What I’m reading: August 2021

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 spoilers for Dr. Death (the podcast and probably the TV series), Glow Up, and Humans. Also I talk about The Most Amazing Vacation Rentals on Netflix in some detail. I don’t think it’s possible to spoil a travel reality show but I’m mentioning it just in case. Also: no reality show catch phrases (e.g. “What a life!,” “Ding dong!” or “Bring on the models!” were harmed in the writing of this blog post.)

What I’m reading for work

Mastering the Process by Elizabeth George: So I got my first round of peer reviews back on my study of how creative research is represented in books about fiction writing. The peer reviewers…had a lot to say (lol). One of the pieces of feedback I got was that the books that I read were all older and that this mattered because the research process changes over time. I sort of get that. I mean, most of the author interviews I read and included as part of the study were less than five years old, but whatever. This felt like one problem that was easy enough to fix. So I went back to the Poets & Writers Best Books for Readers List and located books focused on fiction writing that were published in the last few years (I think 2018 forward), which left me with seven new books to read and add to my study. Yay? I have to admit that I did sort of resent going into this new set of readings because at this point I’ve read 30+ books on creative writing and almost none of them have anything substantial to say about research. I figured I wouldn’t find anything different with these more recent books. Well, the joke was on me. One of the first chapters in Elizabeth George’s book is literally called “Research.” FML. It’s actually a great chapter specifically about location research, which she says is the first step in her process whenever she’s working on a new book. George described how she traveled to England to explore the real-life town where she wanted to set her book and how this helped shape her story ideas. This type of hands-on and travel research comes up a lot when it comes to creative research but what I appreciated about George’s treatment of it was that not only did she show how she eventually fit a lot of her location research into her finished novel (by quoting long passages from it) but also acknowledging that not everyone has the time or money to go to England if they want to write a book set in England. Her advice on what to do if this is the case is a bit unsatisfying (she basically recommends only writing about places that you actually have access to…and if all else fails, use the internet) but the fact that she brings it up at all puts her a step ahead of every other writer who talks about this type of research, at least that I’ve seen so far. I think this book also has a lot of value for filling in some missing information on how to use research well as a matter of craft. George doesn’t necessarily give a lot of specific instruction on how to do this, but by quoting long, relevant passages from the book project in question, she shows not only that she did research but what that research looks like in a final product. So, like I said. The joke was on me.

 

What I’m listening to for fun

Dr. Death (the podcast): Dr. Death is a podcast I’ve been hearing a lot about for a long time. I remember it was a Big Deal when it came out a few years ago but I avoided listening to it, I think because the subject (a true crime story about a neurosurgeon who killed a bunch of people either out of malevolence or incompetence–it’s not clear which–and the failure of the systems we have in place to stop this sort of thing) was too depressing. But I started listening to it recently because I read an article about the TV series that’s coming out that’s based on the podcast, starring Joshua Jackson (PACEY WITTER HIMSELF) as the main character. Like a lot of true crime podcasts, the story here is told well and can be very absorbing in places. What surprised me, though, was my own visceral reaction to the descriptions of some of the crimes Christopher Duntsch committed and the horrible bodily harm he caused to so many people before anyone stopped him. I also liked the audible anger you sometimes hear in the voice of the podcast host, Laura Beil. That probably sounds like a weird thing to like but I’ve listened to a lot of bad true crime podcasts where the emotional responses of the hosts to the horrific stories they’re telling feels false or performative in ways that make me a little too aware that this is someone who is making money off of someone else’s tragedy (and I’m helping them by listening or watching or reading). Anyway. I don’t know if I’ll watch the TV series but I’m glad I finally sat down and listened to the podcast. (Also, I discovered as I was writing this post that apparently there’s more than one season of the show, including two more recent ones focused on different doctors. I haven’t listened to these yet.)

 

What I’m watching for fun

The Most Amazing Vacation Rentals on Netflix: So one night I needed something relatively mindless to watch before bed, preferably with episodes no longer than 30 minutes, and I ended up clicking on this series on Netflix because it met those criteria. The show features three hosts (Luis, Magan, and Jo) who visit vacation rentals around the world, each of which fit into some sort of loose theme determined by the episode (like “Bali” or “American Adventure”). Luis’s picks are always ridiculously expensive luxury rentals, Jo’s are unique rentals, and Megan’s are budget rentals. At the end, they all pick their favorites. Honestly, I have no idea how I feel about this show other than that it may as well be called “Airbnb for the Instagram Crowd” because that’s basically what it is. Still, they do make some very interesting picks, many of which I would not want to try myself (the bird’s nest, the igloo, any of the tree houses) but I’m glad to watch them figure out. If I had two wishes for the show, one would be that it was less glossy. I grew up watching Lonely Planet with Ian Wright, a travel host who was not afraid to show his occasional bafflement when faced with new or strange surroundings (though, if I remember correctly, even in his more comical moments, he was generally respectful of the cultures he was visiting). This show instead insists on always showing the hosts as bright and up for anything in a way that seems artificial and carefully edited. (And carefully catch-phrased. At least once an episode, Luis has to exclaim, “What a life!”) For example, I would like to see what the looks on Luis and Megan’s faces were really like the first time they saw the “toilet” in the van rental Jo surprised them with.  The second wish would be that the episodes were longer. Even though I started watching this show specifically because of the episode length, I found myself wishing that you could see more of each place they stay in and what it’s really like to stay there. As it is, you’re rarely shown much more than the hosts’ arrival and initial tour of the place followed by maybe one activity they did while they were there. As with everything these days, the episodes feel artificial and a bit too carefully curated but they did succeed in making me curious about the places they visited, so I guess it’s successful in that aspect of its mission.

