Books: Food: A Culinary History [audiocourse], Turning Points of World History [audiocourse], Who Fears Death
TV: Atlanta [season 1]
Other: Gone Home
Food: A Culinary History by Ken Albala [audiocourse]
This is Ken Albala's 2013 Teaching Company audiocourse about the history of world cuisine.
The Teaching Company's audiocourses exist on a spectrum between "listicles" and "essays". On the essay end, the entire course is interconnected, and it feels like every lecture is just an arbitrarily-excerpted chunk of one giant book. The lectures build on each other, such that the order they're put in feels like the only order possible. Maybe Robert Greenberg's music courses feel a bit like this.
On the other end are the listicles, where each course is a grab-bag of self-contained lectures. Each lecture covers its one, self-standing topic. The course could be presented in any order without any confusion, and it's ideal for listening to sporadically -- you never get the feeling of "losing the thread" of things. The genre-fiction courses about sci-fi and mysteries are on this end of things.
This food-history course -- and indeed, most history courses from the Teaching Company -- falls towards the "listicle" end of things. He does recount his material in rough chronological order, but the lectures feel like self-contained vignettes, quick glimpses into a variety of historical cuisines. There's no real central thesis to the course, and he uses food as a launching off point to explore warfare, and philosophy, and chemistry, and a dozen other subjects as he goes.
So it can feel a bit like randomly flipping through cable channels.
But the course has a lot going for it. The presenter is engaging and well-spoken, and the lectures, apart from a few sporadic cooking demos, work well in audio format. The course is Western-focused, but does make time for a variety of world cultures.
But mainly, food history is just a fascinating subject. It's the one piece of everyday life that no history textbook will bother telling you. Period dramas seem to overlook it. What people cook, and what people eat, seems to fall between two stools -- the names of Great Men and the dates of battles and the momentous inventions on one side, and the social movements and the strikes and riots and the struggle for rights on the other. Eating is just too everyday to take note of.
And that's a shame, because if there's one thing a historical overview reveals, it's that modern food is *weird*.
"Yes, Peter, of course, mumble mumble GMOs murble processed food filth flarn filth I only eat fifty dollar locally sourced arugula salad."
No. I mean, yes, that's part of it. But even the basic stuff. Having salt and pepper shakers on your table: that's weird. That's a quirky, idiosyncratic artifact of this particular place and time. Even sticking to the West, go back a few hundred years, and you'd keep three bottles on your table. (And no modern historian knows what the third one was, because nobody ever bothered to write it down.)
Having potatoes is weird. The history of it, from its first cultivation in the New World, then transportation back to the Old World, then reintroduction to the United States, then famines from monoculture productions, then development of all the different cultivars -- there is no inevitability to how *anything* in modern cuisine came to be. Seems like, if a few quirks of biology and history had gone differently, we all might be eating, I dunno, jicama or something.
Even the notion that food should taste like itself -- that a carrot should taste like a carrot -- is a quirk of modern times. Other eras valued a sort of perverse desire to make ingredients taste like other things; still others would just dump piles of cinnamon on everything and call it a day.
And it also puts modern food movements -- say, the whole 'locovore' thing, or the rebellion against processed food, or even the whimsical 'scientific gastronomy' craze that blew through the world of haute cuisine -- into context. Similar things have happened before. Similar things will happen again.
So the overall topic is fascinating. The course often kind of floats by, darting from topic to topic, never quite adding up to anything. But it's full of fun trivia -- though it has a few bits of worrying fakelore worked in -- and it's entertaining throughout.
Overall, I had a good time, and it was yet another building block towards giving me a vague overall understanding of world history.
Turning Points of Modern History [audiocourse] by Vejas Liulevicius
This is the 2013 Teaching Company course that summarizes 24 events that Professor Liulevicius believes are turning points of modern history.
It's interesting to compare this audiocourse to Food: A Culinary History. It feels like, of the two, this one should be the unabashed listicle, the collection of little, self-contained historical vignettes, while the food course gives more of a through-line, following its subject through the ages.
