Thoughts on life after the PhD
Hey there, blog that I update like twice a year! At least this time I’m actually getting my “best of” list out before January.
Managed to watch 69 movies this year, which is way better than last year, when I only made it to 47. Here are my favorites (some of which came out before 2018 and I only just got around to watching).
Shoplifters / 万引き家族. Best movie I saw in 2018. Koreeda has been uneven for me over the past 15+ years, but this movie sees him playing to his strengths, helped along by a truly amazing cast (especially child actors Jyo Kairi & Miyu Sasaki, Sakura Ando, and the always-wonderful Kirin Kiki). Also refreshing to see a movie about poverty and hardship that actually addresses them as systemic problems rather than individual tragedies. The movie doesn’t preach, but you can feel the rage bubbling beneath the surface. It wrecked me in the best way.
Coco. I can still see that image of the bridge of marigolds stretching between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Coco would have been worth watching for its imagery alone, but luckily it’s also ridiculously poignant in that way that the best Pixar films are.
Bao. I just watched this online for the second time and it made me weepy all over again. Such a perfect little film, and such a beautiful way to illustrate the complicated relationships in immigrant families and the role that food plays in them.
A Quiet Place. I remember seeing the trailer for this a long time ago and wondering if it was a premise that could sustain a whole film. Thankfully, it was, because the performances and the family dynamic never feel less than authentic. It’s just the right length, and the ending is perfect.
The Florida Project. I can’t remember the last time that I felt as immersed in a universe as the one that this movie created: the strange, run-down community of people who live in a cheap hotel on the outskirts of Disneyworld in Florida. Every character is layered, every detail is fascinating. As Halley, a single mother who makes mistake after mistake but never takes out her frustrations on her child, Bria Vinaite is that rare female character who’s allowed to take center stage without being likable all the time. And Willem Dafoe (who for once looks like he’s really, really earned those lines on his face) embodies his role as the weary hotel manager so completely that I forgot I was watching an actor.
Mandy. Daaaaamn. This movie is a mood, as the young ones say. Sure, it’s Nic Cage at his ragin’ Cagey-est, but it’s also just a wonderful exercise in tone and atmosphere, helped along by stunning visuals and Johann Johannsson’s haunting, stoner metal-esque score (the last one he produced before he passed away). And for once there’s no sexual violence–instead, there’s a moment where you think sexual violence is going to happen, but something amazing happens instead. I’m also on board for any movie that features a sword fight but with chainsaws.
John Wick. Yeah, I get why people love this series. Admittedly I went in not knowing that the whole premise is basically a guy avenging the death of his cute dog, so I was a bit bummed by how things started out, but if you want stylish action, an amazing score, and goofy-but-delightfully-detailed worldbuilding, this will do the trick.
The Vertical Ray of the Sun. Finally got around to watching this, one of my husband’s favorite movies of all time. As usual, Tranh Anh Hung does not disappoint–it’s a feast for the eyes and ears and a celebration of human bodies lolling around in tropical sunshine or rushing through torrential downpours.
Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse. I haven’t seen this yet (won’t be in Japan till March), but I’m 99% sure that if I’d seen it this year it’d be on my list.
Also managed to read 33 books this year, which is a little better than last year.
Educated, Tara Westover. The moments when we realize the depth of Tara Westover’s educational deprivation–she doesn’t know what a “bubble sheet” is when she goes to take a test, she has no idea how to “study” a subject and is amazed when a university classmate tells her that she has to read the textbook to prepare for an exam–hit me like a ton of bricks. Educated works so well because it’s a fascinating (and horrifying) story, but also because Westover is amazingly insightful about the nature of her own journey from the barely literate daughter of doomsday cultists to Cambridge-educated memoirist. It’s amazing that she’s alive (the stories of violence in her family, both intentional and accidental, are harrowing), but it’s also amazing that she has the capacity to not only relay but offer truly profound insights about the trajectory of her life and what it can teach us about the concept of “education.”
The Kiss Quotient, Helen Hoang. It’s not that romance novels never address emotional intimacy in addition to the physical stuff, it’s just that I don’t know if anyone has ever done it as well as Helen Hoang. This book–about a woman on the autism spectrum who hires a male escort to teach her the basics of sex and relationships–is so, so good. Beyond its many rare features–Asian-American male lead, female protagonist with autism–it’s also just a heartbreakingly sweet story of a woman learning that she has the right to experience pleasure and to ask for what she wants, both in bed and out of it. Which is something I think a lot of us can relate to.
Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Another book about the strange and arbitrary rules we impose on people to maintain a very narrow image of “normal.” Protagonist Keiko is perfectly happy in her convenience store job–her descriptions of the store and why she loves it are delightful–and has no desire to be in a relationship and get married or have children, but of course her family and society as a whole just won’t leave her the fuck alone. A wonderfully unique narrative voice, beautifully translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, John Carreyrou. I remember being riveted by that 2014 New Yorker profile of Elizabeth Holmes, so happy to finally read a story of a woman breaking through so many glass ceilings: the tech world, the billionaire’s club, the genius club. And people like me, John Carreyrou convincingly argues, are a big part of the reason that Holmes and the blood testing company she founded, Theranos, were able to bamboozle so many people for so long. At the end of the story you’re still not quite sure if Holmes simply has no moral compass, is blind to the flaws in her own plan, or is just surrounded by far too many yes-men. But the desire for so many people to believe in her story–and, in a particularly interesting variety of Silicon Valley sexism, to play the role of benevolent parent / mentor to the charming young girl–clearly played a big role in keeping Theranos afloat for far too long.
Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation. People who’ve never lived in Japan are always baffled when I tell them that this place that so many people imagine as a kind of techno-utopia is still heavily dependent on fax machines, lithograph printing, and cash-only payment. Similarly, as Jennifer Robertson convincingly argues, Japan’s dreams of a robot future are very much a media-concocted fantasy–the vast majority of Japanese robots are either toys that can only perform basic functions (Aibo, Pepper) or boxy, non-humanoid factory robots that perform repetitive tasks with the help of human programmers. Even more fascinating, though, is Robertson’s examination of how the idea of a robo-centric future reveals a lot about Japanese attitudes toward gender, family, and citizenship.
The End of Japanese Cinema: Industrial Genres, National Times, and Media Ecologies. Alex Zahlten’s exhaustively researched book is one of the first to focus in great detail on the odd, complex architecture of the Japanese film industry of the last 30 years, examining highly profitable but often overlooked genres (pink film, V-cinema, Kadokawa Film) that have laid the groundwork for the messy state that Japanese cinema currently finds itself in. (Full disclosure: I know Alex.)
Pachinko, Min Jin Lee. Min Jin Lee’s epic story of multiple generations of a Korean family in Japan touches on so many facets of the immigrant experience while still managing to be unputdownable.
Sing, Unburied, Sing. Jesmyn Ward’s story of a black family in rural Mississippi and the past violence that haunts their present-day lives reads at times like a fever dream–ghosts coexist with the living, flashbacks bleed into the present, and the sense of what’s real or imagined is often hard to grasp. And yet so much of it–the crippling poverty, the horrors of Parchman Prison, the vicious cycle of drug addiction and recovery–is all too real, and too often hidden from view. I recommend just letting the book just wash over you.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. I grew up with the original Hanna-Barbera She-Ra cartoon, adored it, and will be the first to admit that it’s dreadful (but endearingly so, in that way that a lot of 80s Hanna-Barbera cartoons are). The new She-Ra pulls off an amazing trick in both paying homage to the original and its delightful oddness while forging a very new path that contemporary kids AND adults will love. Like any reboot of a franchise helmed by a woman and featuring a female lead, it came in for predictably stupid bashing from people who use the term “SJW” unironically. Which is their loss, really, because anyone who loved this show as a kid will find plenty to love in this version. I thought I’d just watch a few minutes to get a feel for a show that was inspiring lots of accolades and conversation, and I ended up binging the whole thing and loving every minute of it. It’s beautifully written, it’s funny, it’s poignant, it’s never preachy, and it has plenty of body types, ethnicities, orientations, and gender identities on display. I might need to watch it again.
The Good Place. The “Janets” episode was maybe the funniest thing I saw on TV this year, hands down.
The Terror. I love a good atmospheric, period horror piece, and The Terror is lavish with detail–costumes, sets, accents, harsh Arctic landscapes. It builds the dread so beautifully, and it does a wonderful job of portraying that particular brand of 19th century “nothing bad can happen to us, we’re British” attitude that you know almost from the start is going to get everyone on those boats killed.
Killing Eve. Dear God. I was hooked on this show from the moment we saw Villanelle (Jodi Comer) eating ice cream in a cafe and trying out different facial expressions as she gazed at a laughing child a few tables away–only to eventually stroll out of the cafe and dump the child’s ice cream in her lap. Everything about this show was so spectacular. Just give Jodi Comer & Sandra Oh all the awards already.
