Outside Reading — Canon Fodder edition

burnett filming

Rethinking the Film Canon by Rich Juzwiak

Earlier this year, I was listening to the Little Gold Men podcast as they discussed the newly announced Academy Award nominations. As they mostly expressed relief about the small signs of voters looking beyond the usual array of white-dudes-with-guns movies, even as they felt obliged to concede appreciation for the usual suspects among the honorees. (As did I.) Almost as an aside, one of the cohosts raised the idea that what was needed to shift away from the constant threat of #OscarsSoWhite controversy was not diversity initiatives mounted by the Academy, but a wholesale reevaluation of what kinds of stories and films are considered important and therefore Oscar-worthy. The recent Gone with the Wind kerfuffle provides the entryway to do exactly that, and Rich Juzwiak makes a good start with this article, written for Jezebel.



You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument by Caroline Randall Williams

In this absolute powerhouse oped, published by The New York Times, Caroline Randall Williams makes the strongest possible argument against statues honoring Confederate soldiers and does so with unflinching candor about her own identity and family history. In particular, the opening sentence is devastating. Any comments I might add are doomed to inadequacy.



Confederate Monuments Getting Removed By Protesters Is a Statement of People Power by Jane’a Johnson

In the city I call home, debate turned to the sanctity of statues this week. Angry protestors responded to the needlessly rough arrest of one of their fellow activists by pulling down two statues near the State Capitol that commemorated progressive causes and an abolitionist, hardly symbols of bigotry and oppression. Those eager to cast aspersions on social justice protestors quickly snarling with satisfaction about the ignorance of the action, ignoring that reasonable explanations behind targeting the statues were offered almost immediately. Anyway, I agree wholeheartedly with invaluable local journalist Scott Gordon, who wrote, “We could spend a whole lot of time here parsing what the statues torn down this week mean or represent, but I also think the fixation on the statues is kind of deranged.” But that thought also brings me to this piece, written by Jane’a Johnson for Teen Vogue, that persuasively argues for the power inherent in citizenry taking it into their own hands to remove these bronzed commemorations of the wrong parts of our past rather than waiting for some sort of political process to grind through its slow work to the same end.



The Rape Kit’s Secret History by Pagan Kennedy

In this corrective to history, published by The New York Times, Pagan Kennedy explores the genesis of the rape kit. Often credited to a Chicago police officer (because he demanded the credit), the investigative tool was actually conceptualized and created by Marty Goddard, an activist dismayed by the lack of attention and effort given to the crime of rape. Kennedy’s story is full of amazing details, most of which reflect very poorly on the systems set up to deliver justice in this country. That the manufacture and distribution of the kits was taken more seriously by Playboy Enterprises than any government or police officials — and that the fact of that isn’t particularly surprising — is one thread in thickly snarled explanation of how we’ve reached the current point of broad disenchantment with law enforcement.


brief history

A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) by Marlon James

A colossal, complicated novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings has an assassination attempt against Bob Marley at its core, but puts layers upon layers atop that incident until the sprawling story starts to feel like it’s touching upon every trouble embedded in the human experience. Marlon James has an enviable command of language throughout the book, developing enveloping rhythms to the dialogue and storytelling which remaining fiercely direct, like some implausible hybrid of Stephen King and Don Delillo. It’s one of those books that is exhausting and thrilled in equal measure.

Outside Reading — Precedented edition

mcduffie riots

“Can We Live?” by Tananarive Due

Now that we’re almost halfway through this calendar year that epitomizes the curse of interesting times, it’s useful to remember that the the cataclysms of now have historic precursors that we can learn from. And those past events can also provide a stark reminder that the demands for change are not sudden and new, but have been repeated for a long time. If anything, the extensiveness of the current protests is overdue. Writing for Vanity Fair, Tananarive Due delivers an incredibly powerful remembrance of being a child of activists in Miami during the 1980 riots that took place after the acquittal of four white officers in the police brutality–caused death of Arthur Lee McDuffie. It simply shouldn’t be necessary to still continue crying out for justice forty years later.



