Mentions | Summer 2020 ​


Emily Montes |


Here’s what you need to know about rapper Emily Montes. She is five. That’s clear from the jump. “My name is Emily,” she raps in the ethereal opening track, “and I’m five.” Her interests include Roblox and going outside (“I like playing Roblox and I like going outside”). Throughout her work, Roblox is a recurring theme—one song is titled “Roblox Is My Life;” her ad lib is “Roblox!” Where most child stars feel like the product of an overbearing stage mom vicariously living through her spawn, this feels like the experiment of a cool very online older sibling. In “Emily (Corona is Crazy)” she captures the current moment: “This virus is crazy! It’s the end of the world! Boom boom boom! (Roblox!)”


Venus in Furs |


I read this 1870 novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the namesake of masochism, to see if it still seemed scandalous by today’s standards. Only two parts do. One, when the dominatrix Wanda yokes our poor narrator Severin to a plough and has her servants drive him around a field. Two, when Severin signs a contract with Wanda granting her permission to kill him if she wants. Impressive to get that in writing. Otherwise, it’s mostly whipping. For a more condensed version, stick to the Velvet Underground song.


Scooby-Doo |


When the live-action Scooby-Doo first lit up screens, America was reeling from 9/11 and the Bush administration was prepping for the invasion of Iraq. But kids like me were more concerned with Fred’s shark tooth necklace and the gluttonous CGI dog in a tropical paradise. It left the impression of a country on perpetual spring break rather than at perpetual war. But the two aren’t entirely inconsistent. Spring break is about getting out of control, wrecking shit, and ignoring the consequences. Scooby Doo captured that: Monsters live on party island.


History Photographed |


Childhood photos of Elon Musk (~39K likes); Brooklyn Supreme, “one of the biggest horses in history” (~109K likes); smartly dressed children in the 1940s (~69K likes). The comments section is surprisingly tame. It’s the Uniqlo of the meme account universe (i.e., perfect). Fingers crossed that whoever’s running the account skips selling t-shirts and leverages all those millions of followers for a normcore dating app. 


Robert Christgau |


Seventy-eight years old and still doing his thing—that thing being holding onto the title of Lil Wayne’s oldest fan. His favorite albums of the 2010s include one by Billie Eilish (at #4) and three by Wussy. Still better than any pop critic under forty.


The Lost Writings |


Kafka’s final wish that his remaining work be “burned completely, without reading” has long been ignored. In this collection, New Directions seems almost to take the edict as a personal challenge. Here, we’re promised “every single page, even small notebooks filled with pencil scribblings”—the writer “in his entirety” in English for the first time. But is it really the fragments, false starts, and grocery lists that make up an “entire” person? The world may always want more Kafka, but I’m not sure there is more Kafka to be had.


Whole New Mess |


Before undertaking her sprawling, elaborately produced 2019 breakup album, All Mirrors, Angel Olsen travelled from her home in Asheville, North Carolina to a church-turned-studio in Anacortes, Washington and recorded sparer versions of the songs, working only with her voice and a guitar. Almost a year later, she has pulled back the curtain, releasing the recordings as Whole New Mess. To call it a rough draft would do it a disservice—it is its own thing, craggy and quietly tortured. Not every record needs to be an opus.


MyMechanics |


No technical skill is required to appreciate this YouTube channel; tool restoration draws upon universal anxieties and desires. How much junk is in the garages of American homes? By how many decades will our appliances outlive us? We live in a world of trash, but MyMechanics pursues an alternative vision. Why buy a brand-new arbor press when you can get a rusty one for $30? Pure technical precision plus ASMR audio: he shows you how he makes new screws.


The Concert in Central Park |


As far as live albums are concerned, bagginess is par for the course. In Simon & Garfunkel’s first live recording from 1982, the fey troubadours of ’60s folk-pop lean into the ramble. It’s a loose and heady jaunt through their hits, interspersed with languorous asides. (You probably haven’t heard their Tom and Jerry story, for one thing.) It’s nice to hear a large group of people laugh again.


The National Hurricane Center's Tropical Weather Discussions |


Stern weather reports from full-time forecasters. Anonymous pros with usernames like “Forecaster Latto” or “Specialist Roberts” divine our maritime future in Courier New font, predicting the unpredictable with snarky prognostications of the most violent storms on earth. Less a discussion, more a dictatorship of the weather posters. Blogging may have died at the hands of private equity and dubious sex tape lawsuits, but the written word lives on thanks to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s professional meteorologists.


Marginal Revolution comments section |


On David Brooks’s favorite free-market blog, libertarianism so pure and strong it’ll bleach your hair: “Voluntary exchange,” one user writes, “is actually what keeps us out of caves and is the reason many of us lived past the age of five.”


