Enjoyed The Chancellor by Kati Marton. Qualities vital to Merkel’s rise and 16-year tenure: endurance, humility, steeliness, patience, calm. (She once described herself, as she stood next to the high-energy, publicity-seeking Sarkozy, as an “energy-conserving lamp.”) 📚
For the past few years at Massive, we’ve tried to avoid a gee-whiz attitude towards scientific discovery. It’s a little * flips open dictionary * reductive, shrinking complex stories into neat boxes, making what are often small nibbles at progress into big kabooming breakthroughs. We know our readers are savvy enough to see through that kind of framing. But sometimes, it’s fun to indulge, and let the wonder of the world wash over you a bit. This Weekend’s Reading is on, well, discoveries and their thrills.
Learned of comedic writer Simon Rich on Conan O’Brien’s terrific podcast and picked up his new book, New Teeth. The opening story, about two pirates coming to care for a stowaway baby, was just perfect. Here’s a version on The New Yorker’s website. 📚
Unlike many virtuosos, Eddie Van Halen had a knack for making virtuosity seem like a good time, and all the early Van Halen albums sound as if they were recorded at house parties, with the party noise somehow edited out.
But resilience does not prevent calamity. And being blindsided in slow motion is the hardest fate to avoid. The historian Ramsay MacMullen once distilled the long arc of the Roman Empire into three words — ‘fewer have more’ — but only the time-lapse perspective of a millennium and a half allows us to understand such a thing with brutal clarity. The sack of Washington unfolded suddenly, in a way no one could miss. The greater dangers come in stealth.
“Invisible does not mean uninterested.” — Jim McKelvy in his smart, highly readable book “The Innovation Stack,” on finding previously ignored markets (as he and Jack Dorsey did with Square)
“Astronomers take the position—an incidentally ethical one—of knowing.”
— Rivka Galchen in The New Yorker, on the James Webb Space Telescope
Enjoyed and was impressed by Jim McKelvey’s “The Innovation Stack.” I expected the smarts, but it’s also consistently funny. Great pacing, light on its feet. The STL connections are an added bonus.
Jeff Tweedy’s new Substack newsletter, Starship Casual, is unsuprisingly great — at turns goofy and thoughtful, just like his books and interviews. Today’s post, “Heart of Glass (Rememories 5), was especially memorable. He’s a slyly penetrating artist.
Sylvie, sipping through a backyard quarantine concert by a friend and SLSO musician
Year 20 of my annual cultural-recap tradition was quite something.
Thus far my family’s had good fortune amid the global pandemic, so we’re spending most of our time feeling grateful, yet exhausted, then grateful, yet exhausted.
With lots of time at home, there was some enjoyable culture to take in. Here’s a look at some highlights:
The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches & Meditations, Toni Morrison
Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, Anna Wiener
Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, George Packer
Having and Being Had: Eula Biss
My Parents: An Introduction, Aleksandar Hemon
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Cathy Park Hong
Weather, Jenny Offill
Promised Land, Barack Obama
Then the Fish Swallowed Him, Amir Ahmadi Arian
Jack, Marilyn Robinson
My Life in France, Julia Child
Severance, Ling Ma
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson
Luster, Raven Leilani
Intimations, Zadie Smith
Monocle: How to Make a Nation
The Passion Economy, Adam Davidson
These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, Martha Ackmann
Wine Simple, Aldo Sohm
Normal People, Sally Rooney
The Lying Lives of Adults, Elena Ferrante
Girl, Edna O’Brien
Lurking: How a Person Became a User, Joanne McNeil
How to Be a Family, Dan Kois
Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth, and the Fight Over a Modernist Masterpiece, Alex Beam
The Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair
No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, Sarah Frier
Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, Hanif Abdurraqub
How to Write One Song, Jeff Tweedy
How Architecture Works, Witold Rybczynski
Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State, Barton Gellman
To Start a War, Robert Draper
The Spy Masters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future, Chris Whipple
Agent Running in the Field, John le Carré
The Monocle Guide to Better Living
Hell and Other Destinations, Madeline Albright
The Ride of a Lifetime, Robert Iger
Bitter Brew, William Knoedelseder
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (exquisite, perfect)
Meyerowitz Stories: New & Collected
The Trip to Greece
The Other Guys
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
The Price of Everything
Ford v. Ferrari
Better Call Saul, Seasons 4 and 5
Atlanta, Seasons 1 and 2
Schitt’s Creek, All Seasons
Never Have I Ever
Call My Agent, Season 1
Great British Bake-Off, Season 6 and 8
I can’t recall a year when I saw less art — whether here in St. Louis or in cities we didn’t travel to. With that unfortunate reality, I’m especially grateful to have been able to see the fantastic exhibition “Terry Adkins: Resounding” at the Pulitzer this summer.
My Spotify’s a shared-with-kids mess, and for loads of weekly hours I stream jazz and classical music that I don’t make a note of to be recalled. That said, I did especially enjoy new records from Fiona Apple, Phoebe Bridgers, Adrianne Lenker, Jeff Tweedy, Lomelda, Bob Dylan, Run the Jewels, and Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist. I’m grateful to have been turned on to the music of Big Thief, Harold Budd (via the e-newsletter Flow State), Eleanor Bindman, and Haley Heynderickx, whose “Oom Sha La La” always brightened our family’s quarantine, with the kids screaming and jumping along to the swelling refrain, “I need to start a garden!” Here’s to what’s to come.
