Cool people in the house! With the continued shit-show that is daily existence for most of us, we’ve continued to turn to different creative media as a means of escape. Frankly, it’s one of the only things I know that’s keeping myself going these days as the remainder of it is predominantly just one unending scream.
As always, we want to hear what you’ve been up to! Talk to us in the comments or in our community group to join in on the conversation.
What We’re Watching
No matter what walk of life you find yourself in currently, you can always use some lighthearted levity in your life. Comedy is the grand unifier of media consumption, and there’s always some comedy anybody can enjoy. Letterkenny is one of those great products of comedy that everyone can easily enjoy. It doesn’t have any bias toward a certain group or kind of person. The only bias it might have is against people we universally mock, but it’s always done with love so you know that no one is left out.
The show takes place in a rural Canadian town and focuses on the groups of people who occupy such towns: hicks, jocks, and drug addicts also known as “skids” and all of the people who come into their orbits. Mostly the show is about the word play from the hicks among each other in a comedy by repetition kind of way. Some gag or turn of phrase will usually direct each episode with a heavy reliance upon the collective unconscious (for lack of a better term) where every character in the small town seems to have some idea what the inside joke is or refers to. It is all fantastically written in a way that just feels good and familiar.
In true Canadian fashion, the writers of the show state that their goal is for no character to seem like the antagonist or a punching bag. They all want to be supportive of each other and make sure that everyone knows that the town is a family. However, there are some sections where characters will viciously mock each other, known as “chirping”. My god, the insults that these characters rattle off the cuff at one another had me pausing the episode to let a laughing fit pass by without missing the next remark. The hockey playing jocks are the main targets for the insults, and there is no depths the writers won’t reach in order to put those two goobers in their place. If you’re not watching this show already, figure it out.
I go through phases with horror movies. I love horror media of all kinds, but I find myself on a feast-to-famine-to-feast cycle with movies in particular. However, I always keep my Shudder subscription up to date so I can consume as many as I can when I want them. I had heard about Host, the Zoom-based found footage movie, so it was back to Shudder I went. And holy damn am I ever glad I keep paying for Shudder. It scratched a lot of itches for me, and I am bursting with praise and love for this film.
The setup is nothing out of the ordinary: filmed during quarantine, the movie is about a group of friends connecting over Zoom to conduct a seance. As the group invites in some kind of spirit, one of the friends tries to mess with the power of those from beyond the grave, and spookiness ensues. The premise may seem like its vaguely interesting, but you also need to see it to get all of it. The effects are very practical and realistic which made it so much more real to me. How often are we all on Zoom calls these days where some minor technical issue arises? The problem is so relatable, but what happens in Host can make it strike home for most people.
I have a great love for the found footage movie, but they have their own downfalls. The acting isn’t always the greatest, along with the writing, and the plot of these movies replace any actual story so they feel cheesy. And it didn’t help that horror producers got a little too excited a decade ago with the success of Paranormal Activity and made far too many of them. But now that we’re passed the heyday fad of found footage movies, we’re seeing found footage being able to live in its own skin and see what it can come up with. Host is the pinnacle of what these movies can do. By putting the horror into a relatable and commonplace venue, you can make it seem much more real. I’m hoping for more found footage soon in general, and Host gives me hope that we can also make legitimately good movies again.
What We’re Reading
Scott’s Book Corner
Hello! I’m pleased to report that, so far, I’ve maintained my New Year’s Resolution to read on a consistent basis. Turns out, “I don’t have time to read,” really does mean, “I don’t make time to read.” Below is a recap of the books I read over the last couple months and my honest assessments (complete with an informal scoring system). Hopefully you enjoy some of these picks!
Currently Reading: Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony (2020)
On Deck: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle (2017)
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (2019)
Where was this caliber of young adult novel when I was younger? Granted, I can’t imagine a novel with a trans protagnist written by a non-binary author receiving much mainstream support in the late ’90s and early 2000s. But the underlying message of Pet is something I’d hope both liberals and conservatives could support, particularly when it’s told with such a poignant yet creative narrative. I hadn’t heard of Akwaeke Emezi until recently, but after reading Pet in one day, I can’t wait to check out the rest of their work.
Our main protagonist is a trans teen named Jam living in Lucille, where “angels” long ago eradicated “monsters” from the community. I use quotes because, like Jam, we spend a good portion of the novel wondering whether these beings are entirely real or figurative. Either way, the adults in Jam’s life assure her that the monsters are gone in the idyllic town, where everyone is at peace with one another and all walks of life are accepted. Jam is curious about the specifics of “the revolution,” but she ultimately accepts what her parents and others tell her, specifically that there are no longer left to fear. That is, until Pet arrives in Jam’s house, claiming to be a hunter summoned to kill a monster in Lucille. As she tries to square what she’s been told with the knowledge Pet shares with her, Jam leads the audience through an enthralling, unique story focused on dismantling the fault binary we often lean on when it comes to “good” and “evil.”
