Outside Reading — See You on the Other Side edition

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She Finds Meaning in the Dark by Manohla Dargis

In this strange, unsettled time, there are many who are facing far greater hardships than me and most of my friends. For this I am a grateful. But everyone’s context is their own, and few things make the wide-ranging shutdowns hit home for me like the indefinite closing of movie theaters. Writing for The New York Times, Dargis expresses the feelings of the change better than I could, probably in part because she has a lifelong relationship with moviegoing — including childhood trips to see French New Wave classics in the initial New York runs — that I can only fantasize about.

 

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Meet the Firefighters, Nurses and Janitors on the Front Lines by Sarah Mervosh

Also in The New York Times, Sarah Mervosh writes brief profiles of four different professionals who are ramping up as everyone else shuts down. When we cross through to the other side of this almost entirely unprecedented situation, these are the people who need to be celebrated and — if our economic system worked properly — rewarded properly. On a daily basis, we’re learning big lessons about which jobs are truly vital for the functioning of our system. Our collective relief when the pandemic abates should be joined by a demand for shifts in compensation structures, moving salary away from paper-shufflers and money-movers and to individuals who provide needed services every day.

 

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The Infuriating Story of How the Government Stalled Coronavirus Testing by Julia Ioffe

Just remember: When the morally bankrupt conservatives try to shift blame away from the inept slug to whom they’ve pledged their allegiance, this all could have been different if they executive branch weren’t filled with grifters whose sole interest is making money for themselves and their soul-curdling private-industry backers at the expense of citizenry that they see as either exploitable or expendable. For GQ, Julia Ioffe reports on the valiant efforts of researchers who persevered in the name of the public good, even as their efforts were consistently undermined by the gang that couldn’t govern straight.

 

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The Vegetarian (2016) by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

Aching and elegant, Han Kang’s novel centers on a young wife who stops eating meat, to the immediate consternation and even outsized rage of her family. The book is divided into three different sections, as the woman’s choice grows more extreme and the situations around her similarly escalate into the bizarre. Kang’s prose is sharp and direct, conveying emotion with the simplest strokes. The story builds a cumulative power, conveying the multiple ways social structures force women to give up their autonomy, especially control over their own physical beings.

Outside Reading — Translations Are Sacred edition

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Bong Joon Ho Interpreter Sharon Choi Relives Historic ‘Parasite’ Awards Season in Her Own Words by Sharon Choi

Of the many pleasures of this Oscar season that concluded with a wonderful, history outcome, one of the most satisfying was the way director Bong Joon-ho remained resolutely himself all the way through the process, including an aversion to polishing up his English so he could speak for himself on various awards show stages. On the many, many occasions he claimed a trophy, Sharon Choi was standing besides him, ready to translate his words. In the aftermath of the Oscars, Choi writes about her experience with Bong and the film, and it’s a lovely capper to discover that she is not a professional interpreter, but instead a devoted film student enlisted for this dizzying adventure. For Variety, Choi shares her story, filling it with delightful details and evocative sensations.

 

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Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build by Conor Dougherty

For The New York Times, Conor Dougherty writes about a dispute over development in California, a place that is in desperate need of more housing. Reluctant as I am to root for budding real estate magnates, there’s a strong case to be made for the entrepreneurs who are trying to fill up vacant spaces with new dwellings. Dougherty also details the disheartening opposition to the growth, with existing residents operating with a untoward close-the-door-behind-us attitude that is further evidence that civic mindedness has been all but eradicated in the current culture.

 

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There There (2018) by Tommy Orange

This thrilling novel approaches perfection. Employing a booming population of characters (there are so many that a Cast of Characters section opens the book, and it is a welcome reference), Tommy Orange examines the array of experiences for modern Native Americans, tracing their struggles and small triumphs with care. Even as the narrative moves rapidly towards its conclusion of interlocking fates, Orange disavows showiness in favor of clarity and an unyielding sense of storytelling purpose. He makes his statement not through barbed political commentary, but by simply telling the stories of people who are too often bypassed when the spotlight of modern American literature is swinging around, looking for a place to stop.

