Mentions | Fall 2020 ​


Ed Niles's Glass House |


I want to know what inspired Justin Bieber to rent Ed Niles’s dead tech supervilla for a little under 60k a month, before he changed his mind. It’s clear why he didn’t stay — its see-through walls only served to amplify the trauma of celebrity overexposure. It turns out the prospect of living in a cylinder freaks people out. Cans of beans, pasta sauce bottles, commercial real estate, yes; homes, no. The Niles house features two such cylindrical glass shafts that earned it various mocking nicknames: salad spinner, lettuce drainer, etc. I see them more as spindles of blank CD-Rs, maybe filled to the brim with the unrealized songs of pop stars who’ve graced its hallowed halls. But there’s a grotesque brilliance to its curvaceous sheets of icy blue glass and steel, which in the aggregate remind me of a child’s toy block village if Skynet were in charge. It’s like Niles took a Bush-era executive’s office and exploded it to the level of a community center, but at the last minute called it a mansion. Maybe it’s my Russian immigrant (read: small, dark quarters) upbringing talking, but there’s a uniquely American kind of optimism in modernist architecture that’s nowhere to be found in the house: it’s not even trying to imagine a future outside of capitalism. That’s the bleak honesty of it. 


Hope Gangloff's Portraits |


The bright mix of colors counterbalances the stillness of the scenes. The paintings themselves are experiments in color chemistry disguised as mini-stories. Gangloff’s people sport earbuds; dogs sleep at their feet; they are poised atop picnic blankets with a bottle of beer, or perched on the edge of the bath while painting their toenails. Lovingly rendered, they seem to have been transported from the real world into the artist’s — a world where everybody looks cool.

D.A. |


An online community of software engineers endlessly polling each other on whether they should take a plum position at a startup or a marginally less-plum position at Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, or Google, a.k.a. “FAANG” (free massages!). This website was really helpful in clarifying why I can no longer afford to live alone in coastal California. I am now spending my life savings on bootcamp at General Assembly, entrypoint to the learn-to-code pipeline.


@dylaniwakuni |


One of my favorite of this mesmerizing woodworker’s videos is a demonstration of the Kanawa Tsugi joint, which is used to extend the length of a beam or post, or replace a rotten section. Through slow, careful, and precise chiseling, two identically-shaped pieces of wood are joined into one, longer piece of wood: the same shape, elongated. It’s satisfying to see meticulous effort pay off, and that it’s possible to improve something, even if only slightly.


House |


Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 movie sees seven schoolgirls — all named, fable-like, for their most notable characteristic (Gorgeous, Sweet, etc) — make a trip to the Japanese countryside to visit one of the girls’ estranged aunt, only to be devoured, one by one, by the titular edifice. Some might find the decline from recognizable teenage angst (Gorgeous, our heroine, plans the doomed rural sojourn to avoid spending time with her father’s new wife) into campy yet surprisingly bloody horror precipitous. In one scene, it is, appropriately, Melody whose hands, then entire body, are torn apart by a sentient piano. The film’s climax — which sees a now-demonic Gorgeous lure her stepmother into the house to enact revenge — suggests, in the way of all good fantasy, that Obayashi’s tale is less escapist than it appears. The bitter and familiar clarity of jealousy proves to be just as haunting as anything else in this screwball concoction.


Universal Mother |


Sinéad O’Connor is, at this point in cultural history, far better known for her anticlerical politics and erratic public behavior than for her music. (The photograph of Pope John Paul II she ripped up on Saturday Night Live in 1992 will appear in the first or second paragraph of her obituary, for sure.) And though her recording career has been uneven, one bright spot is Universal Mother (1994) — almost a great record, and certainly a singular one. It opens with “Fire on Babylon,” anticipating the doom-laden low-end vibe of Björk’s “Army of Me” by a year. Michel Gondry’s extremely creepy music video, in which O’Connor and a child alter ego are menaced by Louise Bourgeois-ish mechanical mother-monsters inside a forced-perspective dollhouse, could support a psychoanalytic dissertation. The album also contains an introductory sound-bite of Germaine Greer enjoining women to “spontaneous cooperative action,” a Nirvana cover, a lullaby for O’Connor’s young son, a gorgeous close harmony number, and a very informative rap song about the Irish potato famine.


New Grub Street (1891) |


George Gissing’s 1891 tale about the business of literature in Victorian London, featuring romantics crushed by a brutal economic regime (“personalities wholly unfitted for the rough and tumble of the world’s labour-market”), miserable and impoverished automatons (“she was not a woman, but a mere machine for reading and writing”), little in the way of real happiness/love/genius/art, and the great success of Chit-Chat, a publication of stories and descriptions in paragraphs of no more than two inches for those “quarter-educated” readers incapable of sustained attention.


