What I’m reading: December 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 American Dirt (novel by Jeanine Cummins), Days Gone (video game), Dune (2021 version), Joe Pera Talks With You (if it’s even possible to spoil that show), and some dumb holiday movies on Netflix. 

What I’m reading for work

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins: American Dirt is a book I’ve written a lot about, both here and elsewhere, because of its connections to creative writing and research but though I was pretty versed in the conversation around it, I hadn’t actually read it. Because I wanted to be able to write about it in more depth for a new project, I decided it was only fair to give it a read. The story itself–a woman who escapes Acapulco with her young son after a drug cartel murders her family–is compelling and I can see where Cummins must have done a lot to think through and learn about how someone like Lydia (her main character) would actually get across the border to the United States if legal options were not open to them. Is it the great literary masterpiece it was marketed as? No. The characters are very much “types” and the switch of point of view between Lydia and her young son, which sometimes seems to happen mid-sentence, is pretty confusing. I can also see why some readers were upset that the book seems to misunderstand who crosses the border illegally and why they do it. Instead, it’s more of an airport thriller. That disconnect between what the book is and how it was marketed was not the author’s fault. (Vulture had a good in-depth examination of what happened, published about a year after the initial controversy.) Neither are the issues within the industry that make it so a book about undocumented immigrants by a white writer gets a big marketing and awards push while similar books by non-white writers are either ignored or not published at all. Reading this novel, I can see how research helped Cummins tell the story she was trying to tell. But I can also see how maybe it wasn’t enough.

What I’m playing for fun

Days Gone on PS4: You may remember that about six months ago I mentioned that I got a Playstation Plus membership and that the first game I downloaded was something called Days Gone, which appeared to be The Last of Us, but on motorcycles. Well, I finally finished the thing (at least the main story part–I still have some hordes to take care of and collectibles to find) and I had Some Thoughts. First, this game is not perfect. The overall story is kind of boring (I usually took a bathroom break every time there was a cut scene with Deacon and Sarah) and there were some weird glitches. Like at one point, late in the game, I had set a clever trap for the Saw Mills zombie horde (the biggest one in the game) only to be thwarted when the entire horde…randomly disappeared? Apparently this a known glitch and all it took to fix it was leaving for a bit and coming back, which I was doing a lot of anyway because my chosen strategy with the hordes was to bomb the shit out of them then run away until they stopped chasing me and then repeat that until they were all gone. But still. Annoying. There was also a weird inconsistency with how difficult certain kinds of enemies were to fight. Like, sometimes all it took to take down a Breaker (one of the tougher zombies) was a couple of molotovs and a few bullets but other times those things were impossible to kill no matter what you threw at them. Anyway. All of that said, this was probably my favorite game I’ve played since Horizon Zero Dawn, which was the first open world game that ever really clicked for me. For whatever reason, I love games that involve a lot of searching for stuff and crafting items and then having to be strategic about how you use the things you crafted. I guess I like the learning process of it. For example, it took me a lot longer than it probably should have to figure out the intended use of an attractor, but once I did, I loved how it changed the whole game for me and made tasks that had seemed impossible at first (e.g. fighting big hordes of zombies) suddenly seem doable. And coming up with creative uses for those same items made me feel smart. It wasn’t just the game mechanics that I liked, though. This game made me care about the characters in a way that other games like Uncharted and Horizon Zero Dawn never quite did. I mean, I liked the characters in those games but in Days Gone, I was seriously ready to ugly cry if Boozer, Rikki, or any of the others didn’t make it.(1) I especially enjoyed Deacon even though I wish the guy could learn how to, like, swim.(2) And maybe jump or climb a little better. But I dug the whole “reluctant hero/badass who still gags whenever he gets too close to a zombie nest” vibe that he had going. Mostly I liked that this was a game that, once I got into the rhythm of it, I could lose a whole afternoon to, in a good way. I’m not quite finished with it yet–like I said, there are a few loose ends I’d like to tie up even though the main story is over and the credits have rolled–but once I am, I know I’m going to miss it.