Empire of Passion |


No one feels good masturbating after watching a Nagisa Ōshima production. Empire of Passion is a testament to the director’s consistency in that regard. Loosely falling into the category of folk horror, this period piece finally answers the eternal question: “What is an appropriate punishment for extramarital sploshing?”


The 2020 U.S. Open |


What, I wonder, will be remembered about this year’s tournament, somewhat buried in the onslaught of recent news? The empty stadium filled, not with fans, but with corporate-approved messages (banners read, “THANK YOU FRONT LINE WORKERS” and “BLACK LIVES MATTER”)? Or NoVaxx DjoCOVID, the nickname for known anti-vaxxer Novak Djokovic, who flouted lockdown and contracted COVID-19, only to play a tournament that never should have happened? Or when he smacked a ball into the throat of a line judge–who was later doxxed by Serbian media–disqualifying himself and leaving the tournament without a single Grand Slam winner? Perhaps we’ll look back on it as a changing of the guard, even though it took several acts of God for the titans to give the new kids a turn. For what it’s worth, I’m confident that Roger Federer will be leaving on his own terms (not God’s).


The Old Curiosity Shop |


A frightening and grotesque Dickens novel, adulterated with the usual pummelling sentimentality. Daniel Quilp is the filthiest character in English literature, and Dick Swiveller is an idol for slackers and shirkers everywhere.


All-Dressed Ruffles |


The perfect chip—made in Canada, but sometimes found repackaged in the United States. The name is meant to be descriptive: the potato chip’s version of the “everything” flavor, but it tastes more specifically like a cross between salt-and-vinegar and honey-BBQ sauce. Salt, fat, acid, and a tiny bit of sweet.


How to Humiliate Your Peeping Tom |


Crude in both content and form, but the coarseness only adds to this handwritten fold-out book’s strange, cantankerous charm. Uneven cutouts and unexpected inserts like “Car-Lag: Six Days of Pain in the Car” abound. Susan Baker, who was at RISD in the sixties, at once embraces and parodies that decade’s counterculture, surveying the sticky territory between free love and perversity, drug-induced enlightenment and sloth, activist fervor and sanctimony. Nowadays, she maintains the Susan Baker Memorial Museum (pre-mortem).


Longmont Potion Castle |


Many people I like also like Longmont Potion Castle—the middle-aged, Colorado-based prank call artist who has released albums of his work since the 1980s. When my sharpest friend recently told me that she didn’t find him funny, I second-guessed myself and relistened to his calls. LPC occasionally punches up; he once kept Alex Trebek on the line for seven minutes, insisting he had a massive delivery of sod “from Siam” for the host. (Work never stops for Alex: “I didn’t order anything from Siam, and Siam is no longer in existence.”) Locals are the more common victims, trapped by his absurdist requests and stoner lilt. As he distorted his voice and adopted aliases like “Cokie Blaylock,” “Dr. Gordon Hucker,” and “Trinidad, from UPS,” I laughed out loud in the privacy of my “home office,” and then continued emoji-reacting to messages on Slack. 


The Untamed (陈情令) |


In this Chinese serial melodrama, two exceptionally beautiful men journey to quell demons, cultivate souls, navigate familial politics—and shoot each other longing glances along the way. Turns out the answer to government censorship of queer relationships is just to make everyone else a lot gayer.


Fools Rush In |


Maybe the only romantic comedy to ask the question: Is Las Vegas the compromise between Aguascalientes and New York City? Whatever the answer, the Hoover Dam gets a lot of screen time.


Kentucky Route Zero |


The premise is simple: you’re Conway, a downcast driver making a final delivery for a failing antique store. Complications include a giant falcon and his human brother, a museum of foreclosed homes, a pair of vaporwave robots, a distillery manned by glowing skeletons, and, centrally, a rhizomatic ghost highway winding through the cave systems of Kentucky. KR0 uses simple economics to subvert the traditionally libertarian ideology of gaming. There’s no becoming the best since there’s nothing to beat. You’re in debt and you’re on the clock. Choices stop being choices; maybe they never were to begin with.


The Communist |


Walter Ferranini, an earnest postwar Italian Communist politician, is disaffected with his party, his lover, and his ideals. “I’m a modest activist with a dilettante theorist inside,” he says, reflecting my own looping inner monologue. A few months ago, Guido Morselli’s novel read like a mild warning about a wave of less-than-inspired socialist politicians who might have followed a Sanders presidency. Now, it’s a bittersweet dispatch from another world.


