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 Horizon Forbidden West (PS4 game), Chameleon: Wild Boys (podcast), and Game of Thrones (the TV series)
What I’m reading for work
Radical Candor by Kim Scott: So I recently moved into my first management position at work (as the new Head of Information Literacy). It’s an exciting opportunity but even though I’ve had excellent mentors and attended a Leadership Institute a few years ago, I figured it might be worthwhile to do some reading in search of inspiration and guidance. I landed on Radical Candor first because it showed up on two of the three lists of “best management books” in my quick Google search on the topic. Radical Candor was written by Kim Scott, who at various times has worked for Google, Apple, and as the founder of a few other Silicon Valley-type companies. The basic message of the book is to treat the people you work with like human beings but also be honest with them about stuff but not in an asshole kind of way. Which seems…obvious? That’s not to suggest there wasn’t some useful stuff in here. Reading what Scott wrote, I realized that I often fall more toward what she calls the “Ruinous Empathy” end of the spectrum, which is where you think too much about how the other person might feel receiving criticism (and how uncomfortable you feel giving it to them), so you don’t do it. That said, while Scott obviously has a lot of extremely valuable and high level experience, like a lot of Silicon Valley types who write books like these, I got the impression that she doesn’t actually understand that much about how “real” workplaces work (at least, ones that aren’t run by twenty year old billionaires). She acknowledges that not every workplace will be a good fit for this move away from traditional “authoritarian” approaches but instead of showing you how to adapt her advice to situations like these she…tells you to find another job. Which is not particularly useful, at least not for most people. I also found the section on gender and race really unsatisfying and not just because she basically skirts around a discussion about race by saying something about how race-based problems are the same as gender-based ones. ??? So there isn’t really a consideration of what challenges a person of color might have in attempting to practice this whole “radical candor” philosophy that a white person wouldn’t. And the information that tries to address gender basically victim blames women for caring too much about likeability. Which seems…not great? Overall, there were some mildly interesting ideas here but I definitely didn’t love the book.
What I’m reading for fun
Camera Man by Dana Stevens and Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life by James Curtis: A while back, I shared a link to an article about Buster Keaton that had appeared recently on The New Yorker’s website. The article was a reflection on Buster Keaton’s legacy as a filmmaker and silent comedy star/director in light of the release of two new books about him, Camera Man by Dana Stevens and Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life by James Curtis. Being a big Keaton fan myself, I immediately sought out both books. I got a hold of Camera Man first and have read through all of that while I’m still making my way through the more straightforwardly biographical Curtis book. The books make interesting companions to each other. As a film critic, Dana Stevens does an interesting job of analyzing Buster Keaton’s life and work through the historical context in which he lived. Some of her analyses are admittedly a bit of a reach and there are times when her insistence on viewing things that happened 50-100 years ago through a 21st century lens gets a little old–for example when discussing the use of Blackface in one of Keaton’s later silent movies.(1) But for other areas of focus, especially the histories she traces of the less well-known people around Keaton who either co-starred in or contributed to his movies in some way, are pretty cool to read. I expected to like A Filmmaker’s Life better only because I’m a fan of biographies and while the information about Keaton’s early life in this book is more detailed than what Stevens offers, by the time Curtis gets to his film career, the book resorts mostly to summaries of the plots of Keaton’s movies with occasional trivia about how he created some of the gags in them, usually followed by a summary of the response from critics and audiences at the time. Curtis doesn’t really take the time to zoom out at all and consider these movies from a more historical or critical perspective. To be fair, that’s because his goals in writing Keaton’s biography are different from Stevens’s but in a weird way I feel like an ideal consideration of Keaton’s life and work would have included elements from both of these books. On their own, they’re both worth reading but while both are excellent in their own ways, they also each feel like they’re missing something.
What I’m playing/listening to for fun
Horizon Forbidden West on PS4: When it comes to video games, I admit to having a huge soft spot for Horizon Zero Dawn. Not only was this the first open world game that ever really clicked for me, it was also the game I happened to be just starting out with when the pandemic first hit back in 2020. For those first few stressful months, Horizon Zero Dawn offered a kind of oasis where I could spend hours at a time taking a break from the chaos that the world had become to solve problems that were solvable and fight fights that were winnable. So it felt like a nice bookend when Horizon Forbidden West came out just as the omicron wave in my area had more or less receded and the mask mandates were being lifted and the world had started to move on to a new disaster. Anyway. The game. First, I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to get back into the mechanics of this particular world and environment. Even with a few new functions to learn in the early tutorial section, I was up and running with this game much quicker than with other games I’ve played, even sequels. Re-learning how to beat up dinosaur robots was like riding a bike. And I have to say I really enjoyed the early part of the game (before the Embassy), where I took a lot of time to complete relatively easy side quests to build up XP and skill points as well as stock up on useful tools, weapons, and resources. Then Aloy actually enters the Forbidden West and suddenly you’re in the deep end, or at least something that feels more like it. I just finished a long, relatively early sequences called Death’s Door where you face the game’s first real boss. Even in easy mode(2), I found this sequence endlessly upsetting, first for the teeth-gnashingly, pointlessly frustrating maze you have to find your way through and then for the relentless battle you have to fight. Stuff like this is how I know much harder games like Elden Ring are probably not for me. So as I’m playing Forbidden West, I’m slowly remembering all of the things about Zero Dawn that I actually didn’t like (the boring and frustrating “mazes,” the endless but usually optional dialogues that I nevertheless feel required to watch lest I miss an important detail) and discovering some new frustrations (Aloy’s CONSTANT REMINDERS about putting things in her stash when she can’t fit them into her pouch like I didn’t hear her the first four thousand times, the game giving me paragraphs of information to read when I’m in the middle of a fight sequence, UNDERWATER SWIMMING/CONSTANT DROWNING) while still absolutely loving the stuff that clicked the first time and enjoying some of the added complications (suddenly there are different kinds of merchants who sell different things instead of just one kind that sells everything). For now, the stuff I enjoy and love is outweighing the frustration and annoyance but time will tell if that balance holds. Either way, I’m really glad to have this game to immerse myself in.