Yet it kind of works out the opposite way. The food course had very self-contained lectures, dropping in on this culture and that one. This 'turning points' course has its little self-contained historical events, but it works very hard at connecting them into an overall narrative. For instance, one lecture covers Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, and then for the next three hundred years, we see turning points that hinge on having this newfangled technology. (Hard to have a Protestant Reformation if you can't fire off a zillion copies of The Ninety-Five Theses.)
And each lecture spins out into a whole thread covering the events of that time. The opening event, "The Fall of Constantinople", chronicles the entire collapse of the Roman empire; the final event, "The Rise of Social Media", covers the history of the Internet. And the professor ably returns to common themes throughout, centered on what it means, for the people involved in each event, to be "modern" -- how these people relate to their own past, and what kind of world they're trying to create for their future.
As usual with these historical audiocourses, I don't know if there's anything in particular I've picked up here that, on its own, helps me understand the broad span of history. Instead, it feels like each course I listen to is giving me another layer of detail on some giant progressive JPG of world history. I'm slowly, patiently, building up a basic framework of what happened when. If I hear about the Opium Wars a fifth time, it'll probably finally stick.
I do wonder how far I'll get with history before old age creeps in and my brain gives up. But it's nice to make slow and patient progress on it.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
This is Ms. Okorafor's 2010 sci-fi novel about a magical quest across post-apocalyptic Sudan. (George R. R. Martin is producing an upcoming adaptation for HBO!)
I liked this book. I wish I had loved it. The expansion of sci-fi and fantasy to places outside of predominantly white, mostly US and European authors, has been the most exciting development in the field since cyberpunk, and seeing how different cultures work with the genre has been amazing and heartwarming. Though Ms. Okorafor is Nigerian-American, her debut adult novel broke things wide open for sci-fi telling us stories set in sub-Saharan Africa. (The South African sci-fi scene has been burgeoning along for some time now.)
And the world-building draws considerable strength from being a story set in post-apocalyptic Sudan. It's a rich world of lived-in detail, full of long history and bizarre magic, and it's not just yet another retread of Tolkien's ersatz medievalism.
In some cases, though, it felt... odd. The book lined up, in rapid succession, genocidal rape gangs, female genital mutilation, and child soldiers. It felt almost propagandistic, like the writer had looked up "topo cultural atrocities in Africa", printed it up as a checklist, and worked her way down the list, so as to ensure that reading the book would make me feel as miserable Africa as possible.
Maybe in my heart of hearts I'd been hoping for breezy escapism. I'm not sure.
But overall, the world-building is rich and engaging. The book does a fine job of slowly bringing the supernatural elements to the fore. There's a brief "cold open" where we see that yes, this is a world with some freaky magic in it, and then wind back to the start of the story, where things are more mundane. Then Ms. Okorafor gently introduces the technological elements, showing us that this world comes after the apocalypse of some distant future. Then the magic creeps in at the edges, in moments. But over time, the magic mounts in scale and significance and detail as the heroine discovers the full range of her powers.
The heroine, Onyesonwu, is another excellent element -- a powerful teen girl who unhesitatingly fights back (and usually wins) against a hidebound, misogynist society. The book is absolutely on board with Onyesonwu being morally right to do so. The book is also cheerfully sex-positive and happy to explore the friendships among women as they go on their quest.
It's the 'quest' part, though, that loses my interest somewhat. Fantasy novels often stumble when it comes to plotting, because the point of the novel isn't "let's watch people doing this exciting thing" but rather "let's use these people as a chance to see this exciting world", and Who Fears Death felt a little like that to me, too. There were long stretches where the heroine and her posse were trekking west, and I forgot where they were going, and why, and what was at stake. It started feeling like an alternate-universe travelogue, where we saw interesting cities and settlements, had briefly-stressful difficulties in each place, and wandered on again.
That wasn't a dealbreaker. There was enough character development and simple, clear relationship drama to make the story feel cohesive, and the book's setting and point of view were both strong and engaging. But the book rarely compelled me to read more of it, and I doubt I'll catch up on its prequel.
Atlanta [season 1]
This is the first season of Donald Glover's 2015 FX series about a young man who, to make ends meet, latches on to managing his cousin's burgeoning career as a rapper.
This is another great show in the tradition of Louie and Master of None and several other series I haven't seen yet, a show where they give a comic writer a chance to do a loose anthology, reusing characters, but never really showing much concern for an overarching plot. Instead, each episode lets the comedian explore some topic of interest, using the episode storyline to bring some aspect of life into focus, and patiently observe.
