homeaboutarchives + tagsshopmembership!
aboutarchivesshopmembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

kottke.org posts about books

“World Travel: An Irreverent Guide”, an Upcoming Travel Guidebook by Anthony Bourdain

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 16, 2020

World Travel Guide Bourdain

Just before be died, Anthony Bourdain began work on a travel guide with his long-time assistant and coauthor Laurie Woolever. The book was to distill the lessons learned from his life of travel as a TV personality and celebrity food enthusiast. Based on their conversations, Woolever is completing work on World Travel: An Irreverent Guide, which will be out in October.

In World Travel, a life of experience is collected into an entertaining, practical, fun and frank travel guide that gives readers an introduction to some of his favorite places-in his own words. Featuring essential advice on how to get there, what to eat, where to stay and, in some cases, what to avoid, World Travel provides essential context that will help readers further appreciate the reasons why Bourdain found a place enchanting and memorable.

Supplementing Bourdain’s words are a handful of essays by friends, colleagues, and family that tell even deeper stories about a place.

Here’s a brief taste of the kind of advice you’ll find in the book:

Skip the touristy spots, he said: “If you spend all that time waiting to get into the Eiffel Tower, you’ve completely wasted a day”; and forget the concierge: “They’re going to send you to the place with the clean bathroom. Some of the best meals I’ve had, you need a hazmat suit to go to the bathroom.”

You can preorder the book on Amazon.

Steven Soderbergh’s Media Diet for 2019

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 14, 2020

Every year, director Steven Soderbergh publishes a list of the movies, books, TV series, short films, and short stories he’s watched and read over the course of the year (one of the inspirations for my media diet posts). For many creators, the key to making good work is to read and watch widely with an emphasis on quality — it’s difficult make great work if your ingredients are poor — so Soderbergh’s 2019 list is a fascinating look at the director’s inputs for the next year’s creative endeavors.

Some observations:

Winners Take All

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2020

Winners Take All is Anand Giridharadas’ 2018 book about how “the global elite’s efforts to ‘change the world’ preserve the status quo and obscure their role in causing the problems they later seek to solve”. For instance, Giridharadas would argue that Jeff Bezos donating a billion dollars to charter schools while Amazon pays no federal income tax is a problem.

Why, for example, should our gravest problems be solved by the unelected upper crust instead of the public institutions it erodes by lobbying and dodging taxes? His groundbreaking investigation has already forced a great, sorely needed reckoning among the world’s wealthiest and those they hover above, and it points toward an answer: Rather than rely on scraps from the winners, we must take on the grueling democratic work of building more robust, egalitarian institutions and truly changing the world — a call to action for elites and everyday citizens alike.

The RSA made an animated video of a talk by Giridharadas that distills his central message into about five minutes — it’s a good watch/listen. The full talk is available here. (via aeon)

Slaughterhouse-Five Graphic Novel

posted by Aaron Cohen   Jan 09, 2020

Later this year, Kurt Vonnegut’s sixth novel Slaughterhouse-Five will be reimagined as a graphic novel by writer Ryan North, artist Albert Monteys, and colorist Ricard Zaplana. Vonnegut’s descriptive stories lend themselves well to the format of graphic novels with pithy dialogue, fantastical plots, and non-linear narratives. This project is being released with the blessing of the Vonnegut family, so if it’s successful, hopefully other Vonnegut novels will be released as graphic novels as well.

slaughterhouse-five.JPG

Ryan North is the writer of How To Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler. Kottke readers will presumably appreciate a guide for building a recognizable society if you’re stuck in the past after a catastrophic time machine breakdown.

There hasn’t been a film made of Slaughterhouse-Five since 1972 (a film, by the way, which Vonnegut loved), but imagine what someone like Taika Waititi could do with this story.

So it goes.

The Full Legacy of Isaac Asimov

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2020

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Isaac Asimov’s birth, Alec Nevala-Lee writes about the sci-fi author’s dual legacies: his prodigious literary output and his decades-long practice of groping women, hundreds of them.

Isaac Asimov loved large numbers. He was born a century ago this month, and when he died, in 1992, he was both the most famous science fiction writer in the world and perhaps the most prolific author in American history. He kept close track of his publications, most of which were nonfiction, and confessed that he was generous when it came to including borderline cases, such as anthologies, in his total of nearly five hundred books: “We all want to be known for something, and I was beginning to see that there would be a good chance that if for nothing else, I would be known for the vast number of books I would publish.”

In the end, however, another number might turn out to be equally meaningful. Over the course of many decades, Asimov groped or engaged in other forms of unwanted touching with countless women, often at conventions, but also privately and in the workplace. Within the science fiction community, this is common knowledge, and whenever I bring it up in a room of older fans, the response is usually a series of nods. The number of such incidents is unknown, but it can be plausibly estimated in the hundreds, and thus may match or exceed the long list of books that Asimov wrote.

See also How Picasso Bled the Women in His Life for Art. (via @john_overholt)

The 100 Best Books Written By African American Women

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2020

The editors of ZORA, a publication for women of color, have published a list of the 100 greatest books written by African American women: The ZORA Canon.

To our knowledge, however, no one has ever compiled a comprehensive list specifically featuring the finest literary works produced by African American women authors. We decided to undertake that effort both to honor that still underappreciated group of writers and to provide ZORA readers — you — with a handy reference guide to their work.

Here are a sampling of the books on the list — click through to peruse them all.

Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson. “The first novel written by an African American woman, Our Nig focuses on the fictional character Frado and her servant-girl life in New England during antebellum slavery.”

The Red Record by Ida B. Wells. “This tome by the groundbreaking writer, Mathis says, is ‘an exhaustively researched publication about lynchings in the U.S. after the abolition of slavery.’”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. “This groundbreaking novel by the Harlem Renaissance novelist and anthropologist focuses on the emerging autonomy and maturation of Janie Crawford as she endures multiple marriages, poverty, and various other associative trials to reach a state of clarity.”

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. “The first of a multivolume series, this much-loved autobiographical tale recounts Maya Angelou’s early life…”

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. “As he grows up, Milkman Dead strives to take flight as he sets out on a pilgrimage to reclaim his family history…”

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. “The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist traces the lives of three people — a sharecropper’s wife, an agricultural worker, and a doctor — who embark upon one of the greatest movements of African Americans within American history: the Great Migration.”

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. “This series of poems chronicles Woodson’s experiences in South Carolina and New York in the 1960s and ’70s under Jim Crow and with the civil rights movement.”

I have read several of the more recent books on this list but not enough.

My Recent Media Diet, The Late 2010s Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 30, 2019

Every month or two for the past couple of years, I’ve shared the movies, books, music, TV, and podcasts I’ve enjoyed (or not) recently. Here’s everything I’ve “consumed” since late October.

