What I’m reading: May 2022

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 Normal Gossip (podcast) and Our Flag Means Death (TV series)

What I’m reading for work

The Abject Failure of IRBs by Ryan Briggs: Until relatively recently, the activities of Institutional Review Boards didn’t interest me much. I did the required training for my campus but all of my research up to this point has involved publicly available texts and data rather than human subjects, so I never needed to go through any sort of review process. Then I decided I wanted to interview authors about the role of research in their creative writing. And also, along with my Communications in Information Literacy co-editors, survey academic librarians on their perceptions of journal editor behaviors. Both of these studies required interaction with IRBs and though I didn’t experience anything like some of the difficulties described in the article, I did encounter some of the vagaries of arbitrary bureaucracy. For example, I sought approval for both of the studies I mentioned within weeks of each other. For both applications, I had to submit my human subjects research training certification. In one case, I encountered no issue with the certification. In the other, I was told I had the wrong training and that I needed to do the entire human subjects research training (not just the refresher course) all over again. If I had more time, I might have pushed back to find out why my certification had worked for one study and not the other, just weeks apart, but I had co-investigators waiting on me, so I decided it was easier just to do the training. I suspect the reason for the inconsistency has more to do with having different people reviewing each application, though I can’t confirm this was the case since all of the messages I was received were signed with the office name rather than a person’s name. My guess is that each person interpreted the requirements differently. Or maybe one was wrong. Who knows? Either way, this article on balancing the obvious need to ensure that research involving human subjects is conducted ethically with the need to actually be allowed to do research in a timely manner definitely resonated with me. I found the author’s arguments about how the unpredictability of the IRB process, particularly with regard to how long it takes, has the biggest negative effect on students, adjunct faculty, and tenure track faculty for whom time is a big concern, thus discouraging them from doing research in the first place. I certainly found this to be the case when I was on the tenure track–hence why my first encounters with IRB are only happening just now. 

What I’m reading for fun

The Beatle Who Got Away by Ted Widmer: When I was about 12 years old, my parents brought home a VHS copy of the Beatles movie Help from Canada(1) and showed it to me and my sister. I was instantly obsessed and all throughout high school I read and watched anything about the Beatles that I could get my hands on, including a 1994 movie called Backbeat about the band’s early days performing in nightclubs in Germany. The focus of that movie is not on the Beatles themselves but on Stu Sutcliffe (played by Stephen Dorff with an uncanny resemblance to the real Sutcliffe but a really bad Liverpool accent). Sutcliffe was a friend of John Lennon’s from art school who, despite not being as musically talented as the others, played with the band for a short time, left just before they started to get famous, and died tragically shortly thereafter.(2) The movie’s not great but Sutcliffe does make an interesting subject and this article examines who he was in a little more depth than I’ve seen elsewhere as well as speculating about the effect his death had on the band members, especially Lennon, who apparently still talked about him as a kind of creative soul mate as late in his own short life as his marriage to Yoko Ono. The article makes the argument that the Beatles would not have been who they eventually became without Sutcliffe’s short tenure in the band. I think Astrid Kirchherr, the photographer Sutcliffe met and fell in love with in Germany, maybe deserves a bit more credit there, but there’s no doubt Sutcliffe is a haunting (and hauntingly beautiful) figure. It’s hard not to think about what might have been if he’d lived longer, especially given the promise he seemed to have as a visual artist (if not a musical one). This article includes some of more famous photos of Sutcliffe, mostly taken by Kirchherr while he was a member of the band, but it also features some images of his art which I hadn’t seen before. Definitely worth a read. 

What I’m listening to/playing/doing for fun

Normal Gossip podcast: When I first heard about Normal Gossip, the premise did not seem thrilling to me. Basically, the setup is that the host, Kelsey McKinney, and a different guest each week share a piece of gossip submitted by a listener (always framed as “a friend of a friend”). The nature of the gossip is always very low stakes: in one episode, the “friend of a friend” is a young woman who joined a knitting club and found herself embroiled in drama related to what I can only describe as yarn fraud. Dumb. And yet, as with real life gossip, I can’t stop listening. Like with Wild Boys, I think a lot of the credit for how compelling this low stakes drama is goes in large part to the host’s storytelling skills. She doles out the information in exactly the right amounts while her guest reacts in real time, then creates suspense by stopping and asking the guest what they would do next in the situation she’s describing. Of course, as the listener, I have my own inner dialogue going as well the entire time, trying to predict where the story is going to go, judging the actions of the people in the story. The experience is a lot like overhearing a conversation at work or in public somewhere. You can’t help but become involved even though what’s being talked about has nothing to do with you. Anyway, I’ve found this is a great listen for when I’m doing chores at home or when I’m engaged in the parts of my work and research that involve mindless data entry. It’s so absorbing that I actually did a deeper clean of my bathroom than usual just so I could find out what happened in one of the stories. !! So, yeah. Weirdly absorbing and probably the second podcast I’ve discovered in recent weeks that has me bingeing episodes when I have never before binged a podcast in my life. 