Bayou Paradis |


My 2020 album of the year came out in 2001 — it’s Bayou Paradis by Gez Varley. He and Mark Bell were LFO, the act that gave Warp Records its first big seller in 1990. Bayou Paradis has dance music in the family but not on its drivers license. This music propels itself, unshy of sending you, and creates its own deep shimmer while never stumbling. It is made from steady pulses and uneasy timbres, and it stacks itself in proportionate bundles. Varley made Bayou Paradis in two weeks, using only six pieces of electronic gear, none of them obscure. “I wanted to do an album that you could listen to at home or in the car on a long journey,” he told me. “We partied and listened to the album in Frankfurt on a Friday afternoon, all of us at the Force Inc. office whilst the bankers were at work across the street. Good times.”


Akon City |


Akon told Business Insider that one of his greatest fears is being remembered only for hits like “Smack That.” So he did what any reasonable person might do and hunkered down to work on his next project: a futuristic city powered by his own personal cryptocurrency in his home country of Senegal (with land provided by the Senegalese government and financial backing too byzantine and shady to explore here). Let’s make sure, then, that we memorialize Akon as a man who, in 2021, believes that luxury tourism is a sensible life-raft for overexploited national economies. 


Midsomer Murders |


This long-running British crime procedural — available in full, for whatever reason, through YouTube — is the ultimate wind-down show: nearly two hours of lilting accents, intergenerational village drama, competitive gardening, plant identification, vestigial aristocrat-peasant relations, and terse, loveless marriages, with the wry Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) infallibly saving the day. The murders have piled up since the series’s 1997 debut, but you’re looking at — maximum — four incredibly culturally-specific deaths per episode. Maybe the victim foraged a poisonous mushroom, or took an arrow to the heart while engaging in extramarital intimacy in the woods, or was hanged in the church tower the morning of a competitive all-county-team-bellringing-competition, or is an insufferable writer whom every villager has already threatened to bludgeon to death. What a relief, to dwell in a TV world where death is exceptional and cause for investigation. 


Mank |


Citizen Kane was the most enduring artistic accomplishment of the Popular Front, the short-lived alliance between Communists, New Deal liberals, and cultural workers that produced Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater and its anti-fascist political vision. Mank reimagines it as an epic clapback delivered by a messy but lovable writer to his media-elite ex-friends. It certainly feels like a movie that took decades to make. But in its reduction of politics to the interpersonal drama of the rich and powerful, it also feels disturbingly contemporary. I’ve seen a lot of people speculate that they’d have liked it more if they’d seen more old movies. Based on how many of them also seem to think that this movie was a good example of black-and-white cinematography, I’m skeptical. It’s The West Wing for people with Letterboxd premium subscriptions.


Vida Americana at the Whitney |


I understand that they can’t slice Diego Rivera’s Man, Controller of the World off the wall of the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and ship it to the Meatpacking District, but in this age of curatorial and technical ingenuity, I expected something better than the limp, washed-out version on view in this exhibit. More interesting was the copy of the demure note Nelson D. Rockefeller wrote to the artist concerning the inclusion of Lenin in the original mural (slated for Rockefeller Center), which “might very easily offend a great many people.” Rockefeller politely requested that Rivera “substitute the face of some unknown man where Lenin’s face now appears,” before destroying the entire painting when Rivera refused. Displaying a characteristic post-2016 historical myopia, the Times wrote that the show’s exposition of the influence of Mexican muralists on mid-century art in the U.S. “offers yet another argument for why the build-the-wall mania that has obsessed this country for the past three-plus years just has to go.” The politics on view are a lot more radical than that, but few will likely see the show anyway.


Because of Poetry I Have a Really Big House |


For four years, Kent Johnson co-edited a highly successful and polemical journal, Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, in which, under the tweaking nom de plume Emily Post-Avant, he lambasted the couch-sitting, tenured poetry scene, where everybody and his barber is an “award-winning poet.” Though Johnson denies it, he’s believed to have staged a hoax in the 1990s that fooled the literary world, publishing fake notebooks by the non-existent Japanese writer Araki Yasusada. A consummate and unimpeachable outsider, in this new book he writes “verses etched on a nuclear warhead,” as he boasts of shouting out Baudelaire while drinking Drano. Here, the poetry slam is the sound of a brawl beginning. 


Possessor |


In Brandon (son of David) Cronenberg’s second feature, Colin Tate is remotely controlled by a murderous corporation in order to take down the executive of a data company. An assassin named Tasya inhabits his body to complete the kill. But the possessing doesn’t come easily — the characters duel for control of the body, and when Tasya tries to carry out tasks, Colin resists. At one point, the real Colin and the Tasya-controlled Colin speak at the same time, their voices coming together in an off-kilter harmony. Later, Tasya endures the experience of Colin vaping to an Orville Peck song. Exhausted by alt-country, she eventually completes the mission, before moving on to inhabit the next victim.


