homeaboutarchivenewslettermembership!
aboutarchivemembership!
aboutarchivemembers!

My Sabbatical Media Diet

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2022

As you’ll soon read in a comically long “what I did on my summer break” post I’m writing, almost everything I do on a day-to-day basis when I’m working on the site came to a complete halt when I went on sabbatical back in May - I stopped reading online, unsubscribed from all newsletters (save one or two), ignored Twitter, stopped paying attention to the news, didn’t really read my email. Pretty much the only concession I made was to keep track of what I was reading, watching, and listening to. So here you go, my media diet over the past seven months.

Russian Doll (season two). A worthy second act of Natasha Lyonne’s surprising hit. The NYC subway is the best time machine since the police box and the DeLorean. (A-)

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. Another Burkeman banger. If The Antidote was a self-help book for people who don’t like self-help books, this is time management for people who don’t want to organize their lives like a Toyota factory. (A-)

Middlemarch by George Eliot. By far the best thing I read during my sabbatical and one of my favorite books of all time. For whatever reason, I thought this was going to be stuffy liht-tra-chure but it turns out it’s hilarious? Almost every page had me laughing out loud. The writing is exquisite and Eliot’s observations about human behavior are still, 150 years on, remarkably astute. And there’s a scene near the end of the book that is almost cinematic — she painted such a vivid picture that it took my breath away (like, literally I was holding my breath). (A+)

All of This by Rebecca Woolf. You’re about to split up with your husband and then he gets cancer and dies. That is a complex emotional landscape; Woolf describes how she navigated her relief and grief as her life was torn apart and put back together again. A brutally honest read. (B+)

Conversations with Friends. Not quite up to Normal People’s high bar but still pretty entertaining and affecting. (A-)

Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation by Hannah Gadsby. Unexpectedly resonant — one of a number of things I’ve read recently by people who have discovered they’re on the autism spectrum as adults. (B+)

Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante. Didn’t like this one quite as much as her excellent Neapolitan novels. (B+)

Old. Decent M. Night Shyamalan effort. The Sixth Sense remains the only film of his I’ve actually liked though. (B-)

The Mt. Qi Pork Hand-Ripped Noodles Meal Kit from Xi’an Famous Foods. I find most restaurant meal kits to be expensive and the resulting food unsatisfyingly unlike what you’d get at the restaurant. Not so with this one…I feel like it’s an incredible bargain (when paired with some bok choi or something it feeds 4-6 in my experience) and it tastes exactly like what you get at the restaurant. I’ve recommended this to several folks and everyone loves this kit. Note: neither the ingredients or the finished product freezes well — order this when you can make and consume the whole thing over the course of a few days. (A)

Apple Watch. I haven’t worn a watch since the early 90s, so it took me awhile to talk myself into this. But I wanted a good way to track my exercise and perhaps use my phone less. The Watch has succeeded on the first point but not really on the second, and I’m convinced that this thing has no idea how to accurately track calories on mountain bike rides. (B+)

Blade Runner 2049. Always up for a rewatch of this. I (sacrilegiously?) prefer it to the original. (A)

Gattaca. I always use the title of this movie when I need to remember the four nucleotide bases of DNA. Which, admittedly, is not super often. (A-)

Against the Rules (season three). Timely and fascinating exploration of the role of experts in our society by Michael Lewis. (B+)

Maus I & II by Art Spiegelman. Finally got around to reading this after finding it on a local bookstore’s table of banned books. A masterpiece. (A+)

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. I guess I am having a little trouble with caring about Marvel stuff after Endgame. Also, Sam Raimi’s horror thing doesn’t jibe with my dislike/indifference of/about horror movies. (B-)

Everything Everywhere All At Once. Second time. I love this movie so hard. (A+)

Top Gun: Maverick. I was shocked at how much I liked this movie — a Top Gun sequel didn’t have any right to be this entertaining. Straight-up no-frills thrill ride that’s best on a big screen. Loved Val Kilmer’s scenes. (A)

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. I was a little wary of watching this; from what I’d read, it seemed like it was a bunch of Bourdain’s friends and loved ones blaming Asia Argento (who was not interviewed for the film) for his death. It’s a delicate balancing act, but the film doesn’t actually do that, IMO. And the stuff about his early-mid career is great and was personally resonant. (A-)

Slow Burn: The L.A. Riots. I was 18 years old and a busy freshman in college when the 1992 LA riots happened, so this was fascinating to listen to. Joel Anderson was the perfect host for this — authoritative, probing, and skeptical in all the right places. (A)

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann. Nearly unbelievable family stories combined with fascinating insights on what it’s like to be an uncompromising artist. (A-)

Red Notice. Fun but forgettable. (B)

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. Read this after my kids and I watched the Disney+ series. (B+)

Obi Wan Kenobi. This could have been terrible or messed too much with the original trilogy timeline/vibe, but they pulled it off. (B+)

Operation Mincemeat. If you like war dramas, this is a war drama. (B)

Last Night in Soho. Not my favorite Edgar Wright film. (C+)

