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kottke.org posts about books

The Public Art of the NYC Transit System

NYC subway mosaic pattern of beautiful pink and white blossoms

NYC subway mosaic pattern by Nick Cave featuring dancing figures

From The Monacelli Press, Contemporary Art Underground: MTA Arts & Design New York is a forthcoming book about the art projects the MTA has completed in the last decade in the NYC transit system.

Of special interest is the discussion of fabricating and transposing the artist’s rendering or model into mosaic, glass, or metal, the materials that can survive in the transit environment.

Nancy Blum’s piece at the 28th Street station (top, above) is my favorite piece in the entire subway system; I love it so much. (via colossal)

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How Jane Austen Changed Fiction Forever

Right from the start of her first book, Sense and Sensibility, Austen used an innovative narration technique called free indirect speech:

To understand why Austen’s narration is so distinct, the method and style of narration in which she wrote must be understood. Austen wrote in a little-known and not-often-used method of third-person narration called free indirect speech. Free Indirect Speech (FIS) is a distinct kind of third-person narration which seamlessly slips in and out of a character’s consciousness while still being presented by the third-person narrator.

In the video above, Evan Puschak explains, with examples, what free indirect speech is and why it was so revolutionary & influential when wielded by Austen.

Also, I didn’t know that Twain was such an Austen hater:

She also sparked dislike in such an extreme that Mark Twain once famously wrote that, when reading Pride & Prejudice, he wanted to dig up Austen and beat her with her own shin bone.

Team Austen over here.

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My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Book Two

book cover for My Favorite Thing Is Monsters Book Two by Emil Ferris

Publishers Weekly gave Emil Ferris’s eagerly anticipated graphic novel My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Book Two a starred review, calling it “a triumph.” Yay! The book is due out May 28, but there’s a (wonderful) excerpt in the New Yorker, where the whole thing is called “well worth the wait.”

I’ll probably reread Book One to prepare, in case anyone wants to join me. I loved this book. (I also drew about it in my newsletter once!)

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Join or Die

Join or Die is a documentary about the life, work, and ideas of Robert Putnam, popularizer of the concept of social capital and author of the prescient Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

How many times last year did you go to church? How many times did you go to a dinner party? How many times last year did you go to club meeting? In barely a couple of decades, half of all the civic infrastructure in America has simply vanished. It’s equivalent to say half of all the roads in America just disappeared.

(via colossal)

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‘The Examined Run’ and Virtue in Athletics

It’s a little painful to me that a woman my own age is not only a philosophy professor and mother to two small children but also a long-distance runner who writes a thoughtful and affecting online column about all of the above. She — Sabrina Little — has a new book out about virtue in athletics, and while I am dying to hate the whole thing, I found her interview with the running newsletter The Half Marathoner to be inviting enough that I ordered the book. Here’s one bit from the interview (I can’t tell if it sounds preachy out of context, but maybe I’ve just drunk too much of the Kool Aid):

I … found a special kinship between the work that I do in virtue ethics and in running. Virtues are acquired by practice. For example, we act courageously to develop courage, honestly to become honest, and so forth. In athletics, we have this same logic of ‘practice.’ We set out everyday in our sneakers to improve in certain respects — becoming faster, more courageous, more perseverant.

However, where character is concerned, if we are not intentional in our training, we may be developing the wrong things — imprudence, poor stewardship, intemperance, or impatience. These traits can impact our training, but also our lives outside of it. So, there is value in examining running as a formative practice. We should ask whether we are practicing being the kinds of people we want to be outside of the sport.

The interview reminded me that my main goal in running is to continue to be able to run. It also reminded me, of course, of “You Should Try Running, According to Me, Your Friend Who Won’t Shut Up About Running,” which is also a thoughtful and affecting read.

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Our Missed Head Start on the Climate Crisis

a timeline showing the passage of 120 years between the invention of the Watt steam engine to the discovery of the greenhouse effect and 128 years between the greenhouse discovery and today

In 1896, scientists determined that industrialization was adding CO2 to the atmosphere and quantified how much it would warm the Earth. That date is closer to the start of the Industrial Revolution than to the present day.

If you’re wondering, like I did, about that 1896 date — what about Fourier and Pouillet and Tyndall and Eunice Foote? — the Wikipedia pages on the history of the discovery of the greenhouse effect and the history of climate change science are worth a read.

The warming effect of sunlight on different gases was examined in 1856 by Eunice Newton Foote, who described her experiments using glass tubes exposed to sunlight. The warming effect of the sun was greater for compressed air than for an evacuated tube and greater for moist air than dry air. “Thirdly, the highest effect of the sun’s rays I have found to be in carbonic acid gas.” (carbon dioxide) She continued: “An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature; and if, as some suppose, at one period of its history, the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature from its action, as well as from an increased weight, must have necessarily resulted.”

Foote’s paper went largely unnoticed until it was rediscovered in the last decade. If you’re interested, the best thing I’ve read on the history of climate change is the 7th chapter of Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet.

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“What Relationships Would You Want if You Believed They Were Possible?”

I listened to the latest episode of the Ezra Klein Show while driving last night then spent the second half of the drive thinking about it. So I guess I’d better tell you to go and listen to it. Klein interviews Rhaina Cohen, who is the author of the forthcoming book The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center (out Feb 13). They talked about loneliness, the changing definition of friendship (and family) throughout history, polyamory, co-parenting, and lots more.

How do we imagine many other possibilities for parenting, for aging, for intimacy, for friendship, for romance than what we have right now? Because the idea that what we have right now is a working norm and everything else should be understood as some deviation is wrong. It is factually untrue.

It is not a norm. It is a wild experiment in the history of human existence. We have never done this before for any period of time. It’s not how we raised children. It is not how we have met each other. It is not how we have lived together.

And it’s not working for a lot of people. So this is an experiment, and we should be trying more. And what Cohen’s book is about is these experiments, is looking at things people are already doing, and, in a sense, making clear that there are more relationships happening right now in the world around you, more forms of relationship, than you could possibly imagine.

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Orion and the Dark

This is the trailer for Orion and the Dark, an animated kids movie written by Charlie Kaufman. Yes, the I’m Thinking of Ending Things; Synecdoche, New York; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Charlie Kaufman. And it’s getting pretty good reviews so far. The AV Club:

Orion And The Dark may look almost nothing like any Charlie Kaufman film to date, but it bears his personality. While that might be a bit much for the youngest kids, for 11-year-olds like those depicted in this story, it may strike a chord simply by refusing to underestimate their intelligence.

The movie is based on a book of the same name by Emma Yarlett and will be out on Netflix on Feb 2.