Where The Crawdads Sing |


The best-selling book I avoided reading for two years. Delia Owens has created a fetishized vision of white southern poverty wrapped in a murder mystery submerged in pop feminism tied up with an ecological moral. Like a penny dreadful To Kill a Mockingbird, it aims for reportage but settles for stereotypes: “Ma” and “Pa,” shacks, screen doors, grits. We’re not so much in this world as watching it, in the mind of a narrator who already knows just how pitiful everything is. The characterizations are not just thin but inaccurate. References to Mardi Gras and black-eyed peas recall the Gulf Coast more than North Carolina’s Outer Banks; the accents are recognizable only as what Paul Beatty calls “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Plantationese.” Kya’s journey from illiterate musselmonger to acclaimed zoologist (spoiler) ironically parallels how stories travel from a world deemed to have interesting ones to a world that pays to consume them.


What Are You Going Through |


About three-fourths of the way into What Are You Going Through, Sigrid Nunez’s eighth novel — and her follow-up to the National Book Award-winning The Friend — the unnamed narrator wonders if, in a not-so-distant future ravaged by environmental collapse, kids will sue their parents for having given birth to them. The narrator has just met up with her ex, a climate crisis Cassandra on a book tour. Soon, she’ll tend to a terminally ill friend who’s elected to end her own life with a fatal cocktail of pills. In Nunez’s hands, questions of old-age, mortality, and rising sea levels are entertained with a hearty frankness. Global catastrophe, as similarly preoccupied fiction tends to suggest, is not a metaphor for personal turmoil. Dispensing with the idea that suffering ennobles, Nunez has written a warm and amusing novel, characterized not by disillusionment but by a kind of morbid and fleet-footed curiosity. It felt right for right now, as very little seems certain except the likelihood that someone, someday, will litigate the ethics of their own nativity.


The Undoing |


I understand that this is a whodunit, but the real mystery is why Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant keep crossing Central Park to get from the Upper East Side to the Upper East Side.


Tesla |


Ethan Hawke plays canonized inventor Nikola Tesla as an inward intellectual driven insane by his contemporaries’ inability to acknowledge the deleterious future he portends — basically reprising his role from First Reformed (2018). Kyle MacLachlan charms as Thomas Edison, Tesla’s boss and later rival, and Eve Hewson, real-life daughter of Bono, provides ironic narration as Anne Morgan, daughter of J.P. The glaring anachronisms and clever set-design quickly grow tired, though deserve credit as creative responses to what was surely a small budget. Near the film’s end, Hawke sings Tears For Fears’s “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” vamping before a light show in black leather gloves, transforming his fictional Tesla into a performer, somewhat like the South African entrepreneur whose car company has appropriated the name. Maybe we’d be better off if our current tech scions were more like Hawke in the best moments of this film — broke, isolated, and wracked with doubt, unable to realize the world-historical visions in his head.


The Presidential Turkey Pardon |


The origins of the November tradition, wherein the President poses for pictures in the Rose Garden with some larded-up bird, sparing it the fate 45 million others meet each year, are disputed. It was George H. W. Bush who first officially announced in 1989 that one “understandably nervous” turkey would not “end up on anyone’s dinner table.” But lore has it that Abe Lincoln absolved a fowl after his son started to cart it around by leash. Later, JFK — greeted with a 55-pounder sporting a sign that read “Good Eating, Mr. President!” — mused he’d “let this one grow;” Kennedy died three days later. The joke of the gesture is its basic arbitrariness. It’s hilarious when world leaders use executive powers to grant mindless gobbling birdbrains privileges few others could expect — like interstate travel during the holidays. An alternative genesis could start in 1987, when Ronald Reagan dodged reporters’ questions about whether he’d exonerate aides accused of wrongdoing in the Iran-Contra scandal (Bush would do it for him). Instead, Reagan pointed to the fat white bird before them and said: “I’ll pardon him.”


The Witch of Blackbird Pond |


Elizabeth George Speare’s 1958 story of Kit, a young girl brought up on a Barbados sugar plantation, and her Connecticut Puritan family was my favorite book when I read it in sixth grade. The descriptions — of hard Connecticut winter and rustling silk dresses — are as captivating as I remember. But a contemporary reader will notice limits to Speare’s representation: Kit is oblivious to the evils of slavery while her cousins are horrified; she is an ardent Royalist at a moment when revolution is being first imagined. I’m not sure if I am recommending this book so much as the process of revisiting an earlier self.


David Lynch's Weather Reports |


Los Angeles, 7 a.m. — David Lynch gazes straight into the camera he has set up in his office, which resembles my landlord’s. “Today I feel like Pink Floyd,” he says. “Comfortably numb. One of the saddest songs. Childhood dreams, gone away.” These days, squinting out the window on YouTube keeps Lynch busy, when he’s not building some tiny lamp he saw in a dream. A stack of shoe outsoles was visible in the background of the first video, which got ~320k views but has since disappeared, along with 94 percent of viewers. Their loss. I’ve caught myself cheering on the fog which seems to dye the room blue.