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi. A friend recommended this after I read Maus. Another masterpiece about the effects of authoritarianism. (A)

The Card Counter. Good performances but ultimately not that memorable. (B+)

The Grand Budapest Hotel. A rewatch after many years. Anderson’s most commercially successful film but not my favorite. I love that there are hundreds of reviews of the hotel on Tripadvisor. (B+)

Thor: Love and Thunder. Natalie Portman is a great actress who sometimes seems like she’s a bad actress — see also Star Wars. Maybe superhero sci-fi is not her bag? Also, I think they went a little overboard on the stuff that made Ragnarok so much fun…it just didn’t work as well here. (B)

Persuasion. Oof. A poor adaptation of Austen through the lens of Fleabag. (C-)

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Hinton was in high school when she wrote this so it’s a little uneven, but the voice is amazing. (A-)

For All Mankind (seasons two and three). Not as good as the first season IMO. It’s tough for alt-histories as they get farther and farther from where the timelines split. That said, I am a sucker for such an artfully placed Radiohead song. (B+)

Schitt’s Creek. Late to this but what a delightful show! Was very sad when it ended; I wanted to spend more time with these people. P.S. If you’re in the US and missed this on Netflix, it’s available on Hulu now. (A)

The Bear. I’ll admit I didn’t love this at first — I got my fill of the edgy/grungy aesthetic in the 90s — but it crescendoed nicely. (A-)

Saap. Nisachon Morgan, the chef of this unassuming Thai place in the tiny town of Randolph, VT, won the 2022 James Beard award for best chef in the northeast. A friend of mine has been a regular there for years, so we stopped in for a meal. Let’s just say the Beard Foundation got this one right. (A)

The Gray Man. Gotta be honest — I think I got this confused with Red Notice. (B-)

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Still incredible that this was written in 1931 — it’s strikingly modern in many ways. (A-)

Deception Point by Dan Brown. Total beach read. Tom Clancy did this sort of book much better though. (B)

Lightyear. Solid Pixar effort. (B+)

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. I don’t understand the poor reviews of this series and its (unfair) comparison to the sexier House of the Dragon. It was engaging throughout, though maybe a little slow in places (I didn’t care much for the Harfoots plotline.) And it’s a setup for an epic tale that lasts four more seasons…there’s bound to be a lot of table-setting. (B+)

The Great Canadian Baking Show. Not as good as the original but worth a watch if you’re in Canada (either physically or via VPN), if only to catch how judge Bruno Feldeisen pronounces “sponge” and “layers”. Seasons one and two feature the delightful Dan Levy as one of the hosts. (B+)

Junior Bake Off. I understand that they’re children, but Bake Off just isn’t as fun when the baking is, uh, not great. (B)

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. With five different stories spanning hundreds of years, this was challenging to listen to as an audiobook at first. But it paid off well in the end. (B+)

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. Love anything and everything that Chiang writes. (A)

Source Code. I’m not sure this aged super-well but it was entertaining. (B)

Escape into Meaning: Essays on Superman, Public Benches, and Other Obsessions by Evan Puschak. Not quite the target audience here — I feel like this book would have hit me straight between the eyes in my late 20s or early 30s. (B-)

The US and the Holocaust. Essential documentary by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein about how the United States responded (and failed to respond) to Nazi Germany’s persecution and murder of European Jews in the years before, during and after WWII. (A+)

The Holocaust: A New History by Laurence Rees. I’ve watched and read a fair bit about the Holocaust over the years, but watching The US and the Holocaust and reading Maus spurred an interest in learning about how the Holocaust happened in detail. After some research, I settled on this book by Laurence Rees, which provides a good overview on how the Nazis harnessed European anti-Semitism to gain power and then used it to murder six millions Jews. It was unsettling to read but important to know this history so that we do not let it repeat. (A)

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. The perfect little murder mystery. Like a magician revealing her tricks, Christie lays bare how murder mysteries are structured — and it takes nothing away from the thrill of the story. (A-)

Renaissance. Not my favorite Beyoncé album — it’s a little all over the place and the disco/house vibe isn’t exactly my jam — but there are some definitely bangers on here. All Up in Your Mind is my favorite track…I just wish it were longer! (B+)

Star Fluxx. A friend recommended this after I asked him for card/board games that would be good to play with my now-teenaged kids. Part of the game play includes changing the rules of the game as you go…we’ve been enjoying it. (B+)

Unspoken Words. Ambient-ish electronica from Max Cooper. My favorite track from this one is Everything. (A-)

See How They Run. Fun murder mystery with a few laugh out loud moments and great performances by Saoirse Ronan and Sam Rockwell. (B+)

Cool It Down. First new album from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for the first time in nearly a decade? Yes yes yes. Spitting Off the Edge of the World is sublime. (A-)

Downton Abbey: A New Era. Sometimes, nothing but a low-stakes British period drama will do. (B+)

Night and Fog. An illuminating but difficult-to-watch companion to my other explorations of the Holocaust. (A)

Munich — The Edge of War. Solid historical drama that takes place around the events of the Munich Agreement that gave the so-called Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in exchange for postponing WWII for about a year. (B+)