What’s Good at Trader Joe’s |


Detailed commentary on hundreds of Trader Joe’s items spanning a decade of new releases and seasonal drops. These are faithfully logged in a late-aughts-style blog interface, seemingly for no one in particular. Each entry is rated on a scale of one to ten “Golden Spoons” and grouped in categories from “Blahhh” to “Pantheon Level – The Best of the Best.” I hope they are making some money off of this thing.


Bitter Wheat |


A 2019 David Mamet production that may never be seen anywhere again. John Malkovich played Harvey Weinstein-inspired lech Barney Fein in this abrasive sexual harassment farce. Previews in London’s West End received praise from audiences before a barrage of one-star and no-star reviews steamrolled any hopes of an extended run or a New York transfer. Clumsily directed by Mamet (no one else would touch it), but sharp and funny enough to justify its place among his more palatable anti-Hollywood polemics. The text has not been published, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.


"Shark Lords" |


The standout segment of the FX’s Cake series presents a mismatched team of Australians—two “Extreme Sports enthusiasts,” a PhD with dementia, an intern, and an unwitting deckhand—travelling the seas to “dominate sharks.” The joke is bestiality. 


Benelet Sprinkler Pool for Kids |


The kiddie pool has been around for about eighty years. Apparently there was some craze back then and a whole bunch of inflatable things got invented all at once. Since then, most of the improvements have been cosmetic and absurd. You can get a kiddie pool with six-foot dinosaurs or one with built-in beer koozies. But the general concept––a plastic inflatable pool filled with disgusting water for disgusting children––has not changed much. This year, during a heat wave in California, I bought a splash pad, which is just a very shallow kiddie pool that looks like a pizza with little jets of water springing out the crust. There’s just enough circulation to not have to worry about sitting in filth. I’ve found it to be a marked improvement on the original, but I understand why people feel nostalgic about these sorts of things and I will not judge them for it.


Nine Eyes |


I get the feeling that it’s not uncommon to know someone who once mooned a Google Street View car. The medium is now nostalgic; being surveilled by something as conspicuous as a spherical camera on top of a hatchback seems almost quaint. Jon Rafman’s collection of Street View screenshots, which he has updated during quarantine, recalls the retro pleasures of people-watching, traveling, and hiding from—or showing ass to—multinational tech companies. Even the sinister images (an emaciated cow dragging itself across a road, a woman dry-heaving on all fours near a curb) are much better to look at than, say, virtual museum tours. 

E.S.B. |


Where lust and apparent luxury collide, coronavirus be damned. “The truth is,” the About page reads, “different cruise goer go on cruise for different reasons.” But many of these reasons are similar: “Interested in meeting other horny males,” says FuckStud before his ride on the Celebrity Summit. A hetero couple seeks anything but “male on male shit.” Luv2meet of “Cumswell,” San Marino writes: “live…laugh…lust :).” The pandemic must loom over some of the 2,367 minglers, but most don’t mention it in their bios. A perverse and distinctly American necessity, where the melancholic want “love, care and affection” and the randy are “dying to fuck on the High seas.”


“America” |


The lead single from Sufjan Stevens’s first solo album in five years trades the fragile guitars of 2015’s Carrie and Lowell for thundering electronic drums and ten minutes of ambient techno. It’s his most politically charged work yet, but the message is muddled. “Don’t do to me what you did to America,” Sufjan pleads. Is he speaking to me? To God? To a fiscally conservative love interest? I’m at a loss, but the outro sure does slap. 


Democracy |


Joan Didion’s essential conservatism, here tinged with a postcolonial nostalgia, animates this novel otherwise populated by lovers rhapsodizing on the beauty of nuclear tests and an unnamed character referred to nearly a dozen times as “the Tamil doctor.” Now a Senator’s wife in Hawaii, protagonist Inez used to work alongside a character named Joan Didion at Vogue in the 1960s. The book’s settings (Saigon, Jakarta, Da Nang, et cetera) are interchangeable; these characters manage to find chicken salad and chintz chairs in 100 percent humidity. To understand Inez, imagine if an inscrutable social x-ray took to heart the real Joan Didion’s famous and slightly cryptic essay “On Self-Respect,” in which giving “formal dinners in the rainforest” is posited as a chief example of respecting oneself. Still, I was primed to enjoy a novel filled with weak, icy drinks, talk of “the American exemption,” Garuda flights, and halfhearted tennis. And I did.


The Six Times Future Raps “Nobu” on Jumpman |


John McPhee once wrote that you only need a few words (“such as corn shocks, pheasant, and an early frost”) to bring a scene to life. Future accomplishes this with one (“Nobu”).