Uncut Gems. Watching this movie replicates very closely what it feels like to live in NYC (and not in a good way). This movie contains one of my favorite scenes of the year and Sandler is a genius. (A)

Seduce And Destroy with Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie & Paul Thomas Anderson (A24 Podcast). The best bits of this were fascinating but some of it was too inside baseball. Listen to this after seeing Uncut Gems. (B+)

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. The Iliad as a romance novel (of sorts). Loved it. (A)

Hustlers. Jennifer Lopez did not require fancy cameras or the de-aging CGI of The Irishman to make her look 20 years younger. (B+)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. Such a great alchemy of subjects — kind of a miracle how it all works together. (A-)

Jesus Is King. Boring. Christian hip hop isn’t any better than Christian rock. Born again Kanye? I miss the old Kanye… (C-)

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Wonderfully creative. A couple of really disturbing parts though for kids. (A-)

The Dark Crystal. Watched this after Age of Resistance and it holds up really well. (B+)

Tunes 2011-2019. Gets better with every listen. (A-)

The Laundromat. Soderbergh and Streep? This should have been better. (B)

The Fifth Season by N.K Jemison. Liked this but it didn’t make me want to immediately start the next book in the series. (B+)

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. Lots to chew on in this one but I ultimately didn’t finish it. But that’s more on me than Harari. (B+)

David Whyte: The Conversational Nature of Reality (On Being). “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.” Whyte sounds like a fascinating person. (A-)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Re-watched the entire series over the past several months. Strong in the middle seasons but not a great ending. (B+)

The OJ Simpson Trial (You’re Wrong About…). Excellent multi-part reexamination of the OJ trial centered on the women, principally Nicole Brown Simpson but also Marcia Clark and Paula Barbieri. It took me awhile to get used to the sometimes-too-casual banter about distressing subject matter, but their knowledge and discussion of the subject matter won me over. (A-)

Ad Astra. The filmmakers couldn’t find a way to do this movie without the voiceover? Just let Pitt act…everything he says is obvious from his face. Beautiful though. (B+)

Dead Wake by Erik Larson. Engaging account of the sinking of the Lusitania, which eventually & circuitously led to the entry of the United States into World War I. (A-)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This wasn’t my favorite book I’ve read with my kids. (B-)

The Devil Next Door. Interesting story but I wanted more from this re: the nature of truth & evil. (B)

The Lighthouse. Sunshine x Fight Club. (A-)

Ford v Ferrari. Driving home from the theater, it took every ounce of self-control not to put the pedal on the floor and see if my car can do 120 on a Vermont county road. (A-)

The Crown (season 3). I didn’t like this quite much as the first two seasons, but I did like the overt and not-so-overt references to Brexit. There was a low-stakes-ness to this season which fits with other exported British media (Downton, British Baking Show) and the country’s rapidly dwindling status as a world power. (B+)

Menu Mind Control (Gastropod). Really interesting discussion of how menus are constructed to balance the needs of the restaurant and the desires of the diner. Buckle up though…Gastropod is one of the densest podcasts out there. (A-)

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A surprisingly trippy adaptation of one of my favorite magazine articles on Fred Rogers. Hanks is great as usual. (B+)

Coco. Another Pixar gem. (A-)

A Table for Two, Please? (Talk Money). From a new podcast by my pal Mesh — the first episode is about the business side of opening and running restaurants. (B+)

Knives Out. From the hype this got, I was expecting a bit more than a good murder mystery but it was just a good murder mystery. (B+)

Marriage Story. Great performances all around, but Jesus why did I watch this? It captures very well the feeling and experience of divorce. Total PTSD trigger though. (D/A-)

Galatea. Engaging short story by Madeline Miller. (B+)

Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. Impossible at this point for anyone to objectively review the ninth movie in a series which in some ways has defined culture of the last 40 years. I loved it, even the hokey parts. (A)

High Life. Not even sure what to say about this one. (B-)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of 2019

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 29, 2019

As he does every year, President Obama has shared his favorite books of the year for 2019. His picks include Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, and The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. I wonder what he reads that he doesn’t like.

He also did a list of his favorite movies (Parasite, Booksmart, Little Women) and “TV shows that I considered as powerful as movies” (Fleabag!).

Fleabag: The Scriptures

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 26, 2019

I am sorry this is too late to make my holiday gift guide, but I just found out it existed: Fleabag: The Scriptures consists of the scripts for both seasons of Fleabag, the original stage directions for the play, and commentary from Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Fleabag Scriptures

Her coat falls open. She only has her bra on underneath. She pulls out the little sculpture of the woman with no arms. It sits on her lap. Two women. One real. One not. Both with their innate femininity out.

The book has been out since November. How am I just finding out about this now?!

My Strategic Book Reserve - Banking Unread Books from Favorite Authors

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 10, 2019

When I wrote this post last week about Erik Larson’s new book The Splendid and the Vile, I said I was going to buy and read it the second it comes out. But then I realized that Larson has written several books that I am fully aware of but have not read, including 2015’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. What gives? Why am I not rushing out for that one?

I do this with other favorite authors and books series as well. I’ve read some deep cuts from the archives of David Foster Wallace — stuff he wrote in college & grad school — and Infinite Jest twice but I haven’t read a couple of his collections or his posthumous The Pale King. Books 1 & 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle deeply resonated with me but I can’t quite bring myself to start on the third volume. I burned through stuff from Hilary Mantel and Elena Ferrante, yet I didn’t immediately seek out other books that they’d written. Richard Rhodes too…there are many examples.

Part of it is that I’m a restless and then forgetful reader. Even after finishing an amazing book, I often want to switch gears to something different and then I fail to return to something else by the amazing book’s author. But mainly I do this on purpose. I like the feeling of looking forward to a sure thing, the comfort of a story I haven’t heard but I know will be good. We’re awash in highly acclaimed stories these days — there are hundreds of books published this year alone worth reading — but writers whose stories are particularly resonant to me are still a precious resource, worth saving for when I need a sure-thing read.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2019

Splendid Vile

For me, Erik Larson is one of the best nonfiction storytellers around. I loved both The Devil in the White City (about the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893) and In the Garden of Beasts. So when his new book, The Splendid and the Vile, comes out in February, I’m gonna hop on it right away. As the subtitle says, the book is about Winston Churchill and Britain during the the Blitz.

In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson shows, in cinematic detail, how Churchill taught the British people “the art of being fearless.” It is a story of political brinkmanship, but it’s also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London.

Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports — some released only recently — Larson provides a new lens on London’s darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and his family: his wife, Clementine; their youngest daughter, Mary, who chafes against her parents’ wartime protectiveness; their son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; Pamela’s illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the advisers in Churchill’s “Secret Circle,” to whom he turns in the hardest moments.

(via Maria Konnikova, who is doing an event w/ Larson in February at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn)

Reader’s Block

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2019

I stumbled across this comic by Grant Snider this morning and realized that I am often afflicted by reader’s block but have never quite thought about it in that way, somehow.

Readers Block

Some of Snider’s reasons affect my reading more than others: too little time, too much TV, not enough sleep, crippling ennui, low curiosity. I’ve recently started to use an app to help me form some good habits and break bad ones, and one of my daily tasks is “read a book for 15 minutes”. I hit that target almost every day and when I do, I usually get in the groove and go for longer, sometimes an hour or more. This has revealed “too little time” and “too much TV” to be falsehoods that I no longer believe — “too much phone” I am still working on.

I’ve also stopped reading books that don’t grab me, as interesting as they may seem and as acclaimed as their recommenders insist. If I’m reading something and I find myself daydreaming or wanting to check my phone or switching to an episode of something on Netflix, that’s a sign that I should put it down and find another book. The only problem with this is that some of my favorite books (Infinite Jest for one) did not grab me in the beginning but picked up in a major way later, sometimes hundreds of pages in. Great books sometimes do not hand everything to the reader on a silver platter and the hard work they demand becomes part of their reward.