We really need a word for this genre. For this writeup, I'll call them "drift sitcoms", but please, America: come up with something better.
It makes for a show that's refreshing, after seeing my fill of superhero movies and TV shows intent on gripping season arcs. But on the other hand, *binging* a drift sitcom is usually a bad idea -- it feels like a friend yammering at you about random topics for hours on end.
A drift sitcom lives and dies on one thing: the voice of the person writing it. If that voice comes through strongly, then it ties the show together: every episode shows you another facet of this person trying to get across their view of the world. It doesn't matter if the plot adds up or if the world is 100% consistent; that's not what a drift sitcom aims to do.
I'm honestly kind of conflicted about how well Atlanta does, by this criterion. It moseys unhurriedly around a few things that seem to be on the production team's mind. Donald Glover has been doing a lot of work expressing the cringe-y awkwardness of fame -- not the self-pitying "oh it's hard being a star" of (say) Drake or other hip-hop artists that go down that same rabbithole, but more like "the people around me are not acting like normal humans and it's freaking me out." He uses this deftly in Atlanta, when Paper Boi's growing reputation in the hip-hop scene makes people act, well, weird and fake -- done best when a mother pivots from chastising Paper Boi from talking to her kids to smiling widely and flirting with him, within about twenty seconds.
But it's also about what it's like being black, with episodes devoted to the prison system (with cops who are terrifying in their matter-of-fact violence), a BET satire, and a Juneteenth party thrown by an old, rich white guy who is *way* too excited about African-American culture.
And then for an episode it steps away from those to closely observe Vanessa, Ern's somewhat-estranged wife, for a half-hour.
Moment-to-moment, it's got a clear point of view. But it doesn't really add up to anything. But at this same time, this idle, meandering quality gives it charm -- it doesn't have to hurry along according to some mission statement; it can just devote itself fully to "whatever Donald Glover and company feel like talking about this episode". I'm reminded of the delightful self-indulgence of The Hateful Eight, where the story could break all the rules because the storyteller had been given carte blanche. It's confident, and it makes for fun surprises, like including a black character named "Justin Bieber". It can waver from realism to broad satire, and set its tone to every gradation in between.
Individual episodes chug along with decent plotlines. They meander, too -- it's built into the DNA of the show -- but Ern is always so close to abject poverty that every effort he makes, from pawning his cell phone to trying to get Paper Boi paid for a club gig, has practically life-and-death stakes.
(And the show often looks beautiful, particular in its exterior shots. It feels like these days, if any show is on location outdoors, everything suddenly turns into a Terence Malick movie or something.)
So... I like the show. I'm glad I watched the show. But I never felt all that compelled to watch the show. I admit, some of the time it sort of felt like 'spinach cinema', as I worked through the latest plot-light jaunt and waited to really connect with it.
But I do recommend it. In a way, after TV churned out endless nearly-identical episodes of workhorses like Gunsmoke, and after we had all those 80s sitcoms that hit the reset button every week, and after all the "golden age" dramas that focused on long story arcs and, right on its heels, dizzyingly self-referential comedies that built wide, self-consistent universes -- after all that, the drift sitcoms have brought us back to the earliest days of TV: anthology shows, where they told a bunch of different stories, but united it to a particular point of view.
Check out the show and see what you think.
Gone Home [spoilers]
This is the 2013 first-person exploration game in which you return from a trip to your family's mysteriously-empty home. It's an early success in the so-called "walking simulator" genre, which is known for minimal conflict and puzzle solving, with more emphasis on discovering a narrative via free exploration.
I know they didn't intend it this way, but Gone Home has got to be one of the greatest (and least intentional) bait-and-switches in the history of gaming. You show up at a spooky Victorian mansion during a relentless thunderstorm at night. You see a letter from your sister pasted to the door, telling you not to investigate and not to figure out what happened to her. You find a distraught message on the answering machine.
And what you get -- what you piece together, as you explore the rooms of the house, and solve the minimal puzzles that impose an order on your exploration -- is a gorgeous, closely-observed story of a teenage girl falling in love, and coming out to her parents.
