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Books Film Television

Media of the moment

An ongoing series

Everything my son consumes. Obvs.

Love on the Spectrum. Just finished the second season of this heart-warming and instructive Australian reality dating show on Netflix featuring people on the autism spectrum. The delightful dynamic between Michael and his mom should be its own show.

Abbey Road. I previously wrote about encountering the super deluxe remastered edition of Sgt. Pepper’s and, by Jove, it happened again with my favorite Beatles record on a recent drive home. Luscious.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Finally read Miller’s debut novel after loving Circe, and she is now two for two in my book.

The Great British Baking Show. The current season is only the second we’ve seen, the first being last year’s COVID-bubble season. Mr. Almost-3 has started saying “Mmmmm, yummmm” every time the food drawings appear, which is (almost) always correct.

The Green Knight. Thought this was just OK for a large chunk of it, until the ending, which made me want to rewatch it immediately.

Witness for the Prosecution. Similar to The Green Knight, this was fine for a while until the end, when it became great. The acting was a bit over-the-top, even for the 1950s, but Charles Laughton was the tops throughout.

Shiva Baby. Nothing quite like seeing a writer-director absolutely nail the cringey-funny tone required to make this work.

Dune. Started watching as a Dune newbie and finished as a believer. Don’t think I’ll read the books though.

Categories
Books History Politics Presidents

My favorite presidential biographies (so far)

Ever since reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent Abraham Lincoln biography Team of Rivals years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the lives and times of U.S. presidents. So much so that I made a goal to read a substantive biography of every U.S. president.

This goal isn’t motivated by politics. If anything the legislative minutiae, policy discussions, and battlefield play-by-plays are usually the dullest parts of these books. I’m simply fascinated by the peculiar power of the presidency and the stories of the men who have wielded it—even if (and when) they don’t live up to our twenty-first century expectations.

Any biography I read will teach me something, regardless of the likeability of the subject or overall quality of the book. But the best of them combine compelling prose, insightful commentary, and strong storytelling that fairly recount the person’s life while contextualizing and sometimes criticizing their decisions or behavior.

With 19 down out of 45 currently, I’m nearing halfway through this literary mission, so I thought it would be a good time to check in with what I’ve read so far.

I’ve mostly stayed away from more recent presidents, preferring books that have at least a little historical distance from their subjects. (Outside of George Bush Sr., the most recent president I’ve tackled is Harry Truman.) I also endeavor to only read meaty, single-volume biographies that make this expedition feel substantive and worthwhile (if slightly masochistic).

All that said, here are a few titles that have stood out thus far, in no particular order. 

Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President by Ari Hoogenboom

For a long time the only things I knew about Hayes were that his heavily disputed 1876 election ended the Reconstruction era in the former Confederacy, and that he was one of those forgotten presidents between Lincoln and Roosevelt with cool facial hair. But I soon learned that Hayes was a lawyer who became an abolitionist and defended escaped slaves, a brigadier general in the Civil War who was shot in the arm in the Battle of South Mountain yet still led his men to victory, and a post-presidency education reform advocate who helped found Ohio State University. Not bad for a forgotten one-term president.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

This is the first (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) book in a trilogy about Teddy Roosevelt, who might be the most impressive president we’ve ever had. It chronicles the crowded years of his pre-presidency life, which began as a sickly yet bright child who by 25 became a best-selling author and bull-headed New York legislator, then continued as a young widower who served as a Dakota sheriff, New York City police commissioner, Navy secretary, Army colonel, and New York governor, all before becoming president at 42. Energetic, fun-loving, and extremely intelligent, Roosevelt is a biographer’s dream and one of my history crushes.

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul Nagel

From birth, John Quincy Adams lived within a shadow. His father, John, the legendary Founding Father and fiery orator, pushed John Quincy hard in his studies and inspired him to greatness. But the greatness JQA achieved—e.g. speaking multiple languages, serving as George Washington’s minister to the Netherlands at age 26—always seemed to forestall his desire to live a quiet, scholarly life away from politics and his father’s prodding. Historian Paul Nagel captures all of this in addition to Adams’ unimpressive term as president and surprising final act as an ardent abolitionist congressman. (Another bit of trivia: He was probably the only person to have known both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln personally.)

The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The standard photo-op of a new president standing cordially with all of his living predecessors is common, but that wasn’t always so. Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman created the so-called “former presidents club” in the 1950s, and since then the relationships formed behind the scenes between members have often been surprising (like with rivals-turned-best-friends George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton) and sometimes subversive (like when Richard Nixon deliberately sabotaged Lyndon Johnson’s peace talks in Vietnam to aid his own 1968 campaign). The book is a fascinating account of how the private and public lives in “the world’s most exclusive fraternity” have interweaved throughout modern political history.