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Long Island Compromise by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

the book cover for Long Island Compromise by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Long Island Compromise is a forthcoming novel by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, whose Fleishman Is in Trouble was one of the best things I read last year. Look at that great cover and check out the synopsis:

Long Island Compromise spans the entirety of one family’s history, winding through decades and generations, all the way to the outrageous present, confronting the mainstays of American Jewish life: tradition, the pursuit of success, the terror of history, fear of the future, old wives’ tales, evil eyes, ambition, achievement, boredom, orgies, dybbuks, inheritance, pyramid schemes, right-wing capitalists, beta-blockers, and the mostly unspoken love and shared experience that unite a family forever.

The book comes out on July 9 — impeccable timing because this thing is going to be read on many a beach this summer.

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The Trailer for Adam Sandler’s Spaceman

Adam Sandler in a movie about space… I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I clicked play on the trailer for Spaceman this morning. Was I going to get Waterboy / Billy Madison Adam Sandler or Uncut Gems / Punch-Drunk Love Adam Sandler? Thankfully, it appears to be the latter. Spaceman is directed by Johan Renck (who directed the excellent Chernobyl) and is based on Jaroslav Kalfař’s 2017 novel Spaceman of Bohemia.

Six months into a solitary research mission to the edge of the solar system, an astronaut, Jakub (Adam Sandler), realizes that the marriage he left behind might not be waiting for him when he returns to Earth. Desperate to fix things with his wife, Lenka (Carey Mulligan), he is helped by a mysterious creature from the beginning of time he finds hiding in the bowels of his ship. Hanus (voiced by Paul Dano) works with Jakub to make sense of what went wrong before it is too late.

Spaceman is out on March 1 on Netflix.

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Origin, a Film by Ava DuVernay About Isabel Wilkerson

I had forgotten that Ava DuVernay was working on an adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s excellent Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. I think the assumption was that DuVernay was going to make a documentary, but interestingly, she’s adapted it into a biographical drama called Origin instead (trailer above).

Origin chronicles the tragedy and triumph of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson as she investigates a global phenomenon of epic proportions. Portrayed by Academy Award nominee Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor (“King Richard”), Isabel experiences unfathomable personal loss and love as she crosses continents and cultures to craft one of the defining American books of our time. Inspired by the New York Times best-seller “Caste,” ORIGIN explores the mystery of history, the wonders of romance and a fight for the future of us all.

I’m intrigued! Origin is set for a wide release in theaters on Jan 19th.

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What’s Your Go-to Comfort Media?

I reckon most of us have certain books, movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, and other media that we turn to when we need some comfort. These are things we’ve seen, read, or heard before — often many times — and know exactly what we’re going to get from them.

What we reach for depends on our needs. When I just want something familiar on in the background while I’m doing something else, to provide a vibe and the barest hint of a plot to follow, I often turn on Star Trek: TNG or old episodes of Doctor Who on Pluto TV. A few years ago during a really tough period, I read several of Tom Clancy’s novels (The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Red Storm Rising) to keep my brain reliably engaged but also unfettered by challenging prose or the deep emotional lives of the characters. I rewatch Star Wars and Avengers movies for their reliable entertainment, characters I’m invested in, and predictable-but-satisfying outcomes — these are often good plane movies.

When I’m feeling a lot of relational feelings and need a bit of salt to make them feel even more intense (and punishing), I’ll watch season two of Fleabag or Midnight in Paris or even 50 First Dates (which is as close as I get to rom-coms). Radiohead is a great all-arounder for many situations — I’ve leaned on Everything In Its Right Place, True Love Waits, Videotape, and even Burn the Witch at various times in my life. The Great British Bake Off is reliably low stakes, entertaining, and nothing but good vibes.

So how about it? What’s your go-to comfort media?

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What Can I Do About the Climate Emergency?

Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility is a climate anthology published last year and edited by Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua. They’ve just added a chapter to the book that’s available for free download that contains practical advice on how to involved in combatting the climate crisis: What Can I Do About the Climate Emergency?

The climate movement needs you. In this pamphlet, we outline some of the ways you can join it, and we share examples of how ordinary people have found their role, their power, their impactful projects, and their climate community. There’s a place for you in the crucial work of speeding the transition away from destruction and toward thriving. Figuring out where your skills are useful and what you can stick with is important. Identifying whom to work with and what to work on is crucial. Some of us are good at staying with a legislative issue for a season or a year or a decade. Some of us are good campaigners. Some like protests and are ready to blockade and risk arrest. Some of us are homebound but can make calls and write letters. It all matters.

One of the best and most challenging things about the climate crisis is that there is no one solution. That is, the solution is a mosaic of many changes. The way we get to a world that doesn’t run on fossil fuel and instead centers justice, sustainability, and community is happening in hundreds of thousands of ways — this coal plant shutdown, that methane-gas ban, these electric schoolbuses and bike lanes, that solar rooftop, these offshore turbines, that grasslands protection. These need to be sped up and amplified. National legislation and international treaties matter, but so do the countless small pieces that add up. It’s not just about what we need to stop but also about the rejuvenating work of building the world we want.

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Some Wonderful Things from 2023

view of the green rolling hills of Vermont under a mostly sunny sky

As the bulk of 2023 recedes from memory, I wanted to share some of the things from my media diet posts that stood out for me last year. Enjoy.

Succession. I did not think I would enjoy a show about extremely wealthy people acting poorly, but the writing and acting were so fantastic that I could not resist.

25 years of kottke.org. Very proud of what I’ve accomplished here and also genuinely humbled by how many people have made this little site a part of their lives.

Fleishman Is in Trouble. Uncomfortably true to life at times.

Antidepressants + therapy. I was in a bad way last spring and it is not too strong to say that finding the right antidepressant and arriving at some personal truths in therapy changed my life.

The Bear (season two). I don’t always love it (especially when the intensity ramps up) but there’s definitely something special about this show.

Barr Hill Gin & Tonic. The best canned cocktail I’ve had, by a mile.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Brutal and inspiring.

Crossword puzzles. A few times a week, a friend and I do the NY Times crossword puzzle together over FaceTime. It’s become one of my favorite things.

AirPods Pro (2nd generation). Am I ever going to shut up about these? Possibly not. The sound quality is better than the first-gen ones and the sound cancelling is just fantastic. I used these on several long flights recently and you basically can’t hear much of anything but your music.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Visually stunning.

The Kottke Hypertext Tee. Might be bad form to put your own merch on a list like this, but I’m just tickled that these exist. Putting an actual physical good out into the world that people connect with is somehow satisfying in a way that digital media is not.