What I’m watching for fun

Dune on HBO Max: Dune was a movie I had no intention of watching, mostly because I remember being scarred for life as a kid when my mother made me sit through the David Lynch version starring Kyle McLachlan. All I knew about Dune from that movie was that it was Not My Kind of Weird. It turns out most of the weirdness of that movie was probably down to the fact that it was directed by David Lynch. I ended up deciding to watch this new version for a couple of reasons. First, the reviews were compelling, if confusing. Anyone who tried to describe the plot lost me pretty easily but the general enthusiasm the critics seemed to have for it was convincing. Second, I found out a bunch of people I like, including Oscar Isaac and Jason Momoa (who I’ve loved since his Stargate Atlantis days) were in it. Third and most important, I have an HBO Max subscription and it was there. Though I understand that the epic feel of this movie can only be fully appreciated when viewing it on the big screen, this is not a movie I would have bothered to see in a theater because it seemed like the kind of thing I wanted to be able to turn off and walk away from if it turned out to be too boring or too weird for me. It wasn’t. I mean, the general pace and the runtime made the thing feel approximately a million and a half years long but it held my attention pretty well. (Except the dark scenes near the end, which were impossible to see on my home screen.) What I especially liked about this movie was that despite how complicated the reviews made the plot out to be, I never felt lost. This despite the fact that very little of what is going on is ever directly explained. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the movie, but it didn’t scar me for life and I’m still thinking about it a good month or so after I actually watched it, which can’t be a bad thing.

Joe Pera Talks With You on HBO Max: I’m not really sure what this show is or what it’s trying to do but somehow I don’t mind that I don’t know. In trying to think how to describe it, the best I could come up with was that it’s kind of like a cross between Fleabag(3), ASMR videos on YouTube, and Mr. Rogers: basically, a kind and gentle man talking to you about things that are on his mind and occasionally teaching you things while also interacting with familiar characters from around his neighborhood. Of course, the main difference is that Mr. Rogers is intended for children and this show is intended for adults as a way to ruminate on and sometimes experience wonder about everyday things. Because Joe Pera as a character is a sort of awkward guy, the humor sometimes leans a little bit cringe, which I’m not a big fan of, but it never goes far enough in that direction to ruin the overall sweet tone, which is more prevalent in the first season than in the second (I haven’t seen any of the third yet–it’s currently airing on Cartoon Network). I think it helps that Joe is portrayed as being aware of his awkwardness and how it affects how other people respond to him, but it’s not something he’s necessarily ashamed of or trying to change. He just is who he is. It’s kind of beautiful! I’m still thinking about the episode “Joe Pera Takes a Fall Drive With You,” which I think particularly resonated with me as someone who tends to treat and think about inanimate objects as if they have thoughts or feelings, especially if those inanimate objects happen to have faces (like a teddy bear or, in Joe’s case, a Jack-o-lantern). I also found a lot of truth in what he has to say about the experience of discovering a new favorite song, as shown in “Joe Pera Reads the Church Announcements.” So, yeah. I don’t quite know what this show is but I’m glad to be along for the ride.

Dumb holiday movies on Netflix: A couple of years ago, I was feeling particularly anxious about the holiday season for various reasons and to take my mind off my anxiety, I ended up marathoning a bunch of dumb Christmas movies on Netflix: The Christmas Prince, The Princess Switch, The Christmas Knight. I must have watched five in the same day. Somehow my brain did not melt. And because my anxiety around the holidays is recurring, it’s become sort of a tradition for me to watch dumb movies like these as a way to relax. So far this year, I’ve watched Love Hard and Single All the Way. I plan to watch The Christmas Castle one at some point and maybe a couple of older ones. To be clear: these movies are super, super dumb. I say that as someone who is generally opposed to trashing romance novels and romantic movies just because they are mainly enjoyed by women. Love Hard feels like the plot was cooked up by an algorithm programmed by a committee that thinks catfishing people is okay for some reason. Meanwhile, the lead actors in Single All the Way have zero chemistry. I do not have high hopes that the Christmas Castle will be any better. And yet. I enjoyed both movies (though I liked Love Hard quite a bit better). Why? In short: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Like I said, I find them soothing at a time of year that is often anxious for me. Plus, watching the same movies and Christmas specials every year starts to feel more like an obligation than an enjoyable tradition. (The number of times I’ve seen Muppet Christmas Carol is very, very disproportionate to how much I actually like that movie.) So whatever. Let me have my thing.

(1) Big spoiler for Days Gone but that fake out with Boozer at the end was Not Okay. I’m still not convinced anything that happens at the end is actually supposed to be real. Like, I’m pretty sure these people are all dead and just don’t realize it.
(2) Also a spoiler for Days Gone: It was really bizarre to me that after an entire game of Deacon drowning every time I got him anywhere near water that was more than waist-deep the finale of the game required him to somehow swim all the way across the moat at Wizard Island. Since they don’t show any of the actual swimming, I feel like there must be a story there as to why Deacon the Swimmer wasn’t featured in the game at all. Maybe they just chose to focus their design capabilities elsewhere. If so, I can’t be mad at that.
(3) The Fleabag reference might seem out there if you’ve ever seen the show, but the comparison is mostly related to the way the character talks directly to the camera. Also, the first time Joe’s girlfriend Sarah talks to the camera/takes the viewer outside so they don’t disturb Joe was legitimately almost as mind-blowing to me as the Hot Priest-notices-Fleabag-talking-to-the-camera moment in Fleabag.

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