Yewande Komolafe’s Asaro |


A bright, spicy, and—most important—unfussy stew of plantains and yams. (Just buy a thing of fried shallots, to maximize unfussiness.) I’ve made this probably four or five times this summer, and will likely make it four or five times more.


Soccer Mommy on Club Penguin |


The first time Soccer Mommy endeavored to hold a virtual concert on Club Penguin Rewritten, the fan-made Club Penguin copycat site, the servers overloaded, and the show did not go on. The event was later rescheduled, and this time, the music prevailed. Animated penguins lobbed snowballs at each other while a purple, pigtailed avatar for Sophie Allison wobbled around, offering something sorely missed in quarantine: communal transcendence through live performance. My computer crashed twenty-seven minutes in.


Jackbox Games |


Firmly in the category of thing you’re not sure you’ll continue to use “after all this is over,” these digital answer-the-prompt games employ a cheesy interface and are emceed by obnoxious, disembodied voices (see Quiplash’s “Schmitty”). Hours of extended family fun. May trigger anxiety.


Cool for America |


Many have complained that Andrew Martin’s characters are mostly well-educated and self-aware, with a real ironic streak. What is mentioned less often is how awful they are when they drink.


Inside the NBA |


On August 26, Kenny Smith walked off the set of TNT’s flagship basketball show in solidarity with the players’ strike. A new tenor for the broadcast on which Smith’s co-host Charles Barkley once dunked his head in a tank of water to try to break David Blaine’s breath-holding record—and more courageous than anything the political commentators or late-night comedians have been able to muster. 


The Price of Peace |


Portrait of the economist as a cool guy. Zachary Carter’s Keynes is an uncompromising aesthete whose economic theorizing is a means of securing the high life—art, sex, champagne—against the threats of revolutionary upheaval, international instability, and domestic reaction. The narrative ends almost seven decades after Keynes’s death, having traced the decline of Keynesianism from a theory of economy and society to a set of mathematized tools for dealing with economic downturns by way of deficit spending. Written before the coronavirus turned Steven Mnuchin into the candyman, the book introduces a Keynes who seems likely to remain ever-present but faintly heard. 


The Octonauts |


The only program my two small children watch: a British adventure cartoon about sentient animals who rescue at-risk sea creatures. The characterization borrows widely from British television culture—there are odd American accents (the lime green Engineer bunny is supposed to be from Florida, but she has a soft Texan accent) and pantomime camp (Kwazii Kitten is a Kentish rascal pirate with a flair for ghost stories). I have many questions: Is the show’s key intertext Heart of Darkness or Are You Being Served? Where did the Vegimals learn to bake? Why is the polar bear, Captain Barnacles, so small? But I’m grateful for children’s programming that isn’t entirely migraine-inducing.


Bialetti Moka Pot |


In the world of coffee brewing, the ritual matters almost as much as the grounds. There is something about this coffee maker’s four-step process that calls attention to itself. Once in position, it invites you to assume your own: in front of it, at attention. Left too long on the stove, the coffee will burn. But under careful watch, it comes out exceptionally black, thick, foamy, scorching hot. This pot needs you as much as you need it. 


Covid-Era UFC |


The absence of crowd noise gives the Ultimate Fighting Challenge the welcome impression of unlicensed brawling, lending greater emphasis to the labored breathing and extra-meaty thumps and thwacks. Fighters can now hear the commentary of television announcers in real time and adjust their tactics accordingly. The whole thing’s reminiscent of prompt-based performance art in a sparsely populated theater.


Watching Relic (2020) at a Drive-in |


Traffic was all backed up, so I only caught the last twenty minutes. I was also parked way in the back and couldn’t see much anyway. A guy in the car next to me peed in a soda cup, and The Goonies was playing at the other end of the parking lot. I liked watching that instead. From what I gathered, Relic is about haunted Australians.


“Unalienable Rights and the Securing of Freedom” |


“America is special. America is good. America does good all around the world,” Mike Pompeo said in Philadelphia on July 16, coining an apt mantra for tyro diplomats. The seating arrangement of the Commission on Unalienable Rights looked like a Giacometti sculpture that day, according to the Commissioner on Unalienable Rights. 


Big Friendship |


Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman’s ten-year friendship, described alternately in a therapist’s third-person (“Aminatou could have been upset that Ann decided to move away. But Aminatou wholeheartedly supported the move…”) and an all-knowing “us.” Flattening the authors’ voices into an even consensus gives the book the tenor of a PR statement, which, to some degree, it is: Sow and Friedman, who co-host the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend,” are a duo in their professional lives, and the book attends to the pains and resentments that have lingered beneath the surface. Hillary Clinton called their story “universal.”           