What I’m watching for fun

Our Flag Means Death on HBO Max: When this show first came out, HBO Max was pretty insistent that I needed to watch it. A giant, colorful image of its cast came up every time I opened the app and so, out of spite against invasive algorithms trying to tell me how to live my life, I purposely ignored it. The fact that it looked like some kind of goofy cross between What We Do in the Shadows and Muppet Treasure Island (two pop culture artifacts I admittedly love but don’t necessarily want to see mixed together) made it seem even less appealing. Then I read a piece on Vulture that considered the series and its place in Taika Waititi’s growing oeuvre of strange but heartfelt comedies about found families. Intrigued by the article’s discussion of the show’s queer elements, I decided to give it a chance. For the first episode or two, I was pretty sure this was not going to be my bag but then Waititi shows up as Blackbeard and the developing relationship between him and Rhys Darby’s Stede Bonnett was such that I Could Not Stop Watching. I’d read in the Vulture article that the two had a bit of a thing together but I expected it to be treated as another joke and/or something that’s alluded to in frustratingly winking ways but never becomes text, as I’d seen in many other places.(1) So the fact that the very sweet relationship that develops between Stede and Blackbeard is very much acknowledged to be about romantic love and that the show (which is also still a very funny pirate/workplace comedy) takes those feelings seriously absolutely floored me. I can’t even tell you how involved I got with this. Like, I was watching the new season of Bridgerton at the same time and the excitement I felt about the slow burn romance in that show, which I did like, was absolutely nothing compared to how rapt I was by the whole Stede Bonnet/Blackbeard thing. When they finally kissed (actually kissed!) in the second-to-last episode, I cheered. Out loud, at a volume that my neighbors could probably hear. And in the next episode when a heartbroken Blackbeard builds a blanket fort for himself and talks very emotionally about wanting to curl up in a ball and die because he’s so sad about Stede leaving…oh my God. I could not take it. Could not. Now, I’ve been betrayed and disappointed by other shows before after justifiably getting my hopes raised(2) but I feel like this show has built enough trust in me as an audience member at this point and demonstrated enough follow-through that it’s okay to be cautiously optimistic about its future, assuming it gets a second season. Seriously, though. I can’t believe I almost didn’t watch this. If they do get another season, it will be the first thing I click on as soon as it starts streaming, invasive algorithm or not.(3)
  1. It wasn’t available in the United States at the time and the internet wasn’t a thing. To be clear, my parents didn’t go to Canada to look for it–they just happened upon it in an entertainment store while they were in Canada and brought it home. As a kid, I loved that movie so much that as soon as it was over, I would rewind it and play it back again. I can still recite some of it by heart. Unfortunately, it has not aged well. In particular: the portrayal of “Eastern mystics” is pretty racist by today’s standards. It could be argued that since the movie is meant to be a spoof of James Bond, the racism is a spoof of those movies’ racism. But, you know. Spoofs of racism are still pretty racist, at least when they’re done like this. 
  2. It’s not really clear what he died of but it seems to have had something to do with his brain, possibly an untreated injury from a fight he and Lennon were involved in. I remember there was speculation at one point that Lennon was the one who gave Sutcliffe the injury and that his profound guilt fed his profound grief over losing his friend, but I don’t think there’s any evidence to support that. 
  3. I’m looking at you, Hannibal (though you meant well). And Supernatural. And Teen Wolf. And The Magicians (especially you). And every other queerbaiting series that’s out there. 
  4. Still looking at you, The Magicians. Seriously, what the hell? What. The. Hell. 
  5. Also there are other good things about the show. As a longtime Trainspotting fan, I especially enjoyed seeing Ewen Bremner in a role that allowed him to be both fully weird and fully hilarious. It was fun spotting the other people I knew in the rest of the cast too: Hodor and Hizdahr from Game of Thrones (Kristian Nairn and Joel Fry), the Holy Bartender from Dogma (aka Matthew Maher), and Samson Kayo from Bloods. Also, there were some great actors I hadn’t seen before: Vico Ortiz as Jim and Nathan Foad as Lucius were especially notable. Basically, everyone in this is awesome. Watch it now.  

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