June's Best Books, Comics, Video Games, and Music
From the new memoir 'A Stone of Hope' to Chastity Belt's latest album, and more.
A Stone of Hope: A Memoir
Jim St. Germain
When Jim St. Germain arrived in New York City, he was ten years old and fresh from a village in rural Haiti, where "most of the population lives in darkness." St. Germain's description of his Haitian hometown—which appears on the first page of his potent new memoir—is meant literally: When night falls in the hemisphere's poorest nation, many homes are dark but for the flicker of cook-fires. Glimpsing Manhattan's towers of light out a plane's window meant seeing beacons of wealth and hope. But the reality St. Germain found in the city, at least at first, was different.
His new home, a cramped apartment in a housing project in Brooklyn, already housed a half-dozen relatives. His father spoke little English; his grandmother was helpless to provide for him. He was left to fend for himself—and soon found that lessons he'd absorbed in another place where "adapting is a matter of life and death" served him well in Crown Heights. Surviving here meant betraying no fear. To show he had none, he picked a fight with his school's toughest kid. To fit in, he mirrored "the glide through the packed hallway, the tone that skirted trouble but didn't make you a punk, the casual flirtation with girls." His first winter in Brooklyn, he earned cash shoveling snow for Hasidic Jews; by his second, he'd learned he could make much more by helping its older boys, the ones with clean sneakers and shiny cars, keep its addicts supplied with crack.
Along his road to becoming, by 15, a convicted criminal and a ward of the state, there were glimmers of other tracks. He enjoys playing football—but he breaks his wrist in a fight and has to quit. He hits puberty in a place where "there is luck, there are exceptions, and there is the reality of your four walls, and your five square blocks." Here where "your reward—your survival—is based on your ability to impose your will on others," margins for error, for those hoping to escape, are infinitesimally small. He lands, along with most of his friends the streets don't kill, in what they call the "system": the archipelago of detention centers, juvenile courts, and grim reformatories that have a main function that seems to be funneling their impoverished charges into the adult prison system or back onto the streets more brutalized than ever.
The daily life of young people caught up in New York's street-level drug trade has been described in enduring books—Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family, Richard Price's Clockers. The baked-in racism of the prisons in which many of them land has been bared by writers like Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) and Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy). What distinguishes St. Germain's book (which he wrote with Jon Sternfeld) is the perceptive acuity with which he narrates his personal journey through the "system," and explains how he was able, with the help of devoted adults—a driven pair of lawyers from Legal Aid, most of all, and the leaders of the exceptionally well-run group home where he turns 18—to skirt its usual outcomes. Today St. Germain is 26, a college grad and a full-time advocate for helping the "system" turn out more stories like his. But he presents his tale less as a testament to his own evident determination and gifts than as an homage to those he had the luck to encounter along the way, who both showed him those gifts were there and had the patience to nurture them.
It's thanks to the first hero in his story, the volunteer public defender who helps him avoid adult jail (he'd been arrested for hiding drugs in his bike), that he is instead remanded to Boys Town: a group home in leafy Park Slope built as much around disciplined structure as love. St. Germain's first months there are stormy: Violence has become for him both an outlet and a reflex. But the steady attentions of counselors, who represented his first exposure to "authority figures invested in my success," he says, bear fruit.
"I found space to think and room to breathe," he recounts. He reads books—The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Dreams from My Father. He earns his GED and attends community college. From there, he goes on to a four-year college where he finds a mentor who helps him synthesize his lived experience and his studies in such a way that he can write with authority about how "the ghetto was not a natural phenomenon; it was engineered by history, by law, and by policy."
The last chapters of St. Germain's book are devoted to the professional advocacy he's undertaken. Among the causes is the "Close to Home" campaign—an effort to convince New York to cease sending juvenile offenders to prison-like facilities hours from the city and their families. Instead, he advocates in favor of housing them closer to home, in therapeutic settings like Boys Town. Another is the effort to get New York to join the many other states that have raised the age of "criminal responsibility" from 16 to 18—to prevent the charging of people too young to vote as adults and their inhumane jailing in adult prisons (a campaign that recently won a significant victory).
For him, it's personal. He recounts the story of Kalief Browder, who, after allegedly stealing a backpack at the age of 16, spent three years in Rikers Island, much of it in solitary confinement, before he returned home and, only 19 years old, hanged himself in his parents' apartment. When St. Germain was arrested and sent to Boys Town, he notes, he was two weeks shy of his 16th birthday. If it had been a month later, Browder could have been him.—JOSHUA JELLY-SCHAPIRO
The Fire Next Time
James Baldwin, Photos by Steve Schapiro
James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time on the 100th anniversary of the emancipation, in 1963. The first essay is a letter to his nephew and namesake, James, a young man in the throes of adolescence, trying to find his place in a hostile world. Baldwin makes sense of this struggle through a description of racism that is equally eloquent and heartbreaking, and reads as though it could have been written today. The second, longer essay is a meditation on the intersection between religion and racism in America, particularly examining Christianity and the trend toward embracing Islam—Baldwin doesn't seem to find much solace in a traditional notion of God, be he forgiving or vengeful.
