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'James' revisits Huck Finn's traveling companion, giving rise to a new classic

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'James' revisits Huck Finn's traveling companion, giving rise to a new classic

An enslaved man debates John Locke. A Black man pretends to be a white man in blackface to sing in a new minstrel show. In a fever dream of a retelling, the new reigning king of satire, Percival Everett, has turned one of America’s best loved classics, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, upside down, placing Huck’s enslaved companion Jim at the center and making him the narrator. The result is strangely new and familiar – an adrenaline-spiking adventure with absurdity and tragedy blended together.

Re-imaginings of classic literature are challenging, often unnecessary endeavors. This one is different, a startling homage and a new classic in its own right. Readers may be surprised by how much of the original scaffolding remains and how well the turnabout works, swapping a young man’s moral awakening for something even more fraught. A kind of historical heist novel about human cargo, as in the original, James is an enslaved man in antebellum Missouri. James loves his wife Sadie and their 9-year old daughter Lizzie, and keeps them safe by not just adhering to – but mastering – the racial codes of an inhumane system.

Despite those efforts, one day Jim learns the unthinkable — the mistress is planning to sell him down the river but keep Sadie and Lizzie. James can’t have his family separated, so he runs to nearby Jackson Island, planning to hide out until he can figure a way to secure their freedom. Jim’s unlikely friend, young Huckleberry Finn also has reason to hide and to run with his abusive and alcoholic father back in town. After faking his own death (an action that unintentionally puts James under suspicion), Huck begs to come along, offering to pretend to be Jim’s owner. This alliance launches a delirious odyssey, two runaways navigating a treacherous river on a raft.

A subtle but significant change is that while the events of Twain’s 1884 novel take place in the Mississippi Valley “forty to fifty years ago,” in the 1840s, Everett advances the timeline by two decades, putting the nation on the cusp of civil war, though James and Huck don’t know it.

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More importantly, Everett provides what Twain could not: Jim’s deep interior life. The entire story is narrated in his voice. Getting inside James’s head is a remarkable experience. Though they’re sometimes parted, James (as he prefers to be called in Everett’s novel) and Huck somehow always find each other again, and that creates a sense of surreality.

Along with shifting states of consciousness and reality, identity is a crucial and an explicitly slippery thing. Twain wrote Huck Finn in region-, race- and even age-specific dialect and pushed back on critics who found the language objectionable by explaining each dialect contained was researched with anthropological attention to detail. Everett, like Twain, is similarly obsessed with the link between language and identity. James plays the role of the docile and ignorant slave, whose speech to white people is barely intelligible, while inside he’s savvy, literate, and nursing a bubbling rage. Every chance meeting with white folks is a performance, a private minstrel show in which James code switches his style of speaking for white comfort.

The artifice serves a crucial purpose, and James is a consummate trickster – the cooperative slave, play acting exaggerated subservience, with his voice and diction morphing to character. And despite their growing connection, James’s audience is all white people, old and young – including Huck. James only holds fast to only one true thing: His vow to his family: to “get me a job and save me sum money and come back and buy my Sadie and Lizzie.”

Every now and then Huck can sense the falseness and it destabilizes their partnership. Their connection is real and tenuous, undermined by who they are – or appear to be to society – and the gap between them. Those contradictions are hard for a boy to grasp. It would be poignant but the repetition of those scenes of code switching uncertainty also renders this comic. As narrator, James recounts this moment when Huck got close to discovering his act:

“Jim,” Huck said.

“What?”

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“Why you talking so funny?”

“Whatchu be meanin’?” I was panicking inside.

“You were talkin’—I don’t know—you didn’t sound like no slave.”

Again and again. In true Everett fashion, the intertwined artifice of race and language is stretched to self-reflexive absurdity. On top of the issue of interracial, interpersonal performance, the author mimics and pokes fun at the self awareness and calculus of slave narratives like the one James is himself secretly trying to craft (or maybe, rather modern literary analysis of slave narratives) and what James explicitly calls “the frame” in storytelling. James knows he’s smarter than those who would consider themselves his betters and, sometimes, as long as he’s safe and among other Black people, he secretly enjoys having some fun with his expertise.

