H1 2022 Media Diet (Best Books, TV Shows, Videogames, and Podcasts)
Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man, Jonathan D. Spence (2007). I have a series of podcasts in honor of Spence I'm looking forward to airing later this fall. 8.8.
Doing Things with Words in Chinese Politics: Five Studies, Michael Schoenhals (1992). 7.9.
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Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics, Perry Link (2013). 6.8.
Stalin's Library: A Dictator and his Books, Geoffrey Roberts (2022). I love the premise of a book about Stalin's marginalia, but he had way too little material to sustain the theme. 4.7.
China Watcher, Richard Baum. (2010). 6.5.
Istanbul, Thomas Madden (2016), 6.6.
1453, Roger Crowley (2005). 6.4
The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs, Marc David Baer (2021). 7.7.
The Ottoman Empire 1300-1650: The Structure of Power, Colin Imber (2002). I’d love to find a book that explicitly compares the Chinese imperial tradition and Ottoman Empire, but I’m not sure it exists. 7.9.
Ataturk, Andrew Mango (1963). A compelling enough character for me to want to read a good book about him, but this is not it. Choppy narrative and too narrowly scoped on his personal experience. 4.6.
The Black Eunuchs of the Ottoman Empire: Networks of Power in the Court of the Sultan, George Junne (2016). "Some have estimated that trans-Atlantic slavery swept up approximately 12 million Africans. On the other hand, the trans-Saharan/Red Sea slave trade took an estimated 14 million Africans over the past 1300 years."
God's Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World, Alan Mikhail (2019).
The Book of the Courtier, Baldassare Castiglione (1528). A lovely window into the values and preoccupations of the Italian Renaissance set in the form of accessible and clever dialogues. Castiglione features some strikingly modern views of gender dynamics and very acute observations of status games and small group dynamics. I'd like to read more high quality manners books. What's the analogous book to life in a Tang or Ming court? 8.3.
Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, Andrew Graham-Dixon. (2010). The first full biography I've read of a painter didn't quite do it for me but I would be interested in other recommendations. At what point did athletes start getting more leeway for awful behavior than artists in contemporary society? 4.9
The Odyssey. I listened to on Audible in Emily Wilson's translation read by Claire Danes. This time reading Odysseus came off as less likable, Telemachus as younger and the suitors as more sympathetic. Claire Danes wasn't quite as good as in her Anna Karenina reading, though she is fantastic at doing pained longing. 10.
Plutarch's Lives. I re-read a handful of ancient Greeks (Theseus, Solon, Pericles, Themistocles, Alcibiades). Whereas I'm sure the Odyssey will be amazing rereading until I'm old, I think the peak time to read Plutarch is at 17. That said, some of the stories are still very fun. 8.9.
Plato's Symposium. So much pederasty! It’s remarkable how much it also came up in the Ottoman Empire books as well. 9.2.
España, Giles Tremlett (2022). Serviceable introduction. 6.0.
The Spanish Civil War: A Very Brief Introduction (2005). Excellent introduction. 8.8.
Isabella of Castile, Giles Tremlett. (2014). 6.3.
Still reading: Imprudent King, Philip II biography, Geoffrey Parker.
The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, Adam Tooze. (2006). Review here. How can the world create more Adam Toozes? 9.4.
The War That Doesn't Say Its Name: The Unending Conflict in the Congo, Jason K. Stearns. (2022)
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, Jason K. Stearns. (2011) Read collectively a fascinating if deeply depressing portrait of conflict dynamics that feel very foreign thinking about contemporary US-China relations, though there may be interesting parallels to be made to historical eras in Chinese history where warlords dominated. 8.8
Engineering Rules: Global Standard Setting Since 1880, JoAnne Yates, Craig Murphy. (2019)
Chip War, Chris Miller. (2022)
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan. (2015). Beautiful exposition of a life in pursuit of a bliss that was wholly foreign to me. Minus one point for inspiring me to surf and in turn getting another minor concussion, though if it wasn't for all the getting whacked by waves and boards there are few things I find more pleasurable than sitting on a board in warm water at sunrise waiting for a wave. 8.7
Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World, Tyler Cowen (2022). I was getting a little frustrated in all the time I was having to spend at work hiring for interns, but this book got me much more excited about the process of trying to spot talent. What other books can turn things I find mundane in life into engaging exercises? 8.1.