Other favorites:

Categories
Books Life

Four Thousand Weeks in the Midnight Library

Matt Haig’s novel The Midnight Library asks: What if you could explore every what-if of your life, specifically those that turned into regrets? How many of your other lives would actually turn out better than your real one?

It’s an intriguing philosophical question that quickly turns personal for the book’s protagonist, Nora Seed, who comes to learn that each book in the titular library—rendered as a kind of metaphysical manifestation of purgatory—represents one of the infinite versions of her life.

Adventures in space-time

The idea of exploring what-ifs through magical realism or sci-fi isn’t new. It’s the narrative foundation of some of my favorite films (It’s A Wonderful Life, Back to the Future trilogy) and other intriguing cinematic counterfactuals (The Man in the High Castle, The Last Temptation of Christ, About Time).

But rather than focusing on (as Doc Brown would call it) one specific temporal junction point in the entire space-time continuum—what if George Bailey had never lived, what if Biff stole the Almanac, what if the Nazis won—The Midnight Library extends its ambit to the many sliding-doors moments in a single life.

Nora is given countless opportunities to choose and experience parallel lives where none of her regrets came to pass. “I stayed with that ex-boyfriend” and “I didn’t give up swimming” and “I pursued my dream of becoming a glaciologist” all get a spin. But none of these supposedly ideal realities live up to her expectations.

While she’s able to shorten her list of regrets—an immensely valuable gift in itself—her pursuit of happiness doesn’t solve the deeper existential crisis that plagues all of us at some point: per Mary Oliver, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?

4,000 Weeks

That question infuses another of my recent reads: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman, an approachably philosophical exploration of the wily, incorrigible thing called time and our dysfunctional relationship with it.

I have an extensive list of quotes from the book that make for good ponderin’, but there are three specific ones that would fit right into The Midnight Library. (Synchroncity knows no bounds, temporal or otherwise.)

First, a reality check:

The world has an effectively infinite number of experiences to offer, so getting a handful of them under your belt brings you no closer to a sense of having feasted on life’s possibilities.

Therefore, Burkeman writes, you have to make choices:

Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem. Instead, you get to focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you actually do have time for—and the freer you are to choose, in each moment, what counts the most.

And once you do that:

If you can hold your attention, however briefly or occasionally, on the sheer astonishingness of being, and on what a small amount of that being you get—you may experience a palpable shift in how it feels to be here, right now, alive in the flow of time.

That “astonishingness” of being alive in the flow of time doesn’t arrive on command. You have to reorient your mind and your attention to create the conditions that allow for it to reveal itself.

In The Midnight Library, that process looks like an anguished young woman replacing her perceived unworthiness with gratitude for mere existence. (Just like George Bailey.)

In Four Thousand Weeks, that looks like embracing temporal limitations rather than resenting them.

And in my life, that looks like treating the things I love—my wife and son and family and friends and typewriter collection and bike rides and movie nights and library books—as the temporary gifts they are, for however long I live.

Categories
Books Life

Learning fictions

I’ve been on a fiction reading tear recently. In the last fortnight I’ve finished The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All by Josh Ritter, and The Midnight Library by Matt Haig—all with a mix of print and audiobook. I just started The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller on audiobook and am hopeful about it.

In the midst of this streak I texted my buddies that I was resolving to read more fiction.

“It’s an ongoing struggle,” I wrote, “to come to terms with the fact that I won’t be able to learn everything I want to learn via nonfiction books, so I might as well start to nourish other parts of my consciousness too.”

My friend Steve replied: “I feel like I learn a lot about the world from nonfiction, and I learn a lot about myself (and my relationship to others) from fiction.”

Couldn’t be truer. And when I said I typically tilt much farther toward the world, he replied: “While vast, it is sometimes less daunting.” Compared, that is, to ourselves.

Wendell Berry:

Fantasy is of the solitary self, and it cannot lead us away from ourselves. It is by imagination that we cross over the difference between ourselves and other beings and thus learn compassion, forbearance, mercy, forgiveness, sympathy, and love—the virtues without which neither we nor the world can live.

Angus Fletcher:

Whatever the power of truth may be, literature’s own special power has always lain in fiction, that wonder we construct.

