Music

you open the door to another door to another door

The title of this post is a reference to my first new album of 2020. Which came to me in a dream, believe it or not.

So this is what happened. I was lying on the bed reading (the third book of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy, called Solea, after the Miles Davis album), with Spotify playing over my headphones. At some point, I drifted off, floating along with the music in that happy blissful state of lucid dreams and semi-awareness. When you know that you are asleep but you haven’t quite lost control yet.

I found myself hovering back into reality, coaxed out by this beautiful voice singing, and through the haze of my not-quite-nap. The song meshed with the random visuals in my head, in the best way possible. “Caroline Polachek”, I read on the phone. The song was called “Door”, and committing that to memory, half-worrying that maybe I was still dreaming all this, I fell back to sleep.

I played the song later that evening, in the car. The chorus was like hot chocolate and pine-wood smoke, smooth, sophisticated, but very tender. But hold on, the voice sounded familiar. I have heard her before. I stop the car on the side of the road and google the artiste’s name.

Yup, Caroline Polachek was the singer on the Brooklyn band Chairlift, whose album Moth was one of my favorites of 2015-2016. It also so happened that despite buying tickets to their show at the Observatory, and driving 45 miles one Sunday evening to see them, I couldn’t. Because the show was cancelled. I got my money back, but the tinge of regret remained with me. More so because they disbanded a year later, in 2017, after playing a final show in Brooklyn.

And now, four years later, Ms Polachek has released a solo album, called Pang. It released in October, and for whatever reason, I had no idea of its existence until two weeks ago. Of course, in that time span, I have heard the album an umpteen number of times. I love every minute of it, from the haunted opening of ‘The Gate’ flowing into the title track ‘Pang’, to the closing notes of the tender ‘Parachutes’. Even though I could recognize her voice on the album, the mood, and the production were both very different from that on the Chairlift albums. For one, this was clearly an album about love and heartbreak and all of the feelings. It’s an album where slide-guitar licks morph into dance patterns, otherworldly beats and rhythms coalesce into splashes of intensity and adrenaline, and through all of these, Caroline’s voice weaves and wends through various moods and tonalities, gentle whispers to full-throated vocal riffs that advertise absolute control. And possibly a fair degree of auto-tune, but the electronic effects are tweaked to just the perfect degree of alien and human.

This is one of those rare album that feels like each track is better than the previous one. No wonder, then, that the first single, and accompanying video, was ‘Door’, which is the penultimate track of 15 songs, and runs a radio-unfriendly 5 minutes and 23 seconds. But it goes places. believe me, both visually and in sound and mood. The opening guitar riff, and the way the beat builds up slowly into that chorus is sublime. The alien vocal echoes on the word “door”. The guitar bridge. And that final humming that closes the track. Holy shit.

My personal favorite in the album, at the moment, is ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’. Many reasons, including the upbeat 80s vibe, the catchy vocal riff that begins the track, the “woo” when she sings the chorus, that sharp intake of breath just before she sings “I get a little lonely”. And of course that semi-awkward, all-Caroline dance routine in the video, so reminiscent of ‘Ch-ching’ from the Moth album. The chorus, when I first heard it, sounded like “Show me the banana”, and I ran to check what it actually said. “Show me the love, nanana”. Pooh. I prefer “show me the banana”.

I could listen to it all day, except ‘Door’ starts playing just after, and then once the album finishes with the downtempo ‘Parachute’, I have to go back to track one again.

‘Ocean of Tears’ comes closest to the Chairlift sound. You could play the opening to me and I would have identified the song as one of theirs. Of course it’s fantastic, the bass throbs and then the rock guitars playing over the chorus.

Caroline plays at the Fonda Theater on February 1, and even though tickets are sold out, something tells me I will show up there, somehow.