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The earliest and most self-conscious example of this linguistic play and reflexivity occurs before James and Huck go on the run. James was careful to approach Huck and Tom like any other white folks – with caution and concealed distance. When the boys think to play a trick on James while he’s sleeping, the truth is “Those boys couldn’t sneak up on a blind and deaf man while a band was playing.” But James spins a story letting the boys think their trick of moving his hat while he was sleeping has been so successful that he believes he was visited by a witch. He’s telling a tale to another Black man, but he knows that he’s being overheard by the two white boys. This is the dual frame of which James is explicitly aware. Similarly, when teaching his daughter Lizzie how to manage the expectations of white people and avoid insulting Miss Watson about her terrible cooking, James advises the girl: “‘Try’dat be,’ I said. ‘That would be the correct incorrect grammar.’

James takes pride and pleasure in these deceptions. But fluidity of language and role playing can never be just a game. This 19th century linguistic shape-shifting can become a matter of life or death in an instant. So the intimacy between him and Huck is worrying: “spending time with Huck alone had caused me to relax in a way that was dangerous.” Plus, the people James and Huck encounter are also, more often than not, playing with their own roles. When James meets Norman, a man with white skin who seems to see through his racial performance, he finds it a “terrifying notion.” James’s horror and fear are so obvious that Norman feels compelled to reassure him: “‘You didn’t slip,” he said. I’se jest knows.’” James is impressed: “His accent was perfect. He was bilingual, fluent in a language no white person could master.” But Norman has his own secrets of identity and language. He’s actually of mixed race passing for white, and James just doesn’t detect it.

Like James and Norman’s encounter, the novel is exquisitely multilayered. A brilliant, sometimes shocking mashup of various literary forms, James has the arc of an odyssey, with the quest for home, and an abundance of absurdly comical humor. Con men and tricksters like the Duke and the Dauphin are borrowed from Twain. But even with the humor, Everett weaves in signature touches, like dream sequences with John Locke, whom James criticizes over his position on slavery. As James recounts, “I knew I was dead asleep and dreaming, but I didn’t know whether John Locke knew that.” So they debate in his dreams, the famous philosopher from which America’s “inalienable and natural rights” flow defending his contradictions. When Locke says, “Some might say that my views on slavery are complex and multifaceted,” James counters that his positions are “Convoluted and multifarious.” Locke says: “Well reasoned and complicated;” James says: “Entangled and problematic.” Locke: “Sophisticated and intricate.” James: “Labyrinthine and Daedalean.”

The back and forth is virtuosic in a scene that will make you smile if not laugh out loud. At other moments, especially those involving James’s evolution and the enslaved women inside and outside of his family, James is devastating. Eventually, the story crescendos to a paroxysm of violence that is simultaneously inevitable and shattering. That combination of moral philosophy, absurdity and tragedy is very Everett. But James’s situation is so bleak, his character so flesh and blood so fully realized, his pain so visceral and poignant, that at times the farce and telegraphing of inside jokes can seem jarring.

Still, I’m not sure if that dissonance is truly a bug or a feature. In addition to addressing language and identity, James is very convincingly and movingly a book about two runaways’ quest for freedom and the relationship between human beings that society says should not have any connection. James works shockingly well in all those dimensions. America’s original sin and contradictions are his subject, and this riveting riff on a similarly complex American classic that even Toni Morrison called “this amazing troubling book” is his most challenging and maybe even his best canvas. With the previous high water marks of Telephone, The Trees, and Erasure, Everett has long been an American literary icon. But in the wake of an Oscar-winning adaptation, this time the world is watching. James expands the Everett canon in a way that will have to be reckoned with come award season.

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A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.

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How do you build without over polluting? That's the challenge of new Catan board game

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How do you build without over polluting? That's the challenge of new Catan board game

A new version of the popular board game Catan, which hits shelves this summer, introduces energy production and pollution into the gameplay.

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A new version of the popular board game Catan, which hits shelves this summer, introduces energy production and pollution into the gameplay.

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In the original version of the popular board game Settlers of Catan, players start on an undeveloped island and are encouraged to “fulfill your manifest destiny.” To win you have to collect resources and develop, claiming land by building settlements, cities, and roads.

A new version of the board game, Catan: New Energies, introduces a 21st-century twist — pollution. Expand responsibly or lose. In the new version, modern Catan needs energy. To get that energy players have to build power plants, and those plants can run on renewable energy or fossil fuels. Power plants operated on fossil fuels allow you to build faster but also create more pollution. Too much pollution causes catastrophes.

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Building renewable energy-based power plants has benefits in the new game, including minimizing pollution for everyone, but it also makes you grow slower.

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Building renewable energy-based power plants has benefits in the new game, including minimizing pollution for everyone, but it also makes you grow slower.

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“Generally it’s tough to depict reality in a game. The reality is always so much more complex,” said Benjamin Teuber, managing director of Catan’s production company and co-developer of the new game. Games, he adds, need to be fun.