Legal Systems Different from Ours, David Friedman (2022). The chapter on Pirate law is in the running for best chapter of the year. Twitter book review below. 8.7.
The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War by Nicholas Mulder, The Pursuit of Power by William McNeill, Anti-Judaism by David Nirenberg.
I also started rereading Citizens by Simon Schama. Such a sharp and entertaining book, I'd love more recommendations of political history with this much vigor.
Books I've given up on Damascus Station, David McCloskey Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity, Walter Scheidel Children of Time (Children of Time, #1), Adrian Tchaikovsky.
Spotify has finally brought functional search to the podcast space, allowing me to surface shows about niche topics and find guests interviewed by specialized interviewers. It has been cool to watch guests ‘code switch’ from conversations with random generalist interviewers to peers in their industry. In general, I prefer shows where 20% of what the guests discuss goes over my head to shows that make sure the entire audience understands everything, and try to bring that general ethos to hosting ChinaTalk.
A few standout discoveries include Sculptor's Funeral, where a professional sculptor and art historian based in Florence talks through renaissance classics with a unique perspective only a practicing artist could bring to the discussion. I also liked Turkey Book Talk, a better version of the 'New Books Network' focused on everything Turkey and The Hero With a Thousand Holds, a martial artist's exploration of different global wrestling traditions.
Top 50 Spotify Country Playlists
Travelling around for my honeymoon in June I made a point of flipping through the Spotify Top 50 charts in June 2022 for the countries we visited. The following are one sentence reviews for the charts, almost all of which featured next to no western songs.
Turkey: Remarkably diverse sonic landscape, featuring trap with some top-level production, some creative mixes of more traditional singing and house music, and even a few Turkish reggaeton tracks (ISABELLE by SEFO). 200 MILYAR by Lvbel C5. Also, Yung Ouzo is fire. 9.4.
Spain: Bad Bunny's new album deservedly dominated the top 10. Bizarrap's 'Bzrp Music Sessions, Vol 51' stood out for playful rapping over production that switched the beat up five times in three minutes. Good variety of reggaeton, bachata, trap, vocal house, salsa and pop. Of course, Spain is drawing from a deeper bench as many of these artists aren't actually Spanish. Since I've come back to New York, I've found myself listening to more Spanish-language music than songs from any other country. 8.7.
Greece: Mediocre pop songs and not particularly intricate or catchy rap. Producion on average was the least polished or creative of the bunch. The second song Salonikios seemed like it was sampling the Lean Back violins? The quality overall matches top 10 song CELINE by Hawk : 2.7.
France: Surprising amount of UK Drill rap in french, alongside some reggaeton beats. It had the most polished production of the bunch. Of the countries sampled, France's Top 50 had the most American songs. Gazo goes hard on Celine 3X, and MOLLY A COLORS SHOW. There wasn't one white artist in the top 20. 6.2.
It would be fun doing reviews of national top 50 charts as a podcast.
Elden Ring (2022)
Perhaps the perfect gaming experience for the pre-VR paradigm. Getting Covid and various versions of flus for what felt like two straight months in the spring left me with two dozen hours to lie in bed and get lost in this world.
One day I went to the Met Museum after a few hours of playtime and thought, "Elden Ring's world is more beautiful and striking than half of these landscapes." There are few experiences in life quite as satisfying as beating an Elden Ring boss on the 7th try. A few times in other real life contexts in the past year instead of running into a wall trying the same thing over and over again, my 'let's beat a boss creatively' Elden Ring brain turned on and I ended up finding a lateral solution to a problem.