It comes across as achingly personal, like this team *had* to tell this story somehow, and figured that this medium would be the best way to recount it.
What amazes me is that this guess is almost exactly wrong.
It was a bunch of game devs for BioShock who decided to spin off their own company. They wound up making Gone Home based largely on logistical decisions. They had only enough time to make the game as they had time to live off their savings, so they made moves to limit the structure: it's a single house; there are no other characters; there are very few puzzles. Modern houses aren't structured right for gaming, so it had to be a Victorian house -- and there had to be a story of *why* it was a Victorian house. They couldn't just *fill* every room with assets, so it was a Victorian house the family had recently moved into -- so there was a story behind that as well. It needed to be a location you were unfamiliar with (so you could identify with the protagonist -- you'd both be in the same boat, w/r/t the house), so you had to be a character just coming back from a long trip abroad. They wanted it to have actual physical artifacts you could examine that conveyed their story, so it had to be in pre-Internet times, but as late as possible so it didn't feel *too* distant: ergo, the 1995 setting.
And so on. I'm sure they poured their hearts into telling this story, but the bones of the story were neatly constructed out of their design constraints. But it still worked: by the end of the game I was almost in tears because I was terrified that Sam had committed suicide.
And the game works in other ways as well. I was going to say "it conveys the 90s setting well", but that isn't quite it. It's not just conveying "this is the 90s!" with a lot of lazy signifiers. It's being much more specific: "This is a house in the 90s that was built around 1900 but has had bits added to it in the decades since."
The only thing I could ding it for is the frustrating quasi-puzzles. I spent a lot of time walking around and walking around and walking around, trying to find the one thing I'd overlooked so I could move forward in the story. Gone Home is a good game for looking up the walkthrough when you're stuck, because there's no great pleasure to solving a King's Quest-style "okay I finally clicked the correct pixel" puzzle on your own.
But apart from that, the game is almost eerily well-constructed. Many, many items -- usually documents, but sometimes cassettes, or mementos, or audio "diary entries" -- feed into this layered story they're telling. And it's a story not only of your sister, but with arcs for your mother and father as well. And there's even a level to the story that I never twigged to: a story of the previous generation, and a great-uncle who went into seclusion after abusing your father thirty years prior. (I only understood this after finishing the game and reading some discussions -- I had all the clues in front of me, I just never pieced it together.) Damn near every detail, from the empty pizza boxes strewn about to the brightly-colored skull on the curio shelf, fits together somehow.
And I take some schadenfreude in imagining how much this game must have infuriated gamer bros. No action. Not much complexity to the puzzles. A story that features women and LGBT themes. No cultural references more recent than the 90s riot grrl scene. No 'hardcore mode'. Few achievements, even. And ta-da! that game, the one that is the antithesis to everything the bros hold dear, notches up one stellar review after another. The designers tour the country, giving presentations at game-design conferences. The title becomes a point of reference for a thousand reviews of a thousand other games.
After finishing the game, I spent some time reading seething comments from MRA types, and it kind of made my day.
In any case, Gone Home is definitely worth your valuable time. I have wishlisted their follow-up game, Tacoma (a much more complicated take on the same basic mechanic, set aboard a space station), and will no doubt get back to Firewatch (the other widely-respected "walking simulator") soon enough.
For next week: I finally watched Get Out, and I checked out season one of The Expanse, so I'll settle in on writing about both of those. Right now I'm watching the second season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and reading another book about cat care. On audio, I'm catching up on Civics 101, NHPR's excellent refresher course on how American government works.
 ... and there's a whole tortured history to *that* root vegetable, too. IIRC they're only orange because of a particular fit of national pride among Dutch farmers in the 1600s.
 Sometimes it just felt like a series of isolated settings, each interesting in and of itself, but none of them implying a larger, broader shared world. You rarely saw "misty mountains", Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio's pet term for briefly-glimpsed, unexplained fantasy elements that exist only to create a sense of broad scope for the world.
 Is Justin Bieber black in this universe? Is this another singer character who happens to be named Justin Bieber, in a universe without the original Justin Bieber? I found myself getting weirdly philosophical about this.
 My relatives will note that this speaks to my experience with almost eerie specificity.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none