I’m a priest. The police forced me off church grounds for Trump’s photo op. by Gini Gerbasi

It is unsurprising and maddening that there remains a contingent of people — out of ignorance, bigotry, pathetic fealty to power, or a toxic combination of all of the above — who remain supportive of the police state in the face of overwhelming evidence of perverse, pervasive cruelty against citizens exercising their first amendment rights. Knock a seventy-five-year-old man to the pavement, cracking his skull open, and there will be a cluster of the proudly hateful prepared to line up and offer their applause. Identifying the most egregious assault against the populace is difficult, but few instances have been more cruelly cynical than deploying chemical agents to disperse a crowd in front of a church so an astoundingly amoral man could get his picture taken brandishing a holy book that means absolutely nothing to him. Gini Gerbasi, the Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church was on the grounds of the church attacked by the authorities in the name of a photo op, and she wrote about her experience for The Washington Post.



The Remaking of Steve Buscemi by Gabriella Paiella

Gabriella Paiella writes an exceptional profile of Steve Buscemi, an actors who been around for so long, and done such good work so consistently, that he’s easy to take for granted. Paiella gets at why Buscemi is appealing on screen, but she performs the more valuable service of exploring his fundamental decency as a human being. Published by GQ, this article pass the most basic test of piece about an actor; it makes me want to go back and rewatch all my favorite Buscemi performances.




The Joy of Having Plans Cancel Themselves by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

There have already been plenty of humorous rumination about COVID-19 shutdowns being a boon for introverts, but I’m especially partial to this piece by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, published a couple weeks back in the book review section of the Sunday edition of The New York Times. With her typical wry specificity, Brodesser-Akner perfectly captures the sense of relief when reluctantly accepted social engagements fall away.



The Fifth Risk (2018) by Michael Lewis

Expanding on reporting he did for Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis details the drastically (and perhaps deliberately) bungled transition process undertaken by the current presidential administration after the improbable outcome of the 2016 election. Straight lines can be drawn from the current executive branch’s vicious disinterest in public service to the flagrantly inept response to the COVID-19 virus that has killed over — likely well over, given the challenges of tracking — one hundred thousand U.S. citizens. In its educated shock, The Fifth Risk also provides an invaluable primer to how much the federal government actually does for people, especially those living in small, rural communities who, by their voting tendencies, are most likely to oppose the very programs that benefit them. The massive damage sustained by the U.S. in recent years isn’t caused by governors imposing public health measures or people marching in the streets. The culprits, Lewis’s book makes abundantly clear, reside in White House offices, proud of their oblivious ineptitude.

Outside Reading — Paku-Paku-Paku edition

pac man operator

Pac-Man, The Japanese Game That Took Over The World, Turns 40 by Matt Alt

On the occasion of the fortieth birthday of the yellow fellow originally known as Puck-Man, Matt Alt writes a brief history of the arcade game sensation. It’s filled with fascinating details about the game’s genesis, including the stealthy ways some Japanese cultural touchstones slipped in with the chomping hero and his ghostly adversaries. I remember well how thoroughly Pac-Man took over in the nineteen-eighties, and Alt captures the scene incredibly well.



To Compare an Apple to a Submarine by Caity Weaver

Among the many reasons to value The New York Times, there is the wonderful circumstance that the nation’s most important and venerable newspaper allows some goofball genius writers to run with whatever cockamamie idea pops into their head. Case in point: Caity Weaver takes a doltish comment spat out by Jeffrey Katzenberg in defense of the laughably soft launch if his Quibi endeavor and uses it as a prompt for a meticulous examination of whether there is an acceptable methodology to use in comparing apples and submarines. Consistently amusing without ever reducing the journalistic endeavor to a mere joke, Weaver’s article is a happy relief amidst the steady thrum of dreadful news.


ninth street

Ninth Street Women (2018) by Mary Gabriel

This hefty tome is a corrective to the history of mid–twentieth century U.S. art history that overwhelmingly favors male painters while ignoring the women who were creating equally revolutionary works. Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler are the primary subjects of Mary Gabriel’s artful shared biography, but the book generously expands to cover almost the entirety of the New York art scene in the years before, during, and after World War II. Gabriel is exhaustive in her details, providing a tactile sense of what is was like to be in the midst of this astonishing eddy of artistic invention. Much as Gabriel wants to keep the focus on the artists who align with the third word of the title Ninth Street Women, the dudes can’t help but intrude. Most notably, Krasner’s spouse, Jackson Pollock, dominates at times, proving just as unavoidable an axis point for the book as he was for the booming art field at the time and ever since.

