What I’m reading: September 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.

What I’m reading for work

The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr: This is a book that showed up on my list of recent books on fiction writing, which I added to my study after receiving some feedback from peer reviewers. The premise of this book is similar to Wired for Story by Lisa Cron: a sort of exploration of writing and storytelling through the lens of neuroscience. It’s definitely an interesting lens through which to look at the human need to tell stories. I particularly liked when Storr brought up theory of mind in relation to creating characters. It was an interesting angle I hadn’t thought of before. There’s something odd about the tone of this book, though. It’s the sort of super serious, urgent tone I would expect to see in a book where an author is making an argument for change. But I’m not sure what that change is. Maybe it’s that we need to get away from oversimplified “hero’s journey” ways of thinking about storytelling that have become so standard. Or that we shouldn’t need to rely on beat-by-beat templates to create stories when our brains are capable of comprehending more complicated ideas on a much deeper level than we might realize. Which is fine, though slightly ironic considering there’s an entire 30+ page appendix where Storr offers what is basically a template for storytelling using the more science-oriented model he is suggesting throughout the book. Basically, I was intrigued but confused. And also a little disappointed when, like so many other writing books, this one turned into a litany of examples from Great Literature and Great Cinema and went out of its way to question the artistic integrity of the romance genre. True, the angle Storr is approaching these from is slightly different than the standard craft criticism but the examples he chooses, which includes authors like Shakespeare and Nabokov and films like Citizen Kane(1) feel so very tired to me. It could be that I’m just really burned out on reading this kind of book. Which isn’t great because I have four more to go.
 

What I’m doing for fun

Les Mills On Demand: I seem to be going through fitness platforms really quickly lately. After sticking with Fitness Blender for years and then Daily Burn for a year or two after that, I’ve been venturing out and discovering the wider world of online fitness options. Les Mills On Demand is a subscription platform that I stumbled on after finding a free dance workout they put on YouTube a while back. I am terrible at dance but I was in dire need of something different to do and I found the workout challenging (in the sense that you are relying as much on your memory for the choreography  as much as you are the muscles you’re using) but also a lot of fun. Like a lot of dance workouts, it also rewarded repeat viewing. The first time I did it, I was pretty lost but by the third time I could get all the way through one round of the dance routine at the end with relatively few mistakes. So anyway. I didn’t actually know what Les Mills was (a person? a brand?) but after some Googling I found out that it’s a whole fitness platform with lots of different types of workouts.(2) Very few of these workouts are quite like the dance one they used to draw me in, which was a little disappointing, but I liked a lot of the workouts they did have enough that I got over this disappointment pretty quickly. Of their workout programs, my favorites so far are BodyCombat, which is based on mixed martial arts and differs from a lot of kickboxing workouts I’ve done in the way it teaches you how to do, like, flying kicks and punches which make you feel like a major badass, and Sh’Bam, which is their regular dance program. What I especially like about these workouts is that a lot of them are quite challenging. As much as I love a platform like FitOn, their workouts are clearly created to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible–which is a great thing but can be a little frustrating if you want a longer or more challenging workout every now and then. Les Mills has two programs in particular, Grit and BodyAttack that pretty much kick my ass every time. (BodyCombat can also be quite intense but in that one I feel like I’m kicking ass rather than getting my ass kicked.) I also like that the platform allows you to pick different versions of the same workout based on length. So if you want, you can do a version that’s 10-15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, or 55 minutes. And the workouts are clearly labeled so you know that it’s the same workout, just edited to different lengths.(3) There are some downsides to the platform. The organization overall could use a lot of work. And some of the videos are only available temporarily. This was especially disappointing when I discovered a fun dance workout by the same lead trainer who did the dance workout that attracted me to this platform in the first place only to discover the video was going to expire the next day. Like I said, these dance workouts tend to reward repeating viewing, so there was no opportunity to do the workout again and learn it better. (And since this is a paid platform, I also kind of feel like if I’m paying for a subscription, the stuff I’m paying for shouldn’t expire. Or there should at least be some kind of premium option for people who might be willing to pay a bit extra to keep this stuff around longer, like on Daily Burn.) All of that said, none of the platform’s faults have been a deal breaker for me so far. I definitely plan to stay on after my free trial expires. 

  What I’m watching for fun

Travel Man on Amazon Prime: So the premise of Travel Man is that it’s a travel show about fun or interesting or cheap places you can visit on a weekend holiday. The twist, though, is that the host is someone who basically hates traveling. That host is Richard Ayoade, who I mostly know as Moss from The IT Crowd but who has also done Star Wars (as the voice of Zero in The Mandalorian) and apparently a series called Gadget Man that I’ve never heard of but Travel Man aggressively insists I’m probably familiar with. Which is just one of the ways this show doesn’t quite work from the point of view of an American audience. If nothing else, what counts as a weekend getaway when your starting reference point is England (or Europe in general) is a lot different from when your starting reference point is the United States. Like, even in the Before Times, I’m not sure you could easily fly from the U.S. to Barcelona or Marrakesh or Istanbul in the space of a regular weekend (a three day weekend, maybe?). Despite that, this is a show I mostly enjoy. I say mostly because the persona that Richard Ayoade adopts as someone who hates travel means that he’s sometimes a bit mean about the cultures he visits and even though he’s mean in a funny way where it’s obvious that he’s the one being a jerk, it can also be a little uncomfortable, especially when it seems like the locals he’s doing this is in front of are not in on the joke. There is also some awkward product placement in the early episode that has not aged well even though the series isn’t that old. That said, the attitude toward and general anxiety around travel that he displays is one that I very much relate to, much more than the hosts of something like the Most Amazing Vacation Rentals on Netflix, whose veneer of Instagram-ready enthusiasm for every place they visit barely cracks even when they sleep in igloos, stay at places with no working toilets, and get visibly seasick on luxury yachts.(4) If nothing else, Travel Man reminded me that while I want to travel more when COVID is over (assuming that ever happens)…I also hate travel. And I’m not alone. As Ayoade puts it at the beginning of every episode: “We’re here. But should we have come?”
 