In a way, Pet is an embodiment of the “this future that liberals want” meme: Jam is supported in her transition from a young age, there’s a prominent polyamorous relationship, there’s no need for guns, etc. I actually mean that in a co-opting kind of way. As someone who grew up with (and still encounters) primarily conservative worldviews, it’s refreshing to read a novel where love and acceptance is commonplace. I felt the same way as I watched Schitt’s Creek, in that LGTBQ characters are supported with no real controversy. That’s not to say there isn’t a benefit to narratives that highlight the struggles of the LGTBQ community; Milk (2008) comes to mind as a great example of why these stories matter. But there’s something to be said about stories where LGBTQ characters don’t have to justify their existence to cis/straight characters, as it should be in real life.
Perhaps more importantly, Emezi writes a compelling story about the monsters that dwell among us, especially those we either willingly or unknowingly ignore. Emezi’s writing has appeal that should cross generations, and their storytelling should even appeal to those across the political aisle. The message at the heart of Pet is timeless yet incredibly relevant in the age of #MeToo and holding people accountable for their actions. Pet is a short book that reads quickly, but I still recommend adding it to your collection.
Verdict: Hardcover | Paperback | Sale | Borrow | Skip
Taipei by Tao Lin (2013)
I usually hesitate at the assertion an artist is “controversial,” since the roots of controversy are usually highly subjective. Just take a look at any “banned books” and see how the definition of questionable subject matter has changed over the years. But partway into the first chapter of Taipei, I knew exactly why Tao Lin is a polarizing author in literary circles. It wasn’t this discourse that drew me to Taipei. Candidly, it was more so the unique, garish cover that caught my attention as it sat on the sale rack at my local bookstore. The endorsement from Bret Easton Ellis sealed the deal.
Nearly 250 pages later, I can confirm Taipei is in many ways a spiritual successor to the infamous Ellis opus Less Than Zero (1985). Yet, while I haven’t picked up LTZ since high school, Taipei gave me the sense it would land differently with me now, nearly a decade later. Both novels are definitely geared toward teen and twenty-somethings, what with the excess of drugs, sex, and general disillusionment (did I mention drugs?). With Taipei, Lin adds 30 years of new tech to the equation, though it’s interesting how much has changed in just eight years. Lin’s main protagonist, Paul, is addicted to his Macbook in a way modern millennials would be attached to their phones.
Paul is Lin’s vessel for establishing Taipei’s greatest strengths, as well as its ultimate shortcomings. He’s a moderately successful NYC-based writer obsessed with taking as many drugs as possible, both in quantity and variety. This ultimately impacts everything he does, from his book tours to his romantic life to his relationship with his parents back in Taipei. It’s never fully established just how well-known (and by extension, well-paid) Paul is as a writer, and how he afforded his lifestyle remained an open question in my mind throughout the book. But surely “movie logic” can extend to books on occasion. From my perspective, the way Lin described Paul’s thoughts and actions was the main draw of the book. He outlines the most mundane aspects of Paul’s life in vivid detail, and the realities of Paul’s depression and anxiety felt eerily universal.
If you’re curious why I haven’t truly touched on the narrative yet, it’s because I still don’t really know how to summarize Taipei. My wife asked me multiple times what the book was about, and I always struggled to respond. Unfortunately, this is due more to narrative deficiencies than the novel being beyond description. Lin is infatuated with commas and run-on sentences, which is jarring at first but was ultimately an easy enough rhythm to follow. Yet, as a result, the intricate, winding descriptions of Paul’s mundane life culminated in a lackluster story arc. The crux of the narrative is his spiraling addiction, but his fall from grace isn’t all that compelling given his directionless existence.
As a millennial who struggles with depression (albeit without drugs), I can attest to the relatable themes throughout Taipei, namely social anxiety and existential uncertainty. But as a reader, I found myself frequently frustrated at the end of passages where nothing all that interesting took place. Ultimately, Taipei is more intriguing than truly enjoyable. It’s short enough to speed read if you’re interested in unique sentence structures, but don’t expect an Ellis-level cult classic.
Verdict: Hardcover | Paperback | Sale | Borrow | Skip
How to Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy (2020)
Yup, that Jeff Tweedy. The acclaimed songwriter presumably wrote (or at least completed) How to Write One Song during his COVID-induced downtime from touring with Wilco. While the book has evergreen relevance, I can’t help but mention how perfectly timed a quick, fun read like this is as we’re all still stuck indoors. And while the subject and content of the book is pretty straightforward, Tweedy’s writing and message felt like such a breath of fresh air compared to other musings about songwriting I’ve read from other artists.
First, you might be asking: why just one song? If there’s one invaluable takeaway from this book, it’s Tweedy’s assertion that the only way to become a songwriter, or simply write songs on a regular basis, is to start by writing a single piece. It’s that foundation which makes Tweedy’s book not only about songwriting, but an undercover self-help book. His “journey of a thousand miles” mantra informs how he tackles issues of motivation, dedication, aspiration, and beyond, rooted in songwriting but speaking to really any activity or endeavor in life.