The Americans. SUPER late on this one (only three seasons in, don’t spoil it for me), but man, this show is consistently amazing. What I find most compelling about it is the constant juxtaposition of mundane suburban life with crazy espionage / spy life (with the former often being way more stressful). And the way that the relationship dynamic between the two leads is always shifting–they take turns being the more humane / more ruthless one, being jealous of something, or being the supporter / comforter when the other is in pain. It makes me gasp on the regular.
Salt Fat Acid Heat. I adore Anthony Bourdain and all the shows that he created, but what a revolutionary thing it is to see an Iranian-American woman in a role that’s too long been reserved primarily for white men. And to see her upend the conventions of the cooking / travel show: focusing almost exclusively on female chefs and home cooks, being more of a learner than an educator, and promoting the idea that good food should be accessible. Plus everything just looks delicious.
Terrace House. I’m confused by the people who say that “nothing happens on Terrace House,” because this show has plenty of drama. It’s just, you know, not flip-a-table, scream-obscenities-at-your-housemates drama. It’s plenty problematic–Emily Yoshida has a great writeup on the infamous “kiss out of nowhere” and the show’s long-running issues with sexism and consent–but for me it’s also a fascinating window into the changing nature of Japanese media (the show airs simultaneously on FujiTV and Netflix) and the growing cultural divide between generations, evidenced by the “commentators” (who are mostly in their forties) and the housemates (who are mostly in their twenties).
The Haunting of Hill House. Yeesh, talk about not sticking the landing. That terrible ending aside, this show did manage to scare the bejeezus out of me more than a few times, plus feature some amazing performances (as others have said, I could’ve done with more Carla Gugino as the tortured mother and way less focus on Dad and older brother Steve).
Nanette. The debate over whether this special “counts” as standup comedy was boring before it even started–call it whatever you want, this thing was riveting, enraging, cathartic, and hilarious. Gadsby’s bit on how assholes telling her she’s “too sensitive” feels “a bit like a nose being lectured by a fart” is maybe my favorite line of the year.
Believed. There was definitely a theme to a lot of the podcasts that really worked for me this year, and it was the burden of proof–specifically, the ridiculous hoops that women, people of color, and any crime victims on the margins of society have to jump through to get justice. Believed, the fascinating, horrifying, and ultimately cathartic account of how Larry Nassar was able to molest hundreds of young girls right in front of their parents, certainly exemplifies that. If, like me, you shied away from this one because of the subject matter, I urge you to at least listen to the first episode–it does a wonderful job of examining the very specific combination of factors (misogyny and a tendency not to believe women among them) that allowed Nassar to get away with his crimes for so long.
Dr. Death. Speaking of people getting away with heinous crimes for too long…this guy literally butchered people in the operating room. Doctors saw him do it. They reported him, again and again. And none of the hospitals where he worked would do anything concrete to keep him from performing surgeries elsewhere, just because they didn’t want to run the risk of lawsuits from patients. It’s a damning indictment of a lot of things (white privilege, medical bureaucracy), but mostly of what happens when hospitals are run as businesses first and medical care facilities second. If you ever need surgery, talk to some of the hospital’s nurses. They apparently know better than anyone who’s safe and who’s a quack. (Warning: this one contains very graphic descriptions of surgeries gone wrong, maybe not for the squeamish.)
In the Dark, Season 2. Curtis Flowers has been tried six times for a crime that he very obviously didn’t commit. He’s been sitting on death row in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Prison for more than twenty years. The story of how he got there is a horrifying descent into deep-seated racism and a broken justice system, with Madeline Baran’s Peabody Award-winning team spending over a year living in rural Mississippi, sifting through rotting records in an abandoned plastics factory, and doggedly interviewing anyone who will talk to them about the Flowers case. Thanks in part to their reporting and the mountain of evidence they uncovered that points to gross misconduct by the prosecution, Curtis Flowers’ appeal has been accepted by the Supreme Court for review.
Serial, Season 3. A good chunk of the U.S. population–say, anyone without power, money, or influence who’s had to deal with the criminal justice system–has always known that our justice system is broken. This podcast, which spent an entire season focusing on the trials in a single courthouse in Cleveland, is a wakeup call for the rest of us.