ChatGPT. This very quickly became an indispensable part of my work process.

Downhill mountain biking. I did this a couple years ago and it didn’t click for me. But my son and I went last summer and I loved it…it’s one my favorite things I did all year. Gonna try and get out more in 2024!

Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland. Probably the best TV thing I watched last year. Listening to survivors of The Troubles talking about their experiences was unbelievably compelling.

Au Kouign-Amann. One of my all-time favorite pastries. Looks like a boring cake, tastes like magic.

Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America by Heather Cox Richardson. An extremely clear-eyed explanation of how Trumpism fits in with the Republicans’ decades-long project of weakening American democracy.

The Creator. I liked this original sci-fi a lot — more stuff that’s not Star Wars and Marvel pls.

Northern Thailand Walk and Talk. I will write this up soon, but this was one of the best things I’ve done in my life.

BLTs. I could not get enough of this simple sandwich at the end of last summer — I was eating like 4-5 a week. When the tomatoes are good, there’s nothing like a BLT.

The little hearts my daughter put on the backs of the envelopes containing her letters from camp. Self explanatory, no notes.

The smoked beef sandwich at Snowdon Deli. The best smoked sandwich I’ve had in Montreal.

The Last of Us. A bit too video game-y in parts but overall great. A couple of the episodes were incredible.

Photo of a Vermont vista taken by me this summer while mountain biking.

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My Recent Media Diet, the End of 2023 Edition

Over the past few months, I’ve had some time away from the computer and have taken several very long plane trips and some shorter car rides, which means a bit more reading, TV & movie watching, and podcast listening than usual. Oh, and holiday movies.

But the main story is how many things I’m currently in the midst of but haven’t finished: the latest season of the Great British Bake Off, season 3 of The Great, season 4 of For All Mankind, season 2 of Reservation Dogs, season 2 of The Gilded Age, the Big Dig podcast, On the Shortness of Life by Seneca, Excellent Advice for Living: Wisdom I Wish I’d Known Earlier by Kevin Kelly, and I’ve just dipped a toe into Craig Mod’s Things Become Other Things. That’s five TV shows, one podcast, and three books. I’m looking forward to tackling some of that (and maybe a new Star Trek series) over the upcoming holiday weekend.

Anyway, here’s my recent media diet — a roundup of what I’ve been reading, watching, listening to, and experiencing over the past few months.

The Killer. The excellent Michael Fassbender portrays a solitary, bored, and comfortable killer for hire who has a bit of a midlife crisis in fast forward when a job goes wrong. (A-)

Fortnite OG. I started playing Fortnite in earnest during Chapter 3, so it was fun to go back to Chapter 1 to see how the game worked back then. (B+)

Northern Thailand Walk and Talk. I’m going to write more soon but this was one of the best things I’ve ever done. (A+)

Edge of Tomorrow. Speaking of video games… Still love this under-appreciated film, despite a third act that falls a tiny bit flat. (A)

The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff. I did not enjoy this quite as much as Matrix — especially the last third — but Groff is one hell of a writer. (B+)

New Blue Sun. Good on André 3000 for not doing the expected thing and instead releasing an instrumental album on which he plays the flute. (A-)

Songs of Silence. I can’t remember who clued me into this lovely instrumental album by Vince Clarke (Erasure, Depeche Mode), but it’s been heavily in the rotation lately. (B+)

Trifecta. A.L.I.S.O.N.’s Deep Space Archives is a favorite chill work album for me and this one is nearly as good. (B+)

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Entertaining but lacks the zip and coherence of the first film. (B)

Shoulda Been Dead. I had no idea that Kevin Kelly appeared on an early episode of This American Life until someone mentioned it offhand on our Thailand walk. What a story…listen all the way to the end. (A)

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. Oh the writing here is exquisite. (A)

Avengers: Infinity War & Avengers: Endgame. These are endlessly rewatchable for me. (A)

Elemental. Good but not great Pixar. (B)

The Wrong Trousers. I watched this with my 16-year-old son, who hadn’t seen it in like 9 or 10 years. We both loved it — it still has one of the best action movie sequences ever. (A+)

The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler. Are AGI robots intelligent? Are octopuses? Are humans? This novel plays entertainingly with these ideas. (A-)

Myeongdong Kyoja. I stumbled upon this place, extremely cold and hungry, and after a brief wait in line, I was conducted to an open seat by the no-nonsense hostess running the dining room. The menu only has four items, conveniently pictured on the wall — I got the kalguksu and mandu. The hostess took my order and then, glancing at my frozen hands, reached down and briefly gave one of them a squeeze, accompanied by a concerned look that lasted barely half a second before she returned to bustling around the room. A delicious meal and a welcome moment of humanity in an unfamiliar land. (A)

Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts. This made me want to give notice to my landlord and take off for somewhere else. (A-)

Barbie. Second viewing. Entertaining and funny, but this is a movie that has Something To Say and I still can’t figure out what that is. (B+)

Emily the Criminal. There were a few hiccups here and there, but I largely enjoyed this Aubrey Plaza vehicle. (A-)

Midnight in Paris. Not going to recommend a Woody Allen movie these days, but this is one of my comfort movies — I watch it every few months and love every second of it. (A)

Gran Turismo. Extremely predictable; they could have done more with this. (B)

The Rey/Ren Star Wars trilogy. I have lost any ability to determine if any of these movies are actually good — I just like them. 🤷‍♂️ (B+)

Loki (season two). This was kind of all over the place for me but finished pretty strong. Glorious purpose indeed. (B)

Die Hard. Still great. (A)

Home Alone. First time rewatching this in at least a decade? This movie would have worked just as well if Kevin were 15% less annoying. (B+)

The Grinch. My original review stands: “I wasn’t expecting to sympathize so much with The Grinch here. The social safety net constructed by the upper middle class Whos totally failed the most vulnerable member of their society in a particularly heartless way. Those Whos kinda had it coming.” (B+)

Past installments of my media diet are available here. What good things have you watched, read, or listened to lately?

Reply · 15

The Best Book Cover Designs of 2023

Book cover for Fire Rush

Book cover for The Nursery

Book cover for Yellowface

Book cover for Big Swiss

Book cover for Kairos

Book cover for The Employees

Book cover for Good Men

I love a good book cover design. As I wrote last year:

The book cover is one of my all-time favorite design objects and a big part of the reason I love going to bookstores is to visually feast on new covers. I don’t keep an explicit list of my favorites from those trips, but there are definitely those that stick in my mind, covers that I’ll instantly recognize from across the room on subsequent trips.

