Pitch-black comedy, a Tuscan curse, environmental justice, and more.
Digest #20, November 15th 2020
Happy Sunday dear readers,
I hope you've had as great a week as possible, wherever you are. We continue to wade slowly through the thick waters of these unprecedented times, and we may not be getting every single thing done. But we're doing our best, and that deserves celebrating.
This month's book giveaway is only going to be open to entry for two weeks, thanks in large part to the abyss I fell into around the US presidential election. If you'd like to win a copy of the fun, lovely, and mentally-lingering book The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany that I describe below (number two) please enter ASAP! E-book or paperback (your choice), posted free anywhere in the world.
Sending sunlight from Atlanta,
If you read the plot of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri you'd think it was one of the darkest, most horrific films you could possibly see. And yet, I'm here to tell you that my husband Alex and I watched it and can firmly attest that it is side-splittingly funny. There are no perfectly sympathetic lead characters in this film, each one has human flaws. You'll find yourself cheering for someone in one scene and hating them in the next. The subject matter couldn't be darker, and yet there are thoughtfully delivered laughs in every corner of the narrative. This is a masterfully dark, dark, dark comedy that takes impeccable writing, acting and direction to pull off. Which was recognised by critics, as the film has won a slate of awards. I'll admit, I hadn't actually heard of it in spite of its widespread acclaim, and watched it last week on a friend's recommendation. If like me you hadn't heard of it, or like a better-informed person you have, but haven't watched it... I strongly recommend you fix that as soon as possible.
The film's theatrical release poster.
I recently read The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany through Book of the Month before it was publicly released, and can't stop thinking about it. The plot involves three second-born daughters taking a trip across Italy to pursue love and break a curse, and it reminded me of my own travels there with a specifically intense, pandemic-induced yearning. This story is interspersed with flashbacks from post-war Italy, and stories from East Germany. Right from the beginning this novel grabbed my interest, which is rare (I can take a while to get into stories), and it was a page turning book that I got through very quickly. But what started as something fun and light, and very much like a quirky romantic comedy/road trip/bildungsroman, ended as something very different for me. I don't want to spoil the book, but I will say that the final twist offered such a profound reflection on identity, family, motherhood and love (in all its forms) that I have thought about it every single day since I finished it. I'm giving away a copy of the book this month, as I want one of you to find the same joy reading it as I did.
The cover of the book.
I know a lot of people who paint the American South with a broad brush, picturing our region as wholly conservative and Republican, overlooking the experiences and the resistance of many marginalised people. One group of people consistently erased by this kind of thinking is poor Black Southerners, who continue to occupy the very lands our ancestors were enslaved on and who are often "trapped in conditions no one else would put up with". This opinion piece by Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ), painfully articulates many of the injustices faced by rural, marginalised and poor Black Americans. Homes without plumbing, heat, or sewage systems. Homes growing mold, bacteria, and toxins. Long-term mortgages that trap people in homes that have become uninhabitable. This piece is important, eye-opening, and it doesn't have a happy ending. This fight is ongoing.
Art is from the article, by Katherine Lam.
Once my pre-ordered copy of my favorite chef Yotam Ottolenghi's new cookbook Flavour arrived at my door, I excitedly opened it and flipped through the pages to see what I could prepare immediately with ingredients I had on hand. I landed on this Israeli cous cous and squash in tomato and star anise sauce, and got to work. I even spent time properly plating and photographing it so I could show you! It was delicious, and Alex and my mum both agreed. The star anise adds an interesting richness, the tomato lends a beautiful acidity, the squash and spinach keep it fresh and nourishing. The balance and depth of flavour is exactly what we expect from an Ottolenghi recipe. I'm excited to prepare and taste the other gems in this book... stay tuned.
A photo I took after I prepared this dish. Others are on Instagram, in my story highlights.
The TV show Superstore is generally hilarious and a fun, smart look at the diverse lives of working class Americans. A recent episode "Essential", which looks at the role of big box store workers during the pandemic, is a perfect example of everything genius about this show. If you haven't seen Superstore before, the format is a 30-minute weekly slot on NBC, and you can stream it on Hulu in the US. If you have enjoyed it but aren't up to date, do yourself a favor and watch this episode. It made me laugh even more than normal, particularly at commentary on corporate responses to Black Lives Matter. One zinger from a character in the show, Garrett, about the fictional corporation that owns the store they work in: “Zephra believes in the Black community? What are we, ghosts?”
The poster for the most recent season.
My dear friend Ceri shared this interview with me yesterday, and I encourage you to open it when you have about ten minutes to focus and absorb the content. Sociologist Jessica Calarco brilliantly articulates how hard it is to be a mother in the US right now, and shares some very interesting original qualitative research about a group of women in Indiana living through this pandemic. I am trained in sociology and studied these theories and methods (along with cultural anthropology) for four years, and yet I haven't seen social norms and systemic marginalisation explained in such a straightforwardly excellent way before:
"In the U.S., most of us aren’t taught to use our sociological imaginations. We’re not taught to think about social problems as structural problems. We’re not taught to see the forces that operate beyond our control – forces like capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. And we’re not taught to see how those forces create many of the challenges we face in our lives and constrain our ability to make choices that could help us overcome those challenges.
Instead, we — especially women and people from other systematically marginalized groups — are taught to self-help-book our way out of structural problems. To believe that all our problems would go away if only we were to strictly follow some seventeen-step plan."
There's also a lengthy discussion on the enforcement of social norms, and how these maintain power for the ruling groups (in the case of this analysis, men). Worth your time, and very accessible for an academic discussion.
Everyone involved in this prank deserves an Academy Award (or maybe a Daytime Emmy), and possibly some less favorable consequences for causing emotional trauma. This video is both hilarious and upsetting at the same time. I've personally alternated between being outraged and hysterically laughing. I'm not sure how I feel about it in the end, but I'm not the one who will be paying the resulting therapy bills.*