Fromsoft’s triumph is also a testament to the magic that happens when you maintain a singular focus on honing your craft for decades on one thing (in this case, the ‘Soulslike’ genre). Yes, hardware could not handle something as ambitious as Elden Ring in the past, but the gameplay and design heights Elden Ring was able to achieve would not have happened had the developer not already made six games in the genre. 10.0.
Crusader Kings 3 (2020). After hanging out in Barcelona for a bit and their new Iberian DLC released, I wanted to win them some virtual independence and finally gave the game a few hours. invading Moors was fun enough, but the best reward I got out of this game was the ability to appreciate the youtube content creators who specialize in CK3. For instance, this video of an evil pope creating 100 inbred superknights to conquer the Holy Land was the funniest thing I've seen all year. 7.8.
Multiversus (2022). There's something magical about the combination of the flow state that a fighting game requires for fast reaction paired with the adrenaline you get from facing off 1v1. Multiversus brings back college smash vibes with creatively designed characters and a smooth feel. However, the type of 'work' you need to put in to improve at a fighting game is incredibly inane. I'd rather go outside and get shots up. 7.1.
The Reset, 开端 (2021). An off-brand Black Mirror miniseries featuring two teenagers stuck in a time loop. Entertaining enough to accompany cardio but lost steam midway. 6.8.
The Story of Xing Fu, 幸福到万家 (2022). Its pilot episode surfaced some interesting dynamics around urban-rural norms and gender relations. It's a great example of why I like watching Chinese TV--the values these shows spotlight and promote are very foreign to westerners. Having a big plot point center around tractors destroying leafy greens was pretty novel. That said, the plot is predictable, the acting is subpar, and the main baddie’s old man toxic masculinity is insufferable. 5.7
Drive to Survive Season 4 (2022)
This show has hit the “Jersey Shore Season 2” reality show curse where the self-awareness of the leads kills the magic captured in the first season. The best moments were with the first-year drivers Tsunuda and Mazepin who don’t yet have media training. 4.3.
Tokyo Vice (2022) 6.1.
The Eloquent Ji Xiaolan 铁齿铜牙纪晓岚 (2002) (bonus review by Athena) An OG “House of Cards” set in the Qing Dynasty, the show follows Emperor Qianlong and his two favorite court officials who hold two opposing political philosophies on a series of adventures and affairs in and out of the Forbidden City. The show’s namesake character, Ji Xiaolan, takes the side of the everyday citizens and is determined to undermine the influence and cult following at court of He Shen, the most famous corrupt official in Chinese history. I had seen possibly every episode of this four-season series in primary school – on live TV! – along with much of the country, but in hindsight understood very little of the deeper dynamics and social commentary of the show. I love the humor, the acting and the dialogues that for sure will not pass the censorship bureau today (after the CCP cleansing masked as an anti-corruption campaign).
Currently watching: 天才基本法, The Rehearsal, and Seinfeld
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022). 9.5.
The Last Duel (2021) The movie was forgettable but the idea of judicial duels isn’t. It led me to stumble upon this fascinating PhD thesis on the topic. 5.2
Waiting Alone 独自等待 (2004) I learned Chinese by watching practically every new release from 2016-2020 with a Douban rating over 6.5. It's a real shame this extremely low budget movie has more life in it than 95% of recent mainland releases. 8.1.
The Myth of Love 爱情神话 (2021) A rare exception to the rule that new Chinese movies have no soul! Lovely multigenerational Shanghai story largely in dialect. 9.1.
My Man Godfrey (1936) 7.7
No Man of Her Own (1932) 8.6.
Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) 5.6
Zorba the Greek (1964). Maybe Zorba came off as more likeable fifty years ago, he read as reprehensible to me. 4.7.
Nope (2022). The themes probably resonate more with people who care more about Hollywood than I do, though that alien was a fun IMAX experience. 6.1
I got married!
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