Lego Masters Season 2 on Hulu: So a couple of months ago I talked about watching the first season of Lego Masters on Hulu and how even though I thought the show had interesting challenges which resulted in some truly amazing models, I kind of hated it because a lot of the teams were jerks and nobody on the show seemed to be having any fun except the host, Will Arnett. I decided to try out the second season anyway because I’ve been in the mood for silly competition reality shows lately and this fit the bill. From what I’ve seen, it looks like the producers got my notes and a lot of what I hated about the first season has been fixed. (Just kidding. I’m pretty sure this season was already airing by the time I watched the first one.) The judges are still a bit stiff in front of the camera but they come off less like unhappy or disappointed bosses this time around (especially in the fashion competition episode). And while there are still a lot of teams who appear to be taking this whole Lego thing a little too seriously, most of the drama this year is transparently manufactured, so it doesn’t feel as cringey as last season when, for example, a male competitor verbally berated his female teammate in ways that were very hard to watch (and very hard for the show to spin as “all in good fun,” though it did try). When I say “transparently manufactured,” I do mean transparent. One of the features of the show is that they spend a lot of time commenting on their own tropes, including the tendency to repeat (over and over and over again) information that the audience already knows but may have forgotten over the commercial break. This lampshading can be both charming and annoying. That said, the models are still great and even though a few too many challenges hinged on creating models that were either breakable in interesting ways or resisted breaking under different conditions (wind, earthquake, demolition derby), the models were still pretty amazing and the whole thing felt a lot more friendly than the first time around. Also I didn’t completely hate the team that won this time. Much improved. 
 
The Fall on Amazon Prime: The Fall is a show I’ve tried to make myself sit through on at least three separate occasions. The first time, I think I was drawn in by the fact that the series co-started Jamie Dornan, whom I recognized from early episodes of Once Upon a Time. Back then, serial killer stories weren’t really my thing and the pace of the show was so slow that I don’t think I got any further than the first episode or two. Then, I revisited The Fall after I finished watching Hannibal last year. I was in the mood for another dark serial killer story but again the first episode or two were so mind-numbingly slow that I ended up not going any further. Well, third time’s a charm. This time I didn’t have any particular motivation for watching The Fall other than I needed something to watch and it was there, though finding out Colin Morgan (who I’ve long loved from Merlin and recently saw in Humans) showed up in some later episodes didn’t hurt. Anyway. Once you adjust to the pace, there is something admittedly compelling about this series. I just can’t figure out what it is because I also still kind of hated it. Mostly because I couldn’t stop comparing it to Hannibal. The fact that Gillian Anderson is in both series didn’t help. Her character in Hannibal is just so much more interesting than Stella Gibson, her character here. Stella isn’t so much a character as she is an idea of a character, sort of a cliche Strong Woman who goes around crying stoic tears while wearing silky robes and lacey bras for no reason. But you know she’s strong and independent because she has a lot of casual sex (with both men and women, of course) and is very DGAF about the feelings of the people she sleeps with. In the first season, the show almost has something interesting to say about how the men Gibson works with are more horrified by the ways in she violates their ideas about how a woman should act than they are by the killer they’re trying to catch but, in my view, it never actually gets there. Jamie Dornan’s serial killer character is even worse. I have no idea how no one in this Paul Spector guy’s life gets that he’s secretly a serial killer. Or at least that he’s dangerous. How did a seemingly normal, smart woman end up married to someone as creepy as this? And have children with him? Multiple children? The show hints around that that’s part of the point–that Spector gets away with the stuff he does in part because of his physical beauty. But he’s so damn creepy! All the time! ALL THE TIME! None of this is to malign Anderson or Dornan’s performances. Part of what kept me watching was the way they played their characters, which made me want to see what they would do next, even if I wasn’t always satisfied with the answer. But honestly I’d rather watch Anderson in Hannibal. And Dornan in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. That the series ends on what is basically the equivalent of a violent, wet fart doesn’t help. I still have no idea why I sat through 17 episodes of this. 
 
*
 
(1) And very few works by women, except for one passage where he holds up Fifty Shades of Grey as an example of storytelling that people enjoy not because it’s actually good but because it follows a particular storytelling template that the human brain is set up to find enjoyable. Look, I’m not about to defend Fifty Shades of Grey on a quality level or try to call it great literature, but why why WHY are “women’s books” always being singled out for this kind of criticism while more male-oriented, male-written genre works are most often held up as examples that elevate the genre they’re in? WHY?
 
(2) Apparently in the Before Times, these were also live workouts that you could do at your local gym.
 
(3) HASfit, a free platform that often does the same thing, could learn a thing or two from this. I can’t count how many times I’ve started a workout on their site only to discover it’s just a shorter or longer version of the same damn workout I already did earlier in the week.
 
(4) Seriously, at one point, after waking up in the igloo, Luis, looking a bit cold and miserable, actually says something about how “igloos are not for me” and it’s such a break from form that it’s actually almost shocking. It’s also shocking that he still picks the igloos as his favorite of the three locations they visit in that episode in the hosts’ “review” at the end. WTF.

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