Quora |


So annoying that I have to sign in with my Google account to find out the meaning of life on


2020 |


I’d never heard a folk song about an Amazon warehouse employee until this record. 2020, the latest release from the eclectic British folk musician Richard Dawson, captures our current reality in all of its infuriating, depressing banality. Dawson’s mournful voice seesaws between registers as he sings about “voluntary redundancy” and the scarcity of healthcare in post-Blair Britain. He populates his songs with pitiful losers, from the titular narrator of the track “Civil Servant” to a UFO conspiracy vlogger cuckolded by his wife’s pilates classmate. Reviews of Dawson’s work often note that it is tear-inducing. I’ve found this to be true.


Borgen |


This show started on Danish TV in 2010 and ran for three seasons. Netflix released all of it into our pandemic bloodstream this September. The fantasy here is just rude — a politician named Birgitte Nyborg works her way into and out of power in a parliamentary democracy, simply by talking and being a fairly competent person! Borgen feels like water for anyone trapped in the desert of American enfeeblement. A smart woman negotiates with people she disagrees with, and aside from some tabloid smears, everyone works more or less in good faith. There are many hot adults and adorable children. Arguments are made and listened to. (Not listening is maybe the gravest sin on this show.) People leave bicycles willy-nilly in the street. The blend of public policy and soap opera makes you believe momentarily that people can do stuff and learn from their mistakes. Not that that happens in real life!


Fanfiction |


It occurs to me, when encountering full-grown adults’ half-formed political “your name here” fantasies (Bernie is my mean stepdad! RBG is my grandmother! Hillary is all women who are undervalued white-collar professionals who are also me!), that not enough people spent their formative years dabbling in the pastime known as fanfiction. Fanfic confers many gifts — a community of similarly besotted internet friends, a burgeoning sense of one’s sexuality, an appreciation for new ways to describe male genitalia in prose — but one of the most valuable is the opportunity to probe the delineations between reality and fiction. Frankly, society would be much healthier if everyone were to work out these fantasies as teens, before juvenile fancy becomes mature delusion. Adults, it’s not too late: there’s still Tumblr and Archive of Our Own and, for the truly young at heart, TikTok point-of-view videos. 


The Lying Life of Adults |


“I wanted to expel myself from myself as if I were about to vomit myself” is an actual sentence from this novel. But the prose is, for the most part, great (whether we want to credit Ferrante or her perennial translator Ann Goldstein for this), and Ferrante’s latest take on the loss-of-innocence tale is astute and chilling. As the protagonist Giovanna grows from a girl into a young woman, we get a bleak sense that becoming an adult does not mean getting a clearer view of things so much as exchanging one set of delusions for another. Childish naivete gives way to adult myopias, and Giovanna’s narration — blinkered from the start — becomes unreliable for different reasons. Will we ever know how selfish her father really is, or whether her eccentric aunt Vittoria deserves the label “crazy”? Is the uneven plot — which eventually takes a sharp turn away from Giovanna’s family drama and toward her love life — a fair and formally daring reflection of Giovanna’s shifting priorities?  (Characters and subplots fall off the map, but that’s kind of how life is!) Or is it just clumsiness? We can never know, and it’s unnerving, maybe even structurally bad, but if you like Ferrante more for the psychology than for the craftsmanship, Lying Life is well worth reading. 


The Silence |


We need to consider the possibility that Don DeLillo has died and that this book was put out anyways.


The Kennedy Imprisonment |


To commemorate the election of a second Catholic commander-in-chief  and the near-simultaneous fall of the House of Kennedy with Joe III’s loss, I’ve been reading Garry Wills’s gabby volume of sex and questionable psychohistory, published in 1982. To hear Wills — who was socially adjacent to the clan — tell it, the most iconic Irish Catholic family in U.S. history was driven to overperform, overpower, and outsex because their patriarch hated being Irish Catholic (hmmm). Apparently, Joe Kennedy Sr. wanted to be a powerful, liberated “man of the world” but had a bad stomach (meaning no fancy food or liquor) and didn’t like art. So he slept around, cultivating an “English” attitude toward sex, which he passed on to the rest of the poor brood. Sins of the father, yada yada.


The Other Total Landscaper |


Philadelphia, whose bell announces “Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof,” has two landscaping companies that claim totalizing effects. The smaller of the two, Total Tree and Landscaping, is downstream the Delaware from its rival. Total has a pretty good website, where it lists services such as astroturf installation and “hardscaping,” something that seems to apply to rocks. A stirring, twenty-image photo album details the process of tree removal, ordered in reverse: piles of wood chips fuse into Tootsie Roll-like segments, and then reassemble into the trunk. Such a process does come across as sublime and all-encompassing; one could liken the montage to a cremation in reverse, passing the body back into the realm of the living and erect. On Yelp, the business’s description reads, chillingly, “TOTAL DOES IT ALL.”  


Reviews of Dr. Jill Biden on |


I suppose it’s a feminist victory that none of Dr. Jill Biden’s reviews on mention her husband, other than oblique references to “all that she has going on.” In the Biden tradition, her scores are middling: 22 students at Delaware Technical Community College rated her, on average, 3.6 out of 5. She ranks higher in the estimation of reviewers at Northern Virginia Community College, where she earns a 3.8. “She is a prof who can improve your writing skills, and she can teach u about the reality of life,” writes one student. Starting in January, the future of humanities in higher ed may rest in the hands of our once Second, future First Lady, who has said that she will not give up her job. A recurring theme in the students’ feedback is that she “really cares” and “has a big heart,” suggesting that, unlike that of our nation, the soul of English 111 is intact thanks to “Dr. B.” 


