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Things I Read and Recommend from 2016

Every December writers on the information superhighway (what’s up Clive) write posts with links to the best stuff they read during the year. Those posts are great because they sometimes turn you on to stuff you missed, but also because they remind about how much you enjoyed something you read.

I decided to keep track of good things I read in 2016 and post it in December and that was fine until I asked myself why not post it around the midpoint of the year and then post an update in December. That way stuff from the first half of the year wouldn’t get lost.

This list is not exhaustive of all the great stuff that’s out there. Much of it, most of it, resonates with me personally, which means if you have a similar world view to me then you’ve probably read most of this and will like some of the stuff you missed.

Originally I was going to limit myself to one link per writer but there are some writers, like Laurie Penny, who are so versatile that I discarded my arbitrary limit. Others like Helena Fitzgerald and Matt Zoller Seitz write directly to my soul. Looking through this list now I see that writers like Mo Ryan, Emily Nussbaum and everyone at Vox (especially Caroline, Dylan and Todd) are underrepresented or not represented at all.  I also notice that I have nothing from Annie Lowrey or Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine, which I regret. I’m going to stop now because the list of people I’ve overlooked could go on forever. I endeavor to do better.

I still have a lot of stuff from the first half of the year that I’d plan to read so things will be added. I welcome any suggestions.

The final thing I want to add is that there are countless more great things out there to consume but two things I especially enjoy are Helena Fitzgerald‘s TinyLetter (straight to my soul) and Jonah Keri‘s podcast. I will try to get my TinyLetter off the ground later this year. (Watch this space.)

Enjoy!

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Summer in New York

Yeah, I know, I have some nerve writing about summer in New York when Helena Fitzgerald already wrote brilliantly about it, but if I didn’t write on topics just because Helena got there first then I don’t know what I’d write about.

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The Nashville Sound by Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit

I don’t remember why the alarm was set but it went off one weekend morning. The station, of course, was WNYC and the show that was starting was about Jason Isbell. I’ve since gone back to find that the show was The New Yorker Radio Hour in which John Seabrook talks to Isbell. The first song played is “Cover Me Up.”

A heart on the run keeps its hand on a gun
You can’t trust anyone
I was so sure what I needed was more
Tried to shoot out the sun

I was hooked. I sat up (figuratively) and tried not to fall back asleep but also not let on to my wife that I was awake and should be getting ready for whatever we had set the alarm.

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The Big Sick

The Big Sick is your standard romcom: Boy meets Girls, Boy Loses Girl By Being Stupid, Boy Eventually Wins Girl Back. [Sorry, SPOILER] There is nothing in this broadest outline of the story that makes it unique, but of course what makes romcoms work are the details. It’s Sally and Harry trying to set each other up and having their prospective dates fall for each other. It’s William’s friends making him see he was an idiot for breaking things off with Anna. It’s Aaron burying the lead and telling Jane that he loves her. In The Big Sick its Kumail’s attempts to keep both himself and his family happy, and the impossibility of trying to anything meaningful halfway.

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The Leftovers and The Book of Me

When I was a teenager I came up with this theory of life that I’m sure is not unique. Basically, the idea was that from your own perspective you live until you grow old and then accept death. While someone else may perceive that you, say, die in a car crash, from your point of view you survive the crash, or maybe you were never in that crash. It was a perfect teenage theory in that it was inane and neither provable nor dis-provable.

The human mind tries to bring order to chaos, which explains why we think we can beat slot machines and why we come up with religions. As the universe is based on the laws of physics, of action and reaction and equilibrium, the human mind seeks equilibrium, creates explanations to fill in where there are none. I don’t know what was going on when I came up with my theory. Maybe I was bored. But it was a natural action, an effort to fill some of the space in my world.

I thought of this while watching the third and final season of The Leftovers, a series that takes place after the Departure when two percent of the world’s population suddenly disappears without explanation. Or at least there is no explanation until people start creating their own. The series is about grief and loss, of course, and its also about relationships and what they are built on, but especially in the final season it’s about what we need to believe about things that can’t be explained. Kevin Garvey believes that he needs to die to really live. Nora Durst believes she needs a scientific-ish explanation for why her husband and two children disappeared. By the end of the series Kevin and Nora are at peace, ready to love each other in whatever time they have left. The explanations no longer matter.

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I Love Dick

A few weeks ago I started watching the Amazon series I Love Dick, the latest from Transparent creator Jill Soloway. I only got partway through the first episode, only to the point when Chris speaks to Dick for the first time, when I had to stop watching. (I no longer remember why I had to stop.) I only watched enough to be intrigued but what was going to happen, only long enough to be reminded that Kathryn Hahn is a treasure and that I would watch her in anything.

I finally made it back to I Love Dick last night. My wife was doing something and we were going to watch TV when she was finished so I was going to watch something to kill some time. Then my wife walks in when Chris is reading to her husband Sylvère her first letter to Dick and my wife was hooked and we watched the rest of the series.