Chameleon: Wild Boys podcast: So, yeah. I listen to a lot of podcasts but I wouldn’t say I’m a podcast devotee, especially when it comes to podcasts that cover a single story over multiple episodes. Even with ones that seem interesting at first, I tend to wander off after a few episodes. I’m telling you that because Wild Boys, the third season of the Chameleon podcast, is the first podcast I’ve ever listened to where I found the story so compelling that I actually binged all of the available episodes (at the time, 1-4, plus the intermission episode) in one day and then waited with bated breath for the next episode to drop the following Tuesday. I don’t know exactly why this is. The story, like a lot of similar podcasts is intriguing enough: in 2003, two mysterious boys appear in a small town in Canada and claim to have run away from parents who raised them in complete isolation from society. The residents of the town take them in and try to help them build a new life. Things quickly start to fall apart. If you know that Chameleon is a podcast series about con artists, the direction of the story is pretty obvious even before you start listening. But the fact that the podcast host, James Mullins, grew up in the town where these boys appeared and remembers what happened adds an extra dimension of interest–he’s not just another journalist covering another weird true crime-adjacent story, he actually has a personal connection to what happened. I also think what kept me listening is the fact that Mullins, despite this being his first-ever foray into podcasting, is a compelling storyteller. He knows how to drop hints about what comes next in a way that makes it impossible to resist immediately clicking on the next episode. I also knew early on, based on the review that pointed me toward the podcast in the first place, that the podcast would be switching directions in the middle: in the first half, the story is told from the point of view of the residents whose town the boys found themselves in. I imagined and was excited to be right that the second half would bring in the boys, now grown adults, to get their point of view on what happened and why. This is new territory for true crime-type podcasts, which tend to focus on stories that are basically “someone did a bad thing and even if we knew who did it, we don’t really understand why and never will.” (I’m thinking in particular of the first season Dr. Death, which is a podcast I enjoyed and listened to in full, but was ultimately unsatisfied by because there’s just no way for a rational human being to understand what that guy did.) It’s a strange story, but knowing some of the background about why it happened (even if what happened wasn’t really excusable) makes for really good listening. Glad I found this.
What I’m watching for fun
Game of Thrones on HBO Max: So like a year and a half ago, I subscribed to HBO Max for the express purpose of rewatching Game of Thrones. I had seen the first seven seasons but not the last one and my intention was to watch the series all the way through (even though I’d heard all the details of the eighth season and knew it was going to be a disappointing ride). I expected the project would take me about six months. Instead, it took me almost a year just to get through the first few seasons. Partly this was because I was easily distracted by all the other great things on HBO Max. But also I found myself getting stuck around the Red Wedding. Not because I love the characters who die in that episode so much that I couldn’t bear to watch them meet their fate all over again but because it’s so emblematic of the cruel bleakness of this series in which nothing good ever happens to anyone you like. In fact, if you start to like a character, you can be pretty sure something terrible is going to happen to them sooner rather than later. I did eventually get through the end of the third season, then took a break for a while. A month or two ago I decided to undertake the rest of the project at warp speed and now I’m nearing the end. Going through it so quickly definitely makes the dropoff in quality that started around the sixth season even more noticeable. What’s strange, though, is that what I don’t like about these later episodes is that they’re missing a lot of what I didn’t like about the earlier ones. I mean, the show is still cruel and bleak and nothing good happens but it starts to feel almost like fanfiction of itself where all of the “good characters” start to meet each other and once they get over some initial distrust, of course they come to like and admire each other. And of course the remaining Stark children get their semi-happy reunions. And of course Jon is a secret prince. And of course Sam discovers the cure to an incurable disease just in time to save Jorah Mormont’s life. (As much as I like Jorah and want him to stick around, despite his creepy infatuation with Dany, that one really bugged me.) The best thing I can say about these later seasons is that at least it became less common for female characters to be introduced just so they could take off their clothes. That was an element of the show that definitely bothered me more this time around than it did before. It’s not that any of this is bad, necessarily. If this was any other fantasy show, this would all be very expected and even rewarding. But that’s the point: Game of Thrones wasn’t supposed to be any other fantasy show. It wasn’t supposed to do the expected thing. Whoever took over writing it after they ran out of book material to work with (and despite the guidance from George R.R. Martin on how the thing was going to end) clearly did not understand this. Or maybe they did but the need to please the fans was prioritized over storytelling. Which is even more tragic because a lot of the fans weren’t satisfied in the end, either. Homework done. Now I can go watch the other stuff on HBO Max without feeling like I should be working on my self-assigned project.
(1) A topic that’s certainly worth exploring and commenting on. There’s just something about Stevens’s take that didn’t quite work for me.
(2) That’s right–I play in easy mode. No apologies.