Categories
Books Film Music

Media of the moment

An ongoing series of what I’ve read, seen, and heard lately

Schmigadoon. Though its story is a little loose at the edges throughout the show’s short six-episode run, the central conceit of a couple getting stuck inside the world of an old-timey musical was a fun journey. Watch out for “Corn Puddin’” because it’s an earworm. More TV musicals please!

Ted Lasso, season 2. Will be curious to see how this season fills out as a whole, but nothing can damper my love of the best show on TV. We really enjoyed the stretch of a couple weeks in July and August when we could watch the latest episodes of this and Schmigadoon as an uplifting and wholesome Friday night double feature.

Crimson Tide. So, this ruled. And made me really miss seeing Gene Hackman in movies.

In the Heights (movie and soundtrack). Seeing this was my first time back in the theater since February 2020, and I’ve had the soundtrack pretty much on repeat since. Favorite little moments: “damn, we only jokin’, stay broke then” and the It’s A Wonderful Life reference.

Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic by Steven Johnson. My favorite author strikes again.

A Quiet Place / A Quiet Place Part II. Being horror-averse I put off the first one for a while, basically until I saw the excellent reviews for Part II and realized they’re not actually horror but more of the “momentarily scary well-made thriller” variety, which I’m down with.

Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West by Cameron Blevins. Shoutout to the post office.

Showbiz Kids. Affecting documentary on HBO Max featuring former child actors talking about their past and present struggles.

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green. I’ve never listened to the podcast this book is based on, but still enjoyed Green’s unique, earnest, and wry literary voice shining through this collection of essays.

Categories
America Books History Review Technology Typewriters

On Paper Trails and Typewriting Females

I just finished reading Cameron Blevins’ new book Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West, which I learned a lot from (see my full notes and quotes from the book below).

One thing that popped out to me was the role of women in the Post Office’s workforce. Women made up two-thirds of all Post Office employees by the end of the 1870s, with the Post Office itself accounting for 75% of all federal civilian employees at the time. This made it a vital source of work for women early in the movement for women’s suffrage.

Their chief work was within the Topographer’s Office, which produced maps of postal routes. The layout and drawing of the maps was done by men (it was actually called “gentlemen’s work”). But the “ladies’ work” of coloring the routes according to frequency of delivery was arguably just as if not more important, because it added the dimension of time to the otherwise inert graphics and kept the maps up to date and therefore useful.

This wasn’t easy given the constantly changing routes and limitations of paper. As Blevins put it: “These women were, in effect, trying to paint a still life while someone kept rearranging the fruit.”

All this was on my mind when I saw Richard Polt’s Instagram post for International Typewriter Day.

I’m not sure how much typewriters factored into the work of the female “colorists” given its graphical nature, but the people’s machine without a doubt contributed to the societal sea change happening concurrently as women marched first into offices and then, eventually, the voting booth.

Anyway, I recommend Paper Trails primarily for history nerds—specifically 19th century America. The academic writing is refreshingly accessible and peppered with illustrative graphs throughout. I’m happy to file it under my “technically first” series of books about how innovative technologies came into being.

Notes & Quotes

Categories
Books Review Science

The Ghost Map

When I learned Steven Johnson (my favorite author) has a new book out, it prompted me to finally read one of his previous books that’s been on my list for a while.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World was a timely read, for obvious reasons. Though cholera is a different beast than COVID (“Imagine if every time you experienced a slight upset stomach you knew that there was an entirely reasonable chance you’d be dead in forty-eight hours”), its effect in this story and throughout history shows us both how far science has come since the Victorian Age and how vulnerable we remain to infectious diseases.

What I love most about this book—even beyond the historical factoids and masterful storytelling you can expect from any Johnson joint—is that it’s basically a murder mystery, with cholera as the microbial serial killer and an unlikely detective duo of a doctor and a priest hunting it during a deadly epidemic in the crowded, putrid London of the 1850s.

Call it an epidemiological thriller. Probably not much competition in that sub-genre, but Johnson made the most of it.

Quotes

I like Johnson’s description of London at the time:

an industrial-era city with an Elizabethan-era waste-removal system as perceived by a Pleistocene-era brain.

On the topography of progress:

The river of intellectual progress is not defined purely by the steady flow of good ideas begetting better ones; it follows the topography that has been carved out for it by external factors.

On great intellectual breakthroughs:

It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton’s famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.

On miasma theory and the “sociology of error”:

It’s not just that the authorities of the day were wrong about miasma; it’s the tenacious, unquestioning way they went about being wrong. …

How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories? These questions, too, deserve their own discipline—the sociology of error.