The Dream. It seems like everyone I know is talking about this podcast, hosted by journalist and former This American Life producer Jane Marie, which delves into the world of multi-level marketing schemes (companies like AmWay, Mary Kay, and Herbalife) that make money not through selling a product, but by recruiting as many people as possible to SELL said product (with the people at the top taking a cut of what everyone underneath them sells). It’s meticulously researched and mesmerizing, and I sincerely hope anyone who’s been sucked into the MLM world (or who just had to endure endless “party invitations” from family members or friends) listens to it. You’ll begin by being amazed at how damaging MLMs are, and by the end, sadly, you may well conclude that the U.S. is basically one big pyramid scheme.
Night Call. Writers and all-around smart people Molly Lambert, Emily Yoshida, and Tess Lynch have the kinds of podcast conversations that would make anyone wish they could be sitting at the table with them. Haunted Ouija boards, a ranking of the best sauces, revisiting E.T., the wacky Phantom of the Opera sequel, occasional bits of celebrity gossip–the episodes always fly by.
By the Book. I usually roll my eyes at self-help books, maybe because so many of them are terribly written. So I’m super grateful for Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer’s podcast in which they read a well-known self-help book, live by its rules for two weeks, and then talk about it. If anything, it’s a fascinating look at the self-help industry and the strange (and not so strange) ways that we measure happiness and success. The hosts aren’t afraid to be vulnerable and open up about their own struggles with certain types of self-improvement. They even got me to buy one of those books (The Curated Closet) and try out the advice from a few of the others (The Nature Fix, What to Say When You Talk to Yourself).
Nancy. Nancy makes me cry at least every other episode and makes me laugh just as often. A podcast by & for the queer community, it covers everything from finding a “gaggle” (a group of queer friends) to same-sex arranged marriages to host Kathy Tu’s difficult coming out conversations with her Chinese mother.
Ear Hustle. Created inside San Quentin and hosted by inmate Earlonne Woods and visual artist Nigel Poor, Ear Hustle isn’t always an easy listen. But it’s done more than almost any piece of media I can think of to humanize the hundreds of thousands of people incarcerated in the U.S., and to offer a window into how they ended up there, how they survive inside, and the challenges they face after they leave. Incidentally, host Earlonne Woods was just granted a full pardon by the state of California after more than twenty years of being incarcerated, and is now working with the show from the outside.
Halloween Unmasked. This podcast, a collaboration between film critic Amy Nicholson and The Ringer, gets to the heart of why Halloween was such an important film, and gives Debra Hill, the woman who was responsible for so much of its success, some long-overdue credit.
Again With This. Look, this podcast–a recap of every episode of Beverly Hills, 90210–is either for you or it isn’t. All I know is that it makes my Tuesday morning packed-train commute a lot more bearable.
How Did This Get Made? I got a Stitcher Premium membership just so I could binge the back catalogue. Jason, June, and Paul’s commentary on bad movies always brightens my day (in addition to making me double over with laughter in the middle of the train).
Journalism, Blogs, and Social Media
“Japan’s Rent-a-Family Industry,” Elif Batuman, The New Yorker. This is one of the first stories about Japan’s particular brand of compensated intimacy–which can be found in services like “renting” family members to spend time with, animal cafes, host / hostess clubs, and establishments where you can pay to just lay your head in a woman’s lap–that didn’t feel overly fetishizing and didn’t paint all of the people who work in this industry or their clients as pathetic or weird. Instead, Elif Batuman reveals that, whether we like it or not, all relationships have a transactional element to them. And loneliness is a painful, worldwide problem that some people in Japan are just a little more willing to pay someone to alleviate.
“A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylan Roof,” Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, GQ. “And so where on that beach he wrote down hatred in the sand, I carved into it all nine of their names: Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Daniel Simmons, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson.”
“I’m a Female Chef. Here’s How My Restaurant Dealt with Harassment,” Erin Wade, The Washington Post. In a year with far too many frustrating stories of how sexual harassment continued unabated in various industries and was dismissed / ignored / disbelieved by those with the power to stop it, it’s refreshing to read at least one story of one restaurant that did something right.
“How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success,” Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker. Yeesh. I thought I was numb to Trump origin stories, but this one made my skin crawl.
“In a Tokyo Neighborhood’s Last Sushi Restaurant, a Sense of Loss,” Mari Saito, Reuters. A lyrical, moving story of the sort of neighborhood restaurant that is gradually disappearing all over Tokyo.