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Thinking of Marion Ravenwood

So I was watching Raiders of the Lost Ark the other day, partly because its great and partly because it’s on Amazon Prime. Now, I’m hardly the person to talk about direction and form but there is so much pleasing in the movie, not just in the story and the acting but in Steven Spielberg’s direction. This was a bit on my mind lately because Matt Zoller Seitz tweeted this:

Mavericks often turn into has-beens, right, and maybe we are all tired of Spielberg now (although Stranger Things begs to differ), but in Raiders Spielberg was in his prime and the camera movement especially is so enjoyable. (To be clear, I’m not tired of Spielberg, or Scott for that matter.)

One other thing that I loved in the movie is the shadow work. I may post something later about other ways Spielberg used shadows but look at these few examples with Indiana Jones thinking about Marion Ravenwood.

This first shot is from the scene in which Marcus Brody goes to Indy’s house to tell him that the US government wants him to go find the Ark of the Covenant. While Indy is packing, he asks Marcus if he thinks “she” will be with his old mentor, Abner Ravenwood. (Yeah, the names in this series are excellent.) “She” is Abner’s daughter, Marion, with whom Indy had a relationship. Look at Indiana’s face in this shot.

Indy is in shadows while Marcus Brody is clearly lit. We know from context that something happened between Indiana and Abner and Marion that caused a falling out (and we can probably guess what it is), and the shadow on Indy’s face reinforce this.

Indiana travels to Nepal to find Marion who he hopes will give him the headpiece that he needs. (I assume you’ve seen the movie so all this makes sense to you.) Their reunion is not exactly joyful (Marion slugs Indiana and refuses to give him the headpiece). Marion tells Indiana that he broke her heart and hurt Abner also. She tells Indy to come back the next day to get the headpiece. This shot is of Indy as he walks out the door.

Again, his face mostly in shadow. There is still something between them but maybe they will never be able to put the old hurt behind them.

Shortly after Indy leaves, Marion is attacked by Nazis who are also looking for the headpiece. Indy rescues her and Marion takes the headpiece and tells Indy she’s his partner. Together they go to Egypt.

In Egypt, Indiana and Marion are in the sun with Sallah’s family, enjoying the weather as well as each other’s company. Eventually Marion gets kidnapped by those pesky Nazis and when Indy tries to rescue her he causes the truck she’s in to explode. Marion is dead. (Marion is not dead. [SPOILER])

So yeah, Marion is not dead but Indy doesn’t know this. So first Indy drowns his sorrows, then threatens to kill Belloq until Sallah’s children rescue him, and then he confronts his grief. This is the shot that brings it all home. Look at this.

It’s a callback to the door for Marion’s bar in Nepal and again there is Indiana’s face partly in shadow. Indiana and Marion reconciled somewhat but now they will never fully reconcile. Simply, there will always be a shadow when Indiana thinks of Marion.

Two Experts Talk On GChat, Canonicity Ensues

I have read Alan Sepinwall’s work since Bill Simmons’ gave Alan his imprimatur by having Alan on the B.S. Report. Because of his prodigious — and insightful — output, Alan is one of the giants of the Recap Industrial Complex. Sometime later I came to Matt Zoller Seitz, probably because I kept seeing people link to or quote him in my Twitter feed. Or maybe it was after Matt became the editor at rogerebert.com. Or maybe it was after I read one of Matt’s recaps, er, overnight reviews and was struck by his focus on form, and by his humanity.

In TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time, Alan and Matt rank the one hundred greatest scripted American television shows of all time. It’s an audacious undertaking, but one which Alan and Matt are certainly capable and qualified of undertaking. As they write in the introduction, they have a combined forty years of experience, not counting their “misspent” youths. And if I had any doubts about whether Alan and Matt were up to the task, those doubts turned to dust in a section called “The Great Debate: How Do You Pick the Best Show of All Time?”.

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Lochte’s Privilege Blindspot

When the news broke that Ryan Lochte’s story didn’t hold up under (minimal) scrutiny, I, like everyone else, waited to hear what Lochte and the three other US swimmers (Gennar Bentz, Jack Conger, and James Feigen) were covering up. It is the way of the world to tell an outrageous lie to hide a minimal transgression. In Lochte’s case, the real story was that he and the other swimmers had been out late partying, and then kicked open and broke a bathroom door at a gas station, and urinated in public. The incident should have been resolved when Lochte and the swimmers agreed to compensate that gas station for the property damage, except Lochte told his mother that they had been robbed at gunpoint. From there it became an international incident.

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Oathbreaker: The Limits of Our Stories

We are all heroes of our own stories. To that end, we construct the stories of other people in our lives so that they fit our themes. In the third episode of season six of Game of Thrones, “Oathbreaker”, Bran Stark and the Three-Eyed Crow witness the confrontation at the Tower of Joy between Ned Stark and his bannermen, and members of the Kingsguard. What Bran sees does not conform to the story that he “knew” from childhood, from the story he remembers being told. And it makes me wonder if, in the world of Game of Thrones, the old stories matter very much in the current situation.

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