Bit of an unusual one this month as I simultaneously prepare to leave Perth for my 3 month housesit in Victoria (and potentially much longer) while also trying to make the most of my limited time left here. This month of reading, watching and listening will also mark an interesting turning point too – I’ve just cancelled my Netflix account and replaced it with Audible! The goal is to try to get through more of the books that have been on my “To Read” list for far too long, and I’m hoping listening to them during long trips or to wind down at the end of each day will be easier than reading them… but we’ll see.
It’s also a slightly different post this month because I’ve delved a lot deeper than usual into the personal circumstances around some of what I’ve been reading and watching. A few things have cropped up from the recent and distant past that I’ve given a second look to this month, alongside finishing a few other things that have felt like unfinished business. It’s made this entry a LOT longer than usual, but hopefully it provides a few extra insights on me in the process 🙂
What I’m Reading
With only a few weeks left in Perth before the 3 month housesit starts, I’ve been trying to go through everything I have and tie-up a lot of loose ends. Part of that has involved recharging my Kindle and deciding whether to read some of the books I’ve left unread for many many years… in some cases ever since I bought my first kindle in late 2012. What I wasn’t expecting was to rediscover The Religion of the Samurai by Kaiten Nukariya – a book I’d read 2/3’s of and written about in a previous reading, watching, listening over a year ago, but had stopped reading because I believed I had learned all I needed from it. Turns out I had a LOT more to learn from it!
As I discussed in the previous entry from February 2018, I lost interest as the book seemed to shift away from quoting Zen masters and started to conduct it’s own analysis of how different Buddhist schools vary in their approaches – as it drifted away from Zen itself. Picking the book back up I was quickly reminded why I had put it down over a year ago, but I couldn’t have known then I was only a few pages away from both a major transition point in the book AND the end of the book itself! The final chapter “Chapter 8 – The Training of the Mind and the Practice of Meditation” appears to be nearly 50 pages long, but more than half of that is references!
The 19 pages of actual writing took less than an hour to read, and Kaiten Nukariya really did leave the best til last. The overall the book is a brilliant study of both Buddhism generally and Zen specifically, but obviously gets bogged down the further it ventures beyond discussing Zen. It sharply veers back to the specifics of Zen in the final chapter though – almost like Nukariya remembered what the book was supposed to be about – and it instantly comes back to life in those insightful final 19 pages.
As with every book that offers so much I’ll be certain to re-read it, but I also know that I don’t have to read all of it and the parts I read don’t need to be in any kind of order. There’s no need to delve into the sloggy discussions of other Buddhist practices in Chapter 7, but I’m certain to re-read many times those amazing 19 pages that end the book with Chapter 8.
Take what resonates and teaches you something, and run with it – not a bad way to approach life generally 🙂
What I’m Watching
Way back in 2005 in the last year of my physics degree, I started dating a film student and we spent over 3 years together – my first real relationship and easily my longest. Looking back though I’m a little surprised we stuck it out as long as we did, because she enthusiastically introduced me to a huge array of amazing films and albums… that I absolutely shat on at the time.
One of the resounding patterns that’s emerged after we split up in early 2009 however is that many of the things she introduced me to and I rejected have now grown on me to the point of becoming my favourite pieces of literature. I turned off The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou after the first 15 minutes when she initially tried to get me to watch it, but just months after we broke up it became one of my favourite films of all-time. I would constantly make fun of the lead singer’s voice any time she put on the self-titled album from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but I’ve listened to it with surprising regularity in the decade since we split.
Much of what she introduced me to I only started to really value in the year or so after we broke up, but there’s been a few gems that I didn’t recognise til much later and the most surprising was having Children of Men pop up as a Netflix recommendation. I remember watching it on a dodgy VCD (look it up, millennials) in early 2007 and being fairly ambivalent about it, thinking Michael Caine’s pot-dealing hippie character was the only person in this grim film that was any fun. That may still be true to a certain extent, but re-watching this month made me realise just how incredible a film it really is. In 2007 I also didn’t know who
Alfonso Cuarón was, but I do now.
