An Early Thanksgiving Feast
It’s almost American Thanksgiving! Which is a profoundly problematic holiday in some ways (although thank god it’s not Columbus Day, which has been very wisely replaced with Indigenous People’s Day, at least here in San Francisco), but nevertheless a nice break on the way to Christmas. So, happy early Thanksgiving!
What I’m Watching
First, a correction: I wrote the last newsletter midway through the first episode of Queer Eye in Japan, and mistakenly thought they didn’t credit the translator. But, at the very end, they do! But I think my point still stands, namely that it’s interesting that the show tries so very hard to edit out the need for translation at all.
So, it turns out that David Chang’s show, Ugly Delicious, is… actually really good! The first episode or two were fine, sure, but the later episodes are really golden. The fried rice episode is a great introduction to the history of Chinese-American food, while the fried chicken episodes juggle questions of cultural appropriation and stereotyping of black Americans while also exploring the global appeal of, well, frying a chicken (seriously, the fried chicken episode is great). Highly recommended. (His new show, Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner, which is basically Carpool Karaoke but eating in a restaurant instead of singing in a car, seems less meaningful, but the first episode, where he tours Vancouver with Seth Rogen, is probably the single most spot-on, straight-to-the-heart spotlight ever shone on the city. Seriously, if anybody asks you what Vancouver is, what its heart and soul is, just show them that episode. Like, they go to one of the restaurants beneath the Richmond Superstore! If that’s not Vancouver I don’t know what is.)
We also tried watching a couple episodes of season two of Netflix’s Midnight Diner and it was, uh, interesting. In the first episode I was tripping out because I think all the characters might have been CGI, not live action, or maybe they just did some really weird compositing; in any case, it did not feel like the actors were all sitting in the same midnight diner. Also, the ostensible heroine in the first episode was kind of weird and annoying. And the second episode got even weirder, with a baffling plot of a physicist falling in love with a hostess (and maybe prostitute? Unclear cultural background), only for her to… leave him to go back to her parent’s tiny restaurant in Korea. But then he follows her, and the story ends with him visiting the restaurant every day trying to win their approval. And… that’s it! What kind of story is that? No, seriously, what kind of story is that? Is there some sort of cultural implication I’m missing here? The whole thing felt so surreal I wouldn’t be surprised if it was secretly an homage to David Lynch.
We’re also watching season 6 (I think?) of American Horror Story. It’s pretty good! Except a little too campy for me at times.
I was planning to write about End of Evangelion in the last newsletter, but seeing as how I’m already past 1,500 words (!) I’ll kick the can down the road a little bit farther.
What I’m Listening To
I subscribed to the fantastic Flow State newsletter, which provides two hours of instrumental music for working each workday. It’s given some great recommendations, like the works of Terry Riley, one of the leading lights of minimalism, or the 70s electone grooves of Shigeo Sekito. I believe it indirectly led me to discover Hockets for Two Voices and Moondog as well.
I gave Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer another listen for the first time since it came out. I’m not sure why I wrote it off originally—maybe because it doesn’t quite reach the heights of The ArchAndroid, which slots easily into my top three favourite albums—but its nevetheless a pop masterpiece in its own right. I’m glad I gave it another try.
Slow Burn is back for season 3, swerving into the rather unexpected topic of Biggie and Tupac (it’s still great, though). This lead me to finally check out Biggie’s Ready to Die, which… arguably hasn’t aged that well? Like, it has good production and Biggie is of course one of the most skilled rappers of all time, but I feel like it just doesn’t do enough to justify the gangsta topics it covers? It doesn’t have the raw, shocking energy of Straight Outta Compton, say, which similarly left me cold in many ways, but damn if those first few bars don’t make you sit up and pay attention. Biggie reminds me of Wu-Tang Clang, actually, who I’ve just totally failed to connect with. But maybe I’ll give it another try.
What I’m Reading
I didn’t love Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, as mentioned in the last newsletter. I think the first chapter (adapted almost word-for-word from her talk) is definitely worth reading, but the rest of the book just… doesn’t go anywhere. I walked away with a deep sense of just how much Odell loves birdwatching, but I’m not sure I could summarize her argument cogently. It’s delightful to read—Odell has a very fine sense of prose style—but at the end of the day I can’t say how to “do nothing”, or even exactly what “doing nothing” would involve (birdwatching, apparently?). That may be partly due to my deficiency as a reader, but I also felt she tried to structure her argument clearly (like I said, she argues well); I’m jut not entirely sure what the argument was. It rests on the assumption that capitalism is bad and nature is good (although it also tries to explode that boundary as well—one of my favourite lines is when she notes that some birds she saw lived partly in and partly out of a public park… except of course the birds had no concept of a public park), but beyond that it argues that. communes won’t work… and ecoregions are important…? I’m really trying not to give it short shrift, but that’s exactly my frustration—despite giving the book a few hours of my attention, as it demanded, I walked away feeling like I had gained nothing more than what I had gained from reading the transcript of the talk.
On a more practical level, Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing gives actual actionable advice on how to, well, notice. It’s cute, though, structured as a set of 50 or so page-long exercises, it’s more of a coffee table book to flip through occasionally than a sustained argument of any kind.
I’ve been slowing getting through The Secret of Our Success, by (former UBC prof!) Joseph Henrich. It has a nice thesis at its core (that humans are successful due pretty much solely to cultural learning, and this has been the primary driver of human evolution for the past few thousand years at least) and a lot of fun examples, but it’s also an example of one of those “scientist popularizing their own research” books that redundantly reiterates the same point many, many times in an attempt to make it stick with general audiences. So it’s a bit of a slog even though it’s page-by-page very interesting.
I grabbed The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages by Francois-Xavier Fauvelle at the library. Originally a French text, it’s somewhat unique in that it doesn’t present a single “story”, but rather jumps around to various archeological artifacts and smaller stories in the primary sources, and presents a very fuzzy “this is what we know and how we know it” approach that’s refreshing (especially when it becomes apparent that we generally don’t know very much at all about the history of the African Middle Ages). But jumping around also makes the history a bit hard to follow; the writing style (perhaps not aided by the translation) makes this doubly true. Nevertheless, it’s consistently very interesting and brings together history, philology, and archaeology in a way that I tend to love.
I also picked up Black Leopard, Red Wolf, a fantasy novel by Marlon James, otherwise known for… winning the Man Brooker Prize with literary historical fiction about Jamaican history. I’ve heard mixed things and ten pages in I can understand why; it’s definitely a, um, challenging book to read, as in the writing style literally prevents me from figuring out what’s going on. It is, if nothing else, unique; but I’ll have to report back towards the end.
What I’m Working On
Unfortunately I’m not going to hit my NaNoWriMo goal, having burnt out about halfway with ~25,000 words. I don’t really mind, though; the goal was really to get myself in the habit of writing more, and I’ve settled into a more steady pace of 800 or so words a day, which lets me right at a bit of a higher quality than 1,667 per day did. It also doesn’t help that I decided to expand the book into a trilogy, and this had to find a lot more content for the first third, which in turn led me to pretty significantly change up the plot (for the better, I like to think). In any case at this rate I’ll be done with a first draft hopefully somewhere around Christmas, or maybe New Years. So… maybe watch out for that?