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Books, Comics

An Apocalypse of Cockatoos

Please do this for me. Don’t let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons

Orson Welles, to film director Henry Jaglom, 1989

Recolored comics have been all the rage in the last decade. Both Marvel and DC routinely release their collected editions with new colors, especially the classic comics from the 40s to the 80s, when comics were printed with a limited palette on cheap paper. With few exceptions, most of these coloring jobs look like crap, but that is a subjective opinion coming from someone who grew up with the pre-Image era acetate overlay-based coloring, with benday dots and all. There was a period of transition during the 80s, when the paper quality visibly changed, and some titles began to sport more garish tones than others. By the time Image released their books, and companies like Olyoptics and

At the same time, there began the trend of indie black-and-white comics getting reissued in color. Early examples were hit-and-miss, like Barry Blair’s Elflord, or First Comics releasing airbrushed deluxe editions of Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Better results came about when creators took it on themselves to oversee the coloring. Jeff Smith’s Bone, and later, Rasl, were best-sellers in their color editions. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim has found a new generation of enthusiasts once full-color editions came out. Even manga, the final frontier where two-color holds sway, has seen classics like Dragonball, OnePiece and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure embracing digital coloring.

But when I received the news of From Hell: The Master Edition, I felt a disturbance in the Force. For one, the scratchy black-and-white artwork felt like the perfect style for a book that was set in the soot and fog of Victorian London. This was one of the rare works where the artist worked in tandem with the writer to create something so iconic, that any thought of a remaster felt like it was interfering with perfection. The plan, according to publishers IDW/Top Shelf Comics, was to have the seminal black-and-white comic recolored by Campbell himself. And that is part of what allayed my fears and made for less trepidation. The person approaching IDW with the idea was Eddie, and it looked like he knew the kind of changes he wanted to make. There was precedent — Brian Bolland did it with deluxe edition of The Killing Joke, because he felt John Higgins’ psychedelic palette was not what he had envisaged. I really loved the original colors on the Killing Joke, but I also liked Bolland’s version. So maybe it wouldn’t be that bad after all.

A short preview of the recolored pages showed promise, but there was still the nervousness that the color would ruin some of the mood of the minimalist, dream-like nature of some of the panels. That the splash of red in a gore-dripped sequence would detract from the strength of the scratchy black and white line-work.

By the time I was on the tenth chapter (volume 7 of the re-release, which compresses 14 chapters into 10 volumes), all my fears had vanished. This particular chapter is a creative high point between Campbell and Moore’s collaboration, occurring in one room in London’s East End, featuring Sir William Gull’s final act of cruelty against the last of the five women. It also jumps through time, both forwards and backwards, in the course of its 34 pages. Gull imagines himself in the presence of his long-dead friend James Hinton, who we last saw in chapter 2, and then in his capacity as surgeon, displaying his sanguinary skills to a shadowy array of onlookers.

The final hallucination is the one that jumps forward in time, where Gull finds himself transported in the middle of an office-space of cubicles and computers, in the twentieth century. This is the moment that sends shivers up my spine, and Moore’s words drip acid and venom at the state of the world.

It would seem we would suffer an apocalypse of cockatoos…Morose, barbaric children joylessly playing with their unfathomable toys. Where comes this dullness in your eyes? How has your century numbed you so? Shall man be given marvels only when he is beyond all wonder?

Alan Moore – From Hell

The attention to detail is spectacular. A pink-haired girl, the blue in the fluorescent lighting on the ceiling, the design pattern on a shirt sleeve peeking from a jacket. The dry-brush effects in the panels are intact. The subtle way in which the blood splatter effects are just the right shade of muted red, while the backgrounds remain a flat grey. That final panel in the page below is both grotesque and hypnotic. This feels like a reclaiming of Campbell’s artistic vision, brought to life by a virtuoso meld of technology and ambition.

I would love to talk about this series, in detail, once the final volume is out. I have tried to speak of it in the past, but not only were my words not sufficient, but I feel like a superficial essay does not do From Hell justice.

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Books, Movies

A Book, a film

Two things caught me by surprise last week. The first was a book called The Devourers, by a writer named Indra Das. The second was a film called Laal Kaptaan, directed by Navdeep Singh and starring Saif Ali Khan. The two are completely unrelated, but I found them in them examples of the kind of historical fiction I want to read, or at least the kind of treatment that makes me not want to bang my head against a wall.