Outside Reading — The Big Not-So-Easy edition

lost love
(via the Once Around the Kitchen Facebook page)

The Bars of New Orleans Are Closed. They’re Still Getting the City Through This. by John Stanton

We are lucky in our household. Transitioning to a work-from-home model was easy for us, and our employers are incredibly supportive of the shift. We know we’re lucky, and out hearts go out to the people that don’t stand on the same sturdy girder, especially in those communities that are heavily reliant on tourism dollars. I made trips to New Orleans with some regularity in the years following Hurricane Katrina. It took a decade before the city felt fully and properly alive again, the way I remembered it from before the storm. The COVID-19 shutdown isn’t leveling the city with property damage in the same way, but closing all bars and restaurants and wiping clean the slate of spring festivals is devastating in a whole other way. Writing in Slate, John Stanton explains the bar culture of the city and spotlights some of the ways displaced workers are coming together in support of one another and the whole town. I’m eager to get back to New Orleans and slap my money on the bar and do my small, tipsy part to help them recover.


covid 19

What I Learned When My Husband Got Sick with Coronavirus by Jessica Lustig

A deputy editor with The New York Times Magazine, Jessica Lustig had the unwanted opportunity to write about the COVID-19 pandemic from first-hand experience, providing heartrending details about her family’s experience when her spouse contracted the disease. Thankfully, he has improved since this article was written and published, which makes the harrowing details a little easier to take. As the right wing’s brigade of dolt zealots begins their predictable turn towards clanging pots and pans together and screaming about how the shutdown was and is an overreaction, personal reporting like this is vital.


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Live, From a Connecticut Backyard, It’s … a Sport! by Christopher Clarey

I have a lot of affection for the early days of ESPN, before the network signed contracts with all the major U.S. sports leagues and the program schedule was filled with oddball athletic pursuits from around the globe. So I’m downright delighted with article, printed in The New York Times, which marvels at the airing of a dinky sports championship staged on someone’s personal court. There are wonderful details and charming quotes throughout. Shut the NFL down forever, and let’s all commit to platform tennis fandom.


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To borrow the recent phrasing of a good friend of mine, I sure do miss the boys of summer. It would be a good time to lets a day’s worth of games play out in the background while puttering around the house. (To be clear, I’m not advocating for the Writing for MEL, Noel Murray expounds on the compensatory pleasure of dialing up ol’ ball games instead. The nostalgia factor is significant for me, especially because my heart is warmed by the visible seams of older sports broadcasts, with clunky graphics and more patient approach to the cutting between different camera angles. And Murray even finds space to throw poison darts at the announcing work of Joe Morgan, itself a beloved bygone pastime.

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Fountain City (2010) by Michael Chabon

After completing his debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon got to work on a follow-up. It proved unwieldy and unworkable, partially inspiring the mountain of pages that swamped Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys, Chabon’s actual second published novel. Years later, Chabon took some of the scraps of Fountain City, the unfinished work, added self-withering annotations, and gave it to McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern to publish as part of the unique periodical’s thirty-sixth issue. Releasing this material at all is a gutsy move, because the writing is, as might be expected for a discarded early novel, not particularly good. Combined with Chabon’s reflections, though, it makes for a fascinating read, a skilled author reckoning with his former self.

Outside Reading — See You on the Other Side edition


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.


washington health

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.



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


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


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.



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


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.



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.



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

meet the press

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

little women

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

texas instruments

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.



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.