But my main two reader’s block problems persist. The first is represented by “low curiosity” in Snider’s comic — I read all day long for my work here on kottke.org and when it comes time in the evening to wind down, more reading is often not something I can manage, especially with nonfiction (brain sometimes function at night not good). Reading right after I wake up has helped somewhat, but I typically have a logjam of tasks vying for my attention in the high-energy early morning and reading only occasionally wins.

The second thing is that I often get stuck between books. Part of it is the “overwhelmed by infinite possibility” factor — soooo much good stuff to read, how can you possibly choose what’s next? Succumbing to the temptation of other possible diversions or wavering in my disbelief of “too little time” becomes much easier when I’m not currently caught up in a story or someone else’s world view. Lining up your next read before finishing your current book is a possible solution, but that can be tough when you’re fully engaged in what awaits you in the closing chapters of your present literary love.

You can read more thoughts on reader’s block and how to tackle it from Stuart Jeffries, Emily Petsko, and Hugh McGuire. And if you and your preschooler are stuck looking for something new to read together, Snider has a new picture book out called What Color Is Night?

Primitive Technology, the Book!

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2019

We haven’t checked in on the Primitive Technology guy in awhile and — whoa, he has umasked himself! After more than four years of anonymity, the man building all of the tools, huts, weapons, and other Stone Age technologies in the wilds of Australia has revealed himself as John Plant. And in this video compilation from October, he announces that he has a book out: Primitive Technology: A Survivalist’s Guide to Building Tools, Shelters, and More in the Wild. Looks like a step-by-step guide to building all the things in his videos, accompanied by illustrations and photos:

Primitive Technology Book

Primitive Technology Book

This is an instant purchase for me, if only to support what he’s been doing for the past 4+ years. Plant says:

This video compilation, as well as the book, outlines all the skills and achievements I’ve attained in this time period using research, hard work and trial and error. Writing this book is something I wanted to do even before making videos and launching this channel. I wanted to offer something tangible that benefited those who had the same keen interest in primitive technology as I do. With that, I thank each and every one of you for your continued support throughout the years, and I really hope you enjoy the book.

And for good measure, here’s his latest video from a few days ago, which shows him building a kiln for firing bricks:

(via the kid should see this)

The Best Books of 2019

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2019

Best Books 2019

I made an effort to read more books in 2019 and mostly succeeded (I think). But there are so many good books out there I couldn’t get to, which is at once both panic-inducing (OMG, the endless bedside stack of books) and exciting (so much to look forward to reading). It’s in this spirit that I went through a bunch of end-of-the-year books lists to pull out some of our collective favorite books of the year for 2019.

The NY Times has published two lists so far: The 10 Best Books of 2019 and 100 Notable Books of 2019 (I think their critics’ picks are forthcoming). Ben Lerner’s third novel, The Topeka School, is on both lists and almost all of the others linked here as well. I read Lerner’s 10:04 a few years ago and really enjoyed it. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist made the longer list and is on my to-read-soon list as well.

As many others did, The Times Literary Supplement recommended The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong made the Washington Post’s Best Books of 2019. I pick up Vuong’s book every time I see it on a bookstore shelf…one of these days I’m going to actually buy & read it.

Book Riot’s list of the Best Books of 2019 includes Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski & Amelia Nagoski. Their talk at XOXO 2019 about the stress cycle was my favorite — it seemed at times they were talking directly at me.

In their Best Books of 2019 list, Kirkus Reviews highlighted Exhalation by Ted Chiang and Internment by Samira Ahmed.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk is on Time magazine’s 10 Best Fiction Books of 2019 list.

Library Journal has a number of lists in many categories — Chris Ware’s Rusty Brown and Mira Jacob’s Good Talk appear on their graphic novels list.

The lists from Goodreads always present a broader view of what’s being enjoyed by readers. See for instance: Most Popular Books Published In 2019 and Best Books of 2019. On the list of books for kids are Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o and Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo and Taffy Brodessner-Aker’s Fleishman Is in Trouble both made the New York Public Library’s list of Best Books of 2019.

Two lists from Five Books: Best Science Books of 2019 and Best Math Books of 2019. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez topped the first list and Infinite Powers: The Story of Calculus by Steven Strogatz made both lists. I wrote about Perez’s book back in February.

The Guardian selected the best science, nature and ideas books of 2019. Among those mentioned are Greta Thunberg’s No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference (which oddly didn’t make many other lists) and The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff.

The Guardian also asked a number of writers and celebs for their 2019 favorites. Hilary Mantel highlighted Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout, comparing the author favorably with Jane Austen. Anand Giridharadas picked Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, the only book on any of these lists in which I am quoted (as far as I know). Yotam Ottolenghi liked The Whole Fish Cookbook by Josh Niland.

Speaking of cooking, I couldn’t find a good list of the year’s best cookbooks, but I’ll update this if Eater or someone else publishes one. (see update below)

The top two books on Amazon’s Best Books of 2019 list are The Testaments by Margaret Atwood and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. I haven’t gotten around to Whitehead’s latest (The Underground Railroad was great) but I did read The Testaments and loved it.

Voracious reader Tyler Cowen weighs in with two lists: favorite fiction of 2019 and best non-fiction books of 2019. He mentions Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which I really enjoyed, and Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power by Pekka Hämäläinen.

Update: Alright, we’ve got a couple of lists of the year’s best cookbooks, In her list of the best baking cookbooks of 2019, Melissa Clark highlights Tartine: A Classic Revisited by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson. On the SF Chronicle’s best cookbooks of 2019 is Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s I Can Cook Vegan and Alison Roman’s Nothing Fancy: Unfussy Food for Having People Over. And Samin Nosrat (Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat) recently published a selection of her favorite fall cookbooks as a gift guide, including Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico by Bricia Lopez and Javier Cabral. (thx merrill & connor)

Update: NPR has updated their Book Concierge for 2019, adding 369 books spread out over a variety of categories from “Love Stories” to “The Dark Side”. I jumped right to the “Staff Picks” (the best section of any bookstore for people who like reading blogs) and found Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, a finalist for the National Book Award this year. I also spotted Mary H.K. Choi’s Permanent Record.

The NY Times Critics picked their Top Books of 2019, including Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise (the winner of the National Book Award).

Not all of the books on Boing Boing’s 28 favorite books in 2019 were actually published in 2019, but Olivia Jaimes’ Nancy: A Comic Collection was. So was Arcade Game Typography by Toshi Omigari.

Update: Along with Oprah and President Obama, Bill Gates has somehow become known for his reading. He periodically publishes lists of what he’s been reading on his website, and to his credit, he seems to be reading a bit more widely than he used to. Compare 2019’s list with this one from five years ago. The 2014 list (and the 2013 list) is mostly business & economics, almost all nonfiction, and all written by white men. This year is still mostly non-fiction but the majority of the books are by women (like These Truths by Jill Lepore), mostly not about business, and includes An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Perhaps it’s a low bar to clear, but it’s definitely progress for the world’s ur-nerd.

The 50 Best Nonfiction Books from the Past 25 Years

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2019

Slate recently compiled a list of the 50 best nonfiction books published in the past 25 years and it could not possibly be more up my alley. Let’s take a look at some of the books on the list:

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. “Through his reporting of McCandless’ passionate and foolhardy journey into transcendence — and writing about his own, similar youthful experiences — Krakauer explores our modern relationship to the wilderness and the deep desire many young people feel to seek out unthinkable danger.”