The Devourers falls squarely in the speculative fiction genre; talking about it is difficult because of the nature of the beast (pun intended). A professor in Kolkata meets a stranger one night, one who claims to be a half-werewolf and consequently, immortal. The stranger piques his interest by telling him a story set in Shahjahanabad, on the banks of the Yamuna, during the time of the reign of the Great Mughals, and then assigns him a responsibility. The story then becomes a retelling of three different individuals’ life stories, and an act of violence that weaves these stories together.

One of the reasons I picked up Devourers was the blurb by Mike Carey, he of Lucifer and Girl With All the Gifts fame. The other is the phenomenal cover by Chris Panatier, the kind of illustration you do not see on an Indian publication. The work is in pen and ink and watercolor, and wraps around the book. It captures both the soul of the writing as well as a very specific mood, reminiscent of both illustrators like James Jean and the imagery of great tattoo inkers.

But it was the writing that stayed with me. Das grounds his characters and the locale exceptionally well, bringing to life the mangroves of the Sunderbans and the marketplaces of Shahjahanabad; the moments of tension and terror are narrated with inevitability and poetry. And he grinds together myths and folklore of different cultures to produce the most vivid imagery one can associate with creatures of the supernatural.

The beast was like no animal I’d ever seen on this earth. Glowing red in the flickering light of rain-swathed fires, with its war paint of blood and tattered flesh, which hung like ragged pennants off its spines and slicked fur, it was rakshasa of the Hindus, it was asura, lord among their demons. It was glowing, infernal ifreet of the djinn, it was Iblis made incarnate, rising from cold wet earth instead of the arid sand of the desert. It was a towering impostor god of Europe resurrected in this empty stretch of Shah Jahan’s empire and worshipped with fire and violence.

Indra Das – The Devourers

How can I describe what came to my senses, in that silence? Even the birds stopped their screaming, the insects their singing. The smell of it was overpowering. It smelled like birth, the birth of god or demon, raw and animal and steaming in the morning air. Sweet and musk, like frankincense and myrrh; heavy and pungent, like the juice of living things, blood and piss, sweat and spit; rancid and fecund, like waste, shit, and earth. It stank of both life and death, both so intoxicating I found myself flushed with my own blood, my heart aching. I could hear it, feel it breathing, the rumbling of a mountain slumbering through centuries slivered to seconds. It walked to me, twigs snapping sharp under its great hands and feet, soil squelching under its enormous, impossible weight. It was on all fours, or so its steps told me, and yet I could feel its boiling breath, a hot and humid wind on my face as it approached. Even crouched, it was as tall as me.

Indra Das – The Devourers

Usually, when reading a book like this, my worry is that it will end with a set-up to a sequel and an inevitable franchise, the bane of every work in this genre. Thankfully, Das does not fall into that trap. The conclusion involves a transformation, an end that reminds me of the best that outre literature has offered.

The Devourers is a work about change and acceptance; Laal Kaptaan, on the other hand is a story of revenge, pursuit, and ultimately, destiny. It is a film by a creator whose work I have followed with interest over the years. Navdeep Singh sauntered onto the Indian alternative film scene in 2007 with a local remake of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, set in rural Rajasthan and starring Abhay Deol (remember Abhay Deol? The guy was the poster-child of great Indian cinema in the 2000s, until he crashed and burned his way out of the industry). His sophomore effort NH10, a slow-burn socially conscious thriller, released eight years later in 2015, to considerable more acclaim and box office success. Laal Kaptaan, which released in 2019, alas, failed to find its audience. Possibly because the historical thriller comes at a time when Indian cinema is rewriting history to the tune of Hindutva. The past is sexy only when there is opulence and patriotic fervor kneaded into clear them/us narratives that spoon-feed how great everything was in the past.