I used those bookshop trips and several year-end lists to compile my list of favorites, pictured above and listed here, along with their designers:

Fire Rush (French edition) by Jacqueline Crooks, designed by Jodi Hunt.
The Nursery by Szilvia Molnar, designed by Linda Huang.
Yellowface by R. F Kuang (couldn’t find the designer’s name).
Big Swiss by Jen Beagin, designed by Jaya Miceli.
Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, designed by John Gall.
The Employees by Olga Ravn, designed by Paul Sahre.
Good Men by Arnon Grunberg, designed by Anna Jordan.

Do you have a particular favorite cover? Let me know in the comments!

The lists I consulted are Literary Hub’s The 139 Best Book Covers of 2023 (don’t be dissuaded by that big number…this is the best list bc they consult actual cover designers), The Casual Optimist’s Notable Book Covers of 2023 (always a great list from an indie site), the NY Times’ The Best Book Covers of 2023, The Book Designer’s 2023 Coolest Book Covers (that bucked the year’s trends), Print’s 50 of the Best Book Covers of 2023, Book covers designs of the year 2023 from Creative Review, and Spine’s 2023 Book Covers We Loved.

It’s fun to see how cover design changes throughout the years — here are my lists from 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2015, 2014, and 2013.

Note: When you buy through links on kottke.org, I may earn an affiliate commission. Thanks for supporting the site!

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Learning, Unlearning, and Relearning

This is a quote I like that’s attributed to Alvin Toffler from his 1970 book, Future Shock:

The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

It turns out that’s not a direct quote — it’s been cobbled together from two separate passages in the book:

By instructing students how to learn, unlearn and relearn, a powerful new dimension can be added to education.

and:

Psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy of the Human Resources Research Organization phrases it simply: “The new education must teach the individual how to classify and reclassify information, how to evaluate its veracity, how to change categories when necessary, how to move from the concrete to the abstract and back, how to look at problems from a new direction — how to teach himself. Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.”

Somewhere along the line, someone combined Gerjuoy’s observation with Toffler’s phrasing to create, IMHO, a more insightful quote about the flexibility their future (and our present) requires.

For more misattributed quote debunking, see also “I Hate to Write, but I Love Having Written” and Where the Rich Use Public Transportation…


Highlights from Vagabonding by Rolf Potts

Wandering through the countryside of northern Thailand has rekindled my intermittent desire to live overseas…or at least to spend time travelling for an extended period. In order to learn more about what I’d be signing up for, I recently read Rolf Potts’ classic Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel (Bookshop), the 2003 book that helped kickstart the digital nomad movement. Here’s everything I highlighted on my Kindle while reading it.

Page 15:

This book views long-term travel not as an escape but as an adventure and a passion — a way of overcoming your fears and living life to the fullest.

Page 20:

So, as you prepare to read the book, just keep in mind what martial arts master Bruce Lee said: “Research your own experiences for the truth… Absorb what is useful… Add what is specifically your own… The creating individual is more than any style or system.”

Page 24:

Vagabonding is about using the prosperity and possibility of the information age to increase your personal options instead of your personal possessions.

Page 24:

Vagabonding is an attitude — a friendly interest in people, places, and things that makes a person an explorer in the truest, most vivid sense of the word.

Page 25:

Muir called these folks the “time-poor” — people who were so obsessed with tending their material wealth and social standing that they couldn’t spare the time to truly experience the splendor of California’s Sierra wilderness.

Page 29:

We’d love to drop all and explore the world outside, we tell ourselves, but the time never seems right. Thus, given an unlimited amount of choices, we make none.

Page 29:

Vagabonding is about gaining the courage to loosen your grip on the so-called certainties of this world. Vagabonding is about refusing to exile travel to some other, seemingly more appropriate, time of your life. Vagabonding is about taking control of your circumstances instead of passively waiting for them to decide your fate.

Page 29:

Vagabonding starts now. Even if the practical reality of travel is still months or years away, vagabonding begins the moment you stop making excuses, start saving money, and begin to look at maps with the narcotic tingle of possibility.

Page 32:

Work is how you settle your financial and emotional debts — so that your travels are not an escape from your real life but a discovery of your real life.

Page 33:

Many vagabonders don’t even maintain a steady job description, taking short-term work only as it serves to fund their travels and their passions. In Generation X, Douglas Coupland defined this kind of work as an “anti-sabbatical” — a job approached “with the sole intention of staying for a limited period of time (often one year)… to raise enough funds to partake in another, more personally meaningful activity.”

Page 34:

We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis. —Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Page 35:

Regardless of how long it takes to earn your freedom, remember that you are laboring for more than just a vacation. A vacation, after all, merely rewards work. Vagabonding justifies it.

Page 35:

Ultimately, then, the first step of vagabonding is simply a matter of making work serve your interests, instead of the other way around.

Page 35:

As citizens of a prosperous democracy, any one of us has the power to create our own free time, outside the whims of federal laws and private-sector policies.

Page 36:

Many people are able to create vagabonding time through “constructive quitting” — that is, negotiating with their employers for special sabbaticals and long-term leaves of absence.

Page 36 (on updating your resume):

List the job skills travel has taught you: independence, flexibility, negotiation, planning, boldness, self — sufficiency, improvisation.

Page 37:

And so I stand among you as one that offers a small message of hope, that first, there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence. —Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton

Page 46:

For all the most important things in life, the timing always sucks. Waiting for a good time to quit your job? To have that kid? To take a dream trip? Sadly, the traffic lights of life will never all be green at the same time. Conditions are never perfect. “Someday” (“someday I’ll do this, someday I’ll do that”) is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you. —Tim Ferriss

Page 53:

This notion — the notion that “riches” don’t necessarily make you wealthy — is as old as society itself. The ancient Hindu Upanishads refer disdainfully to “that chain of possessions wherewith men bind themselves, and beneath which they sink”; ancient Hebrew scriptures declare that “whoever loves money never has money enough.” Jesus noted that it’s pointless for a man to “gain the whole world, yet lose his very self,” and the Buddha whimsically pointed out that seeking happiness in one’s material desires is as absurd as “suffering because a banana tree will not bear mangoes.”

Page 54:

Money, of course, is still needed to survive, but time is what you need to live. So, save what little money you possess to meet basic survival requirements, but spend your time lavishly in order to create the life values that make the fire worth the candle.

Page 55:

Travel can be a kind of monasticism on the move: On the road, we often live more simply, with no more possessions than we can carry, and surrendering ourselves to chance. This is what Camus meant when he said that “what gives value to travel is fear” — disruption, in other words (or emancipation), from circumstance, and all the habits behind which we hide. —Pico Iyer, Why We Travel

Page 55:

On a basic level, there are three general methods to simplifying your life: stopping expansion, reining in your routine, and reducing clutter.