With Tweedy’s philosophy, as well as his great sense of humor and some tangible exercises, I truly feel like you can write a song by the time you finish the book. And as a matter of fact, I did! It added a fun element to an entertaining book, which piqued my interest in reading more of Tweedy’s writing.
Verdict: Hardcover | Paperback | Sale | Borrow | Skip
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019)
It seems a bit unnecessary to recommend a book by an author who’s won a National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes (only the fourth writer to win the award twice). Colson Whitehead has become one of the most lauded writers in modern literature, and for good reason. It didn’t take long for me to realize The Nickel Boys was special, and I remained infatuated with the novel’s trajectory until the last page. As Whitehead has said before, his writing often looks at the past through the lens of the present, demonstrating how much progress is still left to achieve.
The Nickel Boys is a fictional account of two black teenagers at the horrific Dozier School for Boys in Florida (renamed Nickel Academy in the novel). Elwood Curtis is a brilliant, straight-laced high schooler growing up in the South amid the Civil Rights movement. Due to an unfortunate, racially charged case of “wrong place, wrong time,” Elwood ends up at Nickel, a “reform” school for troubled boys where the administrators are more focused on exploiting them for free labor. He befriends Jack Turner, who quickly shows him the ropes of surviving Nickel, namely avoiding intense corporal punishment in “the White House.”
Through their eyes, Whitehead weaves an expertly told narrative about racism that’s all the more haunting due to its roots in reality. This is my first time reading a Whitehead novel, and I can see exactly why he’s received such widespread acclaim. He strikes a perfect balance between the humor and horror of his subject matter, making for an addictive narrative with no wasted moments. I’m really not sure what else to say that the book itself can’t convey more effectively. This was the first book I read in 2021, and it truly energized me to keep reading throughout the year. An exceptional novel I can’t recommend highly enough.
Verdict: Hardcover | Paperback | Sale | Borrow | Skip
What We’re Playing
Total War: Shogun 2
Ok, so I know I’m a little late to the party here – almost exactly 10 years late, in fact. I grew up on Rome and Medieval Total War as a teenager and, after a decade-long hiatus from gaming, I’ve decided to go back in time and get into the classic games I missed through that time. That means starting with one of my favourite gaming franchises, Total War, and one of my favourite eras of history, the Sengoku Jidai.
For those unfamiliar with Total War the basic mechanics are constant throughout. In the campaign you lead a historical faction, starting with 1 of 50+ territories and seeking to conquer X others to win. The game consists of two views: strategic and tactical. In the turn-based strategic view you build and upgrade buildings in your territories, recruit units, engage in diplomacy with other factions, progress along a technology/research tree and march armies and navies around the map. Whenever your military forces meet those of an opposing faction the game automatically switches gears and you move into the real-time tactical view. Here you command your forces: setting formations, using terrain to your advantage, trying to outflank your opponents and break their morale before they break yours. Any losses sustained are then carried through to the strategic view once the battle is over.
Shogun 2 offers 12 factions to choose from and, having just started my fifth campaign with a different faction, there is just enough variability to keep you coming back again and again. Each faction has a few unique units, economic and/or military buffs, and a unique starting position. Each of these influence your play style and spices things up, but with the core units shared across all but one faction there probably isn’t enough variation for me to want to play as each and every one. Still, I’ve already logged over 100 hours of play in the last couple of months and am showing no signs of slowing down, so there is still plenty of value.
An issue with previous Total War installments has been the lack of challenge once a strong foundation had been built in the mid-game. With a strong economy and large military, one could start steamrolling across the map – each expansion further strengthening the economy and lending added experience to your troops. To increase the difficulty Shogun 2 introduces a new mechanic, realm divide, which essentially sees the entire map suddenly declare war on you once you reach the mid-game. While it succeeds in adding challenge, it also makes the campaign drag on and become a real grind as you get wave after wave of full stack enemy armies attacking you. The lack of sufficient variation between factions really bites here, as the AI typically composes all its armies in a similar way, which means these battles all have the same flavour. The diplomacy aspect is also pretty broken, as factions that you’re friendly with will refuse to trade for no reason while allies and vassals will always betray you eventually. I’ve heard the newest Total War edition, Three Kingdoms, dramatically improves on these elements and I look forward to giving that a go once I’ve had my fill of Shogun 2.
The fact of the matter is, these gripes notwithstanding, Total War: Shogun 2 is a fantastic game. The art and music are great, while the visuals are as strong as we’ve come to expect from the franchise – with the added bonus that in combat swordsman fight individual duels modelled on modern Japanese sword masters. While the realm divide mechanic is a little hit and miss, the standard fare is fantastic and neatly refined in comparison with its predecessors. I can comfortably say Shogun 2 is the best Total War game up until its release date and I look forward to checking out the Warhammer and Three Kingdoms editions in future.