What I’m reading: January 2022

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

Note: The following post contains spoilers for The Witcher (Netflix series), Selling Sunset (Netflix series), Selling Tampa (Netflix series), and Doom Patrol (HBO Max series).

What I’m reading for work

Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck by Myriam Gurba: I actually only just got back to work after a fairly long holiday vacation, so I haven’t been doing a lot of what you might call “work reading,” but I have been spending a little time lately trying to fortify an article I drafted exploring whether and how to make creative research part of the creative writing curriculum. As with other writing I’ve done related to this topic, the argument uses the American Dirt controversy from a few years ago as a frame. Though I had read a lot about that controversy in the past, I hadn’t actually read the two texts at the center of it: American Dirt and this essay by Myriam Gurba, a thorough takedown of the novel that sparked the backlash against it in the first place. As a white writer, this essay represents every worst fear I’ve ever had when it comes to writing stories which feature or perhaps even star characters of color or who are otherwise not like me in some key way. It is a deeply uncomfortable thing to read. But it is also, I think, necessary. Particularly interesting for me is the part where Gurba specifically speaks to the research Jeanine Cummins did for American Dirt and the sources she cites for her work. In defending American Dirt, Cummins often points to this extensive research as proof that she at least tried to get things right. And though I didn’t particularly like American Dirt, I did feel as I read it that Cummins had used her research well, even if it wasn’t enough to prevent the inaccuracies and other issues pointed out by the book’s critics. But Gurba makes it clear that while Cummins’s research may have been enough for the book to pass the sniff test for someone like me, it only highlights the book’s lack of authenticity for a reader with actual lived experience. Obviously, it’s important to have books by writers with that lived experience but Gurba’s overall point, I think, is that the publishing industry largely ignores those books in favor of “trauma porn dressed up in social justice fig leaf” by white writers instead. It’s not hard to see that she’s angry–she openly acknowledges that anger many times throughout the essay. Reading this, it’s also not hard to see why.

What I’m reading for fun

Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain by Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler: The Hidden Brain podcast is probably my favorite podcast of all time. There are others that I like too–ones that are more fun. But this is the podcast I like to listen to while I’m drinking wine and doing a jigsaw puzzle on a rainy evening. The topics, which focus on the mysteries of human behavior, are always interesting and the stories and lessons stick with me much more readily than they do with similar podcasts. So I decided to check out this book by the podcast’s host, Shankar Vedantam, and his co-author, Bill Mesler. Like the podcast, the book explores an interesting question about human behavior: specifically, why are we so susceptible to delusion and deception? Vedantam and Mesler’s thesis is that such delusions and deceptions, which can range from everyday examples such as acting like you like a gift that you secretly hate to the mass delusion of a cult to belief in the afterlife, must serve some kind of evolutionary or social purpose. Otherwise, why would they persist through generations? It’s a hugely interesting question. The book that attempts to answer it is maybe a little less interesting. If you listen the podcast, there’s not really anything here that’s new or surprising. But if you spend time teaching information literacy, there’s a lot of food for thought here. There’s a sort of pervasive belief in our field that issues like fake news can be “solved” by teaching people to think critically about the information they encounter online. This book shows how futile and, perhaps, delusional that thinking is. Instead of assuming people who fall for fake news simply aren’t educated enough or in the right way, maybe we should ask ourselves some of the questions the authors ask here: what purpose does fake news serve to those who believe it? And what delusions might we be subject to ourselves?

American Comics: A History by Jeremy Dauber: A few months ago, I started an MCU Rewatch Discussion group on Meetup, which has been a lot of fun so far. Some of the people in the group are very knowledgeable about comics history, especially as it relates to superheroes (one is even writing a dissertation on the Black Panther!). I’ve really enjoyed learning from them and saw an opportunity to learn even more when I read about this book in a recent newsletter from The New York Times. Here, the author covers the history of American comics not just in terms of superheroes (though they’re obviously a big part of it) but, like, the whole of American comics, including comic strips and underground comics and graphic memoirs. This is a lot to get through in less than 500 pages, so the book definitely reads more like a crash course than anything else. Sometimes this means that seemingly interesting topics are breezed past while others are dwelled on a little too much. (The chapter on the birth and development of underground comics was particularly slow for me.) But there’s a lot of interesting stuff here that I as someone who is more a fan of comics-adjacent media (like movies and TV shows based on comics) rather than comics themselves was interested to learn and it also gave a lot of important context to a lot of what I already knew. Either way, I have a lot of trivia to pull out at my next MCU meetup. Or at least something to do other than nod and smile when the true experts in the group start talking comics.

What I’m watching for fun

The Witcher Season 2 on Netflix: The first season of The Witcher surprised me. Not with the weird split timeline thing–I’d read about that before I even started watching the show and, like a lot of people didn’t think it worked that well. The surprise came more from the tone and general feel of some of the series. It’s no secret that when it first came out Netflix tried very hard to sell The Witcher as a Game of Thrones-esque fantasy epic but there were at least a few episodes in the first season that felt more like Xena Warrior Princess or Stargate Atlantis than GoT, particularly when it focused on Geralt and Jaskier’s monster-hunting adventures. That was not a problem for me since I like those types of shows. And frankly I would have been fine with it if they had decided to rebrand the show in the second season as Adventures of Geralt and Jaskier. So I was a little sad to hear that the new season swung further in the opposite direction, taking out most of the humor and monster-hunting (and Jaskier, who doesn’t show up until about halfway through) and instead leaning toward the more epic fantasy stuff. I still watched it though and I’m glad that I did because even though the humor and goofiness of the first season was definitely toned down, the show made up for it in its focus on the relationship between its character (who can actually have relationships now that they’re all in the same timeline). If anyone had asked me before I saw this whether watching a whole season of Henry Cavill in Protective Dad Mode was something I wanted, I probably would have said not really but I actually enjoyed the relationship that develops between Geralt and Ciri. Probably not enough to try playing the game again,(1) but definitely enough that I plan to keep watching if the series continues (fingers crossed).