Page 57:

As Laurel Lee wryly observed in Godspeed, “Cities are full of those who have been caught in monthly payments for avocado green furniture sets.”

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As I’ve said before, vagabonding is not an ideology, a balm for societal ills, or a token of social status. Vagabonding is, was, and always will be a private undertaking — and its goal is to improve your life not in relation to your neighbors but in relation to yourself.

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In this way, simplicity — both at home and on the road — affords you the time to seek renewed meaning in an oft-neglected commodity that can’t be bought at any price: life itself.

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Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul. —Henry David Thoreau

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Reading old travel books or novels set in faraway places, spinning globes, unfolding maps, playing world music, eating in ethnic restaurants, meeting friends in cafes… all these things are part of never-ending travel practice, not unlike doing scales on a piano, shooting free-throws, or meditating. —Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage

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And, as Phil Cousineau pointed out in The Art of Pilgrimage, I tend to believe that “reparation no more spoils the chance for spontaneity and serendipity than discipline ruins the opportunity for genuine self-expression in sports, acting, or the tea ceremony.”

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As John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley, “Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity… no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.

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When visiting the Holy Land in the nineteenth century, Mark Twain expressed frequent exasperation at the guidebook fundamentalists in his travel party: “I can almost tell, in set phrase, what they will say when they see Tabor, Nazareth, Jericho, and Jerusalem,” Twain wrote in The Innocents Abroad, “because I have the books they will ‘smouch’ their ideas from.”

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A good traveler has no fixed plan, and is not intent on arriving. —Lao-Tzu, The Way of Life

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Fortunately, you don’t ever need a really good reason to go anywhere; rather, go to a place for whatever happens when you get there.

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Vagabonding is not like bulk shopping: The value of your travels does not hinge on how many stamps you have in your passport when you get home — and the slow, nuanced experience of a single country is always better than the hurried, superficial experience of forty countries.

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Thus, the biggest favor you can do for yourself when trying to decide what to bring is to buy — and this is no joke — a very small travel bag.

This small pack, of course, will allow you only the minimum: a guidebook, a pair of sandals, standard hygiene items, a few relevant medicines (including sunscreen), disposable earplugs (for those inevitable noisy environments), and some small gift items for your future hosts and friends. Add a few changes of simple, functional clothes and one somewhat nice outfit for customs checks and social occasions. Toss in a small flashlight, a decent pair of sunglasses, a day pack (for carrying smaller items when you leave your hotel or guesthouse), and your smartphone. And then — looking down to make sure you have a sturdy pair of boots or walking shoes on your feet — close the bag and affix a small, strong padlock.

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I remember a conversation with a college professor on the train to Sicily, discussing the need to travel. He said, “You can read everything there is in the world about a place, but there is no substitute for smelling it!” He was right! So make plans, but be happy to abandon them, if need be. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” I like that. Do as much research before leaving as possible, but certainly don’t let fears keep you away. On a given day, Los Angeles is far more dangerous than anyplace I’ve traveled. Take normal precautions, use common sense if you have any, and you’ll be fine. —Bill Wolfer

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One of the most remarkable travel memoirs of the twentieth century was Juanita Harrison’s My Great, Wide, Beautiful World, which recounted the author’s journey through thirty-three countries over the course of eight years in the 1920s and 1930s. Harrison’s book was a bestseller in 1936 — yet, unlike most bestselling travel authors of that era, she was not an upper-middle-class white fellow who’d studied literature at a fancy university. Harrison was a Mississippi-born African American woman, who’d been working various domestic-labor jobs ever since her schooling ended at age ten.

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“Travel in general, and vagabonding in particular, produces an awesome density of experience,” wrote Ed Buryn, “…a cramming together of incidents, impressions and life detail that is both stimulating and exhausting. So much new and different happens to you so frequently, just when you’re most sensitive to it… You may be excited, bored, confused, desperate and amazed all in the same happy day.”

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If there’s one key concept to remember amid the excitement of your first days on the road, it’s this: Slow down. Just to underscore the importance of this concept, I’ll state it again: slow… down.

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In many ways, this transition into travel can be compared to childhood: Everything you see is new and emotionally affecting, basic tasks like eating and sleeping take on a heightened significance, and entertainment can be found in the simplest curiosities and novelties. “Suddenly you are five years old again,” Bill Bryson observed in Neither Here nor There.” You can’t read anything, you only have the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”

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Early on, of course, you’re bound to make travel mistakes. Dubious merchants may swindle you, unfamiliarity with cultural customs may cause you to offend people, and you’ll often find yourself wandering lost through strange surroundings. Some travelers go to great pains to avoid these neophyte blunders, but they’re actually an important part of the learning experience. As the Koran says, “Did you think you should enter the Garden of Bliss without such trials as came to those who passed before you?” Indeed, everyone starts out as a vagabonding greenhorn, and there’s no reason to presume you’ll be any different.

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Tourist attractions are defined by their collective popularity, and that very popularity tends to devalue the individual experience of such attractions.

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“The anti-tourist is not to be confused with the traveler,” wrote Paul Fussell in Abroad. “His motive is not inquiry but self-protection and vanity.” Ostentatiously dressing in local fashions, deliberately not carrying a camera, and sedulously avoiding the standard sights, “the antitourist doesn’t have much integrity or agenda beyond his self-conscious decision to stand apart from other tourists.

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Slow down and remember this as you begin your travels: Being busy can be a form of laziness. Lazy thinking, and indiscriminate action. Being selective — in other words, doing less in a smart way — is usually the more productive and fun path. —Tim Ferriss

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Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology. —Pico Iyer, Why We Travel

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Those who visit foreign nations, but associate only with their own countrymen, change their climate, but not their customs. They see new meridians, but the same men ; and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home with traveled bodies, but untraveled minds. —Charles Caleb Colton, Lacon

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After all, cultural identity is instinctive, not intellectual — and this means that the challenge will come not in how you manage your own manners but in how you instinctively react to the unfamiliar manners of others.

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As historian Dagobert Runes quipped, “People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”

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To truly interact with people as you travel, then, you have to learn to see other cultures not as National Geographic snapshots but as neighbors.

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The secret of adventure, then, is not to carefully seek it out but to travel in such a way that it finds you.

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“Good people keep walking whatever happens,” taught the Buddha. “They do not speak vain words and are the same in good fortune and bad.”