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. “His editors at Harper’s sent him to a state fair and on a holiday cruise, pastimes whose reputations for carefree, middle American fun seemed hopelessly alien to Wallace himself, a hyperactive observational machine desperate to shed his own self-consciousness but incapable of doing so.” A personal favorite of mine, my book-length introduction to Wallace.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. I loved this when it came out. I wonder how it holds up…

The Night of the Gun by David Carr. “In 2008, David Carr had been a respected New York Timesman for years, the paper’s media reporter and a beloved mentor of countless young journalists. But two decades before that, Carr was a junkie — a crack addict who washed out of journalism jobs, who was rung up by the Minneapolis cops nine times, and whose twin daughters were born 2 1/2 months premature to a mother who’d smoked crack the night before their delivery.”

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. A wonderful masterful book, one of my all-time favorites.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. “Barbarian Days is a masterpiece of sports writing, focusing its lens on the smallest unit of both athletic and artistic achievement: the single human body, attempting to do something difficult and beautiful.”

I’ve read fewer of the listed books than I would have thought. Time to remedy that.

Going to the Movies with Jackie Kennedy

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 20, 2019

Carly Simon’s recent piece in the New Yorker about going to the movies with Jackie Kennedy (an excerpt of her book Touched by the Sun: My Friendship with Jackie) was unexpectedly moving. And funny. And thoughtful. Trying to avoid seeing anything related to Oliver Stone’s JFK — “scarier, even, would be a two-minute trailer for ‘JFK’ inserted before the feature-length film we’d gone to see” — the two opted instead for Warren Beatty’s mobster flick, Bugsy.

Every time a shot sounded on the screen — and the film was plenty violent — she reacted physically, dramatically, her body mimicking the victim’s.

How do you deal with trauma like that when society keeps reminding you of it, not only generally (with gunshots in movies) but specifically, with blockbuster conspiracy movies that depict in detail the exact moment when your life was torn apart? And how can you be a good friend to someone who suffered from PTSD (and perhaps never recovered)? How do you assure her that you’re a safe harbor for her thoughts and feelings, that you’ll help insulate her without isolating her?

P.S. Somehow, in everything I’ve read/seen about the Kennedys over the years, I’d never heard that Jackie had given birth to a premature baby boy named Patrick in August of 1963. The baby died 39 hours after his birth. Her husband was assassinated just 105 days later. I… Jesus.

Rebel Girls Chapter Books

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2019

Rebel Girls Lovelace Walker

The makers of the hugely popular (at least in our household) Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls series are branching out into chapter books. Their first two are available now: Ada Lovelace Cracks the Code and Madam C.J. Walker Builds a Business. Lovelace is, of course, the pioneering computer programmer while Walker a cosmetics industry pioneer and America’s first female self-made millionaire.

You can also listen to the Rebel Girls podcast episodes featuring Lovelace and Walker.

Spinning Tethers for Space Propulsion

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2019

I love rocket launches. They are loud, carry cool things into space, and last a surprisingly long time considering how fast the rocket is already traveling when it clears the tower. But I think we’re going to look back on this era of space travel and marvel that launches & rockets were our only means of getting things into and around space (planetary gravity assists notwithstanding). We’re already moving in that direction; the initial tests of a space sail inspired by Carl Sagan have been promising. Another space propulsion idea is to use spinning space tethers to whip smaller, slower space vehicles from relatively low altitudes to higher orbits or even to the Moon, Mars, or beyond. This video from Kurzgesagt explains how these tethers work and what we could do with them.

I believe Neal Stephenson wrote about space tethers (or something very similar) in Seveneves.

Highlights from Circe by Madeline Miller

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2019

I’ve been enjoying sharing the highlighted passages from the Kindle books I’ve read lately. Going over your notes is a good way to solidify a book’s themes, ideas, and plot threads in your mind, especially for someone like me who tends to forget a lot of the earlier bits of what I’m reading. So I thought I’d go back through some previous reads in the same fashion, sharing some of the best bits of favorite books and refreshing my memory.

First up is Madeline Miller’s Circe, which was recommended to me by my friend Alaina. In the NY Times, Alexandra Alter called Circe “a bold and subversive retelling of the goddess’s story that manages to be both epic and intimate in its scope, recasting the most infamous female figure from the Odyssey as a hero in her own right”.

I’m starting here because I recently finished her debut novel, The Song of Achilles (the highlights from which I will share soon). I loved both books — Miller’s prose is somehow both spare and chock full of lyrical analogies and clever turns of phrase. Many of passages below highlight those qualities in her writing.

Page 3:

My mother did not argue further. Like everyone, she knew the stories of Helios’ temper when he was crossed. However gold he shines, do not forget his fire.

Page 14:

You cannot know how frightened gods are of pain. There is nothing more foreign to them, and so nothing they ache more deeply to see.

Page 37 (I am already bracing myself for the “you don’t understand…” of my kids’ teen years):

That is one thing gods and mortals share. When we are young, we think ourselves the first to have each feeling in the world.

Page 48:

All I knew was that I hated her. For I was like any dull ass who has ever loved someone who loved another. I thought: if only she were gone, it would change everything.

Page 66 (on useful fictions):

“Yes,” he said. “That is how it works, Circe. I tell Father that my sorcery was an accident, he pretends to believe me, and Zeus pretends to believe him, and so the world is balanced. It is your own fault for confessing. Why you did that, I will never understand.”

Page 67:

All those years I had spent with them were like a stone tossed in a pool. Already, the ripples were gone.

Page 85:

You can teach a viper to eat from your hands, but you cannot take away how much it likes to bite.

Page 90:

He stood up — I will not say gracefully, for he was too solidly built for that — but easily, like a door swinging on a well-fitted hinge.

Page 129:

I had not thought him so bold. But of course he was. Artist, creator, inventor, the greatest the world had known. Timidity creates nothing.

Page 129 (Reminds me of the quote “From the moment we are born, we begin to die.”):

I yearned for his hands, for all of him, mortal though he was, distant and dying though he would always be.

Page 132:

In a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.

Page 138 (a metaphor for inequality in America):

Every moment mortals died, by shipwreck and sword, by wild beasts and wild men, by illness, neglect, and age. It was their fate, as Prometheus had told me, the story that they all shared. No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke. Meanwhile every petty and useless god would go on sucking down the bright air until the stars went dark.

Page 186:

And Odysseus, I thought. The spiral shell. Always another curve out of sight.

Page 186:

But there is a hand that must gather all those pieces and make them whole. A mind to guide the purpose, and not flinch from war’s necessities.”

“And that is your part,” I said. “Which means you are like Daedalus after all. Only instead of wood, you work in men.”

The look he gave me. Like purest, unmixed wine. “After Achilles died, Agamemnon named me Best of the Greeks. Other men fought bravely, but they flinched from war’s true nature. Only I had the stomach to see what must be done.”

His chest was bare and hatched with scars. I tapped it lightly, as if sounding what lay within. “Such as?”

“You promise mercy to spies so they will spill their story, then you kill them after. You beat men who mutiny. You coax heroes from their sulks. You keep spirits high at any cost. When the great hero Philoctetes was crippled with a festering wound, the men lost their courage over it. So I left him behind on an island and claimed he had asked to be left. Ajax and Agamemnon would have battered at Troy’s locked gates until they died, but it was I who thought of the trick of the giant horse, and I spun the story that convinced the Trojans to pull it inside. I crouched in the wooden belly with my picked men, and if any shook with terror and strain, I put my knife to his throat. When the Trojans finally slept, we tore through them like foxes among soft-feathered chicks.”