Intimations |


Zadie Smith’s instant volume of quality quar lit begins with an apology (for not being definitive; for existing at all and so soon) and ends with an autobiography (an itemization of all the ways the author counts herself lucky—“my physical and moral cowardice have never really been tested, until now”). In between she ponders some big things—(in ascending order of interest if not philosophical penetration) the president, the compulsion to write, privilege, racism, suffering, death—and glances back at a few characters she saw in the Village before withdrawing a big wad of cash from the ATM and leaving town with her family. Heavy lies the crown on the primo interpreter of the now, ever aware of the limits of her range of vision. One night on Zoom her mother tells her of a neighbor who killed his girlfriend and burned their flat down. It could always get worse.

C.L. |


The most accurate models of how badly climate change is going to wreck American floodplains have all been private—secret projections used by asset managers like BlackRock. Until now! This new scientific model makes for much more effective doomscrolling than anything on Twitter lately.


HBO Max |


Makes my shortlist for top three HBO video apps.


folklore |


It’s nice to no longer pretend, as I remember doing in 2008, that I dislike Taylor Swift’s music.


Too Much and Never Enough |


Unreliable narrator Mary Trump guides us through a mucky overgrowth of familial grudges. Mary’s poor alcoholic father—mistreated, disinherited, martyred! Eric and Lara, so unresponsive to Mary’s supposed good-faith attempts at reconnecting! Ground-breaking insights into the modern presidency? “The White House was elegant, grand, and stately.”


12-to-18-Month-Old Mountain Lion |


First spotted in Russian Hill, then near the Embarcadero, looking at itself in mirrored office windows. The lion had wandered into the city after being separated from its mother; for a few days, its territory was all of San Francisco. The news reports on the short, strange journey read like a modern-day fable. Police detained the young male without injury—surprising some—and released it in the wild the same afternoon. Two weeks later, its body was found on Highway 1.


Canceling Quibi |


This recommendation doubles as a reminder: If you downloaded Quibi around the time it launched, your three-month free trial is probably expiring soon, if it hasn’t already. There are many benefits to canceling your subscription; among them the opportunity to reflect on the passage of time. How much has the world changed since you downloaded the ill-fated streaming app? How is it that the videos, at seven to ten minutes, seem both too long and too short?


Mentions | Issue 1 ​


Capricious Summer |


A trio of very Czech-looking men debate the meaning of life as they swim in a river. The images are sepia-toned and gauzy, and the light plot has the charm of a fable, proceeding in a serial fashion: each of the male protagonists, a priest, a colonel, and a bathhouse-keeper, has a shot at wooing the young blonde assistant of a travelling magician—and yet, as in a fairy tale, some mysterious force frustrates their amours. The magician’s high-wire act is one of the loveliest cinematic reveries you’ll ever see. It’s completely relaxing, precisely because, like the best of summers, it never claims to mean anything.


Bratfree |


The FAQ of Bratfree, an online refuge for vehement anti-natalists, has a long list of hypothetical “snappy comebacks” to skeptics. Example: “But children are our future!” Comeback: “Death is our future.” It includes a lexical guide to words like MOO (“mindless, bovine mother”), and a warning to outsiders: “We do not seek any parent posters head pats…We will not be test subjects or lab rats…to meet big media’s pro family agenda.” The forums are hotbeds of imagined arguments, at times so nasty the members seem to be working something else out entirely.


The H.R. Haldeman Super 8 Film Collection |


Shot beautifully by Nixon’s Chief of Staff, who was clearly much better at cinematography than obstructing justice, these tapes (not those tapes) offer the allure of intimacy. Come into the inner circle, they say, if you can bear to be implicated. Whispered jokes with Henry Kissinger. A cabinet member attempting to pet a deer that clearly does not want to be pet. The private nervousness before a televised call to the moon. The official broadcasts have plenty to offer—Merle Haggard serenading Pat the day after her birthday, for example, and reminding everyone that “leather boots are still in style for manly footwear.” But only in Haldeman’s home videos can you watch, from high in the stands of a Soviet circus, bears ride motorcycles and know that sitting beside you is Richard Milhous Nixon.


Dinners and Diners–Where and How to Dine in London |


“Next to eating good dinners, a healthy [wo]man with a benevolent turn of mind must like, I think to read about them,” wrote William Thackeray. Satisfy your cravings for maskless restaurants—or, failing that, restaurant reviews—with this riotous 1899 collection from Britain’s first professional restaurant critic, Nathaniel Newnham-Davis. Chortle as the epicure struggles with dish-pushing waiters, tactless champagne guzzlers, and patriots who refuse to eat “à la’s.” 