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The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they really are. —Samuel Johnson, from Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson

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“Our eyes find it easier on a given occasion to produce a picture already often produced, than to seize upon the divergence and novelty of an impression,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche. “It is difficult and painful for the ear to listen to anything new; we hear strange music badly.”

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“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been,” observed Paul Theroux in 1992, “travelers don’t know where they’re going.”

“Travelers are those who leave their assumptions at home, and [tourists are] those who don’t,” wrote Pico Iyer in 2000.

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In this way, “seeing” as you travel is somewhat of a spiritual exercise: a process not of seeking interesting surroundings, but of being continually interested in whatever surrounds you.

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Luxury, then, is a way of being ignorant, comfortably. —Leroi Jones, Political Poem

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Thus, the purest way to see a culture is simply to accept and experience it as it is now — even if you have to put up with satellite dishes in Kazakhstan, cyber cafes in Malawi, and fast food restaurants in Belize.

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Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am… Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closet full of your clothes, you are forced into direct experience. Such direct experience inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience. That’s not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating. —Michael Crichton, Travels

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As Salvador Dalí quipped, “I never took drugs because I am drugs.”

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People say you have to travel to see the world. Sometimes I think that if you just stay in one place and keep your eyes open, you’re going to see just about all that you can handle. —Paul Auster, Smoke

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If you really want to learn about a country, work there. —Charles Kuralt, A Life on the Road

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Travel, after all, is a form of asceticism, which (to quote Kathleen Norris )” is a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person. It is a radical way of knowing exactly who, what, and where you are, in defiance of those powerful forces in society that aim to make us forget.”

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Thus, travel compels you to discover your spiritual side by simple elimination: Without all the rituals, routines, and possessions that give your life meaning at home, you’re forced to look for meaning within yourself.

You can get your own copy of Vagabonding at Amazon or Bookshop or learn more about Rolf Potts at his website.

Have you travelled for long periods of time or moved to a different country? Any stories or advice you can offer to others who are thinking of taking the leap?

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Free, Well-Designed, Public Domain Ebooks

book covers of Timon of Athens, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Middlemarch

A group of volunteers at Standard Ebooks is producing well-formatted editions of public domain ebooks.

Standard Ebooks is a volunteer-driven project that produces new editions of public domain ebooks that are lovingly formatted, open source, free of U.S. copyright restrictions, and free of cost.

Ebook projects like Project Gutenberg transcribe ebooks and make them available for the widest number of reading devices. Standard Ebooks takes ebooks from sources like Project Gutenberg, formats and typesets them using a carefully designed and professional-grade style manual, fully proofreads and corrects them, and then builds them to create a new edition that takes advantage of state-of-the-art ereader and browser technology.

They do nice custom covers too. A quick browse reveals titles like The Sun Also Rises, Middlemarch, Winnie-the-Pooh, O Pioneers!, Anne of Green Gables, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and lots of Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie.


Great Kids’ Book: Little Witch Hazel

Yesterday at our library’s Story Time, the reader chose a book that knocked my socks off: Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Woods, by Phoebe Wahl, from 2021. (Trailer above.) It’s about a tiny witch who lives in the forest, and it follows her on her adventures through the seasons. (The book is divided into four sections.) The kids in the crowd — ages two through five — were mostly entranced.

witchhazel-summer.jpg

Two of the book’s most beautiful pages are available as prints; my favorite is above.

Wahl’s website also led me to an illustrated editorial she did for the NYT last year: “The Joys of Swimming While Fat.”

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The Talk

the cover for a graphic novel called The Talk by Darrin Bell

Darrin Bell, who won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning, wrote a graphic novel called The Talk about the conversation that parents have to have with their Black children in America about police, racism, and safety.

Darrin Bell was six years old when his mother told him he couldn’t have a realistic water gun. She said she feared for his safety, that police tend to think of little Black boys as older and less innocent than they really are. Through evocative illustrations and sharp humor, Bell examines how The Talk shaped intimate and public moments from childhood to adulthood.

Deirdre Sugiuchi talked with Bell about the book for Electric Lit. I think this question & answer was particularly interesting:

DS: In this book, you’re delving into this dichotomy between how your Black father and grandfather addressed racism, versus the way your Jewish mother advocated for you. Can you discuss how being biracial contributes to your understanding of how whiteness and power operates in America?

DB: Well, first of all, I got to see how both sides of my family censored themselves for different reasons. The Black side of my family would say things around each other that they would never say if a white person was around, not for fear of offending white person, but for fear of the white person doing something to them. White people inherently have power. If they said something offensive, a white person could somehow figure out how to ruin their career, how to get them fired, how to get the police to come over. They could lie. They could twist their words and it would have real, concrete effects on their lives.

The white side of my family, I think sometimes they would forget that I was there. As part of the family, I would see casual racism. They’re Jewish — I’m sure it’s worse with people whose family are white and aren’t Jewish. I’ve heard from a lot of those people directly in the form of hate mail. I know what kind of things they say. But Jews are a little different, because they’ve been discriminated against too. They’ve had atrocious things happen to them, barbaric things. So, they know that what they’re saying is wrong, but they sometimes say it anyway. But whenever my grandmother would seem to realize or remember that I was in the room, she censored herself, but I could tell it was only to preserve my feelings. It wasn’t because she was afraid I would ever do anything to her. She knew I didn’t have any power over her.

See also: Black Parents Talk to Their Kids About the Police.


Do You Say “Tennis Shoes”, “Gym Shoes”, or “Sneakers”?

This is a map of how people in different geographic regions of the US refer to athletic footwear, courtesy of Josh Katz, author of Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk and co-creator of that NY Times dialect quiz that went viral 10 years ago.

a map of the USA indicating which terms people use for athletic shoes

Growing up in northern Wisconsin, we said “tennis shoes” or “tennies” most of the time (even though very little actual tennis was being played) and “gym shoes” less often. I hadn’t really heard of “sneakers” as a kid and never used it. (Shoes for sneaking? Huh?) My kids were born in NYC and they give me shit every time I tell them to put their tennies on. 🤷‍♂️

What do you call athletic shoes? Tennies? Sneakers? Kicks? Trainers? Gym shoes? Some other weird thing? (via @dens)

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A 2-Minute Clip From 3 Body Problem

The premiere date for the Netflix adaptation of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem trilogy by Game of Thrones showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff inches ever closer and, well, I just really want this to be good (because I enjoyed the book series so much). Between the teaser trailer and the clip above, I am cautiously optimistic. 3 Body Problem is out on Netflix on March 21, 2024.


Choosing a Leader Wisely

From Octavia Bulter’s Parable of the Talents:

Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.