The story is as apocalyptic, dark and desperate as you can imagine, yet there’s a sliver of hope that runs throughout. As countless reviewers have commented since 2016, the topics it explores and the themes running throughout are even more important now than they were when it was released in 2006. To top it off, the cinematography is absolutely stunning – not in a Lord of the Rings “look at this stunning scenery” way, but in a “epic urban warfare scene involving a single-shot lasting nearly 6 & a half minutes” kind of way.
If you haven’t ever seen Children of Men, see it. If you saw it a decade ago, go and see it again… and be mildly horrified by how much closer we are today to the vision of the future it portrays.
I’ve said it multiple times, but I’m always sceptical of the stuff Netflix features – the fact that Chris Lilley’s latest mistral bullshit is autoplaying every time I login is a prime example of why. Buuuuuut I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for smart and feisty women with curly red hair, so it was really only a matter of time before I gave Russian Doll a chance… and I’m glad I did.
The premise is simple – woman dies on her birthday, but keeps finding herself suddenly back at the same moment in a bathroom to do things over again. My first thoughts were “Cool, Groundhog Day except she keeps dying and restarting instead of waking up stuck in the same day”, so as I was watching I wasn’t expecting was for the rules of the Russian Doll universe to be different from the Groundhog Day.
Things start getting a LOT weirder and a tad scary a couple of episodes in when you suddenly you realise that Russian Doll is playing by a very different set of rules. Looking back on it having Natasha Lyonne play a software engineer adds an interesting perspective I wasn’t expecting and didn’t full understand initially, but it means she starts solving the bug in looped universe almost immediately… as opposed to Bill Murray who starts believing he’s a God and robs banks until he makes himself a better person mostly out of boredom.
Russian Doll isn’t just funny, it’s also packed with surprises and has some really genuine emotional stakes in play. I love Groundhog Day, but Russian Doll is just as funny but an order of magnitude smarter and darker – don’t write it off just because you think you know the premise already, because you almost certainly don’t.
Right around the time I discovered Mars One and was preparing to leave the UK to talk about it back in Australia, Derren Brown put out three shows in 4 weeks – the two part Apocalypse, a deep-dive on placebos in Fear, and induces a religious experience in an atheist in Faith. I’d first seen Derren Brown in his series The Experiments, and was desperate to see Apocalypse in particular, but late 2012 was an incredibly turbulent time in my life. I’m not entirely sure where I was when it broadcast – probably trying to sort my life out between Brighton & Stroud – but I remember being immensely disappointed that I’d missed it. It wasn’t until I was back in Australia and things calmed down a little that I remembered it and tried to pull it up online through the Channel 4 website… only to be region blocked!
I completely forgot about Derren Brown for years after that, but the moment Apocalypse popped up in my Netflix recommendations a few weeks back I immediately added it to My List, and set aside a couple of hours to finally watch the two-part series back-to-back. One of the things I used to love about Derren Brown’s shows is that he’s never shown an ounce of cruelty. He may be hypnotising people and putting them into frankly terrifying situations for television, but the overwhelming sense is that he’s actively and directly making the lives of those involved better. Apocalypse is a prime example of that – a young guy who’s lost direction is suddenly given the opportunity to prove himself in an end-of-world scenario. There’s no denying it’s all tightly manipulated, but the end result is someone doing courageous things and acting in amazing ways that they (and those around them) may never have believed they were capable of.
Likewise Fear is an incredible example of people overcoming truly debilitating phobias and addictions through multi-layered placebos. Yes it’s all made for television, and yes it becomes clear that participants are selected specifically for their hypnotic susceptibility – almost everyone is in their early 20’s for starters. But at the same time what is being achieved in these shows is incredible to witness, and it all comes back to people undervaluing the extraordinary power we each have to shape our experience of reality through our minds.
The only slightly damp squib for me was the Faith episode, where Derren speaks to an ardent atheist in a church for 15 minutes, he steps out of the chapel for a few minutes, and while he’s gone she stands up and has an overwhelming and tear-inducing religious experience. The show itself carries a different structure – more of a filmed stage show with video segments in between – but it also feels like he’s tried to jam as much into the hour as possible rather than maintaining the more measured pace of Apocalypse and Fear. It’s still brilliant, but trying to describe it to other people is much harder – the narrative gets lost a little through all the various things he gets the studio and broadcast audience to do.