Air Mail |


For some reason, the coronavirus era is a boom time for Air Mail, with new missives appearing almost daily. Graydon, as much as I appreciate the urgent updates on the Chateau Marmont, “controversial rosé,” and “a very rare purebred bison,” stop reminding me that I shell out $15 quarterly to get a newsletter written by your friends and Cazzie David.


Duet for Cannibals (Susan Sontag) |


The exiled revolutionary Bauer begins to retch and stumbles from the dinner table. While he continues off-camera, Bauer’s wife Francesca urges his new secretary Tomas to eat. Bauer’s plate is replaced; he returns, fills it vigorously, and eats loudly, with gusto. Could his indigestion arise from politics? Saying so would be dangerously close to interpretation. 


Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman |


Released way back in 1926, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel follows the eponymous spinster as she moves to the countryside and decides pretty casually to become a witch. You could call it a feminist classic, even though the latent suggestion is that a woman who doesn’t want to marry basically has two options (spinster or witch). But the book’s message is really more complicated than that. Even after her conversion, Lolly’s uncomfortable with the associations of her new role, finding peace only when she comes to terms with the “satisfied but profoundly indifferent ownership” of the devil. Heterosexuality, in a nutshell.


YouTube Premium |


For $12/month, YouTube Premium gives you the YouTube experience of your youth (no ads). Chill out and fall down the hole without interference. See where the algorithm takes you—Japanese citypop, Zizek, the secrets of the Scottish Rite. What else can I say, I think it’s worth it not to see ads on YouTube.


The Sea, the Sea (Iris Murdoch) |


If you’re trying to live out a culinary fantasy in which you have to survive off of canned foods—creativity thrives on constraint!—try out some of the gourmand narrator’s recipes. Wine for lunch, accompanied by such delicacies as anchovy paste, prunes, frozen kipper fillets, lentils, fried tinned new potatoes, and the baffling “eggs poached in scrambled eggs.” 


Harvard’s Report on Jeffrey Epstein |


Much like a David Foster Wallace novel, it’s all about the footnotes, baby. That’s where we get such salient details as: “A number of the Harvard faculty members we interviewed also acknowledged that they visited Epstein at his homes in New York, Florida, New Mexico or the Virgin Islands, visited him in jail or on work release, or traveled on one of his planes. Faculty members told us that they undertook these off-campus activities primarily in their personal capacities rather than as representatives of Harvard.” Help, I can’t stop talking about this.


Dark |


The Black Forest atmospherics and occultish symbolism in this German time-travel show are worth the price of admission alone (thank whoever gave you their Netflix password). But the real MVP is casting director Simone Baer, who conjures up seemingly endless sets of variously-aged German actors that look exactly like one another.


The Atlantic's Paywall |


I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay good money to scoff at David Frum.


Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson) |


The perfect quarantine flick: cultural decadence, a web of contact among strangers and acquaintances, meditations on the radical contingency of human existence, plus an Exodus-worthy plague. In sad news, the real-life analog to William H. Macy’s “quiz kid” died last month, likely of Covid-19.


The Etymology of Virus Names |


I recently found an infographic on Reddit outlining the etymologies of infectious diseases. It includes the coronavirus—named for its spikes which “resemble the sun’s corona.” But it also glosses ailments like mumps (from an archaic word meaning “grimace”), and herpes (from the Ancient Greek herpein, meaning “creep.”) The illustrations of the various pathogens are tiny and alien-looking, like toxic plants from a video game. But the language is sillier and more emotional; more human. Rabies traces to Latin’s arbere, related to the word “rage.” Hantavirus came from the Hantan River, which translates to “lament.” Papilloma, the “P” in HPV, evolved from the Latin papilla, or “nipple.” 


Villette |


When Woolf called this Bronte’s best novel, she was simply giving credit where credit is due. Bronte finds words that let her heroine—an obvious proxy for herself—describe mental illness before there was any official vocabulary for it. Still, this is a Victorian Novel, with enough gothic up-nods, father-figure/lovers, and damned good plotting to satisfy the most ardent PBS viewer. Jane who?


Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool |


Vaguely conscious of the duty-shirking inherent in making a movie whose sole thrust is proving how cool its subject was, the filmmakers go ahead and do it anyway. Apparently coolness just means being a bit of an asshole.


The Glass Hotel (Emily St. John Mandel) |


This book is about global crisis, addiction, ghosts and a maybe somewhat better-looking Bernie Madoff. But as much as it’s about the lives of its characters, it’s also about their “counterlives,” or the could-have-beens that are always lurking beneath what actually is. It’s a strange novel to read at a time when typical everyday existence has turned into a sort of counterlife of its own—when what’s hypothetical now is what was normal once. The lines between the could-have-been and the actually-is look blurrier than ever; everything is counter to something else and this reality just happens to be where we’re living.