Page 190:

It was a trick of his, to set a sentence out like a plate on a table and see what you would put on it.

Page 191:

Sometimes, I would see him watching me. An intentness would come over his face, and he would begin to ask me his casual, sideways questions. About the island, about my father, the loom, my history, witchcraft. I had come to know that look well: it was the same he wore when he spotted a crab with a triple claw, or wondered over the trick tides of Aiaia’s east bay. The world was made of mysteries, and I was only another riddle among the millions. I did not answer him, and though he pretended frustration, I began to see that it pleased him in some strange way. A door that did not open at his knock was a novelty in its own right, and a kind of relief as well. All the world confessed to him. He confessed to me.

Page 194:

I held off as long as I could, but in the end she was the scab that I must pick.

Page 208:

Odysseus, son of Laertes, the great traveler, prince of wiles and tricks and a thousand ways. He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.

Page 214 (there’s a relief in knowing, no matter how dire the details):

My madness in those days rose from a new certainty: that at last, I had met the thing the gods could use against me.

Page 217:

Do not listen to your enemy, Odysseus had once told me. Look at them. It will tell you everything.

Page 220 (reason != wisdom):

I looked into that shining gray gaze, her eyes like two hanging jewels, twisting to catch the light. She was smiling, her hand open towards me, as if ready to receive mine. When she had spoken of children, she had nearly crooned, as if to lull her own babe. But Athena had no babe, and she never would. Her only love was reason. And that has never been the same as wisdom.

Page 243 (endurance is also a virtue of mine…and a detriment):

But endurance had always been my virtue and I kept on.

Page 271 (I still remember reading this passage for the first time. It devastated me and I had to put the book down for awhile. Like much else in life, parenting is a struggle with yourself.):

Two children he had had, and he had not seen either clearly. But perhaps no parent can truly see their child. When we look we see only the mirror of our own faults.

Page 274:

I looked at her, as vivid in my doorway as the moon in the autumn sky. Her eyes held mine, gray and steady. It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.

Page 279:

Once we were his again, he wanted something else. What is that if not a bad life? Luring others to you, then turning from them?

Page 286 (on the responsibility of perfection):

I remembered what Odysseus had said about her once. That she never went astray, never made an error. I had been jealous then. Now I thought: what a burden. What an ugly weight upon your back.

Page 294 (Telemachus is the main speaker here):

“That is how things go. You fix them, and they go awry, and then you fix them again.”

“You have a patient temper.”

“My father called it dullness. Shearing, cleaning out the hearths, pitting olives. He wanted to know how to do such things for curiosity’s sake, but he did not want to actually have to do them.”

It was true. Odysseus’ favorite task was the sort that only had to be performed once: raiding a town, defeating a monster, finding a way inside an impenetrable city.

Page 313:

But he was a harp with only one string, and the note it played was himself.

What Can Americans Learn from Germany’s Reckoning with the Holocaust?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2019

For The New Republic, Heather Souvaine Horn reviews Susan Neiman’s book, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, about the successes and failures of Germany in coming to terms with the Holocaust and what the United States can learn from them in dealing with our history of slavery and genocide.

She sees the murder of nine black Charleston churchgoers in 2015, and the events of the following years, as prime examples of conservative backlash in white communities: “The 2016 election resulted, in large part,” Neiman writes, “from America’s failure to confront its own history.” Her book, Learning From the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, offers a possible answer to one of the questions The New York Times’ 1619 Project, published in the same month and focusing on slavery’s centrality to the American nation, has prompted: What now? It is a book about how Americans could better confront their racist past, by looking at the way Germany has come to terms with Holocaust guilt.

After a trip to Berlin last year, I wrote about what I observed of the German remembrance of the Holocaust and its relevance to America:

With overt anti-Semitism growing in the US (as well as other things like the current administration’s policies on immigration and jailing of children in concentration camps), it’s instructive to compare the German remembrance of the Holocaust to America’s relative lack of public introspection & remembrance about its dark history.

In particular, as a nation the US has never properly come to terms with the horrors it inflicted on African Americans and Native Americans. We build monuments to Confederate soldiers but very few to the millions enslaved and murdered. Our country committed genocide against native peoples, herded them onto reservations like cattle, and we’re still denying them the right to vote.

You might think the Civil War & the oppression of African Americans is too far in the past for the US to truly reckon with it, but Neiman argues that we should be looking much closer to the present day:

But this, Neiman holds, is the wrong timeline to be looking at: Americans are only now in the early stages of their reckoning, for the simple fact that the Civil War did not really end in 1865. Due to Reconstruction, due to Jim Crow, and as evidenced by the appalling violence and state-federal standoffs of the 1960s, the appropriate point to mark the South’s “zero hour,” she believes, is not 1865 but 1964, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. According to this timeline, Americans are a bit behind the Germans, but not by much — “about the place where Germany was when the Wehrmacht Exhibit provoked the kind of backlash that the removal of Confederate monuments provoked in New Orleans.”

Plus, systemic discrimination continues to this day, as does the US government’s poor treatment of indigenous communities. There is plenty of reckoning to go around and no time like the present to begin.

Astrology and Wishful Thinking

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 14, 2019

In the Guardian, former astrologer Felicity Carter writes about how fortune telling really works and why she had to quit.

I also learned that intelligence and education do not protect against superstition. Many customers were stockbrokers, advertising executives or politicians, dealing with issues whose outcomes couldn’t be controlled. It’s uncertainty that drives people into woo, not stupidity, so I’m not surprised millennials are into astrology. They grew up with Harry Potter and graduated into a precarious economy, making them the ideal customers.

What broke the spell for me was, oddly, people swearing by my gift. Some repeat customers claimed I’d made very specific predictions, of a kind I never made. It dawned on me that my readings were a co-creation — I would weave a story and, later, the customer’s memory would add new elements. I got to test this theory after a friend raved about a reading she’d had, full of astonishingly accurate predictions. She had a tape of the session, so I asked her to play it.

The clairvoyant had said none of the things my friend claimed. Not a single one. My friend’s imagination had done all the work.

The last paragraph, on VC-funded astrology apps, was particularly interesting. I’m reading Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century right now and one of his main points is that AI + biotech will combine to produce an unprecedented revolution in human society.

For we are now at the confluence of two immense revolutions. Biologists are deciphering the mysteries of the human body, and in particular of the brain and human feelings. At the same time computer scientists are giving us unprecedented data-processing power. When the biotech revolution merges with the infotech revolution, it will produce Big Data algorithms that can monitor and understand my feelings much better than I can, and then authority will probably shift from humans to computers. My illusion of free will is likely to disintegrate as I daily encounter institutions, corporations, and government agencies that understand and manipulate what was until now my inaccessible inner realm.

I hadn’t thought that astrology apps could be a major pathway to AI’s control of humanity, but Carter’s assertion makes sense.

Highlights from The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 11, 2019

The Fifth Season is the first book in the Broken Earth trilogy of fantasy/science fiction novels by N.K. Jemisin. Each book in the trilogy won the Hugo Award for best novel the year after its release. It took me awhile to get into, but once I was hooked the book went pretty quickly. Here are the passages I highlighted on my Kindle for one reason or another. (See past book highlights.)

Note: This ebook didn’t have real page numbers, only Kindle location markers. Sorry about that.