Best for last: We finished season 5 of “Better Call Saul.” Tremendous television. (How in the world did Lalo just show up so late and start owning scenes with major talent that had four seasons of episode strength beneath them? What a character and performance.)
Borrowing the structure of a few other online writers whose websites I enjoy (Paul Robert Lloyd and Mark Boulton, among others), I thought I’d start weekly low-key look-backs on the week, bullet list-style. Perhaps weekly is aspirational. We’ll see.
Greatly enjoyed Emily Nussbaum’s long New Yorker profile of Fiona Apple, whose long-awaited record just hit my Spotify streaming today. After reading the piece, I’d been going back through Apple’s back catalogue, awaiting the new songs and relishing the old. That stellar start of “I Know”: “So be it / I’m your crowbar….”
Also in the New Yorker, I was moved by Alex Ross’s essay honoring his late mother, “Grieving With Brahms.” I admire Ross’s writing greatly.
I’ve been dabbling with Roam, which is getting a lot of indie attention as a networked-notes app. (See: #roamcult) At least for now, I’ve enjoyed reading in-depth use studies more than actually using it. Somewhat relatedly, it’s been a big few weeks for Notion, which I continue to use more as a work/life dashboard than a notes app. This general area of knowledge management is one I’m deeply interested in and will continue to be tracking.
Speaking of tech, I’m three episodes into “Devs” (Hulu) and plan on continuing. Intrigued. (I loved the look of Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina.”)
On my family’s own isolation front, lack of options breeds ingenuity. Today Leo and I played driveway tennis over a rope tied between our basketball hoop and a locked stroller, followed by foam-ball lawn golf employing our Christmas tree stand as the hole. Worked surprisingly well.
How bleak, unlivable, insufferable existence becomes when we are deprived of artwork. That the life and work of writers facing peril must be protected is urgent, but along with that urgency we should remind ourselves that their absence, the choking off of a writer’s work, its cruel amputation, is of equal peril to us. The rescue we extend to them is a generosity to ourselves….
Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorry into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.
From Morrison’s 1998 Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address:
If I spend my life despising you because of your race, or class, or religion, I become your slave. If you spend yours hating me for similar reasons, it is because you are my slave. I own your energy, your fear, your intellect. I determine where you live, how you live, what your work is, your definition of excellence, and I set limits to your ability to love. I will have shaped your life. That is the gift of your hatred; you are mine….
We are already live-chosen by ourselves. Humans, and as far as we know there are no others. We are the moral inhabitants of the galaxy. Why trash that magnificent obligation after working so hard in the womb to assume it? You will be in positions that matter. Positions in which you can decide the nature and quality of other people’s lives. Your errors may be irrevocable. So when you enter those places of trust, or power, dream a little before you think, so your thoughts, your solutions, your directions, your choices about who lives and who doesn’t, about who flourishes and who doesn’t will be worth the very sacred life you have chosen to live. You are not helpless. You are not heartless. And you have time.
Lastly, here is the oft-quoted passage from Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Lecture in Literature:
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
Thanks to a chance moment listening to KDHX in the car, I’ve now had Haley Heynderickx on repeat — especially her record “I Need to Start a Garden,” and especially the song “Oom Sha La La.” Looked it up, and sure enough, there’s a Tiny Desk concert in the books as well, with that tune kicking it off. Grateful for the find.
Writing solidifies, chat dissolves. Substantial decisions start and end with an exchange of complete thoughts, not one-line-at-a-time jousts. If it’s important, critical, or fundamental, write it up, don’t chat it down.
Dimly, I had never read a word of Anne Enright’s before recently hearing her recommended by Stephen Metcalf on the Slate Culture Gabfest. Based on my gobbling up of The Gathering, I’ve been missing a lot. The prose was utterly controlled and evocative, with surprising, perfect dichotomies throughout:
But this is 1925. A man. A woman. She must know what lies ahead of them now. She knows because she is beautiful. She knows because of all the things that have happened since. She knows because she is my Granny, and when she put her hand on my cheek I felt the nearness of death and was comforted by it. There is nothing as tentative as an old woman’s touch; as loving or as horrible.
Loved this passage from Sam Jacob’s essay “Context as Destiny: The Eameses from Californian Dreams to the Californiafication of Everywhere,” published in the satisfyingly chunky The World of Charles and Ray Eames (2016):
For architects and designers like [Peter and Alison Smithson, who were British], the Eameses’ Californian-ness opened a dazzlingly bright window into another world, a sun-kissed world far from the origins of European modernism weighed down by all that Old War baggage — by history, politics and war, by notions of an avant-garde, by post-war reconstruction and the serious politics of the welfare state.
To the Smithsons and their ilk, the Eameses appeared as if designers from the near future. They saw in the American couple a ‘light-hearted thinking in featherweight climate-bits-and-pieces seeming off-the-peg-architecture … [a] do-it-yourself out of gorgeous catalogues, the Sears-Roebuck thinking … [a] whole blow-up, plug-in, camp-out, dump-digging type of thinking and living.’ They saw in Charles and Ray the kind of design practice that they themselves were struggling to imagine — a form of design practice that combined the modernist legacy of social improvement with new sensibilities of popular, mass-produced modernity. They saw a lightness of touch, with a direct connection to lifestyle and an easy ability to reach out across the traditional boundaries of design and out into the wider world.