Sunflower |


While it’s a far cry from the sunshine ditties of the The Beach Boys’ teenage heyday or the psychedelic white-man melancholia of the Pet Sounds/Smile era, a case can be made that this oft-overlooked 1970 masterwork is, in fact, the finest thing the Beach Boys ever produced. With primary songwriter Brian Wilson battling hallucinations and drug addiction, the rest of the Boys pitched in equally to the creative process for the first time, making Sunflower an especially varied collection of luscious art-pop. Pay special attention to the proto-indie rock jangle of “All I Wanna Do,” the edgy cop-show rocker “It’s About Time,” and the tender ballad “Forever,” a rare vocal showcase for drummer (and friend of Charles Manson) Dennis Wilson.


The Six Accounts Bill Maher Follows |


One thing about Bill Maher, the late night pundit obsessed with saying the N-word, is that while 560,000 accounts follow him on Instagram, he only follows six. Those accounts are: Isabelle Mathers, an Australian model; CJ Franco, an American model; Svetlana Bilyalova, a Russian model; Alexis Ren, an exercise model; Emily Ratajkowski, the model who got famous for having big naturals in the Blurred Lines music video; and Jardín, a “Premium Cannabis Dispensary” in Las Vegas. Some might mock the horny aspirations of a 64-year-old fellow who looks like Jeff Bridges’ wax figure melted. But the man knows what he likes and it’s five models and one regional weed store. “To a coward,” a wise Maher once said, “courage always looks like stupidity.” 


Verified Strangers, a serialized novel by Lena Dunham in Vogue |


Pleased to see that Dunham is still thriving, i.e. writing about a thinly veiled version of herself. In twenty chapters, published twice a week on, Ally struggles through bad dates (“Could lips sweat? His sure felt like they could”) that bring to mind rosy memories of her last long-term relationship (“furious arguments about Dr Seuss’s intentions as an artist and makeup sex about that”). Who says the novel is dead?


Travelin' Thru, 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 15 |


Most people agree Dylan’s late-sixties/early-seventies flirtation with country crooning was a bad idea, so it’s nice to have worse versions of some of the songs you’re already pretty ambivalent about. There are interesting discoveries, to be sure; “Lay, Lady, Lay” without its quivering steel guitar turns out to be a lonelier lay entirely, sadder than the spoony string of requests you’re used to, and Dylan’s version of Cash’s “Wanted Man” feels beautifully old-fashioned, a callback to the stripped-down folksiness of his earliest demo tapes. But then Dylan hits you with his bluesy, slued “Ring of Fire” and you realize that, even if ceaseless reinterpretation is central to the folk tradition, some reimaginings are always going to be a bad idea.


The new printer I ordered to print health insurance claims from home |


I don’t have any complaints except that it crinkles envelopes a little bit.


The Lover |


Marguerite Duras’s autobiographical novel, set in colonial Saigon. By night, a white schoolgirl slips out of her dorm to her wealthy adult lover; by day, he feeds her family, and she ignores him because he is Chinese. Questions of race, class, consent, and empire fall away in the face of the narrator’s insistence on her own power and pleasure. Duras’ heady, ornate prose enchant the reader away from starker language that she might not have had: rape, coercion, pedophilia.  


Covid-era advertising |


Escapism is dead.


Soft Power |


David Henry Hwang’s fall production at The Public rehashes the 2016 U.S. Presidential election from the perspective of a theater producer in Shanghai. There’s singing and dancing and Trump-bashing by white and Asian people (no Black characters, conveniently). Hillary Clinton is the hero. In the emotional climax, she sings a bluesy show-stopper about her unerring belief in democracy. The message: Dems, get out there and vote harder this year! A neolib fairytale. It was a Pulitzer finalist.


Correspondence |


In this epistolary album, less Abelard and Heloise and more Poor Folk, Swedish cult-hero Jens Lekman transitions from singing about women to singing with them. The results are mixed. As they take turns sending songs back and forth, Lekman and Annika Norlin tackle some contemporary political situations with grace and sensitivity (“Not Because It’s Easy, but Because It’s Hard”; “Revenge of the Nerds”) and others with mawkishness (“Who Really Needs Who”; “Cosmetic Store”.) “2018 seemed like a good year to do [this],” Norlin said of her album. “Will Trump blow something up? Will a comet hit the earth? Will either of us go on a fun cruise?” No big questions are answered, but the protagonists do scroll through Facebook, send holiday cards, and shower in public.