Intercessors for America |


Founded in 1973, this organization offers “news Christians need to pray about EVERY DAY.” If you signed up online before the election, you might have downloaded the handy Voter Prayer Guide and other “resources to help you pray strategically,” listened to audio recordings of fellow users’ prayers, or visited the Interactive Prayer Map to see how many people were praying for each polling location at any given time. And the worship didn’t stop last Tuesday. Six days later, the faithful received an “IMPORTANT PRAYER ASSIGNMENT!” Their mission: seek divine intervention in Trump’s legal battle by praying for a list of firms including Jones Day, which has also represented the Bin Laden family and Big Tobacco. “The Lord woke me at 4am to continue praying for the uncovering of fraud and criminal activity,” an intercessor named Silvia writes in a message board post. “He impressed on me that there is a recorded conversation somewhere that when brought to light, arrests would be made throughout the Democratic Party. So I prayed angels would be sent to this or these individuals and the fear of the Lord will cause them to literally tremble.” Have you prayed for Brian Kemp yet? How about Gretchen Whitmer? Click “I PRAYED” and get added to the tally.


Amy Klobuchar’s Ex-Boyfriends |


Much ink was spilled over Amy Klobuchar’s alleged mistreatment of staff: hurling binders at aides, sabotaging their future job prospects, and, after downing a salad with a comb, forcing one guy to clean it as retribution for failing to produce a fork. But nowhere near enough time was spent on the Senator’s deep-pocketed (and potentially D.I.Y.) ex-boyfriends, who––as she told a debate crowd nearly one year ago––contributed some $17,000 to her campaign. To these gentlemen: hello : ) 


Rudy Giuliani’s Year (Nov. 2019-Nov. 2020) |


Twelve months ago, Trump’s personal lawyer, and America’s mayor, was preparing for the impeachment. It would later emerge that his associates pressured the President of Ukraine to announce investigations into Burisma and Hunter Biden. Apparently, Trump’s response to those interested in Ukraine was: “You should talk to Rudy.” (“Nobody should be talking to Rudy,” John Bolton once said). In February 2020, Giuliani began hawking cigars when he wasn’t treating his 332k YouTube subscribers to a steady stream of unwatchable, conspiracy-laden videos (some accompanied by cigar commercials). His pièce de resistance was the delivery of the contents of Hunter Biden’s water-damaged MacBook Pro to the New York Post, which managed to arouse a surprising amount of interest, at least among those I know, in Hunter’s schlong. Last week, defending Trump in a parking lot between a sex shop and a crematorium, Giuliani proved that it’s possible to go lower than being tricked by Sacha Baron Cohen into flirting with a fake fifteen-year-old. A year for the record books.


Meg Whitman For Commerce Secretary |


It seemed for a second that Quibi, which took a widely-mocked six-month quick bite of the streaming wars, had been played out, joke-wise. But the Biden-Harris admin will at least stimulate that economy. The president-elect may be mulling the nomination of Republican CEO Meg Whitman, who spoke longer than AOC at the Democratic National Convention and just shuttered a business with $1.75 billion of investment cash, to the cabinet position intended “to foster, promote, and develop the foreign and domestic commerce.” Economists predict her plan may give us all, like one Quibi protagonist, “pulmonary gold disease.” 


The Debt Ceiling |


Twice in the early 2010s, a Republican Congressional majority successfully bullied Obama and the Democrats into accepting brutal reductions in government spending in exchange for raising the “debt ceiling”—a piece of pro forma legislation that allows the U.S. government to conduct basic borrowing operations. Republican intransigence, in fact, was all that kept Obama and his Congressional liaison Joe Biden from cutting Social Security in 2013. Mitch McConnell will undoubtedly extract pounds of flesh from the sure-to-be pliant centrists in control of the White House in exchange for averting economic cataclysm (reminder: the debt ceiling next expires in July 2021). I am afraid that the media, the lanyards, the Trump-radicalized liberals, and so on have not internalized an important lesson: despite what happened last Tuesday, it can get much, much worse. In fact, it probably will.


Strokes reunion concert at the University of New Hampshire, February 10, 2020 |


After knocking doors in the cold outside Newmarket, I drove over to wait in a multi-hour line for one of a few remaining spots behind the equine stables to see AOC and Bernie open for The Strokes. Their latest album, The New Abnormal, which the New York Times claimed “flipped nostalgia toward the future,” wasn’t better than their last, but 2020 had to be an improvement on 2016. So it seemed at the time: someone told us it was the best rally he’d ever attended. Maybe at some point an elderly Sanders will introduce the next President of the United States, possibly an Alexandria, and I’ll think of that concert and feel nostalgic for the future that then seemed possible.