Context and more from The Marginalian. (via @rowanwhite & kelsey)


My Recent Media Diet, Fall 2023 Edition

I know I always say this, but I didn’t mean for so much time to elapse since the last installment of the media diet. But I have a slightly different reason for the delay this time: I have been really busy with work and family stuff, so much so that I haven’t been reading or watching as much as I usually do. So I needed to wait a couple of months to collect enough stuff.

Anyway. Here’s my recent media diet, a roundup of what I’ve been reading, watching, listening to, and experiencing over the past few months. ✌️

The Creator. Original, engaging sci-fi with good action, heart, and something to say. Madeleine Yuna Voyles is the best child actor I’ve seen in years. (A)

Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America by Heather Cox Richardson. I’m still making my way through this one but I’m going to review it now because Virginia Heffernan was absolutely correct in saying that the first part of the book is “the most lucid just-so story for Trump’s rise I’ve ever heard”. Richardson ties so many things together so succinctly that by the end of it, Trump feels not like an abberation but more like the result of a plan that conservatives have been striving towards for decades. (A+)

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. Watched this twice: once in the theater and once at home. I didn’t like this quite as much as Fallout (or Top Gun: Maverick tbh), but this is a top-notch action movie. The tiny car chase on the streets of Rome is 💯. (A-)

The ocean. Still undefeated. (A+)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2. *sigh* Like many of you, I am extremely disappointed with the weird & harmful anti-trans crusade the author of the Harry Potter book series has embarked on over the last few years and it’s prompted me to attempt a reevaluation of my relationship to these movies and books. But I’ve had some difficulty doing so because the Potter wizarding world is so wrapped up in spending quality time with my kids (particularly after their mom and I separated) that it’s hard to have anything but extremely fond feelings for it all. Over a period of five or so years, we read the whole series together at bedtime and I can’t even put into words how meaningful that time together was. We’re listening to the series on audiobook in the car right now…it’s one of the few things my two teens and I really enjoy doing with one another.

Anyway, all that is to say that when some recent changes in our schedule together — good, developmentally appropriate changes for them but changes nonetheless — caused some parental melancholy, I watched these three films on back-to-back-to-back nights just to feel close to my kids in some way. It was just the thing. (A)

American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Perhaps not the beach read I needed, but the one I deserved. I liked this maybe a bit better than the movie, but still not nearly as much as Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb (and its sequel, Dark Sun). (A-)

Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland. This was excellent. Listening to actual people who lived and worked in Northern Ireland during the Troubles — victims, murderers, police officers, bystanders, family members of those who were killed — was completely enthralling and brought the 30-year conflict to life in a way that Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing couldn’t, as good as it was. I’ve been thinking about this series a lot over the past few weeks as the latest tragedy unfolds in Gaza. (A+)

The Repair. Another excellent podcast series from Scene on Radio, this one on climate crisis. I’ve read quite a bit about the climate over the past decade or two, so I thought I knew what to expect going in, but this takes a pretty unique angle. For one thing, they don’t start with the Industrial Revolution…their lead-in to the topic is the Book of Genesis. And it keeps going in unexpected directions from there. I think even a seasoned observer of the crisis will find something interesting here. (A)

The Belan Deck by Matt Bucher. Maybe a better choice of beach read than American Prometheus…I finished this slim, creative tome in one sitting on my final day at the ocean. Here’s a better review than this one. (B+)

The Postal Service & Death Cab for Cutie: Give Up & Transatlanticism 20th Anniversary Tour. Saw this in New Haven in a former outdoor tennis arena. So wonderfully nostalgic. I’m a bigger fan of Give Up but the track of the evening for me was Transatlanticism by Death Cab…it sent honest-to-god chills down my spine. (A)

The mashed potato pizza from Bar. I’d tried this once before and found it kinda meh. But not this time around…I couldn’t stop eating it. (A)

the exterior of the Hotel Marcel, a brutalist building desgined by Marcel Breuer

Hotel Marcel. If you’ve ever driven on I-95 through New Haven, you’ve probably noticed the brutalist building unceremoniously situated in the Ikea parking lot. Designed by Marcel Breuer, the former Armstrong Rubber Company Building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2021 and converted to the Hotel Marcel a year later. Pretty cool to be able to stay in such a well-designed building. (B+)

The Super Mario Bros. Movie. This was perfectly fine. But it had that tightly controlled and over-engineered feeling that many franchise movies have these days. (B)

Arrival. Still an absolute banger and one of my all-time faves. And I notice a little something new every time I watch it. (A+)

The Flash. Better than I expected! And I bought the Quick Bite emote in Fortnite. Can we staaaahpp with the multiverse tho? (B+)

Legally Blonde. First time. Enjoyed it! (B+)

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Second time. It’s not the best Indy but I think in the long term, it will be rewatchable. (B+)

Tycho’s Burning Man Sunrise Set for 2023. Not quite up to past years, but it’s still in the while-working rotation. (B)

Ahsoka (season one). Hmm. This was slow, enjoyable, boring, engaging — sometimes all at once. Space whales tho? (B)

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. This is Wes Anderson, unplugged: simple sets, lots of acting, spare-but-precise cinematography, and a meta narrative. (A-)

Downhill mountain biking. Ollie and I went to a local ski area that offers lift service to mountain bike trails a few weeks ago and did several rides on a intermediate flow trail and it was the most fun I had all summer. I even got some air. (A+)

Boundaries, Burnout and the ‘Goopification’ of Self-Care. For the Ezra Klein Show, guest host Tressie McMillan Cottom (one of America’s leading public intellectuals) interviewed Pooja Lakshmin about what she calls Real Self-Care. Not yoga and juice cleanses but more like setting boundaries and practicing self-compassion. An excellent listen. (A-)

Wool by Hugh Howey. After really enjoying the Apple TV+ series, I was looking forward to dipping into the first book of the trilogy. But I preferred the show…and was also surprised when the book, well before the end, continued on past the events of the show. I stopped reading at that point and will revisit after the show’s second season. (B)

Killers of the Flower Moon. I wanted to like this more than I did. Great acting (particularly by De Niro, Gladstone, and Plemons) and it looked amazing but it lacked oomph. Plus I didn’t have a clear sense of what Scorsese was trying to say… (B+)

Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises. I watched these with my son (a budding Nolan fan) and I know this is sacrilege, but my favorite of the series is The Dark Knight Rises. Heath Ledger’s performance though… 🤡🔥. (A-)

I also have a bunch of stuff in progress, including The Vaster Wilds (good so far, need to make more time for it), the new season of The Great British Bake Off (my fave got eliminated in the first episode 😢), and Loki (skeptical this can match the style & weirdness of the first season). I stalled out on season three of The Great but I’m going to go back to it. I’m two episodes into Reservation Dogs (after many recommended it) and I love it already. And I haven’t even started Emily Wilson’s translation of The Iliad!