Catan: New Energies makes players choose between renewable energy or fossil fuel-based power plants. The latter allows you to grow faster but creates more pollution.

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Catan: New Energies makes players choose between renewable energy or fossil fuel-based power plants. The latter allows you to grow faster but creates more pollution.

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The newest iteration of Catan will hit shelves this summer. And it aims to mirror reality in a couple of clear ways: Energy from fossil fuels creates more planet-altering pollution than renewables; too much pollution leads to bad things; those bad things are felt unequally.

“Sometimes flooding hits everybody, just as we see [in the real world],” said Teuber. “It doesn’t matter who created the pollution. It affects everyone.”

Teuber, who co-developed New Energies with his late dad, Klaus Teuber, said the game was an old idea they dusted off during the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s one that’s become increasingly relevant as the real world grapples with the effects of real pollution: a rapidly warming planet that’s worsening wildfires, floods, and heatwaves.

The game’s developers are aware of the relevancy. “It’s a very interesting topic in every culture that we publish in,” Teuber said.

Polls show climate change is viewed as a major concern across many parts of the world. But adapting to the changes and addressing its roots have proven difficult. Teuber said he thinks board games can help move the conversation forward. Board games generally require people to sit around a shared table, to read each other, to negotiate and take risks, “without having a severe and bad consequence,” he said. “Unless divorce is the result.”

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Climate change experienced through board games

Catan: New Energies is not the only new board game centered on climate change. Daybreak, the latest game from the creator of Pandemic, a popular cooperative board game, tasks players with working together to cut carbon emissions and limit global warming.

In a blog post on Daybreak’s website, the game’s co-designer Matteo Menapace wrote that he and co-creator Matt Leacock were inspired to make the game because they were both worried about climate change and weren’t sure what to do about it.

“The problem with the question ‘what can I do about climate change,’ is how it implies climate action is like a single-player game, with you alone fighting against this huge invisible enemy,” Menapace wrote. They believe addressing climate change and its causes will require a collective effort. That’s why Daybreak requires “total cooperation,” Menapace wrote. “It’s a big leap from the current state of climate (in)action, but not an unreasonable one… and we aim for this game to play a role in accelerating this shift.”

Catan Studio, the developer and publisher of Catan games, isn’t as explicit in its intentions with its new game. The phrase “climate change” doesn’t show up in any of the Catan: New Energies’ promotional materials, packaging, or rulebooks. “Pollution” is the catch-all term for the problem.

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Teuber said they talked about adding the term but decided to focus on energy and presenting players with the option of fossil fuels or renewable. “We assume players will draw their own conclusions as they engage with the game,” he said.

The game’s studio does note in its press materials that according to “evidence-based research and expert sources, [the] new game elements will get players thinking and talking about important issues.”

A 2019 review of published research on board games and behavior by a team of Japanese researchers showed that “as a tool, board games can be expected to improve the understanding of knowledge, enhance interpersonal interactions among participants, and increase the motivation of participants.” Though, it noted, the number of published studies on the topic is limited.

Dialogue from gameplay

“What games are really powerful at is starting dialogues,” said Sam Illingworth, an associate professor of science communication at Edinburgh Napier University in the UK.

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In the gaming world, there’s a concept called the Magic Circle — a theory attributed to Johann Huizinga, a Dutch cultural historian, who in the 1930’s posited that play creates a separate world with separate rules.

“It’s the idea that we suspend disbelief on the gaming table,” Illingworth said. “Like in the game Monopoly, it’s perfectly good – strictly advisable – for me to want to bankrupt you, which is behavior that’s morally repugnant away from the gaming table, but it means that those social hierarchies can break down and we can have conversations that we wouldn’t normally be able to have.”

In 2019, Illingworth co-designed a playable expansion to the original Catan that added climate change and sustainability to the gameplay. They called it Catan: Global Warming and posted the rules and instructions on how to adapt a regular Catan game online.

In the add-on, if players add too many greenhouse gasses, the whole island is destroyed and nobody wins. “So that creates a game state where psychologically there’s obvious causality between actions and what happens, right?” Illingworth said. “So rather than just having a conversation about what might happen, you’re actually experiencing it.”

In Catan: New Energies, if pollution reaches too high a level to continue, the win goes to the person who built the most renewable energy power plants.

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While workshopping the new game with colleagues, Teuber said they would often play too aggressively, aiming to “grow, grow, grow,” they would build out fossil fuel power plants, he said. “We always manage to over pollute.”