“Louis C.K. and Men Who Think Justice Takes as Long as They Want It To,” Roxane Gay, The New York Times. I don’t think I’ve nodded my head this much at a piece in a long time. Yes, redemption of people who sexually harassed others is possible, but a) they need to prove, via their words and actions (and wallets, if they’re rich) that they really understand what they did wrong and that they’re working to atone for it, 2) we need to start valuing women’s safety more highly than we value men’s reputations, and 3) when you repeatedly harassed people for YEARS and did nothing to stop the harassment and blacklisting of women who called you out for it, less than a year is nowhere NEAR long enough to suddenly show up on stage as if everything’s fine now, with no warning to the women who might have to work alongside you and no guarantee that you won’t engage in the same kind of behavior again. Only a couple of people have convincingly apologized for this kind of bad behavior (Dan Harmon comes to mind). Louis C.K. hasn’t even come close.
“Some Rules of Civility in the Trump Era,” Alexandra Petri, The Washington Post. Seriously, fuck civility.
“Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” Anthony Bourdain, The New Yorker. I miss Anthony Bourdain so much.
“What About The Breakfast Club?” Molly Ringwald, The New Yorker. Reckoning with the racism and sexism of beloved 80s films is a thing a lot of people are doing these days, but seeing it done by Molly Ringwald herself, with her unique insights into what it was like to be sexualized as a teenager, the way that rape and sexual harassment were normalized, and her more-than-a-little-complicated relationship with John Hughes and the legacy of his films, sheds a whole new light on things.
Sachi Schmidt-Hori on the fetishization of race. My colleague and friend Sachi Schmidt-Hori writes very, very clearly about something I’ve felt for years but have had trouble elucidating: the way that Japanese students sometimes fetishize white students and ignore non-white ones (or characterize them as less “American”). And on a larger scale, the complicated relationship between white privilege, national identity, and the more “benevolent” forms of racism that can be harder for people to understand.
Maura Quint on not being assaulted. This came out during the Kavanaugh hearings. It’s a reminder the bar for decent behavior is really, really low, and yet we still have trouble holding men to it.
Video Essays / Series
Jenny Nicholson. Jenny Nicholson’s style of humor mixed with critique, much of it related to Star Wars and theme parks, will either work for you or it won’t. It works for me in a big way. I’ve watched her “rating every porg” video at least three times, and her super deep dive into the new Avatar-themed Pandora theme park–which she convincingly argues is a dystopian nightmare where the Na’vi have all been eradicated and the humans have appropriated their culture–is fascinating.
Lindsay Ellis. Lindsay Ellis continued to engage in really thoughtful media commentary this year, including a lengthy series on exactly what’s wrong with the Hobbit trilogy (which also includes a really insightful section on why we all need to acknowledge the darker side of some of the media we consume). Her video on manufacturing authenticity–which brilliantly uses a popular cake-making YouTube series as a way to talk about how pseudo-intimacy is a new form of capital that more and more media platforms are trying to manufacture and monetize–is also great.
“Sober Halloween” Twitter thread. Delightfully specific Halloween costumes for those of us who just can’t be bothered to make an effort.
“The Recipient of All Those Letters About Frankenstein Writes Back,” Alexandra Petri, The Washington Post. “Chapter breaks, really? This is still a letter, isn’t it?”
Grinch the dog. I have not laughed so hard in a long time.
Emmett Otter outtakes. Way funnier than The Happytime Murders. (I haven’t seen The Happytime Murders, I just know this to be true.)
Long Long Man. Lives up to the hype. So much Japanese humor tends to be celebrated for just being weird, but this one was, like, actually very funny. And it could have ruined everything by taking a homophobic turn at the end, but thankfully it didn’t.
“Sean Penn the Novelist Must Be Stopped,” Claire Fallon, The Huffington Post. Again, arguably–no, definitely–better than having to read his book.
“Board Games for Adjunct Professors,” Ross Bullen, McSweeney’s. “The Game of Life: You live in a car. The car is also your office.”
A deep sea fisherman’s photos on Instagram. If you never wanna sleep again or want to know where China Mieville gets ideas for his monsters.
Judith Butler’s lectures at Meiji University. I’d never seen Judith Butler speak in person, and I know these lectures were probably a bit elementary for people who know her work well, but for me they offered wonderful insights into what it means to live a “good life” (in the philosophical sense), as well as moving personal stories about Butler’s own early encounters with philosophy and literature.
Team Lab: Borderless. It’s worth it. Just try to go on a weekday, get your tickets in advance, and check the website for the less-busy times.
NK Jemison’s Hugo acceptance speech. She won the Hugo three times and this speech is the perfect (rocket-shaped) middle finger to the racist assholes who have repeatedly tried to convince her that she doesn’t belong in science fiction.
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