How about you? What have you been into lately? Anything you would particularly recommend? Let us know in the comments! (Just don’t argue with my grades…we all already know they don’t make any damn sense!)

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Trailer for Stamped From the Beginning

Based on the bestselling book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (also available as a graphic novel), this documentary explores the mythology of American racism and how it still shapes the world today. The director is Oscar-winner Roger Ross Williams and in preparing for the film, he decided that only Black women would appear in it:

“When we started looking at historians and scholars, we came up with a long list. I noticed the pattern that most of the people doing the work around racism in America were Black women,” Williams told Netflix. “I asked them in pre-interviews, ‘Why do you do this work?’ And many of them said the same thing — that they had no choice. This was their experience and their life. And if they’re going to dedicate their life to something, it’s going to be about changing and understanding racism in America because they can’t escape racism in America. I said to everyone, ‘We’re going to have only Black women in this film.’ It was an important statement to make.

Stamped From the Beginning comes out on Netflix on November 20.


“How Lauren Groff, One of ‘Our Finest Living Writers,’ Does Her Work.”

I am currently reading1 Lauren Groff’s The Vaster Wilds, so I was interested to read about her writing process, which includes:

When Groff starts something new, she writes it out longhand in large spiral notebooks. After she completes a first draft, she puts it in a bankers box — and never reads it again. Then she’ll start the book over, still in longhand, working from memory. The idea is that this way, only the best, most vital bits survive.

“It’s not even the words on the page that accumulate, because I never look at them again, really, but the ideas and the characters start to take on gravity and density,” she said.

“Nothing matters except for these lightning bolts that I’ve discovered,” she continued, “the images that are happening, the sounds that are happening, that feel alive. Those are the only things that really matter from draft to draft.”

And also this:

In the afternoon, Groff deals with the business of being an author, responding to emails, doing publicity, writing blurbs. And she reads. A lot. In just the past few days, she said, she finished “Living and Dying With Marcel Proust,” completed a reread of “Moby Dick,” and started a graphic novel called “Roaming.” She estimates she reads about 300 books a year.

Groff will drop quotes into casual conversation, citing, say, Frank Lloyd Wright’s take on form and function, but she manages to do this in an entirely unaffected way, just tossing out an interesting nugget for consideration. Her editor, McGrath, said that Groff reread all of Shakespeare so she could write a version of “The Vaster Wilds” in iambic pentameter “just for fun,” as a way for her to master Elizabethan rhythms.

All of Shakespeare, just for fun. Yep.

  1. Or at least, trying to read. I’ve been super busy with work and at the end of the day, the last thing I want to do is read more. But I will get back to it!


Is Rural America Even a Thing?

the models for American Gothic standing next to the Grant Wood painting

For the New Yorker, Daniel Immerwahr reviews a new book, Steven Conn’s The Lies of the Land: Seeing Rural America for What It Is — and Isn’t (Bookshop.org), which makes the case that what we typically think of as rural America or “real America” is a mirage.

A piercing, unsentimental new book, “The Lies of the Land” (Chicago), by the historian Steven Conn, takes the long view. Wistful talk of “real America” aside, Conn, who teaches at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, argues that the rural United States is, in fact, highly artificial. Its inhabitants are as much creatures of state power and industrial capitalism as their city-dwelling counterparts. But we rarely acknowledge this, Conn writes, because many of us — urban and rural, on the left and the right — “don’t quite want it to be true.”

For one thing, the predominant rural population in what is now the United States was coercively removed and eliminated by the federal government:

Settlers styled themselves as pioneers who had won their land with their bare hands. This is how it went in “Little House on the Prairie,” with the frontier family racing ahead of the law to seize Indian property. (“Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve” would have been a more accurate title, the literary scholar Frances W. Kaye has archly suggested.) Yet in the end land ownership came, directly or indirectly, from the state. The Homestead Act of 1862, along with its successors, gridded up and gave away an area the size of Pakistan. And although homesteading sounds like a relic from the sepia-toned past, its most active period came, the historian Sara Gregg has pointed out, in the twentieth century. The final homesteader got his land in 1988.

1988! The very next paragraph:

One irony is that — after Indigenous towns — it’s the havens of the East Coast ‘elite, such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, which have the deepest roots. Most bastions of “real America” are, by contrast, relatively new. Wasilla, Alaska, where Sarah Palin served as mayor, really is a small town in a farming area. But most of its farms were created by a New Deal campaign to relocate struggling farmers from the Upper Midwest. (Hence Palin’s “you betcha” accent, similar to the Minnesota ones in the film “Fargo.”) Palin’s proud patch of “real America,” in other words, was courtesy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

This is one of those pieces I could quote every other paragraph so I’m gonna stop there.


Great Books Explained

One of my recent favorite YouTube channels is James Payne’s Great Art Explained, which does exactly what it says on the tin, showcasing works of art like Starry Night, the Great Wave, and A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Payne recently launched a new channel in the same vein: Great Books Explained. Here’s a trailer, featuring a short clip of his exploration of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Being an avid reader, I always wanted to do a book channel as well, but did not have the time, so these films are collaborations with different writers who are passionate about certain books, and the first release will be James Joyce’s Ulysses (in this case co-created with Henry Mountford). This will be followed by Alice.

The video on James Joyce’s Ulysses is out now:

(via open culture)


America Is at a Familiar Crossroads

the book cover for Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America by Heather Cox Richardson

This is a great overview and review by Teri Kanefield of Heather Cox Richardson’s new book, Democracy Awakening.

She opens with: “America is at a crossroads.”

But crossroads aren’t new. We’ve been at them before.

She shows how this moment is part of an ongoing struggle between a small group of white people who think that America was founded on principles of white supremacy and should remain that way, and the rest of us.

Throughout US history, the white supremacists have seized power and implemented minority rule: secession, Jim Crow & anti-immigration laws. Then the majority pushes back: the Civil War & Reconstruction, The New Deal.

The current GOP is a backlash against Brown v Board of Education (the Supreme Court case that declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional.)

Richardson traces in detail how that backlash happened, and how today’s backlash echoes the language and attitudes of the Confederacy.

She shows Nixon and others tied taxes to “redistributing wealth” to “undeserving” people as a way to get lower income racists aboard an economic agenda that hurt them.

I really have to make time to read this book!