Outside Reading — The Jalaiah Harmon School of Dance edition

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The Original Renegade by Taylor Lorenz

There’s a long, miserable history of pop culture appropriation that swipes innovations from their creators to earn riches for performers more immediately palatable to the masses. Digital interconnectivity has only turbo-boosted that process as insidious so-called influencers snap up every meme, joke, or dance that has a shot at going viral, not giving a sliver of concern to due diligence and instead happily, rapidly branding it as their own. In one instance, anyway, the Paper of Record decisively redirects the spotlight where it belongs by profiling Jalaiah Harmon, the fourteen-year-old from Atlanta who invented a dance dubbed the Renegade and watched in frustration as others adopted it in more famous videos with nary an indication that someone else deserved credit for the moves. Harmon comes across as bright and charismatic, a superstar in waiting.

 

willie horton

End the GOP by Osita Nwanevu

Writing for The new Republic, Osita Nwanevu makes a plain and forceful case that one of the major U.S. political parties has essentially abdicated their worthiness to remain part of the nation’s ongoing experiment in democratic governance. There are severeal perfectly constructed turns of phrase across the article, but there may be no more succinct summary than describing the Republican party as “prejudiced, venal, and unmoored from reason.” In an especially valuable act of journalistic scholarship, Nwanevu demonstrates that the current state of affairs is not some aberration, a brief spell that will be broken once their especially amoral leader is driven, one way or another, from his ill-gained perch in the White House. This is the latest stage in an evolution that’s been ongoing for decades, with the GOP continually escalating their bigotry in the name of keeping power and then using that power to make sure government reflects their own greed-based hostility rather than the will of the people. In a representative government, their shared worldview is a purely destructive force.

 

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Blowout (2019) by Rachel Maddow

Rachel Maddow examines the insidious influence and devastating impact of the oil and gas industry with a dizzying exactitude that will be familiar to anyone who’s watched her preside over a news telecast. Her voice is incredibly strong across the book, right down the occasional dollop of gleeful sarcasm and a corresponding weakness for corny jokes. The thread of humor is appreciated, because most of the tapestry is a nightmare of corporate greed and geopolitical malfeasance running roughshod over what’s good for the human race. (As George Carlin accurately explained, “The planet is fine; the people are fucked.”) Maddow is especially convincing in conveying the codependency of unethical parties that catalyzes everything from the foolish indifference of local governments to Russia’s emergence as a global chaos agent.

Outside Reading — Gender Specific edition

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The Third Rail of Calling ‘Sexism’ by Rebecca Traister

The endless frustration of the media’s coverage of political campaigns continued this past week as policy discussions (not to mention the ongoing criminality of the amoral marauders currently occupying the White House) were largely set aside to eagerly pursue an inconsequential squabble between two candidates who almost entirely agree. Even putting aside the likelihood that the reportorial astonishment about freshly unearthed behind-the-scenes discussion was likely hogwash, there was an especially nettlesome aspect to the need to contrive drama. Think pieces and cable pundit pontification proliferated, all musing about the electability of a female candidate. As usual, when arriving at the intersection of gender and politics, Rebecca Traister provides the most useful reflection. This piece was published at The Cut.

 

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Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (2019) by Benjamin Dreyer

The chief copy editor at Random House assembles his basic rules and guidelines for strong writing, and it is an absolute delight. I will readily concede, however, that, to deploy a cliched metaphor that would surely cause Benjamin Dreyer to deploy his editing pen, mileage may vary. I was thoroughly enamored with the astute breakdown of language usage and the chapters that tick through words and phrases most likely to set writers stumbling. Mostly, I appreciated the way Dreyer’s views are founded on a principle of crafting work that is consistently engaging and highly readable. Rather than setting up rigid, persnickety rules that can lead to painfully tortured sentences (Dreyer is happy to discard some of the most timeworn strictures), he repeatedly stresses crafting writing that is clean, clear, and consistent. Every rule can be excepted if doing so will improve the finished work. Except the serial comma. And I agree with him on that, too.

 

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The Undoing Project (2016) by Michael Lewis

One of Michael Lewis’s specialities as a writer is shrewd assessments of figures who spend a lot of time thinking about the way we think. So it makes sense — it indeed has the air of inevitability — that Lewis found his way to Israeli scholars Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The duo conducted transformational research demonstrated all the faulty ways human beings observe and process reality, and the shaky decision-making that often results, driving society into disrepair. As usual, Lewis demonstrates an uncommon skills for taking incredibly complex material and getting it as close as possible to broadly understandable. He also proves to be a skilled biographer (if fairly surface-level in his examination), tracing the genesis, prosperity, and eventual dissolution of the partnership with a keen eye.