I’m glad I finally got to watch Apocalypse as well as Fear & Faith – I kind of wish it hadn’t taken so long to make it happen, but as I head into a new phase with Mars One as I begin writing Cosmic Nomad it also kind of feels like the timing is right in it’s own quirky way.
After seeing Wrath of Khan as a 9 year old, it’s safe to say I’ve been terrified of both Star Trek and things crawling into my ear. And while I learned enough about Star Trek through osmosis to understand the broad strokes, I avoided actually watching any of it at all costs til my mid 20’s. It took me a few years before I was convinced to give the 2009 reboot a go, but ever since then I’ve been a slightly reluctant fan – Into Darkness was definitely worth watching (I was especially grateful for the lack of ear creatures) and I can say honestly that I found Beyond to be genuinely brilliant.
I’ve still got no real compulsion to go back and watch the original series, or Next Generation, or DSN, or Voyager (even though I regularly see snippets of reruns on TV), and not even Scott Bakula can sell me on Enterprise. But after I started reading the mixed online responses to Star Trek Discovery and it’s bizarre mushroom warp-drive, I figured it might be worth looking at a Star Trek prequel set well before Kirk, Khan, and the ear creatures.
Now that the second season has just finished, I feel like I can honestly say that I’m enjoying the rebooted Star Trek universe, but I’m still not a converted trekkie. Some of the writing in Discovery is unbelievably terrible, and while I’m not opposed to a certain level of hand-waving if it moves the story forward there’s often not enough story to move forward into to justify some of the shit that happens on screen. What I have loved however is seeing a whole range of incredible characters develop over two seasons. Yes, I wish they could do less of their grand character exposition during major time-critical emergency situations, but I do love seeing these characters develop none the less.
And while the internet seems set on hating her, there’s no character I love seeing on screen more than Ensign Tilly. She’s a dork, hilariously awkward, and another curly-haired ginger who I have an unapologetic crush on… but besides Michael Burnham there’s really no one who’s had quite as much clear character growth as Tilly, and it’s been wonderful to watch. So while I’m certainly not a converted trekkie and I do have some major misgivings about the show, I’ll probably still watch the third season when it comes out – it feels like there’s more than enough hope and character development in a space setting to keep me hooked for an hour a week 🙂
What I’m Listening To
The albums Spotify has been recommending to me lately have been pretty rubbish, and while many of the singles added to my Discover Weekly playlist have been good I’ve consistently found the albums they’re from have left a lot to be desired. Except one – Morbid Stuff from Pup.
The single “Kids” popped up on my Discover Weekly awhile back and I immediately added it to my regular playlist, but it seemed it was only available as a single on Spotify. I tried a few of Pup’s earlier albums instead without finding anything I liked, and then kind of forgot about it for awhile. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that Morbid Stuff suddenly popped up in my recommended albums that I realised what had happened – “Kids” was the first single of their upcoming album, and the album had just been released! It’s also safe to say I was pleasantly surprised when the entire album turned out to be brilliant too.
“Kids” is still the stand-out track, but right from the start it’s clear that Pup have set out to make an incredibly catchy hard rock album, and they’ve absolutely succeed. The opening track “Morbid Stuff” has quickly evolved into my favourite track of the lot even though I have to admit that “Kids” technically sounds better, and everything after those first two just feels great.
Much of the album feels like healthy experimentation too – like the tracks often start out one way, but then build into something much bigger and louder. It’s something I’ve experimented with in comedy songs on ukulele myself, but this is next level – like switching from twangy country into a wall of sound and back again. Hearing growth through a song is something I absolutely love, and it’s all through this album. Catchy, experimental hard rock might song like a mix-match ripe for weirdness, but it none of the songs feel strained. It’s really just an excellent all-round rock album, and I’m pretty sure I’ll still have it playing on loop for months to come.