Test groups did the same. But after those games, the players would often come back and say, “We had heavy discussions afterwards,” Teuber said. “We all felt kind of bad, we learned and thing or two, and the next game we played differently.”

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Sylvester Stallone Says Torn Pec Injury Forced 'Rocky II' Plot Twist

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Conductor Andrew Davis, who headed orchestras on 3 continents, dies at 80

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Conductor Andrew Davis, who headed orchestras on 3 continents, dies at 80

Conductor Andrew Davis, right, raises his arms as he takes a bow, accompanied by Renee Fleming, and Peter Rose, center, during the final dress rehearsal of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio in the Metropolitan Opera at New York’s Lincoln Center, March 25, 2011.

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Conductor Andrew Davis, right, raises his arms as he takes a bow, accompanied by Renee Fleming, and Peter Rose, center, during the final dress rehearsal of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio in the Metropolitan Opera at New York’s Lincoln Center, March 25, 2011.

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Andrew Davis, an acclaimed British conductor who was music director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and orchestras on three continents, has died. He was 80.

Davis died Saturday at Rusk Institute in Chicago from leukemia, his manager, Jonathan Brill of Opus 3 Artists, said Sunday.

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Davis had been managing the disease for between 1 1/2 and 2 years, but it became acute shortly after his 80th birthday on Feb. 2. He had conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last December in the U.S. premiere of his own orchestration of Handel’s “Messiah.”

“A consummate musician, incredibly versatile and a phenomenal colleague, as well,” soprano Renée Fleming said in an email to The Associated Press. “It takes a special kind of command to be a great conductor, the power to make close to a hundred musicians (each one, at heart, a diva or divo) hang on your tiniest gesture. So it is remarkable that even with that strength, Andrew’s primary quality was his innate happiness. He was gifted with an infectious joy that somehow came through in every bar of music he made.”

As his 80th birthday approached, Davis was invigorated by the challenge of molding an orchestra, especially young players.

“Harnessing all that energy and that enthusiasm and that passion, and galvanizing it into a totally, totally unified conception and not just conception but — what’s the word? — realization,” he said during an interview with the AP last July after rehearsing the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America in workshops and then at New York’s Carnegie Hall. “I berate them more than I would, but I hope always with a twinkle in my eye.”

Davis was music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1975-88 and Britain’s Glyndebourne Festival from 1988-2000; chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1989-2000 and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra from 2013-19; then music director of the Lyric Opera from 2000-21.

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Davis made his Lyric Opera debut in 1987 and led about 700 performances of 62 operas by 22 composers.

“He was a true artistic partner to me and a shining light for so many of us,” Lyric Opera general director Anthony Freud said in a statement. “We will miss his incredible artistry, his extraordinary wisdom, his irrepressible humor, his unfettered zest for life and his devotion to the arts and the humanities.”

Davis conducted a dozen Last Night of the Proms concerts, an annual celebration of Britain at London’s Royal Albert Hall. He twice gave the customary speech in the patter of the Major General’s song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.”

Born in Ashridge, in the Hertfordshire county of England, Andrew Frank Davis played organ for his parish choir and joined the choir at the Watford Grammar School for Boys. He studied piano at London’s Royal Academy of Music in London, became an organ student at King’s College Cambridge, and played piano, harpsichord and organ with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields from 1966-70.

He made his conducting debut with the BBC Symphony in 1970, became an assistant conductor with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra, then in 1971 made his North American debut with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

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“One of the finest conductors of his generation,” Carnegie Hall executive and artistic director Clive Gillinson said. “I worked with him on an ongoing basis at the London Symphony Orchestra, and the players and I were always totally engaged by his superb musicianship.”

Davis made his opera-conducting debut in Strauss’ “Capriccio” at the Glyndebourne in 1973 and the following year met his future wife, soprano Gianna Rolandi, when she sang Zerbinetta in performances of Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” that he led at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. They got married in 1989 and had a son, composer Edward Frazier Davis.

Davis became a Commander of the British Empire in 1992 and a Knight Bachelor in 1999. The family moved to Chicago when he was hired by the Lyric Opera.

During the pandemic, Davis translated Virgil’s “Aeneid” from Latin into English verse.

“I took an entrance exam in classics in New College, Oxford,” he told NPR, “but then a couple of weeks later I took the organ scholarship trials at King’s College, Cambridge, which much to my surprise I won, so that was the end of classics for me.”

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His wife died in 2021. In addition to his son, he is survived by a sister, Jill Atkins, and brothers Martin Davis and Tim Davis. Funeral services will be private.

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