Selling Sunset on Netflix: If you were wondering if there is any “reality” left in reality shows these days (assuming there ever was), Selling Sunset makes a pretty convincing case for the answer not only being “no” but also the fact that reality shows aren’t even trying that hard to hide how scripted they are anymore. This show is so fake that when, in the fourth season, resident villain Christine gets drawn into a conflict with the other women on the show where she keeps repeating the same clearly delusional argument over and over again, my first thought was not that this was someone sadly unwilling to recognize the reality of her situation and admit that she was wrong but instead a poorly trained actress who had never been properly taught how to “yes and” in a scene. Like, I could practically hear the instructor from the one improv class I took five years ago yelling from the wings to “keep the scene going!” and “move the story forward!” (The reason I could hear that so well was because I had a lot of trouble with the “yes and” concept myself.) I don’t blame Christine. I blame bad direction and story planning. I really feel like the producers must have given her the seed of a story (“you’re mad that the woman who slept with your ex-boyfriend while you were still together has taken your spot at the real estate firm where you work while you’re on maternity leave”) and then given her absolutely nowhere to go with it. Anyway. The obvious fakeness of this show is part of what makes it entertaining and even though I usually avoid this kind of reality soap, I admit that I got pretty obsessive over this one for a brief time while I was on vacation over the holidays. It was like 50% of what my cousin and I, who haven’t seen each other in four years, talked about at our family’s Christmas party this year. (Maybe not 50%, but we definitely spent some time huddled in a corner debating a few of the storylines.) Side note: I also watched Selling Tampa, which is somehow worse in terms of fakeness but also suffers from the fact that the person who is apparently supposed to be the villain…doesn’t seem like that much of a villain to me?(2) Anyway, both shows are pretty much trash but I don’t think they’re trying to be anything else and I have to respect that. If nothing else, it meets a need on yet another otherwise boring pandemic staycation.

Doom Patrol on HBO Max: As a longtime fan of White Collar,(3) I’ve been following Matt Bomer’s career with a certain level of interest since before he was really on the radar in as big of a way as he is now. Mostly, I’ve been kind of underwhelmed by the choices he’s made since hanging up Neal Caffrey’s hat a couple of years ago. These choices seem to indicate that he wants very much to be thought of as a Serious Actor. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just think he’s better in a lighter, more fun role where he gets to exercise some charm. Doom Patrol is not that, exactly. Instead, it’s a bonkers superhero show that has a similar “why the fuck not?” attitude as Legends of Tomorrow but gets to actually say “fuck” often (maybe a little too often) and out loud (maybe a little too loud). It’s the type of show that has a recurring character who is a sentient, genderqueer street who can communicate only through street signs. A sentient, genderqueer street that you as a viewer come to actually care about. And even though Matt Bomer’s character is kind of a downer overall, he does get to have some fun every now and then, as when he sings and dances through a fantasy rendition of “People Like Us” in one episode.(4) Unlike Legends of Tomorrow, Doom Patrol gets pretty deep into its characters’ past traumas and the psychological fallout from those traumas. It can get pretty dark at times. But then the sentient cannibalistic butts get loose because, well, why the fuck not? Honestly, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Matt Bomer because he’s what drew me to the show in the first place but Brendan Fraser is also here as the voice of an extremely potty-mouthed robot man and he’s pretty great too. My favorite though is April Bowlby, who plays Rita Farr. As someone with a lot of anxiety issues, I thoroughly relate to a lot of her struggles in the first season on a metaphorical level. I’m really glad to have discovered this show.

*

(1) I tried to like the game. I did. I don’t know why it just doesn’t click for me, especially since it’s exactly the type of game I have found that I enjoy the most (an open world game that involves a lot of strategic crafting and use of skills earned through XP). I think I mostly got annoyed at how much time the game spent explaining things to me that I didn’t need to know while completely failing to include more useful knowledge either in its tutorials or the reference information available within the game. That said, I still don’t understand Gwent at all but I did manage to win a few rounds of it before giving up on the game altogether.

(2) Seriously. Maybe I missed something but I don’t understand what Juawana did to everybody in this firm to make them hate her as much as we’re supposed to believe that they do.

(3) I’ve probably watched the series in full 3-4 times, including during its original run. RIP Willie Garson–you may be Stanford to most people, but you will always be Mozzie to me.

(4) One of the relatively few times you actually get to see Matt Bomer on screen. The character he plays, Larry Trainor, spends most of the time wrapped in bandages like a mummy. So this is a Mandalorian type situation where one actor does the voice and another is actually in the suit. In this case, Matthew Zuk is the one who plays Larry on screen except in flashbacks. I have to say, he is an eerily convincing double for Matt Bomer in terms of his body type and mannerisms. I do spend a lot of time wondering how he breathes in that mask, though.

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