Categories
Books Film Music

Media of the moment

An ongoing series of what I’ve read, seen, and heard recently

The Good Lord Bird. The limited series really captures the book’s madcap and dramatic spirit. Ethan Hawke is so delightfully committed to the dead-serious absurdity of John Brown.

The Underground Railroad. Two of my main takeaways while watching this 10-episode limited series: 1. I can’t believe I get to watch essentially 10 new Barry Jenkins movies! And 2. That’s a few too many given the heavy subject matter!

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, A Night in Tunisia. Recently my wife asked me to “get some jazz” from the library, so right before I left I grabbed a few albums more or less at random. Struck gold with this one.

Benny Goodman, Mozart at Tanglewood. Wanted to find some good concertos and heard good things about this one. Those good things were right.

Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps: Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking by Annie Atkins. A cool visual compendium and behind-the-scenes exploration of a film graphic prop designer’s impressive work, including lots from Wes Anderson movies.

Categories
Books Film

Media of the moment

An ongoing series of books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

(Haven’t done this since before the end-of-year list-o-mania, so check out my favorite books and films of 2020 for a fuller “Media of the Moment” experience.)

Ted Lasso. Throughout the whole 10-episode first season I kept thinking, “How is this show real?” Can’t wait for season two.

Down from Basswood by Lynn Maria Laitala. Went long on this short, wondrous book.

Palm Springs. I love when comedic actors, like Andy Samberg in this instance, stretch into drama. Also love when a movie manages to mix so many genres well—in this case comedy, romance, sci-fi, drama, and even philosophy.

Run. The latest thriller from Aneesh Chaganty (whose debut film Searching was one of my favorites of 2017) puts Sarah Paulson right where she shines, in a role that cloaks a dark edge with a sunny surface. Kudos to her co-star Kiera Allen for an impressive debut.

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson. Listened to the audiobook and enjoyed when the British narrator adopted Winston Churchill’s distinctive even-more-British accent when quoting him. Remember to be brief.

The Dig. Like The Splendid and the Vile, a stately story set in World War II Britain that was just OK—though Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes were, as always, the best part of it).

Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President. Documentary about the influence of music and musicians on Carter and his 1976 presidential campaign. Had no idea he was best friends with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Perhaps I’ll make him my next presidential biography…

Contagion. Finally dove into this Steven Soderbergh joint that was eerily prescient about pandemic life, though thankfully more extreme than what COVID-19 hath wrought.

Wings. This 1927 silent film was the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture (technically “Outstanding Picture”). About 30 minutes too long but strikingly style-forward for its time, as this stunning tracking shot demonstrates.

Ghosts of the Abyss. Went on a Titanic kick a while back and stumbled upon this documentary from James Cameron on his 2001 expedition to the Titanic wreck, which captured some incredible footage.

Only Lovers Left Alive. Between this, Broken Flowers, and Patterson, I have yet to be let down by Jim Jarmusch.

Categories
Etc.

Quotes of the moment

Thought it’d be fun to start another occasional series, akin to media of the moment and recent views, that will spotlight quotes I’ve gathered in my readings and viewings that struck me for some reason. (See also my quotes tag for posts with longer quotes.)

“You gotta be brave before you can be good.” – Hearts Beat Loud

“It is not enough to have learned, for living is sharing and I must offer what I have for whatever it is worth.” – Louis L’Amour, Education of a Wandering Man

“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” – E.O. Wilson

“A relationship, a feeling, or a glance—it’s the things that don’t fossilize that matter most.” – Claire Cameron, The Last Neaderthal

“Above all the Anthropocene compels us to think forwards in deep time, and to weigh what we will leave behind, as the landscapes we are making now will sink into strata, becoming underlands. What is the history of things to come? What will be our future fossils? As we have amplified our ability to shape the world, so we become more responsible for the long afterlives of that shaping.” – Robert Macfarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey

“The time to make your mind up about people is never.” – High Society

“Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.” – Miyamoto Musashi

“Only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life.” – Carl Jung

“You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.” – Fred Rogers

“These are old forces. The magma and the tremors. The famine and the want. The way we love rocks and birds and old boats and brass rings, and the way we survive this world because of the stories we fashion from its shards. We do not just keep and collect things, amass and restore them. We trouble ourselves to repurpose, create, and invent things just to carry, a little easier, those stories we cannot live without.” – A. Kendra Greene, The Museum of Whales You Will Never See

“Time is a language, and it’s the best way to explain how I feel.” – Dawes, “The Way You Laugh”, Nothing is Wrong

“There is an instant drama to an encounter, but remember that beyond the single moment is the long and ornate process of living.” – Craig Childs, The Animal Dialogues