All Quiet on the Non-Fiction Front
Happy New Year, one and all! I’ve had a nice two weeks off (exactly coinciding, I am now realizing, with these newsletters) and I’m not preparing to head back to work.
For pretty much the first time, I’ve decided to set myself some “resolutions”, aka goals; I’m hoping to grade myself at the end of the year, sprint-goals-style (for those that do sprint goals), and hence they’re fairly quantitative. One of the more ambitious (maybe?) is to read 52 books this year (so, one per week)—we’ll see if that happens, but I have been quite happy to be reading more books in this past year. I also want to write more (which I did a bit of towards the end of the year); in particular I want to write more short stories (so you might see those here at some point 🙂) and finally finish a rough draft of some novel (probably the one I started for NaNoWriMo a few months ago). I also want to (finally) relaunch rwblickhan.org so it’s not just a (badly out of date) blog anymore; interestingly, John Sundell (famous Swift fellow) just released a static site generator called Publish that looks quite interesting. And, of course, I want to keep writing this newsletter, more for my benefit than that of any readers 😛
What I’m Watching
I watched Parasite and it was, in fact, just as good as everybody says. Easily one of the tightest films I’ve ever seen—the editing is just astonishing, as good ol’ Nerdwriter points out. It’s really something special and to talk about it more would, in my opinion, diminish it (I don’t usually care about spoilers, but in this case I think it is valuable to see it blind at least once.) if you haven’t seen it—so, you should go see it!
Now, on the other hand, I watched Grave of the Fireflies. In what will probably be one of my most unpopular opinions in my entire life… I did not like it, at all. Well, that’s not entirely true—there are certainly scenes that, without the surrounding context of the film, are quite effective, and the first third or so is genuinely pretty heartbreaking. But through the rest of the film, I genuinely struggled to emphasize with the two kids! The film turns on their reaction to their mean aunt, who repeatedly chews them out for palling about on the beach instead of contributing to the war effort (which is, honestly, kind of a valid point?), so they… move to a bomb shelter and start starving to death? And then later on, having stolen vegetables from farmers and getting off with only a light beating, it turns out… they had access to doctors, and a not-insignificant amount of money in the bank??? It doesn’t help that the voice actor for the little sister was, at least to me, excruciatingly annoying. I really wanted to like it, but it just didn’t work for me—it was too pat and in-your-face about showing the horrors of war, and yet doesn’t really show… the horrors of war, instead (to my eyes) showing the incompetence of a made-up character. I think part I’m just disappointed because I first saw this video, titled The Other Grave of the Fireflies, by video essayist Evan Hadfield (who is, yes, the son of Canadian national hero Chris Hadfield). It’s heart breaking and completely true and yes I’ve cried watching it before. In the time you save by not watching Grave of the Fireflies, you could watch The Other Grave of the Fireflies six times, which I highly recommend instead.
On a lighter note, I watched John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, in which standup comedian John Mulaney makes a (not entirely serious) Mr Roger’s-esque kids TV show. It’s a clever concept, matched by the cleverness of the bits, and I’m glad somebody is doing this kind of mass-media absurdist comedy a la Monty Python, but unfortunately most of the skits didn’t really land with me—there’s a few interminable musical interludes, like one in which a kid sings about only eating noodles with butter, that more than outlast their welcome, and the show as a whole suffers from a lack of pacing. I get the sense Mulaney’s talents are better suited for the stage than the screen. But even though I didn’t laugh all too much, it’s not a total waste—the post-post-post-modern sincere-but-ironic-but-sincere tone does lead to a few moments of genuine poignancy, like the inter-skit bits where they ask the child cast their greatest fears, and come back with touching Reevesian (as in, Keanu Reeves (link here)) answers like “I fear losing my loved ones”. So, I’m not sure it’s worth an hour of time, but it’s not not worth that time, either.
On the topic of shows by adults for kids but really also for adults (or, perhaps, we could riff off Sack Lunch Bunch’s idea that we can learn a lot about life from kids), I’ve also also been watching the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s no hyperbole to say it’s one of the best TV shows of all time—it’s honestly a miracle the show exists. Yes, it occasionally indulges in Saturday-morning-cartoon silliness (because it… is a Saturday morning cartoon), and occasionally pulls punches to get to happy endings, but it’s also a surprisingly touching and adult show. I’m honestly almost tempted to write an essay talking about all the ways it just works. (Fun fact: Dave Filoni, who’s these days better known for Star Wars: Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, not to mention The Mandalorian, directed a few of the first season episodes.)
On the other hand, with nothing else going on during Christmas, I somehow got sucked into a showing of the Minions movie on some cable channel. Half-watching it during the post-Christmas-dinner food coma is probably the closest I’ll ever get to being on acid.
What I’m Reading
I got through This Is How You Lose The Time War (it’s pretty short) and it definitely also belongs on my “wow” list. Whether you love it or not probably depends on if you appreciate the epistolary, foes-becoming-friends format, but even if not I think it’s worth reading for the beauty of the language alone—it’s very much “poetic,” in the sense of rolling off the tongue like poetry.
On the non-fiction front, we had In God’s Path and The Bible Unearthed.
In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (to give it its full title) is a very readable account of, well, the Arab conquests and the creation of an Islamic empire. It treats them from a world history/political history stance, positioning the Arab conquests as a “tribal conquest” a la the Turks or Mongols, wherein marginal-but-connected nomadic peoples attempt to take over the empires that employ them. In particular, the Arabs took advantage of a Cold War of sorts between the Byzantine Romans and the Sassanian Persians and thus managed to conquer the entire Persian Empire and large parts of the Byzantine Empire, which in turn led to the creation of the Islamic civilization. It’s a really rather nice summary of early Islamic history, though I do have three complaints:
- It assumes a casual acquaintance with “traditional” Islamic history—if you don’t already know the story of the Sunni/Shi’ite split, for instance, this book will explain it, but in an extremely tortured and convoluted way that makes it clear it’s supposed to be prior knowledge.
- It doesn’t dwell on Muhammad, the early caliphs, or the textual history of the Qur’an. That’s not really the point of the book, of course, and it definitely makes sense to dispatch with it when focusing on the conquests; but I do want a book dealing with it now.
- The middle part of the book is, sad to say, quote boring—it devolves into a list of “then this general tried to conquer this city, and this general failed to put down a rebellion, and…”. I was a bit worried that would take up most of the book, but luckily the last chapter delves back into some conceptual analysis that is quite rewarding (namely, why an Islamic civilization developed from the Arab conquests—in part because of Arabization, with Arabic, and the attached Arabic cultural identity, becoming a lingua franca among the diverse conquered lands, as well as an infusion of Persian cultural ideas, from the mostly-independent eastern parts of Persia).
On the other hand, we have The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, which argues that the Hebrew Bible is essentially the product of the late monarchic reign of King Josiah and thus reflects the culture and concerns of that time, and thus has little basis in history, which is widely agreed upon by biblical scholars and archaeologists but was popularized by this account. It’s quite interesting (if you’re interested in the Bible, of course), though occasionally feels somewhat monomaniacal in emphasizing the origins of the Hebrew Bible; it also only briefly touches on some of the things I’m most interested in, like say Asherah, which will probably have to be covered by Did God Have A Wife? (the first book I’ve been unable to find in the San Francisco public library system).
And that’s it for these two weeks! Toodle-oo!