truths can be hard, and truths about race in this country are often the hardest – especially when the revelations are about those we love. If racism is helped along not only by cross-burners in sheets, but those you have loved and emulated, it feels like too much to bear. The urge to look away is powerful.

But to do so would be to reject the gift Lee has given all of us with the release of Watchman. […]

If Mockingbird projects a South that can be read in terms of black and white, Watchman shows us the gray complexity that is the real Dixie. In this powerful sequel, Lee offers us a wider window into the white Southern heart, and tells us it is finally time for us all to shatter the false gods of the past and be free.

The New Torres Album is Even Better than the Hype

The new Torres album Sprinter is even better than the  hype by NPR Music had me believe.
Strange Hellos is still one of the biggest songs I’ve heard in quite a while with an amazing musical breadth and emotional depth.
A Proper Polish Welcome is as intimate and enchanting on the record as it was as a SXSW lullaby.
Yet it’s the longwinded, slow, quiet moments Ferris Wheel and The Exchange that stun me the most. The songs are built on Mackenzie Scott’s voice and guitar, and the rest of the instrumentation (PJ Harvey collaborators Robert Ellis and Ian Olliver) and production (Ellis and Portishead’s Adrian Utley) support that strong core to perfection. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the poetic lyrics.  On Sprinter, Scott’s words tell stories, reflect, and erupt into intimacy. The album manages to create a bridge between confessional poetry (in the good sense) and rock album(also in the good sense). Instant classic.

Black Children Matter

I basically inhaled Toni Morrison’s new novel God Help the Child because it left me breathless. It’s a short novel, but it  is so rich in everything: Language, narrative perspectives, themes, settings, characters. The prose is poetic, not as in lovely-beautiful but as in dense with emotional and intellectual heft. Characters and themes are true Morrison: Racism, colorism, lives of Black women, violence, abuse, love, hurt. 

Particularly the main character, Bride, and her mother Sweetness are both modern and timeless. Their story is not only one of racism and colorism (the main character is “blue black”) but also of abuse, adolescence, growing up, woman- and motherhood.  Bride answers the resentment towards her based on her skin with power based her beauty. 

Morrison manages to tell so many stories of fleshed out characters, with so few words. Even the conception of characters makes an interesting statement – I believe the darker the skin tone of a character, the richer the qualities and flaws of the character.  If I listed all stories told you’d never believe they’re all found within 178 pages. But Morrison makes it work, by not using one superfluous word. A truly amazing book.

Selma

What a stunning, important, moving, magnificent film. It might have not won the Oscar, but it will surely enter collective cultural memory and countless syllabi. 

The entire ensemble of actors and actresses was great, lead by a brilliant David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. Great directing and cinematography, too. For me, the “4 little girls” bomb attack particularly stood out, but there were so many less showy, more mundane or domestic moments that were well done, too. Ava Duvernay  did a really good job, I think, at showing Martin Luther King as a human – not a saint – and how important others were for the movement – John Lewis and SNCC, Coretta Scott King, the SCLC, but also local women and organizers in Selma. It’s hard to compare three so different movies as Boyhood, Birdman, and Selma, but Selma is the more important movie. If it’s better than Birdman (which I haven’t seen yet because I live in a cave) or Boyhood (which I also loved) I don’t know, but it’s certainly not worse. 

Leading up to the Oscars, an anonymous Academy member claimed that Selma isn’t “art.” In a way, that is even true – if you think of “art” as “l’art pour l’art.” The skilled, artistic work in Selma was not its own end, but is used to create a profound impact and to tell the story of a struggle. A struggle that in many ways is still going  on today. Watching the 1st Oval Office scene in which LBJ tells MLK that other issues are more important than the Black vote, I couldn’t help but think of the discussion going on on Twitter between certain White Feminists™ and people of color – particularly Black women –  who criticized Patricia Arquette for her backstage remarks and the way Arquette’s framing erased Black women. After people (of color) pointed this issue out, they were immediately called divisive and told to focus on “bigger fish” like wage equality. 

Many scenes of the march, particularly when the State Troopers put on their gas masks and clubbed men, women, clergy, and youngsters, immediately brought the last summer in Ferguson to mind. The story Selma tells isn’t over, yet, and the film makers know that. That makes the movie so important and so great.