Singh obviously does not take this route. Set in the late 1700s (1789, to be precise, if we look at the Battle of Buxar as the narrative lynch-pin), the film follows a Naga ascetic (Saif Ali Khan) on a hunt for a man named Rehmat (played by Manav Vij, who I last saw in Andhadhun last year), with whom he has — to quote Beatrix Kiddo — “unfinished business”. The story takes us through some incredible sequences set in the arid landscapes of the Chambal valley, a place already seared in our collective consciousness as a hell-scape where terrible things happen to everyone, good or bad. Saif Ali’s character is named Gossain, which I understand is just short-hand for “holy man”, so until the end of the movie, he is truly a man with no name. Over the course of his journey, he encounters a mishmash of characters, including a cheroot-smoking bounty hunter accompanied by two hounds, who can literally smell his prey; a veiled prostitute who attempts to hire the protagonist to exact her own revenge, but on finding him unwilling to take up her cause for money, shows him her mutilated face to sway him to her cause; a vertically-challenged Maratha chieftain leading some wayward Pindari warriors, a pack of undisciplined riffraff that refuse to follow orders and pounce like scavengers on corpses lying by the roadside; and Afghan warriors who track the gossain because — I kid you not — “you killed my master, prepare to die”.

In case you haven’t figured it out already, the movie is a genre-lover’s wet dream. It also helps that Singh and co-writer Deepak Venkateshan get their historical details just right. Everything — from weapons to costumes, language to customs — feels authentic and grounded in both era and locale. The characters are splendid — Khan and Vij make for excellent, balanced antagonists when they share the screen; the supporting characters shine regardless of screen time, the lonely widow played by Zoya Hussain, Deepak Dobriyal channeling a bit of Toshiro Mifune, Madan Deodhar as the hapless Maratha captain trying to bring his no-good men under control. My favorite moments are the ones that bring the nonsensical theatrics of neo-historical potboilers into sharp contrast, like the short dance performance in the Maratha tent, or the pragmatic outlook of the characters regarding the British. Or even the grounded notion that this land, in the eighteenth-century, was a complicated place where soldiers bickered and back-stabbed each other, with no grandiose thread of nationalism weaving through it all.

However, much like Dibakar Bannerjee’s 2015 Byomkesh Bakshi, all the attention to style and historical detail cannot take away the fact that Laal Kaptaan suffers dreadfully from Sergio Leone syndrome. One wishes the story being told was a little tighter, the pace a little more balanced than the steady canter it sinks into, even in its moments of action. We find our attention divided by too many perspectives; the reveals, including a betrayal in the middle of the story, do not bear the impact that they should. Overall, the film takes too long to weave all its threads together, and it suffers for all that.

The year’s best-of lists in Indian film have gone on record saying that 2019 was not as fertile for Indian cinema. I had high hopes about this particular film, based on the trailer, and my overall optimism regarding Singh’s storytelling skills. It does feels gratifying that something like Laal Kaptaan gets a theatrical release and at least a degree of star-power behind it. It is the kind of film that I like to recommend to friends, the ones that fall under the radar and can still evoke discussion. Hopefully, a filmmaker like Singh continues to push genre boundaries with his works. Hmm, maybe someone should point him to this werewolf story that is set in Mughal times, by this writer named Indra Das…

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Books

My Favorite Unfinished Book Series

In reverse order.

#3 Kentaro Miura’s Berserk

Miura’s fantasy manga series began in 1988, and in 31 years, there have been 40 volumes. There have been periods of complete silence from the creator for many years, and we have no idea when the series will end or how many more volumes there are.

What is the series about? I wrote about the first 6 volumes once upon a time, in Rolling Stone magazine. 10 years ago, to be precise, when the number of volumes released were 28. It has been a maddening wait, rendered more so by my tendency to wait a few volumes before reading the whole series again from the beginning. I even sold my whole collection of the Berserk books, at a stunning profit, may I add, because the books were out of print for quite a while. They are now being reissued in deluxe leatherbound three-in-one volumes, and of course I am buying them again. And reading them again three at a time.

#3 George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire

When talking about ASoIaF, I feel like a guy that comes late to a party, proceeds to get drunk, and can’t stop yelling what a great party it is, how it’s his favorite party of all time, the best party ever. I wasn’t too hot on the books when I read Game of Thrones before it was a blip on the radar of mainstream popular culture. In my defence, I had been thoroughly underwhelmed by the likes of Stephen R Donaldson, Robert Jordan, and other writers of the genre recommended to me by Tolkien enthusiasts. It was an easy conclusion to reach, that this medieval fantasy was no different than those other series, flailing to reach that vaunted position in our cultural consciousness that Rings had attained.