The Worst Person in the World. Really interesting and affecting in parts and a great performance by Renate Reinsve. (A-)

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. I can’t say that this book made me want to become obsessed with surfing, but maybe it made me want to become obsessed with something again. Beautifully written and personally resonant. (A)

Enemy. Good acting and direction but this is the type of film that I don’t think I care for anymore. (B)

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe. Compelling and well-researched. The Troubles happened during my lifetime and I saw bombings on the news as a kid, but I didn’t have any more than a vague sense of what it was all about until I read this. (A)

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. I thought Coogler and co. did a good job in paying tribute to Chadwick Boseman while moving the story forward. But the kids and I agreed that we missed some of the fun and lightheartedness of the first film. (B+)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. We listened to the audiobook in the car over several months — the British Stephen Fry version not the (IMO) inferior Jim Dale versions. (B+)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The rules are, when you finish the audiobook, you watch the movie. (B)

Her Place. A unique dining experience that’s not unlike going over to someone’s house for a dinner party. There are two seatings a night, at 6:00 and 8:30; all parties are seated at the same time. It’s a set menu with no substitutions and everyone in the restaurant is served at the same time. Every course or two, the chef quiets the diners to explain what’s coming up, who cooked it, where the ingredients are from, and anything else she thinks is relevant. It’s operationally smart and creates a great dining environment. Esquire just named it one of the best new restaurants in America. (A)

Tim Carmody’s wedding. Tim has been my friend and a vital part of this website for more than a decade, so it was a real pleasure to be able to join him and Karen McGrane for their wedding. We got to walk through a 20-foot-tall model of a human heart at the Franklin Institute! What a metaphor! (A)

The Handmaid’s Tale (seasons four and five). The first two seasons of this show were great. And then…well, they turned June into an antihero and a superhero, neither of which was very compelling. I dunno, maybe I just can’t get past how Elisabeth Moss can play someone escaping a cult-driven society while belonging to a cult herself. (C)

You’re Wrong About. I’ve given it a chance over the past several months but the new iteration of You’re Wrong About isn’t as good as the Sarah and Michael version. The show is still interesting and guests are fine, but the podcast is missing that comfortable witty banter, pacing, and Michael’s sharp editing (the double intro and outro are awkward and should be discarded). One odd thing for a show that is literally about explaining things: since the format changed, they often don’t plainly describe the subject matter at hand — it’s just assumed that we all know what they’re talking about (the eugenics and Henry Lee Lucas episodes for example). (B)

Le Relais de l’Entrecôte. If I ever own a restaurant, it’s gonna serve one thing, really fucking well. (A)

Arnaud Nicolas. Absolutely mind-blowing charcuterie. (A)

Trains in Europe. Specifically in Switzerland & France and to a lesser extent in Portugal & Italy. *sigh* (A)

The Strasbourg astronomical clock. A mechanical wonder located in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Strasbourg, France. I stayed for quite awhile, examining all the details. (B+)

Venice. This city seems fake, like you’re on a movie set or something. Even though Venice is unbelievably crowded in the touristy areas and the food is often so-so, it’s so so so relaxing and quiet to walk around a city without cars. (A)

Switch Sports. Nice to have a sports game on the Switch, but I miss the golf and a couple of games from Wii Sports Resort. (B+)

Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. Couldn’t get into this one. (C+)

Benfica vs. Newcastle United. My very first time watching a football match in a European stadium and wow, what a stadium and experience. Great crowd for a preseason friendly and an 89th minute winner by the home club didn’t hurt either. Almirón, who is making some waves in the Premier League this season, scored two goals for the away team. (A)

Bar Kismet. Reminded me of my dearly departed favorite place in NYC. Great food, great casual atmosphere, creative cocktails, friendly service. (A)

Snowden Deli. My new favorite place for smoked meat in Montreal. (A-)

The Wok: Recipes and Techniques by Kenji López-Alt. Have only scratched the surface of this one, but it’s upped my wok cooking game already. Also, does anyone else’s entire family groan when I weigh in on some food question with “well, Kenji says…” or is that just me? (A-)

Legacy of Speed. Great story about athletics, politics, and activism. (B+)

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson. Conventional overview of the discovery of CRISPR and what it means for the future of humanity. I think there’s a better book to be written about this though. (B)

Slaughterhouse-Five: Or the Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death by Kurt Vonnegut. Despite it being a modern American classic, I had very little idea what this book was about. I was not expecting….Tralfamadorians. (A-)

Ejaculate Responsibly: A Whole New Way to Think about Abortion by Gabrielle Blair. A clever & compelling common-sense reframing of the abortion debate that places much more of the responsibility for birth control on men (for a whole host of reasons enumerated by Blair). Fellows, this is worth your attention and consideration. (A-)

Enola Holmes 2. Fun and entertaining but could have been 20 minutes shorter. (B)

Tár. Incredible performance from Cate Blanchett. I’m not going to weigh in on what I thought the film was about, but do read Tavi Gevinson’s take in the New Yorker. (A)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.