What I’m reading: May 2021

Image: Title screen for TV series Warrior, owned by Cinemax

Some bite-sized thoughts and reflections on the items I’ve been reading, listening to, or watching this month.

Also: Did you read, watch, listen to, play something this month that you particularly enjoyed? Feel free to share in the comments! I’m always looking for recommendations.

Note: The following post contains discussion of and possible spoilers for Crime Show (podcast), Warrior (TV series on HBO Max), and Lego Masters (TV series on Fox/Hulu). 

What I’m reading for work

The Art of Creative Research by Philip Gerard: I’m not going to lie: when I first learned about this book, relatively late into my study of the role of research in fiction writing, I was not happy. After spending so much time claiming that creative research is something no one ever seems to talk about, here was an entire book devoted to the subject, written in great detail complete with advice on how to create a research plan. FML. It took a full year to get over myself and sit down and actually read Gerard’s work. I’m glad I did. It’s true that accounting for the existence of this book in my own studies was a bit of a challenge, but I really think Gerard’s book is an invaluable resource for anyone would who like to learn more about the role of research in creative writing. It’s clear Gerard has a great love for research and he asks many of the same questions that have occurred to me while I’ve been working on my own study. Like, why is it that we so often divorce the word “research” from creative impulses, instead chaining it to the types of academic research papers that we complete as students? He also talks about how realizing that his own imagination wasn’t going to be enough to write the stories he wanted to tell made him feel like a failure as “genius writer” hit especially close to home for me. It’s also interesting as a librarian with expertise in information literacy to read about research from the point of view of a non-librarian who may or may not have knowledge about IL. Though Gerard doesn’t speak in IL terms, he hits on a lot of the same themes that IL scholars and instructors tend to write and think about. The difference is that Gerard is writing through a creative lens while we IL folk tend to teach through an academic or scholarly lens (whether we want to or not). This just goes even further to prove that IL has relevance, application, and value beyond the limited contexts in which it’s usually taught. Really great stuff.

What I’m reading for fun

Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography by Andrew Warner: Buffy Sainte-Marie is a name I mostly associate with the Indigo Girls: in the introduction to their live cover of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” they let the audience know that “this is a song that we learned was written by Buffy Sainte-Marie.” In the course of some creative research that I’m conducting, I became curious to learn more about Sainte-Marie and stumbled upon this relatively recent book. What’s labeled as a biography is actually more of an extended interview covering the different events of Sainte-Marie’s life, told in extensive quotes with some context from the author. Sainte-Marie seems like a pretty straight shooter when it comes to the story of her life and her music but, as with all biographies, her close involvement with the project and the author’s obvious closeness with and starry admiration for her somewhat complicate the biographical endeavor. That said, it’s a beautifully written book that makes it maddeningly clear how important Sainte-Marie is not only as an Indigenous artist but as a great songwriter and musician in general and how her importance has often been overlooked because of the racism and misogyny of the musical periods in which she was most active. For example, Donovan recorded her song “Universal Soldier” to great acclaim without giving Sainte-Marie credit even after (according to the book) he should have known that she was the original songwriter. He later went on to be inducted into the Songwriter Hall of Fame while Sainte-Marie, who’s continued to write beautiful and important songs over her 50+ year career, continues to go unrecognized in the same manner. This is only one of many WTF moments that the book describes that personally made my blood boil, especially now that I’m becoming familiar with Sainte-Marie as more than a name in a performance by the Indigo Girls.

What I’m listening to for fun

Crime Show: As a podcast listener, I have a bad habit of skipping through the ads that are interspersed throughout each episodes. Because I know these ads help support the podcasts and keep them free to listen to (for now), I try not to do it but there are only so many times I can sit through the same commercial about effing Zip Recruiter. That said, if the ads are about other podcasts, I do stop and listen because I’m always looking for new shows to check out. That’s how I discovered Crime Show, a podcast about true crime that focuses on the people involved rather than the crime. I listen to a lot of crime podcasts, but what I like about this one is that the episodes are generally less than forty minutes long and each one covers a different story (rather than following one story over multiple 60+ minute episodes for an entire season…I enjoy those types of podcasts too but because I only listen sporadically, I tend to forget where I left off when I listen to them). A recent episode about a Judy Garland-related crime in a small town in Minnesota was especially intriguing and fun. This is the kind of true crime I don’t have to feel guilty for being entertained by because the crimes themselves are often (though not always) relatively low stakes (compared to, say, serial murder or rape) and the people involved are always part of the story. For example, an early episode covered the mystery of an infant who seemingly died in a house fire only for it to be discovered six years later that the fire was a ruse and the baby was alive and being raised by a woman who had essentially stolen her from her family. It’s a wild, potentially sensationalistic story but what makes it stand apart from similar stories on similar crime podcasts is that in the second half of the episode, the host interviews the subject of the story, the stolen baby who is now a grown woman. She talks honestly about what life was like for her after the crime was discovered and how it affected her relationship with her birth mother growing up. As a first-time listener, this interview came as a nice surprise to me and convinced me to keep listening to future shows. While I wouldn’t call this a regular go-to yet the way Hidden Brain is for me, I can definitely see it becoming one.

