Watch/Read/Listen: Spring Forward Edition

Sunday Letter | #330

We spent the weekend up north visiting Julia’s parents, catching up and walking in the woods around their cabin, where they’ve been staying after selling their house. Julia and I weren’t the only visitors; a flock of wild turkeys came by late Saturday afternoon, and throughout the day the free-roaming neighbor dogs made the rounds for attention and treats. Charlie, a two-year-old chocolate lab with unlimited energy, even declared himself our walking companion. Then Sunday morning, we saw a pileated woodpecker pecking ground-level at a stump near the cabin, which feels like a metaphor for something but I’m not sure what.

With the change in time and season, it seems as good a moment as any to share with you some things I’ve enjoyed watching/reading/listening to lately. You’ve undoubtedly heard at least some of the hype around them, and I’ll say: the hype is all very well deserved. So consider this an extra nudge from me, if you need one.


Watch: Nomadland
You could easily imagine a Hollywood millenial #vanlife version of this film, and it would be nowhere near as interesting or beautiful. The storytelling lesson here is that you can take a somewhat-cliche premise and completely transform it by putting at its center an unexpected character – in this case, an aging retiree named Fern, played by Frances McDormand.

There are a handful of creative types with whom I feel a certain kind of kinship – some shared fascination that I can sense in their work – and I felt that immediately with the film’s director, Chloe Zhao. It’s partly the landscapes (I’m pretty sure I’ve been to that park in South Dakota), and the layers of complexity (nuanced scenes at Amazon fulfillment centers, the casting of non-professional actors to play versions of themselves). There’s the way a sudden cut to a quiet establishing landscape shot seemed to release some emotional pressure from the scene before – a pressure I hadn’t realized was building – and inexplicably put me in tears. But I think what really sealed my feeling of kinship toward Zhao was finding out that her next project (after directing Marvel’s The Eternals) is going to be a sci-fi vampire western. Sci-fi. Vampire. Western.


Read: D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths
On a recent episode of BookSmitten, we talked about books we would’ve loved as kids, and I am certain that ten-year-old Jack would have loved the stories in this one – and the illustrations even more. The drawings are stone lithographs that I imagine come off to many young readers as made with color pencils, pen, kraft paper, or a regular no. 2 – materials to which they might also have easy access. There’s a real sense of I could do that that you might not get had the illustrations been done in paint or acrylic. That’s not at all to downplay how impressive the D’Aulaires’ illustrations are – a marvel of composition and storytelling – but just to say that they’re both impressive and invite drawing your own. Here, for instance, is jealous Hera, assigning her hundred-eyed servant Argus to watch over Io, whom Zeus had turned into a white cow to hide from Hera:

An illustration from the book, Hera pointing toward Argus, white cow Io in the background. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths

(The peacock, and its plume, is what become of Argus’s many eyes in honor of his servitude.) I’ve been reading a few pages from the book with my coffee every morning – definitely worth savoring.


Listen: Jon Batiste on Fresh Air
I was not at all prepared for or expecting the sci-fi-ish metaphysical twist to Pixar’s Soul, but I guess given the other Andrew Stanton-helmed Pixar movies (Wall-E, Monsters Inc.), I should’ve seen it coming. Julia and I wondered why more friends of ours hadn’t seen Soul, and my hunch is that from the promo materials, they too were expecting something more Inside Out than Franz Kafka. Something Stanton does really really well is show the tiniest of agents in an impossibly large system (bureacracy?); the film’s contrasts in scale are just breathtaking.

But! This recommendation is really for composer, pianist, and Colbert music director Jon Batiste, who is behind the jazzy half of the film’s score (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are behind the other half, to give you an idea of the contrasts in vibe). I happened to be in my car when I caught part of Batiste’s interview with Terry Gross, and … man, what a gift of a human being. You don’t have to have seen the movie to listen to the interview, and while I do encourage you to experience both, I recommend that you at the very least put on the interview while you eat lunch.


I know I slipped in a few extra recommendations there, but … it’s spring!