Glow Up: Britain’s Next Make-Up Star on Netflix: So every year I take a little vacation time in July and every year I end up watching vaguely trashy competition reality TV on Netflix. Not the trashiest of the trash–I won’t be watching Sexy Beast, for God’s sake. I have standards. But last year it was The Circle and this year it was Glow Up. For the first few episodes of Glow Up, I mostly thought of it as the show where overconfident young makeup YouTubers got a reality check after being thrown into the professional deep end. You can tell many of the contestants, particularly in the first season, are very young people who were in over their heads and had probably never really been subjected to critiques of their work by actual professionals before. There was maybe a certain schaudenfraude in watching some of them get put in their place but it also made the show feel a little mean. Because this show really does throw its contestants into the very deep end, almost immediately placing them in close-to-real-life professional situations where they are expected to do makeup for live theater and television events under enormous time pressure, the way an actual professional make-up artist would have to do it. The episode where they do makeup for a performance of Kinky Boots is a particularly notable trainwreck for reasons that are probably not the contestants’ fault. That said, things got better once the field was narrowed down to the people who were actually talented and professional enough to be there. And also once the judges stopped trying to sell their dubious, annoying catchphrases  (“Ding dong!” and “Bring in the models!”) so hard that they could give actual, meaningful critiques. And the critiques are actually pretty great. Both the regular judges and the guest judges are able to convey their professional expertise but also offer feedback in a way that a non-expert viewer like me can easily understand. Unfortunately, that means a few more manufactured moments in the second season when the judges basically have to put their thumb on the scale during the elimination rounds all the more obvious.(1) Still, I liked this show a lot. It’s one of those shows like Next in Fashion where you believe that the judges actually care about the professional development of the contestants they’re working with, which is why they put them in the situations they do and subject them to the feedback that they do. Now if only I could figure out why they have a host and what her job is supposed to be…

Humans on Amazon Prime: Humans is like a British version of Westworld,(2) but less confusing. Or so I’m told. I haven’t actually seen Westworld. Because I heard it’s confusing. But I know that Humans is like Westworld in the sense that it’s a story set in a world where lifelike artificial humans have become a staple of everyday life. The series begins with a family who purchases one such artificial human (called a “synth” in the show’s parlance) to basically act as a nanny and a housekeeper. They name her Anita (she’s played by Gemma Chan, who has since become more famous for roles in movies like Crazy Rich Asians and the upcoming Marvel movie The Eternals). Things go well at the first, but then the wife (played by Katherine Parkinson of The IT Crowd fame, now very good in a much more dramatic role) starts to suspect that something isn’t quite right with Anita. Her husband and children dismiss her concerns. There is also a storyline involving a group of synths who seem to possess consciousness and also be on the run from people who are after them. And an aging scientist played by William Hurt who’s become emotionally attached to the outdated synth that has helped take care of him and his now-dead wife even though the synth is breaking down and becoming (unintentionally) dangerous as a result. The first season of this show is pretty great. Even though it’s a science fiction story, there’s a notable humanity to the way the story is told. The characters aren’t just pawns–the show cares about them and what happens to them. For example, Humans deals quite a bit with sexual assault in various forms but in a way that feels inevitable and earned (if not always satisfying or perfect) rather than gratuitous or sensationalistic. Because of course if there were robots that looked like Gemma Chan or Emily Berrington, this is what even otherwise upstanding men would probably do with them. It goes so far as to even ask interesting philosophical questions about the nature of consent with regard to something that appears human but does not have what’s traditionally thought of as a consciousness. Also Colin Morgan is here playing a very non-Merlin role as Leo, who we first meet as part of the group trying to get away from what appears to be an evil scientist character. It’s all pretty great! The pacing of this show is particularly admirable: there are twists and reveals but they’re never confusing and they always come exactly when they need to. The second season’s not quite as good but the third season takes on a vibe similar to early seasons of The 100, which turned out to be really interesting if not exactly perfect. Definitely a hidden gem.

*

(1) To be fair, the first time they do this, it’s obviously a mercy elimination–the person they get rid of does well in the “Face Off” but is so clearly in over their head everywhere else that it was a kindness to let them go even though the makeup they did was obviously a bit better than the other person’s. The second time it happens is the result of a ripple effect caused by an unplanned exit earlier in the season. The “drama” they try to create around what’s so obviously going to be a non-elimination by pretending that the two make-up jobs are equal when they’re so obviously not that a non-expert like me can tell is a bit laughable but that’s reality TV for you.

(2) But really it’s the British version of the Swedish show it’s based on. 

 

 

 

 

 

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