Friday Five: Rediscovering Madonna’s Most Maligned Record, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad And Why I Want An Action Figure Of Jyn Erso

This installment of Friday Five is a bit of a bridge from the end of last year and the beginning of the new one — I had a nice week off from my job where I just slept and read like a mofo. (I also tackled a lot of reorganization tasks…and as a result I am so burned out on Target runs!)

I’m also doing a few big skim-reads of New Year motivation-type of books, like The Happiness Project and basically Gretchen Rubin’s whole oeuvre. But most of those are really, as I said, really fast skims of things I’ve already read, just to keep ideas and concept fresh in my mind or pique the ones already embedded in the back of my brain.

And of course I started reading Harry Potter again…because sometimes a brain needs a break to play!

Here are a few of the other things I’m taking in and enjoying in some or any way. Hope everyone’s New Year got off to a great (relaxing) start, and please share anything that’s lighting you up lately.

+ When Madonna’s American Life record came out, she got a lot of flak: the album’s ‘guerilla chic’ look didn’t find a receptive audience during a particularly Dubya-centric time in American history, and even critics who had given her props for Ray of Light and Music gave her a hard time about the folky electronica vibe, saying it was stale. And admittedly, next to those records and Like A Prayer, American Life doesn’t quite reach those heights. (And Madonna rapping is always a little awkward.)

Lately, though, I’ve been listening to it and fascinated: it’s a deeply earnest record, with songs about disillusionment, the importance of hard work, and seeking spiritual truth and contentment in a material world. It’s very Kabbalah-y, I guess, and can feel pretty hectoring and humorless — something rare for an often cheeky, mischievous pop icon. It might also be Madonna’s dorkiest record — the rapping! — but I personally like her dorkiness and could write a whole essay on how her being a dork has underlied her entire career and made her actually kept her human.

But listening to American Life years after its release, I’m interested in its earnestness, its melancholy, its anxiety and its weird vulnerability and honesty. It gestures towards the downward evolution of the American dream, one that shifted from the emphasis on hard work, innovation and self-reliance to mini-mansions, SUVs and Insta-fame. (Some might justifiably argue that the American Dream was always founded on the inflation of some at the expense and subjugation of others — ahem, Native Americans, hmmm.) American Life is pop music about dour existential and societal dread — dread at where we’re headed collectively and individually, which, looking at the world now, feels a little prescient, honestly. But because it’s pop music, it’s also has its moments of bright-eyed hopefulness — which I hope is prescient as well.

+ I just finished Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I’m a big fan of his, going all the way back to his debut The Intuitionist, a retro sci-fi story about rival elevator inspectors. He’s a big genre-hopper — he even did a brilliant zombie book! — but he’s always incredibly smart, inventive and slyly funny. The Underground Railroad is his foray into historical fiction, and it’s about slavery, of course — but its central conceit re-imagines the railroad itself as an underground network of stations and locomotives. As the main character Cora seeks freedom, she makes various stops that are essentially an allegory of the history of black people and race in the U.S. It’s not my favorite book of Whitehead’s, but it’s vivid, fast-paced and incredibly powerful. I highly recommend!

+ After finishing The Underground Railroad, I decided to re-read all the Harry Potter books. I got a complete set for Christmas — my old copies have been lost due to my previous transient itinerant artsy existence — and I’m just excited to go back into these childhood classics after a winter of heavy literary fiction. Only once I’ve finished the whole series will I then tackle the new books like Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts.

+ Oh! I almost forgot, but over the Christmas break, we went to go see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which I really enjoyed. I am a Felicity Jones fan — she was so wonderful in Like Crazy — and thought she was pretty excellent in a restrained performance. The movie took a bit of time to really get going, but man…how many times did I want to cry while watching it? It’s just awesome to see a great heroine heading such a big blockbuster-y type of movie that doesn’t make a big deal of her kick-assness or toughness. I also now kind of want a Jyn Eyso action figure, because one of the big objections that big movie studios have against major tentpole movies with female leads is that no one will want to buy merchandise of a female fighter — and that is so stupid and I so want to prove them wrong!

+ This video about a mom locking herself in a closet to sneak in a snack just went viral, and OMG I SO DO THIS ALL THE TIME TOO!

Oh, and the pic above is from my Instagram…I basically said it was my spring 2017 fashion concept! Mostly for the colors of cream, black, maize, blush pink and light color, the hint of rose gold and the hand-drawn polka dots. Is anyone else out there dreaming of spring clothes?

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