Normal People (Sally Rooney) |


Revenge fantasy for awkward girls spurned by popular boys in high school, with an embarrassingly thin intellectual veneer: conversation topics include de-platforming and collegiate bullshitters who haven’t done the reading. All the reviews talk about sex.


The Jargon File |


The funniest part of the Jargon File, a list of hacker slang that zipped around computer communities from the fifties until 1983, when it was published as The Hacker’s Dictionary, is its insistence on a distinction that few remember or recognize anymore. The word “hackers,” the file maintained, referred only to consummate programmers. “Intelligent. Scruffy. Intense. Abstracted,” their description reads. “Surprisingly for a sedentary profession, more hackers run to skinny than fat…Tans are rare.” These stand-up guys had been defamed by “sensationalist journalism,” which had confused them with criminal coders in the mold of Kevins Mitnick or Poulsen, who didn’t share hackers’ “strong revulsion against theft and vandalism.” They called these guys “crackers.” 


Daiya vegan cheddar style cheese shreds |


These rubbery, bright yellow slivers of tapioca don’t come close to tasting like real cheese. What they do resemble is that golden, ungodly but somehow also heavenly liquid that they pour on corn chips at the movie theater to create “nachos.” Add a few—but only a few!—on top of your Impossible Foods® vegan taco crumble taco; definitely don’t use on a sandwich. But maybe melt them on a Beyond Burger®? If you’re more of a strict three-meals-a-day vegan, you may want to just stick to nutritional yeast.


Gwyneth Paltrow’s 2000 Oscars dress, auctioned off for Covid-19 relief |


Not the one from the year she won Best Actress for Shakespeare in Love, but the year after. In the accompanying video, we learn that Paltrow chose it because the late ‘90s are back in style. Thoughtful. This hand-beaded “piece of Oscars history” sold for $26,250.


It |


Stephen King’s having a moment: two It movies, a terrible Shining sequel movie, new shows on Hulu and HBO, a Netflix Original Movie. It’s almost enough to make you forget that he writes books, and that some of them are really good. One of them, It, is more than that—it attempts nothing less than to say something comprehensive and definitive about Americans and American life. It’s about solidarity and collective memory, and the relationship between the structural violence of American history and the micro-trauma of individual lives. Yes, this is the one about the clown. 


Monos |


Alejandro Landes’s shoots began at 4AM every day, and food on set was rationed. Base camp lacked electricity, refrigeration, and running water. Like its clear antecedent Apocalypse Now, Monos is a war movie whose creation is more interesting, and gruesome, than the end product. 


SpaceX and Space Force |


Crew Dragon Demo-2, SpaceX and NASA’s joint mission to the International Space Station, launched just one day after “Space Force,” Netflix’s generally low-reviewed satire of the Trump administration’s space ambitions. Coincidence? “Space Force”—the show—has been criticized for not being sharp enough in its satire or even funny at all. So has this administration.


Trader Joe’s Light Ice Cream |


It only comes in two flavors, and it needs to sit for like ten minutes before a spoon can pass through it. It’s nowhere near as satisfying as normal ice cream and its “healthiness” is dubious. Cheers! 


All of the recent Beatles 50th anniversary box sets |


Almost every year of the 2010s has included a Beatles album’s 50th birthday, and each of the last few years has also brought a sleek, many-many-disc deluxe box set (a.k.a. another reason to blow a hundred bucks on the band that you don’t listen to anymore). The Abbey Road set is inessential for everybody: the album’s still great, but the included outtakes and rehearsal cuts are just inferior versions of the real deal. Meanwhile, the Sgt. Pepper set will have audio nerds salivating; its stereo remix (!) brings a new level of clarity to each tuba note and guitar solo. Only the White Album set is truly valuable for a casual fan, with an extra disc of home demos that are, in the Lennon ones especially, quite poignant.


Neopets |


Forget Animal Crossing. The best quarantine discovery is that Neopets is way easier to play as an adult, especially when you’re armed with cheat codes from fansites like JellyNeo and DailyNeopets. Feed your Zafara some omelette, play Tombola, spin the Wheel of Excitement, and squeeze in a quick game of Meerca Chase. 2020 could be the year you finally paint your Usul with a Royal Paintbrush at the Rainbow Pool.


Dead North Film Festival |


Genre-film made in the circumpolar region just feels different. Icy, but open. Given two winter months in some of the coldest climates in the world, filmmakers shoot an unforgiving, otherworldly and quite frankly arrestingly beautiful cold that we access through the screen. These adventures in the high North usually screen every February in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Thanks to the pandemic, Vimeo holds all of this year’s entries alongside the best of years past.