What I’m watching for fun

Warrior on HBO Max: Warrior was a show that I kept noticing in my search for things to watch on HBO Max but never stopped to give much thought about until I saw a recent article on how the series had been renewed for a surprise third season after seemingly wrapping up most of its storylines at the end of its second season. From that article, I learned that Warrior is based on the writings of Bruce Lee–closer to what his vision for the original Kung Fu would have been had it not been whitewashed and otherwise watered down on its journey to the TV screen. I decided to give the series a chance and while I liked the cool displays of martial arts in the first episodes, I was a bit turned off early on by what I can only describe as the Dudeness of it all. Like, this show is very much aimed at Dudes: the main character is very much someone created to be the kind of person that guys in the audience might like to imagine themselves being in that he doles out a lot of superhero-level violence and has a lot of sex but also has an ethical code. I also didn’t like that in the first few episodes, the women are all very much just sexy set dressing, typical of this sort of male fantasy. This aspect of things gets better as the series goes on, though, and I’m glad I kept watching. Generally speaking, this series felt like a version of Deadwood told from the point of view of the Chinese people (if the Chinese people kicked a lot of ass). The first season had some surprisingly soft moments that I liked a lot and the occasional humor helps make it fun. That said, the show knows that if you’re watching it, you’re mostly in it for the martial arts choreography so it finds any excuse it can for the main character, Ah Sahm (played by Andrew Koji), to get into a cool fight. Which, yeah. I’m here for that too.

Lego Masters on Hulu: So I started watching this show because I thought it would be another fun, fuzzy reality competition show a la The Great British Baking Show or The Great Pottery Throw Down. It is not. This show is, frankly, kind of a bummer. Something about the tone. As the host, Will Arnett is basically the only person here who seems to know that Lego is supposed to be any fun at all. Some of the contestants might but any fun they’re having is immediately sucked away by the dour, nitpicky judges. The focus on the (mostly) manufactured drama between and within the competing teams doesn’t help. That’s too bad because the challenges here are creative and interesting and the stuff even the less talented teams are able to create out of freaking Lego blocks/bricks/whatever is pretty amazing. It’s particularly impressive  given that, unlike on GBBO and GPTD, these teams have to come up with all of their ideas in the moment–as far as what the viewer is shown, the contestants don’t get to plan or practice their builds ahead of time. But this show really lacks the warmth that’s come to characterize other creative competition shows. I’m not saying it needs to be fuzzy like GBBO but even something like Next in Fashion wouldn’t allow some of the crap that goes on here. Like, there are some moments of real ugliness.  Early on a male contestant berates his female teammate in a way that’s frankly hard to watch. Later, two white contestants accuse a team of Black contestants of plagiarizing their idea and get them penalized for it (only to then turn around and congratulate themselves for plagiarizing a different team’s idea later in the competition…I really, really hated Tyler and Amy). And rather than acting as mentors, the judges act as…well, judges. But I mean, they’re pretty harsh and although in a way it’s not hard to see why (they do this for a living and are probably more used to giving feedback to employees on important projects rather than contestants in what should be a fun competition), the tough style of judging didn’t feel like it fit well with the type of show this is  presumably supposed to be. That said, the real question, probably, is whether Lego Masters works as the Lego marketing tool it is mostly intended as and I don’t know what the answer to that might be but I can tell you that I haven’t thought about Legos since I was a little kid but I did find myself doing some window shopping on the Lego store’s website while I was watching.(1) So probably it is.

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(1) I didn’t buy anything, though. When did Legos get so damn expensive?

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