Further note: I’ve been reading Kindle books checked out from my local library via Libby. It’s been challenging because the loan period is typically not long enough for how slowly I read. But I did discover that you can view your notes and highlights for all of your Kindle books, including expired ones, so I don’t need to worry about exporting them before my loan ends.

Location 52 (I like the obviousness of the opening lines):

Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.

Location 102:

There is an art to smiling in a way that others will believe. It is always important to include the eyes; otherwise, people will know you hate them.

Location 208 (see Addressing Climate Change Is Not About Saving the Planet):

When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine.

Location 1,161:

The people we love are the ones who hurt us the most, after all.”

Location 1,488 (saving this for the next time someone argues about the “natural order of things” or similar bullshit):

Survival doesn’t mean rightness. I could kill you right now, but that wouldn’t make me a better person for doing so.”

Location 2,061 (on surviving in the immediate aftermath of loss):

So you must stay Essun, and Essun will have to make do with the broken bits of herself that Jija has left behind. You’ll jigsaw them together however you can, caulk in the odd bits with willpower wherever they don’t quite fit, ignore the occasional sounds of grinding and cracking. As long as nothing important breaks, right? You’ll get by. You have no choice.

Location 2,298 (emphasis mine):

Once Damaya would have protested the unfairness of such judgments. The children of the Fulcrum are all different: different ages, different colors, different shapes. Some speak Sanze-mat with different accents, having originated from different parts of the world. One girl has sharp teeth because it is her race’s custom to file them; another boy has no penis, though he stuffs a sock into his underwear after every shower; another girl has rarely had regular meals and wolfs down every one like she’s still starving. (The instructors keep finding food hidden in and around her bed. They make her eat it, all of it, in front of them, even if it makes her sick.) One cannot reasonably expect sameness out of so much difference, and it makes no sense for Damaya to be judged by the behavior of children who share nothing save the curse of orogeny with her.

Location 2,311:

The world is not fair, and sometimes it makes no sense.

Location 2,703:

“Home is people,” she says to Asael, softly. Asael blinks. “Home is what you take with you, not what you leave behind.”

Location 3,359 (the uncanny valley of hyper-graceful motion):

The stone eater’s arm rises, so steadily that the motion surpasses graceful and edges into unnatural.

Location 3,546:

Friends do not exist. The Fulcrum is not a school. Grits are not children. Orogenes are not people. Weapons have no need of friends.

Location 4,155 (out of context this is weird but it made me lol):

Did you need a dick — any dick, even my mediocre, boring one — that bad?”

Location 4,314:

We are creatures born of heat and pressure and grinding, ceaseless movement. To be still is to be… not alive.

Location 4,369:

She loves her son. But that doesn’t mean she wants to spend every hour of every rusting day in his presence.

Location 4,446 (ISO an affection dihedron):

They can’t stand sex with each other directly, but vicariously it’s amazing. And what do they even call this? It’s not a threesome, or a love triangle. It’s a two-and-a-half-some, an affection dihedron.

Fewer highlights than usual…lots of plot = fewer highlights, I think. I enjoyed reading this book, but it also didn’t propel me right into the next book in the series (unlike The Three-Body Problem). Maybe in a month or two?

An Animated Version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 31, 2019

The Very Hungry Caterpillar was one of my absolute favorite books as a kid and one of first books that we read to our kids (and that they read back to us). I didn’t know this animated version existed until I ran across it on YouTube just now. I just went into the kids’ room to look for the book on the shelf and got a little teary as I searched.

My kids are 12 & 10 now and in an in-between phase of reading. They occasionally still pick up the picture books they loved as little kids but mostly are into graphic novels and chapter books now — Ollie just read Ready Player One and they’ve both been through all 7 Harry Potter books more times than I can count. We haven’t read a picture book together in months and I really miss snuggling up with them and reading Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, Oh Say Can You Say?, or In the Night Kitchen. We’ll likely never read any of those books together again. It reminds me of one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard about parenting: one day you’ll pick up your kid, put them down, and never pick them up again…and you won’t remember it happening. *sobs*

Kurt Vonnegut: “There Are Six Seasons Instead of Four”

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 30, 2019

In 1978, Kurt Vonnegut gave the commencement speech at Fredonia State College in upstate New York. The speech was published under the title “How to Make Money and Find Love!” in a collection of the author’s commencement addresses, If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? In the speech, Vonnegut suggested to the graduating class that the traditional four seasons don’t make sense for northern areas of the country.

One sort of optional thing you might do is to realize that there are six seasons instead of four. The poetry of four seasons is all wrong for this part of the planet, and this may explain why we are so depressed so much of the time. I mean, spring doesn’t feel like spring a lot of the time, and November is all wrong for autumn, and so on.

Here is the truth about the seasons: Spring is May and June. What could be springier than May and June? Summer is July and August. Really hot, right? Autumn is September and October. See the pumpkins? Smell those burning leaves? Next comes the season called Locking. November and December aren’t winter. They’re Locking. Next comes winter, January and February. Boy! Are they ever cold!

What comes next? Not spring. ‘Unlocking’ comes next. What else could cruel March and only slightly less cruel April be? March and April are not spring. They’re Unlocking.

Vermonters know these six seasons all too well, although they give the two extra seasons different names. What’s going on right now and will continue into mid-to-late December is “stick season”. All the beautiful fall foliage has fallen off of the trees and we’re left with not-so-beautiful sticks until the snow flies regularly enough to call it winter. Between winter and spring — what Vonnegut calls “Unlocking” — is called “mud season” here. That’s when the dozens of feet of snow that fell during the winter, rapidly thawing ground, and Vermont’s rainy season collude to wreak havoc on unpaved roads and driveways, turning them into mud pits, some of which are impassable for a month or more.

Neither of these seasons is particularly pleasant here. Outdoor activities are curtailed — it’s too cold or warm or wet or muddy for your sport of choice — and restaurants and other local businesses often take a break, leaving residents even less to do. “This may explain why we are so depressed so much of the time”, indeed.

Highlights from The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 29, 2019

A sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale published 30 years later, piggybacking on a successful TV adaptation? It could have been a disaster. The Testaments is anything but — it’s seen rave reviews (to which I will add my own) and won the Booker Prize. I read it over the course of the last month or so and wanted to share with you some passages I highlighted on my Kindle.

Having done this exercise with three books now (Normal People & In the Garden of Beasts were the others), I noticed that I highlight mostly ideas, passages that resonate with me personally, and beautiful writing. Spoilers are minimal…I weed those out.

In the case of The Testaments, obviously a lot of the book is about totalitarianism & fascism — see for instance how many of Umberto Eco’s 14 Features of Eternal Fascism you can spot in the excerpts below. #12 figures heavily.

Page 3 (great opening passage):

Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.

Page 9 (You see this most obviously in contemporary religious countries & cultures — women’s bodies are dangerous and must be kept out of sight — but also e.g. in American offices and schools.):

Arms covered, hair covered, skirts down to the knee before you were five and no more than two inches above the ankle after that, because the urges of men were terrible things and those urges needed to be curbed. The man eyes that were always roaming here and there like the eyes of tigers, those searchlight eyes, needed to be shielded from the alluring and indeed blinding power of us — of our shapely or skinny or fat legs, of our graceful or knobbly or sausage arms, of our peachy or blotchy skins, of our entwining curls of shining hair or our coarse unruly pelts or our straw-like wispy braids, it did not matter. Whatever our shapes and features, we were snares and enticements despite ourselves, we were the innocent and blameless causes that through our very nature could make men drunk with lust, so that they’d stagger and lurch and topple over the verge — The verge of what? we wondered. Was it like a cliff? — and go plunging down in flames, like snowballs made of burning sulphur hurled by the angry hand of God. We were custodians of an invaluable treasure that existed, unseen, inside us; we were precious flowers that had to be kept safely inside glass houses, or else we would be ambushed and our petals would be torn off and our treasure would be stolen and we would be ripped apart and trampled by the ravenous men who might lurk around any corner, out there in the wide sharp-edged sin-ridden world.

