Obsessions #16: This Barbie Has Pop Culture Recs
Everything I've been reading, watching and listening to
To celebrate the one-year anniversary of my novella Amy of Suburbia, I’m doing a book birthday sale! The physical version is $5 off and the PDF version is PWYC all August long, no discount code needed. Snag a copy HERE!
This is Obsessions, a seasonal newsletter-within-a-newsletter highlighting everything I’ve been reading, watching, listening to and generally obsessing over for the past few months.
What I’ve Been Reading
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (2023)
I first fell in love with Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s writing after reading his 2018 short story collection, Friday Black. His debut novel was one of my most-anticipated reads of the year and it didn’t disappoint.
Set in a dystopian not-so-distant future, the novel follows a group of prisoners who compete against each other to the death in televised gladiator battles. The multi-perspective story also shows the fans who love to watch them and the organizers trying to stop the program altogether.
The book explores ideas surrounding prison abolition and even includes footnotes with real-world statistics about prisons, policing and race. It’s an extremely heavy read, but one down with such care for its characters that it’s impossible to put down.
Sarah by J.T. Leroy (2000)
I’ve been trying to get my hands on some J.T. Leroy for a while now. Finally, I stumbled upon Sarah at a used bookstore during a trip to Toronto.
This is definitely not a novel I would recommend to everyone due to its intense subject matter. The book is about a queer teenage sex worker and deals with themes of abuse and trauma.
In spite of its heaviness, I found the writing to be exceptional and loved the magical realist style. Even though its subject matter is difficult, I felt very moved by the character’s perspective and way of looking at the world.
If you don’t know anything about J.T. Leroy, I would recommend checking out this episode of the Missing Pages podcast, which is a fascinating story in its own right.
Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears by Michael Schulman (2023)
Michael Schulman’s Oscar Wars is one of the most entertaining pop culture history books I’ve ever read. Covering the initial start of the Academy in the 1920s to #EnvelopeGate in 2016, the book provides over a hundred years of Oscars history and, best of all, GOSSIP!
The book is not a comprehensive history, but rather provides snapshot chapters to highlight significant moments in Hollywood and how they connected to broader social movements. For instance, the chapter about the Hollywood blacklist ties into 1950s McCarthyism and the section about #EnvelopeGate explores wider concerns about representation and diversity in entertainment.
I especially loved the chapters about the 1950s Best Actress race and the 1999 Best Picture battle. This book is a total must for Oscar freaks and anyone wanting an accessible entry point to film history.
What I’ve Been Watching
I rotate my streaming service subscriptions and the months I have Criterion Channel are without a doubt when I watch some of the best movies out of the whole year.
This past month, I was able to watch some total BANGERS, all of which I would highly recommend: the hilariously funny All About Eve (1950), the soul-crushing A.I. (2001) and the ‘90s nihilist vehicle The Doom Generation (1995).
The one critique I have of the platform is that while you will stumble upon major gems, you will also inevitably watch several films that are so boring you fall asleep. That’s the price of engaging with art!
Past Lives (2023)
Have you ever heard someone audibly Going Through It in a movie theatre? I’m unashamed to admit that I was that person while watching Celine Song’s debut feature Past Lives.
The film is about a young woman named Nora, who emigrates from South Korea to North America in her early teens. Years later, she reconnects with her childhood best friend/first crush Hae Sung online, before he eventually comes to visit Nora and her husband in New York.
The film has a highly literary feel, which makes sense as Song was a playwright for many years before writing this script. Past Lives is a realistic and meditative look at the “what-ifs” of love in the same vein as In The Mood For Love and the Before Trilogy. Get ready to CRY!
Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus, Oppenheimer is the story of how J. Robert Oppenheimer led the scientific team responsible for creating the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I was really stunned by this film on both a craft and story level. The fast, non-linear pace and incredible performances by all the actors involved made it an extremely engaging watch. I also found the film to be surprisingly anti-war and anti-government in sentiment, especially for a Hollywood blockbuster.
If you want more historical context about the Manhattan Project before seeing the film, I would recommend watching the 1981 documentary The Day After Trinity.
Life in plastic, it’s fantastic! I’ve been looking forward to Greta Gerwig’s Barbie ever since it was announced. While my expectations were high, the film was so wonderfully designed, performed and written that it definitely met them.
I don’t have a lot to add to the Discourse, other than I had fun and I love that they made a KID’S MOVIE about how patriarchy functions. If you want some heartier opinions, I really liked this piece by Michael Cuby about Allan’s role in the film. SUBLIME!
The Other Two (2019-2023)
I kept seeing references to jokes from The Other Two so frequently online that I finally decided to watch it. This comedy sitcom is about the other two siblings of a teen who goes viral overnight.
The first season is a bull’s eye satire of pop stardom and social media fame, while the two later seasons reflect more critically on the conditions of working in the entertainment industry. I particularly enjoyed how the third season dealt with the pandemic, which so many other shows have just glossed over completely.
The intelligent writing and performances from comedy veterans Molly Shannon, Wanda Sykes and Ken Marino make The Other Two a laugh-out-loud funny watch. I haven’t been able to get “My Brother’s Gay” out of my head for weeks.
What I’ve Been Listening To
The Town is a media industry podcast from entertainment journalist Matt Belloni that centres on a business perspective rather than an arts critic approach. Although it occasionally gets a little inside baseball, the podcast is a great resource for anyone interested in issues like the decline of streaming services, media conglomeration and what box office numbers mean.
The Town has done great coverage of the ongoing WGA/SAG-AFTRA strike and what it means not only for workers but for larger entertainment companies and audiences. If you’re interested in learning more about the strike (which everyone who watches film and TV should be!), I would highly recommend checking those episodes out.
What I’ve Been Cooking
Between having two jobs and preparing for grad school, I’ve had very little time to experiment with new recipes this summer. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been eating good!
I’ve been in heavy rotation with Bon Appetit’s Kale Salad with Roasted Tempeh and Mushrooms (I like to add gochujang and quinoa) and NYT Cooking’s Roasted Zucchini Pasta. While both recipes require roasting veggies in the oven, you can definitely use an air fryer or sauté pan instead.
Other summer recipes I’ve enjoyed lately are Budget Byte’s Bún Chả (Vietnamese Meatballs) and Rick Martinez’s Cauliflower Tacos al Pastor. I have also been eating an entire bag of cherries every three days, which I would recommend to everyone.
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