Ten years later, when I read the five books in a month, after binge-ing on the first three seasons of the TV show, I wanted to slap myself hard for missing out on the books for so long.

The naive sweet summer child in me actually thought that Winds of Winter would be out by 2015. It took about 2 years more before I attained the Zen of Ice and Fire, that fuck-this-all attitude towards knowing what comes next in the books, with the understanding that there is a chance that I may actually die before the books end. Somewhere in the back of my brain, there is the occasional vein of desperate longing that throbs every time someone on Reddit talks about GRRM’s cheerful demeanor towards his writing. It’s fine. It’s going to be fine. The book will be out when it will be out.

*Insert quiet sobbing here*

#1 Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon B Johnson

Read my lips: this series of books, ostensibly a biography of the US President Lyndon B Johnson, is a history of Texas and the USA, and American politics in the early twentieth century, and possibly the most insanely readable work of non-fiction ever published.

Caro is a journalist who took seven years to write a book on Robert Moses, somebody you wouldn’t know unless you lived in New York in the middle of the century. Moses was a power broker, somebody who worked behind the scenes of city politics, and his contribution to the world is New York as we know it today, the Parks, the Expressways, the beaches, the infrastructure of the city. Caro won the Pulitzer for The Power Broker, and then took on the task of writing about the President who accidentally got his job because his predecessor was assassinated. He began writing the book in 1974, a year after Johnson’s death. Four books have been out so far, the last published in 2012, each more gripping than the previous one. Never have I understood politics or the importance of government more than when I read Caro’s books. There has not been any other work of non-fiction that has moved me to tears. I never thought I would wince at the twists and turns of history as I have when reading of Johnson’s white-knuckle attempts to change his own fate, and that of the nation. I could probably write giant essays and thought experiments about my own complicated feelings for Mr Johnson, but that is a post for a different time.

Caro is 83 this year, and is still hard at work on the fifth and last book, which covers the actual presidency of Johnson, spanning the bulk of the 1960s. He just released a short book called Working, which is a bit of a peek at his process of research, writing, and interviewing. The book is around 200 pages, and most of it is ground previously covered in interviews and articles. I finished reading it today, and I am not embarrassed to say it made me tear up. It is not just a book about process and regimen, but a rare case of the writer insinuating himself into the work that has side-stepped the writer’s ego by a stunning degree.

He talks about meeting Robert Moses (not an easy task, since the man had refused out of hand to cooperate with the writing of the book) and understanding what power truly meant, to see what this ruthless visionary saw when he stared outside the window of his mansion. He goes on at length about the fortuitous meetings and decisions that led to his single volume on Johnson expanding to three and then five volumes, how apocrypha gave way to facts and numbers, and how a flawed, larger-than-life President became an unbelievably complex human being.

But most wonderfully, Caro goes into detail about the mechanics of his writing. How he uses rhythm to make every word convey force and power; his use of mood and place, some of which he got by living for years in the areas he wrote about. How he managed to unpack decades-old dynamics between friends and family of Johnson in the course of multiple interviews, forging friendships over the years. At no point does any of it appear disrespectful, or manipulative. Caro’s motivation behind his writing is not to demean or elevate the subjects at hand, it is to understand and to make us understand the concept of power.

There is evil and injustice that can be caused by political power, but there is also great good. It seems to me sometimes that people have forgotten this. They’ve forgotten, for example, what Franklin Roosevelt did: how he transformed people’s lives. How he gave hope to people. Now people talk in vague terms about government programs and infrastructure, but they’ve forgotten the women of the Hill Country and how electricity changed their lives. They’ve forgotten that when Robert Moses got the Triborough Bridge built in New York, that was infrastructure. To provide enough concrete for its roadways and immense anchorages, cement factories that had been closed by the Depression had to be reopened in a dozen states; to make steel for its girders, fifty separate steel mills had to be fired up. And that one bridge created thousands of jobs: 31,000,000 man hours of work, done in twenty states, went into it. We certainly see how government can work to your detriment today, but people have forgotten what government can do for you. They’ve forgotten the potential of government, the power of government, to transform people’s lives for the better.