Page 14:

What a lot of lies she had to tell for my sake! To keep me safe! But she was up to it. She had a very inventive mind.

Page 24:

Aunt Vidala said that best friends led to whispering and plotting and keeping secrets, and plotting and secrets led to disobedience to God, and disobedience led to rebellion, and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious, and a rebellious woman was even worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors, but rebellious women became adulteresses.

Page 31:

I regarded my reflection. The inventor of the mirror did few of us any favours: we must have been happier before we knew what we looked like.

Page 44:

I was the age at which parents suddenly transform from people who know everything into people who know nothing.

Page 46:

We’d had three modules in school on Gilead: it was a terrible, terrible place, where women couldn’t have jobs or drive cars, and where the Handmaids were forced to get pregnant like cows, except that cows had a better deal. What sort of people could be on the side of Gilead and not be some kind of monsters? Especially female people.

Page 57:

By this time I was feeling glum, which is one of the effects a birthday can have: you’re expecting a magic transformation but then it doesn’t happen.

Page 63:

“Dear Aunt Lydia,” he said, beaming from behind his enormous desk. “Thank you for gracing my humble office. You are well, I hope?”

He did not hope that, but I let it pass. “Praise be,” I said. “And you? And your Wife?” This Wife has lasted longer than usual. His Wives have a habit of dying: Commander Judd is a great believer in the restorative powers of young women, as were King David and assorted Central American drug lords. After each respectable period of mourning, he has let it be known that he is in the market for another child bride. To be clear: he has let it be known to me.

Page 66:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most travelled by. It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But as you will have noticed, my own corpse is not among them.

Page 73:

They didn’t make a big fuss over the funerals of women in Gilead, even high-ranking ones.

Page 82:

More alarmingly, my breasts were swelling, and I had begun to sprout hair on areas of my body that we were not supposed to dwell on: legs, armpits, and the shameful part of many elusive names. Once that happened to a girl, she was no longer a precious flower but a much more dangerous creature.

Page 83:

The adult female body was one big booby trap as far as I could tell. If there was a hole, something was bound to be shoved into it and something else was bound to come out, and that went for any kind of hole: a hole in a wall, a hole in a mountain, a hole in the ground. There were so many things that could be done to it or go wrong with it, this adult female body, that I was left feeling I would be better off without it.

Page 87:

Cleaning up things such as blood and other substances that came out of bodies was part of women’s duty of caring for other people, especially little children and the elderly, said Aunt Estée, who always put things in a positive light. That was a talent women had because of their special brains, which were not hard and focused like the brains of men but soft and damp and warm and enveloping, like…like what? She didn’t finish the sentence.

Like mud in the sun, I thought. That’s what was inside my head: warmed-up mud.

Page 106 (This reminded me of the disturbing games invented by children in Nazi concentration camps.):

The most popular singing game among the younger girls was called “Hanging.” It went like this:

Who’s that hanging on the Wall? Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!

It’s a Handmaid, what’s she called? Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!

She was (here we would put in the name of one of us), now she’s not. Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!

She had a baby in the pot (here we would slap our little flat stomachs). Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!

The girls would file under the uplifted hands of two other girls while everyone chanted: One for murder, Two for kissing, Three for a baby, Four gone missing, Five for alive and Six for dead, And Seven we caught you, Red Red Red!

And the seventh girl would be caught by the two counters, and paraded around in a circle before being given a slap on the head. Now she was “dead,” and was allowed to choose the next two executioners. I realize this sounds both sinister and frivolous, but children will make games out of whatever is available to them.

The Aunts probably thought this game contained a beneficial amount of warning and threat. Why was it “One for murder,” though? Why did murder have to come before kissing? Why not after, which would seem more natural? I have often thought about that since, but I have never found any answer.

Page 124:

They said calm things like You need to be strong. They were trying to make things better. But it can put a lot of pressure on a person to be told they need to be strong.

Page 143 (another form of the banality of evil):

Hour by hour we watched vans arrive, discharge their quota of women, depart empty. The same wailings from the new arrivals, the same barking and shouts from the guards. How tedious is a tyranny in the throes of enactment. It’s always the same plot.

Page 144:

All that was necessary was a law degree and a uterus: a lethal combination.

Page 148:

You’d be surprised how quickly the mind goes soggy in the absence of other people. One person alone is not a full person: we exist in relation to others. I was one person: I risked becoming no person.

Page 148:

Every once in a while there would be a scream or a series of shrieks from nearby: brutalization on parade. Sometimes there would be a prolonged moaning; sometimes a series of grunts and breathy gasps that sounded sexual, and probably were. The powerless are so tempting.

Page 158:

You must understand that I was not anybody in my own right — although of the privileged class, I was just a young girl about to be confined to wedlock. Wedlock: it had a dull metallic sound, like an iron door clicking shut.

Page 212 (this made me laugh out loud):

If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans, as used to be said; though in the present day the idea of God laughing is next door to blasphemy. An ultra-serious fellow, God is now.

Page 215:

“Yes, the thought-experiment penises can get out of control,” I said. “They take on a life of their own.”

Page 226:

The Commander advanced, arranged his face into a jowly smile, and stuck his mouth onto my forehead in a chaste kiss. His lips were unpleasantly warm; they made a sucking sound as they pulled away. I pictured a tiny morsel of my brain being sucked through the skin of my forehead into his mouth. A thousand such kisses later and my skull would be emptied of brain.

Page 236:

This was comforting to me as far as it went, but I was on the verge of crying again. Kindness sometimes has that effect. “How?” I said. “How can it ever be well?” “I don’t know,” said Aunt Estée. “But it will be. I have faith.” She sighed. “Having faith is hard work sometimes.”

Page 272:

Standing on the tarmac there was a double line of men in black uniforms, and we walked between the lines, arm in arm. “Don’t look at their faces,” she whispered.

So I focused on their uniforms, but I could sense eyes, eyes, eyes, all over me like hands. I’d never felt so much at risk in that way — not even under the bridge with Garth, and with strangers all around.

Page 272 (a character’s initial impression of Gilead):

What am I doing here? I thought. This place is weird as fuck.

Page 279:

Innocent men denying their guilt sound exactly like guilty men, as I am sure you have noticed, my reader. Listeners are inclined to believe neither.

Page 316:

He has another kind of book, less respectable: vintage pornography, as I knew from having examined it. It is a genre that is tedious in bulk. The mistreatment of the human body has a limited repertoire.

Page 317:

And how easily a hand becomes a fist.

Page 343 (I thought “gang aft agley” might have been some sort of weird Kindle typo, but it’s a reference to a Robert Burns poem.):

I’d thought I had everything in order, but the best-laid plans gang aft agley, and trouble comes in threes.

Page 388:

I was buying time. One is always buying something.

