Digest #3, June 28th 2020
In February 2018, not long after we first moved to Atlanta, I went to a launch event for Zadie Smith's collection of essays Feel Free. I wouldn't typically buy a book of essays, but I am a huge fan of Smith's work and I desperately wanted to see her speak in person (it was brilliant). Feel Free is not the kind of book you can necessarily read cover to cover, because the essays have been collected over many years, and talk about a huge range of topics - from Justin Bieber to Brexit. In one essay, "Generation Why?", Smith reflects on the problematic rise of Facebook, and the cult of personality behind it. One anecdote I remember well; that Facebook's iconic branding is blue simply because Zuckerberg himself is red-green colorblind. It's a reminder that this huge technological powerhouse came from his college dorm room project, in order to rank the physical attractiveness of women on the Harvard campus. It was built by him, for him, and now we are all sucked in. Smith first published this essay in 2010, when 'only' 500 million people were registered users. It foreshadows, but of course can't predict, the continuing growth and impact of Facebook. It is a sobering read as now, ten years later, Facebook's enablement of widespread interference in political processes in the USA, and incitement of major violence in Myanmar, are lived realities. I recommend the entire book, but you can also access many of the older essays online for free, including “Generation Why?” which is on The New York Review website.
The cover of Zadie Smith's Feel Free, published by Penguin Press.
I am unashamedly a huge fan of the teenage film and television genre. This has been the case before, during, and now well after my own teen years. One of my all time favorite teen movies, Love, Simon (2019), is somehow the very first time a mainstream film in this genre has told a queer love story. I first saw it on a flight, cried my eyes out from happiness watching it, and then signed up to HBO (who own the streaming rights in the US) so I could watch it a few more times. It’s a beautiful film that follows most of the teen movie tropes but in a modern way, and culminates in a typically epic romcom ending. You can only imagine my utter delight when I saw that Hulu had released a spin off show called Love, Victor. While it features cameos from the film cast, it tells a very different love and coming out story and stands on its own two feet. Both are magical and both get my endorsement for your viewing pleasure.
Promotional art for Love, Simon (left) and Love, Victor (right).
Yotam Ottolenghi's prawn and orzo dish from SIMPLE is a winner. It's a great recipe to have on hand, because it can be modified to be made when the only fresh ingredient available is an orange. We always keep a supply of prawns in the freezer, plus canned tomatoes, garlic, herbs, spices and packets of orzo in the pantry. I've only made it with the marinated feta once, and typically use greek yoghurt instead (as I do on most things). In my current dairy-free life, I've used cashew yoghurt (not actually bad), or just had it as-is. When I'm out of fresh basil I used dried leaves in a very small quantity, and I've found it still tastes great. The fennel seed taste can be overwhelming if you overdo it, and I tend to use half of the recommended amount because we're not an overly liquorice-flavor-loving household. Try cooking it properly the first time, and when you see how good it is, find out which substitutions work for you so this delicious combo can become an easy weeknight staple!
Image of the dish, from Fine Cooking, provided by Yotam Ottolenghi.
My wonderful friend Max shared with me this week the image below, which struck me as powerful in its symbolic simplicity, and also hauntingly beautiful. The artist, Fabrice Monteiro, produced this in his own garden while in quarantine. Rather than discuss my own interpretation of this work, I want to direct you to the artist’s own explanation which can be read here in English. This piece was created for a series shared by MAGNIN-A gallery in Paris, in their commitment to antiracism work. The online dialogue "Ce Que Nous Voulons Dire" ("What We Want To Say"), features words and images from Black artists, which you can follow via the hashtags #WhatWeWantToSay/#CeQueNousVoulonsDire and read more about the project on their website.
Image: untitled, Fabrice Monteiro. From MAGNIN-A.
Vogue's 73 Questions series can be pretty hit or miss, much like the publication itself (i.e. sometimes tone deaf, very elitist and often without much soul). This edition with Tracee Ellis Ross is wonderful, as it should be, because she is a very special human. Her warmth and light are radiant, her smile makes you smile, and her candour is like oxygen. This video is amazing because it conveys that energy, while also showing you her absolutely to-die-for home, with thoughtfully curated art and design elements. When she's asked who her style icon is, she responds "me, in 17 years, hopefully". She is just such a delight.
A screenshot from Vogue's video.
Last night we watched Troop Zero, an indie film distributed by Amazon Studios on Prime, starring the incredible Viola Davis. It is a heartwarming coming of age story that presents an idealized version of the past, in a way that is somewhat anachronistic but also allows for diverse casting and democratization of the entertainment industry, right now. By this I mean that often racism and sexism in casting are preserved under the guise of “historical accuracy”, but casting women and people of color in a way that may not be realistic can actually help to shift power today. Picture rural Georgia in 1977 with Black and Indian characters who aren’t ostracized, and with a gender-queer child as a major character. Gender identity and ableism do come up, but those ideas are handled in a modern way. It is a sweet film, and we cheered on cue at the climactic scene where the children stood together, fearless, in solidarity and in friendship, belting out “Ground Control to Major Tom”. It also reminded me how much I love David Bowie, and I’ll probably be listening to Space Oddity all week.
Promotional art for Troop Zero, from Amazon.
If you aren't familiar with English author Matt Haig, you should be. A mental health advocate who openly discusses his own depression and near suicide, he deals with mental health issues, existentialism, pain and life with eloquence, consideration and depth. His 2013 book The Humans, about an alien who takes up residence in the body of a Cambridge professor, is a beautiful ode to our collective humanity. It made me audibly laugh and ugly-cry, so fair warning if you ever intend to read it in a public place. If you want to consume something light right now, that still has depth and ends on an optimistic note, this is your book.