Wilco "VOTE" Stickers |


In a desperate attempt to lock down friends my freshman year of college, I paid to go to a Wilco show that was somewhere between three and four hours long. Beside me, some Gen X hipsters who had moved to Maine to start a family hung on Jeff Tweedy’s every word. This year, Wilco — along with Alice Cooper, Jefferson Starship, The Doors, and a slate of other bands closely associated with dad-rock — affixed red, white, and blue “VOTE stickers to their classic albums on streaming services. This gesture of corporate-approved, nonpartisan civic engagement struck me as even more vacuous than the emails from brands urging me to vote. But I’m sure many of those same Maine dads nodded sagely when they opened their apps and saw the sticker on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. “Democracy in action,” they muttered under their breath, contemplating whether to add the new art to Instagram. Pop back over to The Grateful Dead’s discography, fellas. The VOTE stickers are there too.


Dwight Garner’s Reviews of Major Living Authors |


“This is probably the place to say that, like a lot of readers I know, I’m divided about Robinson’s novels,” he writes, hitting send to his editor as if launching a probe into deep space. He is a critic at the height of his powers, though he would never use the phrase. But the one cliché he cannot avoid reproducing is that the trajectory of the Major Novelist must be parabolic. “The Silence is a minor, oddly frictionless DeLillo novel. In terms of his career, it is not waterfall but spray,” DeLillo is well beyond the apex, now, Mr. Garner says, shutting his laptop, straightening his lapels. At the sliding glass door, he watches the leaves and runs the mantra over in his clinical mind: working from home… working from home…


Mentions | Issue 2 ​


The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase (1997) |


People from New Mexico rarely let themselves off the hook for making art about New Mexico. Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, partially grew up in Santa Fe, a city dedicated to selling the state to outsiders. This film mixes archival footage with the fictional  story of a woman living near the Trinity Site, where the atomic bomb — the doing of a different Oppenheimer — was? first detonated. She believes her baby to have been immaculately conceived, before deciding it’s the second coming of Lucifer. She kills it in the microwave. Oppenheimer’s work, like Kubrick’s, considers the overwhelming legacy of the genocide of Indigenous people in North America: blood pours out of the microwave as if from the Overlook Hotel elevator.

E. S. B.

“DVD Menu” |


Anchored by Rob Moose’s gravelly violin, the spacious little instrumental intro to Phoebe Bridger’s Punisher, could easily work as a prestige-TV theme song. But as its title suggests, “DVD Menu”  will also take 20th-century babies back to those pre-Netflix nights where you’d pop in the disc and go make popcorn as a thirty-second snippet of the film’s soundtrack repeats, repeats, and slowly sinks into your nightmares.


The Beach Bum |


Is it possible for a single movie to eliminate every positive feeling you have toward a director? 


Reptile Facebook Groups |


A scene where the harshness of the reptilian world — where dinner means live rats, not Purina — clashes absurdly with the infantilized mewling of pet culture. Photos of grass snakes draped on school-aged kids appear alongside screeds against faulty gecko deliveries and the rotting, ulcerated nodules of S.F.D. (Snake Fungal Disease). Some groups are highly specialized. Try Reptile and Amphibian Bioactive Setups for how-tos on low-maintenance enclosures; DIY Terrariums for help with hydro rocks or fake moss bundles; or Rehome your unwanted reptiles here for giving up. But most are social spaces to mingle, gossip, and swap tips on things like “field herping.” Facebook may have gotten older, conservative, and conspiratorial (look no further than South Dakota Reptiles to find QAnon’s trace on the platform’s collective psyche), but the internet’s tendency toward monoculture yields many rabbit holes. Some people just care about Malagasy leaf-nosed snakes. 


Reds (1981) |


“You don’t rewrite my writing!” John Reed says twice in Reds: first to one of his New York editors, Peter Van Wherry; and then, a couple of cinematic hours and several historical years later, to Grigory Zinoviev, one of the seven members of the first Soviet Politburo.Van Wherry is a fictional character, and, played by Gene Hackman, he stands in for any gin-soaked hack the world over — they fuck with your copy because they can. Zinoviev, played by actual writer Jerzy Kosinski, rewrote Reed’s address to revolutionaries in Baku, changing his call for international class war to a call for holy war against the American infidel: don’t go into politics if you don’t want your copy fucked with. (Zinoviev was executed by Stalin in 1936 after the Trial of the Sixteen.) In between these episodes of nonconsensual editing, we witness the love affair of Reed and Louise Bryant — a passion hashed out between Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton across typewriters, where lovers’ quarrels over which line to put in the lede lead straight to the bedroom. It’s safe to say that Hollywood will never produce another epic on the joys and pains of freelancing and leftism quite so lavish. Also featuring Jack Nicholson, as Eugene O’Neill, Reed’s friend who had an affair with Bryant, and apparently never entered a room without asking, “Where’s the whiskey?”