And finally, a short passage from Atwood’s acknowledgements, in which she reminds the reader that all of the events in this book and in The Handmaid’s Tale have actually happened somewhere in the world before:

The television series has respected one of the axioms of the novel: no event is allowed into it that does not have a precedent in human history.

That’s what makes these books truly chilling and essential.

My Recent Media Diet, Decorative Gourd Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 25, 2019

Every month or two for the past couple of years, I’ve shared the movies, books, music, TV, and podcasts I’ve enjoyed (or not) recently. Here’s everything I’ve “consumed” since last month. It’s a little light because I’ve been working and a full rewatch of The Wire took some time. Stuff in progress includes The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (the kids and I are reading it together), The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, and the second season of Abstract.

The Wire. Over the past two months, I rewatched all 5 seasons of The Wire. It very much holds up and is still the best TV show I’ve ever watched. Season 4 in particular is fantastic and devastating. Even season 5, which seemed a bit outlandish at the time with the serial killer plot, is great. (A+)

Downtown Abbey. Not great but it’s always nice spending some quality time with the Crowley family. (B+)

Mario Kart Tour. There’s something deeply un-Nintendo about this game. The use of all of the casino-like iOS tricks to keep you playing (and hopefully spending money on in-game currency) runs counter to the DNA of the company. $70 for 135 rubies is $20 more than the Switch version of Kart is going for right now on Amazon — ridiculous. And remember that the original Wii periodically suggested taking a break if you’d been playing for awhile? Still, racing in Mario Kart is always fun. When they turn networked multiplayer on, it might be a game-changer. (B+)

Peanut Butter Falcon. Feel-good? Eh. More like heavy-handed treacle. And LeBeouf’s character treats the kid with Down syndrome like a normal person but is creepy and borderline abusive to a girl he likes? Yuck. (C)

Succession. I hate that I love this show so much. (A)

1619. Very good podcast, particularly the third episode about the birth of American music. (A-)

Transparent Musicale Finale. I was skeptical about watching a 2-hour musical to end the series, but I ended up liking it a lot. My god, that last song though… (B+)

Parasite. Downton Abbey a la Bong Joon Ho. (A-)

Bottle Rocket. Rough but many of Anderson’s trademarks are already on display here. (A-)

Diego Maradona. Another examination by Asif Kapadia (Senna, Amy) of how talent and fame can go wrong. (A-)

Kevin Alexander on the Beginning and End of America’s Culinary Revolution (House of Carbs). Listened on a rec from a friend because Alexander’s book sounded interesting, but the bro-ness of the host is almost unbearable. What if the discussion about food was more like sports radio? No thank you. (C-)

Joker. The pre-release coverage of this movie being dangerous or problematic was mostly overblown. (B)

The new MoMA. Full review here. (A-)

Silence and the Presence of Everything (On Being). Really interesting interview with an acoustic ecologist. More here. (A-)

The Testaments. A sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale could have easily gone wrong. This very much did not. (A-)

Tonic. I used this for a few days but the recs weren’t great so I stopped. (C-)

Amazon Go. A marvelous and unnerving experience for this law-abiding introvert. Shopping without interaction was cool, but walking out without paying felt like shoplifting. (B+)

Machine Hallucination. Impressive display, like being immersed in an IMAX movie. But not sure it’s worth the $25 entry fee. (B)

Liberté, Égalité and French Fries (Rough Translation). How do we define work and community in the age of global mega-corporations? This story takes an amazing turn about 20 minutes in. (B+)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

John James Audubon’s Birds of America

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 17, 2019

Birds Of America

Birds Of America

Birds Of America

Birds Of America

One of the (several dozen) posts I started writing ages ago but never finished was a collection of the hundreds of bird illustrations pictured in John James Audubon’s seminal Birds of America. The images have been floating around on the web forever, in various sizes and collections, and I wanted to group (or at least link to) all of them in one place. But now I don’t have to because the Audubon Society has put them up on their website.

John James Audubon’s Birds of America is a portal into the natural world. Printed between 1827 and 1838, it contains 435 life-size watercolors of North American birds (Havell edition), all reproduced from hand-engraved plates, and is considered to be the archetype of wildlife illustration.

Thumbnails of all 435 illustrations are presented on a single page (sortable alphabetically or chronologically by their creation date) and then each illustration is given its own page with Audubon’s notes on the bird pictured, a link to the bird in Audubon’s Bird Guide (where you can see photos and hear bird calls, etc.), and a link to download a high resolution image (if you sign up for their mailing list). The barred owl image is 111-megapixels. What a resource!

You can also see online copies of Birds of America at the University of Pittsburgh and Meisei University.

And if you’ve never had a chance to see some of these illustrations in real life, you should keep your eyes peeled for the opportunity. They really are something. (via open culture, which has been particularly great lately)

Bill Cunningham: On the Street

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 17, 2019

Bill Cunningham Book

Until his death in 2016, Bill Cunningham captured the fashions of people walking the streets and catwalks of NYC and elsewhere, mostly for the NY Times over the past five decades. A new book, Bill Cunningham: On the Street, is the first published collection of his work and includes more than 700 photos along with a number of essays by friends, subjects, and cultural critics.

Bill Cunningham Book

You can read more about Cunningham and the photos in the book in a pair of Times articles: The Amazing Treasure Trove of Bill Cunningham and Seeing What Bill Cunningham Saw, the latter of which describes so good ol’ fashioned digging through the archives to find some gems:

Then there were “black hole” years, when his photos ended up in the database with gibberish on them. Someone created a template to make things easier for captioning, but it wasn’t used properly. Hundreds of photos just have the template on them, over and over again.

Large chunks of Bill’s work simply could not be found.

When I was going through the files for 2009, I was unable to find his photos from Barack Obama’s inauguration. (Bill went down to Washington for the day and devoted his column to it.) This material would have been completely lost had it not been for the Times archivist Jeffrey Roth, who just happened to have saved a few boxes of seemingly unnecessary paper printouts of Bill’s photos from 2009 and a few other years. It was one of those “I’ve been meaning to throw these out …” kind of things.

I looked through one of the boxes and, astoundingly, unearthed printouts of the inauguration photos. The printouts led me, via a tortuous back-roads path, to the digital files. As it turned out, not even Bill’s name was on many hundreds of his images. I would go on to find other must-have images in those boxes as well.

You can order the book on Amazon.

The Odyssey in Limerick Form

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 16, 2019

Emily Wilson, whose translation of The Odyssey recently reintroduced the epic to a wider non-classics audience, has now cheekily translated the tale of Odysseus into a series of limericks. She starts off:

There was a young man called Telemachus
who was bullied and in a dilemma ‘cause
he missed his lost dad
and his mom made him mad
and he almost got killed by Eurymachus.

And here’s the bit about Odysseus’ men eating the cattle of Helios, which earns them a thunderbolt from Zeus.

The men were fed up with their boss,
the rich guy, who’d gone for a doss.
They ate up the cattle,
which shortly proved fatal,
and all of their short lives were lost.

So good.

The BBC’s Abridged Reading of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 08, 2019

BBC Radio 4 has done an abridged audio reading of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, her followup to The Handmaid’s Tale. The series is composed of 15 episodes that run 14 minutes each — a total of 3.5 hours compared to the full 13+ hour audiobook. The episodes are only going to be available online for a short time though — the first one expires Oct 15 — so get in there if you’re going to listen. I’m reading the book right now, otherwise I’d be right there with you. (via open culture)