Baldwin's words reverberate on the page—they hardly need illustration, and yet Taschen's new edition of the book, gorgeously enriched with more than 100 photos by photojournalist Steve Schapiro, who spent much of the 60s photographing Baldwin and civil rights activists in the South, render the text all the more profound. Perhaps one of the most moving images is a two-page spread of Jerome Smith—a freedom rider, who allowed Shapiro to travel with him through the South—sitting in a church in New Orleans. HOLY, HOLY reads the embroidery on the altar, underneath a stained-glass window of a contemplative Christ, while Smith sits in the far left of the image, in overalls, his chin resting on his hand, a pose that is somewhere between reflection, prayer, and perhaps dejection—it's a sad and lonely photograph, but with that essential touch of hope. On the next page, we see two white women and a man, their faces plastered with shit-eating grins, waving the Confederate flag. Their clothes are from the 50s, but it could be 2017.
Baldwin himself has a deeply expressive, striking face that Schapiro photographs beautifully. His face cracks with a smile or a frown; in one particularly moving photograph, he's dancing with ease and joy, his arms spread wide. The book ends with a photograph of black men at a march, wearing signs that read HONOR KING: END RACISM. If only this were simply a rich historical document, rather than a beautiful and timely call to arms.—SOFIA GROOPMAN
A New Low
For 13 lucky years, Johnny Ryan drew comics for VICE, and most of them appear in this book. If you don't know Johnny's comics but are Johnny-curious, this is a good Russell Stover's style sampler. If you miss Johnny dearly, this will be a fond reunion with a disgusting, violent friend who makes you laugh. All the old favorites are here: Erotic Art Collecting Squirrel, who, just as a twee art-collecting couple acquires a statue called "Le Sonata du Mon Twat Fromage," messily explodes from their heads. There's the "Best of Vice Magazine Online Comments," where Johnny drew cute, cartoon animal versions of the people who left mean comments about his work online (the animals tell him how much he sucks). By and large, it's a fantastic collection—see especially his dark, H.P. Lovecraft-y bodyhorror comics, in which a giant bearded head floats out of the clouds and drives talon-tipped tendrils into the foreheads of two children, who believe it is the Christmas star. One melts into a pile of blood, and the other is mutated into a flying demonic creature who comes home and announces that the "universe put his finger inside of me. I am now one of his angels of evolution." Do yourself a favor and buy a gross of this cask-strength grossness.—NICK GAZIN
I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone
Listening to Chastity Belt's new album is like getting surprisingly good advice from a friend who spends most nights going out and getting fucked up. Where the post-punk band's two previous records, No Regerts and Time to Go Home, were equal parts adolescent moaning, humor, and irony (see songs "Pussy Weed Beer" and "Giant Vagina") their latest effort suggests they're growing up (at least a little bit). Though still lamenting the monotony of nights out and waking up after the sun's gone down, it doesn't feel as good as it once did. As Julia Shapiro sings in "Caught in a Lie," "I'll take a shot of whatever you got, but it's not going down that easily." (Compare with the opening verse from No Regerts' "James Dean": "This is sex, this is war, this is me fucking you on the dance floor.") They've gone from not giving a fuck to, well, starting to give one. But while the lyrics have matured, the sound remains true to their previous work, with bassist Annie Truscott, drummer Gretchen Grimm, and guitarist Lydia Lund mixing airy instrumentals with Shapiro's calm and composed cooing, a hypnotic monotone that never changes inflection, even on gut-wrenchingly honest lines like "I would rather be alone than ask for what I want," from the album's standout track "Used to Spend."—CATHERINE PEARS
Stop me if you've heard this premise for a video game before: Aliens have invaded Earth, and you're tasked with fighting to save everyone. But Nier: Automata, the latest from eccentric Japanese game designer Yoko Taro, is far more than it seems. Players follow two androids, 2B and 9S, as they fight on humanity's behalf to take back the planet. You hack, you slash, and robots stylishly blow up around you. Taro has been making action games with sprawling, complex narratives for a while now, but they've never been much fun to actually play. With Automata, Taro partnered with Platinum Games, the studio behind games with superb combat, like Bayonetta and Vanquish. It's a perfect match. Over the course of multiple endings and dozens of hours, Automata carefully reveals a complex and disturbing story about a confused group of robots struggling to find purpose. Though humanity places a central role in Automata's narrative, humans aren't the driving factors behind the plot. Instead, the robots—and their competing motivations—are center stage. Automata takes tired and worn sci-fi tropes like artificial intelligence and robot consciousness and imbues them with an emotional depth that has players wrestling with uncomfortable questions that have few easy answers. It's the best kind of weird that games have to offer.—PATRICK KLEPEK
Rock in a Hard Place
British journalist Orlando Crowcroft spent five years researching his latest book, Rock in a Hard Place: Music and Mayhem in the Middle East. During that span, revolution took place across the region, and countless innocents were thrown into prison. Some of them were guilty of little more than liking tattoos, band T-shirts, and heavy metal, and their struggle is the crux of Crowcroft's lively book. Part oral history, part bite-size political history, and part travelogue, Rock in a Hard Place focuses predominantly on the heavy-metal scenes in Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria (though the author also includes a few punk and prog-rock bands, and even a variety of hip-hop artists). Crowcroft introduces us to bands like Lebanon's Damaar and Creative Waste from Saudi Arabia, both of which share the experience of being persecuted for the simple crime of loving rock music. The book is also an intriguing window into how class, culture, and religion play into these scenes—whether it's Saudi bands angrily dismissing black metal's anti-religiosity, or the differences in how the Christian East and Muslim West of Beirut prefer their metal ("If [East Beirut] are Iron Maiden, we are Venom," Lebanese musician Tex explains).—KIM KELLY