Robert Caro – Working

Needless to say, I can’t wait for the final book in the series to be out. After which, I hope Mr Caro will get around to writing the more full-fledged memoir that he talks about in Working. One can only hope and dream, I suppose.

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Concerts, Music

2020 Goals (a small one)

So I was doing a bit of the ol’ interweb-crawling before heading to bed, and I came across a piece of news that got blood rushing to my head. An Instagram account attributed to the band Rage Against The Machine has put up a single image.

(I screenshotted the image so that it does not suddenly disappear off the face of the internet if the band decides they’re too cool for Instagram)

Yes. The Rage Against the Machine, whose last live appearance was in 2011, at a festival called LA Rising. That year I was in Los Angeles, sans car, barely skimming the surface of what the city had to offer. So of course I missed it, and the band never performed together again.

RATM has been on my top 5 Acts to Watch Live, and it looks like next year is when I make it out to Coachella again, after 5 years of staying away from the festival. Or maybe it may make more sense to just head out to New Mexico or Arizona to see the band, considering Coachella logistics.

Also, I cringe at the thought of being an RATM fan 20 years ago, with little context to their music, other than them being this angry-sounding band with catchy guitar riffs that were great to head-bang to. “The Machine” in their name, in my head, correlated to the System, and of course, we all hated the system, which was all teachers and dumb rules and everything that reeked of adulthood. So it felt good to sing along with “Fuck you I won’t do what to tell me”. It did not help that I heard their music for the first time on the Matrix OST, which obfuscated their political messages even more. In a time when I was still trying to define what “cool” was, and whether I was part of that club or not, Rage Against The Machine’s music presented the right kind of credentials.

It was much, much later that a better knowledge of US politics, history, and culture helped me understand the “Rage” in their name. The band’s lyrics are, in case you didn’t know already, at odds with US domestic and foreign policy, and are a direct critique of corporations, cultural imperialism, and systemic oppression of marginalized groups in America. Once upon a time, I wondered at why exactly the band spoke of convicted murderers and revolutionary Mexican organizations, and wondered if they were taking performance art too far by insisting on shooting a video in front of the New York Stock Exchange, or hanging upside down flags from their speakers during a live TV show. I had misgivings about the violent protests their music seemed to incite, and sort of understood why they were the only band in the infamous Clear Channel memorandum to have all songs banned from radio channels in the aftermath of 9/11.

But you live and learn. Twenty years later, I know America a little differently than I did back when I just graduated college. I am a lot more aware, both from a cultural and sociopolitical standpoint, about what makes this country tick, and the undercurrents of wrongness that pervade American society. The truths to power that the band spits out through their music feel like a necessary part of the American discourse. “Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses” now hold more import than the chorus of ‘Killing in the Name’. And the song that plays at the end of The Matrix, the one that introduced me to the band, has these lines:

Networks at work, keepin' people calm
Ya know they murdered X and tried to blame it on Islam
He turned the power to the have-nots
And then came the shot

As it turns out, I am not alone in loving the band without understanding them. Republican ex-House speaker Paul Ryan was apparently an RATM fan, and Tom Morello wrote a scathing Rolling Stone opinion piece calling him “the embodiment of the machine”.

These, by the way, are the list of books in the album notes of Evil Empire, their second album.

  • A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  • Capital, Volume I by Karl Marx
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  • The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell
  • Guerrilla Warfare by Che Guevara
  • Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton
  • Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
  • The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
  • Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
  • Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
  • Live from Death Row by Mumia Abu-Jamal
  • Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
  • Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism by Alexander Berkman
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • Rules for Radicals by Saul D. Alinsky
  • Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson by George Jackson
  • Walden and Resistance to Civil Government by Henry David Thoreau
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Another Country by James Baldwin

I am still working my way through this list, and I do not claim to be an expert. But I shut up, and listen, and read, and read a little more, and every day the world comes a little more into focus.

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