Outside Reading — America’s Press Conference of the Air edition

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The Christmas Eve Confessions of Chuck Todd by Jay Rosen

Earlier this week, Rolling Stone gave a platform to Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, interviewing him about an upcoming special edition of his venerable program. Todd and his producers have apparently come to an epiphany about the intellectual dishonesty employed by several of the politicians and political commentators booked as guests on his program. For those of us not drawing obscenely large paychecks as network news figures but actively paying attention to the right wing’s strategy of flooding the public  with easily debunked distortions (often propagated on Meet the Press, where the lies too often go unchallenged), Todd’s newfound astonishment is embarrassing. Luckily, NYU professor Jay Rosen writes a properly savage appraisal of Todd’s comments in the interview, detailing exactly how current stewards of journalism like Todd are entirely unprepared for the current era. More worrisomely, that lack of basic ability to meet the moment helps perpetuate the ruthless opportunists who are spreading their destructive toxins throughout society.

 

Little Women (1868, 1869) by Louisa May Alcott

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To the best of my recollection, I’d never previously read Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s book that’s one of the cornerstone works of U.S. literature. It’s possible that there was a school assignment at some point, and it’s equally possible I stupidly dismissed such an assignment because it was a “girl’s book.” Although clearly pitched at younger readers, the novel is rich with offhand insight about the ways in which people move around one another, striving to make and keep ahold of connections. It often reads more like a collection of connected short stories, reflecting the time when it was written and first published. Through it all, the measured mastery of Alcott is evident. There’s no confusion as to why it’s a classic.

Outside Reading — Big Numbers edition

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Big Calculator: How Texas Instruments Monopolized Math Class by Maya Kosoff

My time in high school math classes predated the introduction of the TI-81, the graphing calculator that serves as the starting line for Maya Kosoff’s article, published at GEN. Even by that point, though, there were a subset of my fellow students who showed up with the advantage of blocky behemoths of advanced calculation made by Texas Instruments. The piece traces how the class divide was poured in concrete, in part because Texas Instruments manipulated education policies to essentially mandate use of their expensive devices. It’s one of those hidden examples of how corporations keep themselves viable in part by coopting policy-making that is supposed to be strictly focused on the public good.

 

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In a Chaotic World, Dungeons & Dragons Is Resurgent by Ethan Gilsdorf

Reported by Ethan Gilsdorf, for The New York Times, this article doesn’t exactly go deep on the famous creation of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. It’s still highly entertaining as it simultaneously marvels at the sense of community Dungeons & Dragons engenders and takes a newsy look at some of the factors that helped the role playing stalwart find a new cultural foothold in an era of online gaming, an often interconnected and yet comparatively isolating pursuit.

 

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Conversations with Friends (2017) by Sally Rooney

I’ve been excited to read the fiction of Sally Rooney ever since The New Yorker offered a profile of the Irish author earlier this year. Her first novel, Conversations with Friends, doesn’t disappoint, zinging along with a combination of modern sensibility and the most sturdy and classic storytelling craft. The plot hinges on the sort of illicit happenings that have driven novels for generations, and it’s fascinating to see a bright, anxious, millennial perspective applied to one of these highly Updike-ian (or Roth-esque, if you prefer) progressions of a wounded life bandaged up by impulsively hedonistic choices. Rooney uses an abundance of telling, terse dialogue without ever letting that book fill like a screenplay in waiting, mostly, I think, because she deftly shows how inner lives often contradict outer statements. I’m glad I’ve already got Normal People on the tall stack of to-be-read books.

Outside Reading — Human Community edition

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Le Guin’s Subversive Imagination by Michael Chabon

We recently passed what would have been Ursula K. Le Guin’s ninetieth birthday, and we’re approaching the two-year anniversary of her death. I suppose either of those momentous dates might have inspired Michael Chabon to write about Le Guin’s massive influence of him. Whatever the prompt, the essay, published by The Paris Review, is terrific. With a grace and easy insight he brought to his finest novels, Chabon highlights the piercing intellect that made Le Guin special, writing “it was obvious to me, even at nine, that the true name of magic was writing, and that a writer like Ursula K. Le Guin was a mage.”

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The Force is With Them by Michael Schulman

This article was published several weeks ago, but my giant stack of New Yorker magazines (they just. keep. coming.) takes some time to get through. At times, Michael Schulman’s piece has a charming stodginess to it, due to the necessity of explaining, say, slash fiction to the uninitiated. Mostly, though, it shrewdly explores the phenomenon of deeply entitled fans, which has been present for ages (he cites Lisztomania and the fervor for new installments of Dickens’s serialized fiction) but has received a turbo boost in the digital age.