Emma Willard’s Maps of Time |


Mesmerizing illustrations of time, if you can get past the fine-with-genocide brand of nationalism woven through Willard’s renderings of American “manifest destiny.” Modern visual timelines — screentime apps, work calendars, and more recently, Covid-19 mortality charts — tend to be suffocating and dimensionless; Willard’s chronologically-constructed rivers, valleys, and temples, give time space to breathe.


Natalie Portman’s Master Class |


I learned that shuffling the stuff around on every surface in a room shows people that you’re very upset. 


Blue Circle’s Classic Norwegian Roasted Salmon |


The fish is impressively sculpted into an almost perfect, believably salmon-colored, rectangular prism. With wild salmon in their final century of existence, one can rest easy knowing that we’ve perfected the industrial salmon product to replace them. A product that briefly swims, eats, lives, and dies so that it can become the ideal pinkish-monolith for Whole Foods shoppers everywhere.


Nomadland (2020) |


As Fern, Hollywood’s foremost no-nonsense thespian Frances McDormand tootles around the West living in her cargo van-slash-home. This feature captures the tension between the evasion of normal life obligations and the pursuit of freedom en plein air, but glosses over political realities — the circumstances behind why McDormand and so many others are working at Amazon on New Year’s Eve, for example. The seasonal hustle rewards these independent contractors with money, flexibility, and time to experience many sherbet sunsets. Major images include five-gallon buckets for bodily functions and McDormand’s fatigue-crinkled visage beneath the moody skyline.


#APSTogether |


Online read-alongs hosted by A Public Space: a brilliant writer holds our hands through 12-15 pages per week. Yiyun Li with War and Peace, Garth Greenwell with A Turn of the Screw, Ed Park with True Grit. If reading in public is “sacral,” “romantic,” and “the private self made public,” as LitHub would have us believe, then close reading in public must be bondage-slash-exhibitionism.


The Blacklist |


Imagine the most entertaining Nicolas Cage movie you’ve ever seen stretched over seven seasons (so far) of network television. And instead of Cage it’s James Spader, not so much chewing the scenery as gnashing it to bits with unhinged exuberance. The writers’ flourishes constantly threaten to send things off the rails, but they ultimately stick to soothingly predictable recipes, like the Great British Baking Show reconceived by Dan Brown. Also the soundtrack is really good for some reason.


4 3 2 1 (2017) |


What’s better than one Bildungsroman? For Paul Auster, the answer is four. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to grow up Jewish in New Jersey in the decades following WWII, and you’re sick of Philip Roth, then count yourself lucky. Now, you can immerse yourself in that world not once, not twice, but four times in a book the length of four books.


Carefree (1938) |


Fred Astaire is the psychoanalyst we need but don’t deserve. A gloriously uplifting film about subconscious mind control: Ginger Rogers is manipulated by hypnosis, sedation, and, in the end, a punch to the head. Includes the irresistibly senseless musical number “The Yam.”


Roasted Watermelon |


An attractive vegan YouTuber said roasted-then-smoked watermelon “looks just like meat,” so I tried it out. The result looked vaguely pot roastish, like red meat with a dark glaze. But the illusion only deceived one of the five senses. For the first half of a bite, the desiccated fruit’s rubbery texture was uncannily flesh-like, but each mouthful finished with a slight crunch that can only be grown on a vine. I left the table confused, and determined to no longer cook across Aristotelian categories. All in all, much less tasty than a fresh watermelon. 


Desperate Living (1977) |


There’s something unnervingly topical about watching a character in the throes of a mental breakdown find her calling as the henchman to a dictatorial queen hell-bent on infecting her subjects with rabies. John Waters has always been prophetic. 


William Gass’s Hatred |


In an interview with The Paris Review in 1977, William Gass poses the hypothetical question “Why do you write?” and answers: “I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.” Each of his three major novels deals with characters coming to terms with their distaste for the world. In Omensetter’s Luck (1966) a preacher subjects his parish to his suffering, concealing his atheism and daydreaming about how Jesus urinated. In The Tunnel (1995) a Nazi-obsessed professor hates his wife and reflects on being the child of an alcoholic and getting swept up by the energy of Kristallnacht. In Middle C (2013), a music professor specializing in Schoenberg builds an Inhumanity Museum in his attic showcasing newspaper clippings of human atrocities, and perpetually rewrites the sentence: “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.” These are familiar attitudes for Gass. In the afterword to Omensetter’s Luck, he says of the years he spent writing it: “I didn’t much like my life. I didn’t much like my job. I didn’t much like the world.” 


Pick Me Up Off the Floor |


Norah Jones’s new album — how do you judge something so tied to the absolute high of your first Vanilla Bean Crème Frappuccino? The new songs are totally 100% just fine. 


John Woo’s Unashed Cigarettes |


Hong Kong director John Woo, pioneer of the neo-noir action genre Heroic Bloodshed, is a master of the “cool guy” trope. His men ooze indifference, privilege male friendship over the allure of the female lead, tend to go rogue, etc. That decided lack of care contrasts with the hyper-stylized construction of Woo’s scenes. One example: characters rarely ash their cigarettes. Smokers go around with these comically long, curved ashes at the ends of their cigarettes, sometimes almost as extended as the unsmoked cigarette itself. But we never see the ash collapse. It always stays in place, like Tom Cruise’s hair in the Mission Impossible films, the second installment of which Woo would go on to direct. Unfortunately, when I tried this, I got ash all over myself. Not very cool.


Town Bloody Hall (1971) |


About 50 minutes into DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’s documentary about a famed panel discussion on feminism, Germaine Greer tells Diana Trilling: “I adopt the same approach to Freud as you do. I quote him where it suits me and I don’t where it doesn’t.” Norman Mailer is moderating. He doesn’t laugh, which doesn’t matter, since he’s not in on the joke. An audience member is escorted out for not paying the entrance fee; on the way out, she yells: “Women’s Lib is for rich bitches only. Germaine Greer, you’re a traitor! All of you are traitors!” By the time the 85 minutes are up, I have forgotten Norman Mailer exists. 


Whose Line Is It Anyway, season 15 |


There should be a special Emmy awarded solely to whomever decided to replace Drew Carey with Aisha Tyler. No longer encumbered by the Brad Shelton of improv comedy, Whose Line… is now an escapist romp of dad jokes, prop humor, and the seemingly limitless talents of Wayne Brady. 


How to Behave in a Crowd |


An almost-young adult realizing that most adults, no matter their age, are still young adults. The plot of Camille Bordas’s first English book is plotless in the best of ways: preteen hero, Isidore, loses his father; while his genius siblings escape through endless PhD work, Isidore learns lessons in sex, friendship, and the German language. One of those rare books where the saddest lines are the funniest, and the funniest are the most true . “I had no choice but to be different,” Isidore tells us. “I wasn’t as smart or as good-looking as my brothers and sisters.”


The Lobby |


A character called Old White Male extols the virtues of death over dying while seated in countless lobbies in Heinz Emigholz’s latest feature. Each of these unremarkable and purgatorial spaces is filmed from improbable angles. No other new release will so accurately illustrate pandemic time.


Mozart Symphonies Nos. 39 - 41 (2020) |


Here is Mozart at the wheel of a Bugatti: Riccardo Minasi and Ensemble Resonanz take us on a near-manic peek-a-boo thrill ride. Maybe a little too zeitgeisty, but with so many surprises, a genuine blast awaits Mozart veterans; for newbies, what an ace welcome.


Darling (1965) |


If you’re a culture enjoyer who manages not to deduce your morals from works of art, come sit by me. Let’s watch Julie Christie wear great skirts in Mod London, flirt with Catholicism, and gulp dumb bitch juice for about two hours, but (not really a spoiler) become a princess in the end anyway. She won Best Actress for this through the opposite of whatever value system got try-hard Natalie Portman the Oscar for Black Swan.


Belhaven Scottish Oat Stout |


Thick, strong, earthy. Nutritional enough to replace any meal (ideally breakfast). Perfect lockdown drinking.


All That Heaven Allows (1955)/ Far From Heaven (2002) |


Some grimace at the word melodrama, and to them I say: begone, heartless trolls. Douglas Sirk made this perfect 1955 film starring Rock Hudson in flannels and Jane Wyman in pretty coats. In 2002, Todd Haynes reimagined the story, this time featuring a blonde(r) Julianne Moore in 1950s Connecticut. For Haynes, as for Sirk, political virtue — a belief in an equitable and fair world for all — is uncorrupted because it’s never something signaled for personal gain; instead, it’s held onto as a source of hope in a world that is otherwise crumbling. It’s nice, once in a while, to spend three hours in the company of people who know how to live. 


NatGeo |


If you’re looking for a break from this increasingly burnt Earth, Disney’s recent acquisition offers a lineup of streamable content set on an Earth-like planet sans ecological collapse, depicted in high-saturation colors and populated by erstwhile celebrities like Katie Couric and Joseph Fiennes. A good option if you can’t shell out the 90K for the NatGeo private jet tour.


The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History |


There’s something equal parts cathartic and masochistic about lugging a 546-page book about the deadliest pandemic in history around in your tote bag during a modern-day pandemic. John M. Barry’s expansive but gripping story contains familiar details: mass death, government ineptitude, the politicking of science, and pervasive conspiracy theories. But, importantly, it also comes to an end.


Lovers Rock (2020) |


Dance party FOMO abounds in the second episode of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe trilogy. Essentially just a single shindig recorded for an hour, this concise yet unhurried movie revives the joys of communal singing, an activity found nowhere now but the church. Indeed, the reveler’s sultry rendition of “Silly Games” stripped of instrumentation is a borderline religious experience.


Cappuccino (.fm) |


An app that lets users share short audio segments called “beans,” which are collected and delivered as a morning “cappuccino.” Charmingly earnest, free-for-now, and evidence for my theory that podcasts are attractive largely because they repel loneliness. Here, for zero Patreon dollars, I can hear from my actual friends.