The Veil Of Truth [Uncut Gems]

When writing about Uncut Gems one writes about its stress-inducing, anxiety triggering plotline, as I did after I first watched it. However, after almost a year, I think there was something more interesting about my first time watching Uncut Gems than the effects it had on my anxiety levels. I am here to admit, that the first time I watched the movie… I thought it was based on a true story.

I may have avoided writing from that perspective because it’s kind of embarrassing. I clearly didn’t do my due diligence before watching it, only hopping onto that movie bandwagon after it was doing so well- as people were lauding Sandler’s performance and marveling at the movie’s ability to make viewers exorbitantly uncomfortable. And I can’t even tell you why I thought it was a true story. I am guessing it has to do with Kevin Garnett being in the movie.

I remember that one of my earliest exposures to the movie, maybe my earliest, was an interview with Kevin Garnett (who was the best promo for a movie I have ever seen). And I believe something about that interview made his role in the movie sound like actual experiences. And would it be so bizarre to think that at one point Kevin Garnett thought a rock from Africa gave him extra ability on the basketball court? It sounded par for the course to me.

Regardless of why I thought it was a true story or whether I should have been smarter than that, I made it through almost the entire movie before it dawned on me that it couldn’t possibly be true. And I became one of those losers who Googles, “Is ___________ based on a true story?” that we can’t even fathom exists when we encounter their footprints of stupidity on Google auto-populate.

I realized I was wrong in my assumption approximately right when the bullet went through Howard’s eyeball.

If you thought that scene was shocking…. Try watching it under the assumption that Howard was a real man, who lived and breathed and made horrible life decisions, who you mistakenly assumed was going to be in some fun late-night interviews with Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert, sitting next to Adam Sandler in some oversized comfy chairs. It makes that bullet infinitely more shocking, let me tell you.

It may have been my single most disorienting moment in movie watching. Not only was the plotline shot to hell, but my understanding of what the movie was took a bullet to the dome.

I still find this comical, but I also, upon further reflection, feel like I stumbled upon a once in a lifetime movie moment. After all, isn’t the great challenge of any movie to suspend your disbelief? And what would happen if we literally went into any given movie with belief completely suspended, watching as if it were a nonfiction documentary more than a fiction film?

I’ll tell you what happened to me, the movie became a shit-ton more impactful. The premises the movie was based on- the hardness of the world and the desire for Howard to get out of the trap of his own making- became much more high stakes. And the payoff in the end- in this case, the bullet through the glasses- was even more acute.

But I also think about this from the other direction as well. I have made the mistake of thinking a book I was reading was nonfiction when it was actually fiction (the book cover was deceptive), but I only made it half a chapter before recognizing that it couldn’t possibly be based on a true story. I made it to the end of Uncut Gems with nothing more than a moment or two of going, “I can’t believe this is real.” It speaks to the vein of truth Uncut Gems tapped into.

If I could get that far thinking it was true, the movie was clearly a reflection of truth (or else I am just an idiot, but that makes for a way worse post). And all the unhappiness of the world Howard tried to navigate felt like the uncomfortable and biting reality of the world we inhabit.

This happy accident gives me a greater perspective on the anxiety we all felt at watching Uncut Gems. Yeah, it was partially due to the music, yeah it was due to the close proximity in which the scenes were shot, yeah it had a lot to do with great acting by Adam Sandler. But a lot more of it had to do with the very thin curtain that separates the nightmare Howard traversed and the much more serene world we live in. There was truth in Howard’s experience, regardless if the viewer was dumb enough to think the movie was true, and our anxiety comes from knowing his truth is not as far away from our reality as we would like to think.

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For more posts like this, like, comment, or follow, or check us out on Twitter @BlankDid.

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Themed Recommendation List: 60’s California Drug Culture

As any good nerd, I find unmatched joy in making rich connections between the many media I may be consuming at any time. My usual routine is to be reading a fiction book, listening to a nonfiction book, watching a television show throughout the week, and spending time catching up on movies over the weekend. When these different forms of storytelling overlap, on purpose or on accident, I am one happy camper. 

To me, these connections, especially when they are unintended, are the epitome of learning. I am consuming these separate stories that naturally coalesce into one idea in my mind. I remember first noticing this ‘coalescence’ while reading, watching, and listening to a series of works that revolved around the 1960s, specifically in or around California and its drug culture. 

So here is my themed recommendations for learning about the 1960s and its influential drug culture.

Nonfiction- The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

It is not hard to decide where to begin this themed recommendation list. Tom Wolfe wrote the book on drugs in the sixties in California with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Focusing on Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters, Tom Wolfe captures life through the eyes of these acid dropping beatniks. The book is not just a great introduction to the topic, but also to Tom Wolfe, who’s unique style that aims to capture the ‘feel’ of the scene he is reporting on finds no better outlet than giant acid fueled party trips with punch bowls full of LSD laced kool-aid. It’s a wild ride, that beckons more follow up to an era that feels so bizarre and explanatory. The drug culture was about breaking out of the norm and living life in a new way, and this book is written as an example of deviating from the way things are supposed to be. 

Nonfiction- Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson

It makes sense that a topic this strange would have authors who are as bizarre as the stories they write. Tom Wolfe’s eccentricities may only be outmatched by Thompson’s gusto for putting himself not near the action, but a part of it. Hell’s Angels is a not so creatively titled book about Thompson’s time in/with/whatever Thompson does, the Hell’s Angels. One of the oddest discoveries I made about the drug era in California is that it was heavily connected to the motorcycle club. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test included frequent visits by the Hell’s Angels to La Honda to have LSD and alcohol fueled all-night binges, and Hell’s Angels explains that type of lifestyle in greater detail, as well as what made this legendary club tick and the reason public perception about them is as it is. And all of this is done in the over-the-top and dramatic first-person perspective of Thompson, who inebriates himself to a sufficient degree, often enough, to be able to do these inimitable men justice.

Fiction/Movie- Inherent Vice (book by Thomas Pynchon)

Soooo technically this story happens in 1970, but the main character “Doc” is very much a product of the 60s. The story is done in a noir-style with a drug induced inept version of Philip Marlowe as the detective. And it is a fun fiction extension of the two nonfiction pieces, including both the drug culture of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and the motorcycle culture of Hell’s Angels. Inherent Vice is both a book, by Thomas Pynchon, and a movie, with Joaquin Phoenix as Doc. I was going to pick one to recommend, but why not both? The book does a better job at capturing the mood of the period, and the movie helps viewers understand the very Pynchon-esque plot, that can be as confusing as it is entertaining. 

Documentary/Nonfiction- Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (book by Lawrence Wright)

In this case, I think the documentary is better, but the nonfiction book is great too and serves as an awesome compendium of sorts, to the boiled down documentary. Scientology got its rise in the 50s and the 60s, and the seeker drug culture- based on alternative and oftentimes mind-bending ways to improve oneself, without professionals or medications- contributed to its rise. There is a reason the Purple Palace of Scientology is in California. So as a reader or watcher goes through the journey into L Ron Hubbard’s mind (which this documentary offers), they discover a man who tried to exploit a cultural movement that reflects the era. It is an interesting way to learn about this period, through the mind of a man bent on making money off of it, as told by those who fell for the trap.

Fiction/Movie- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (book by Ken Kesey)

This is my favorite book of all time, and much more popular as a film, so again- might as well do both. If all this started with the awesome influence of Ken Kesey and his representation of an entire movement, we might as well read his masterpiece. In the context of all these other works, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest becomes a book about escaping the trap of society, of not believing the lie that you are the crazy one, trying to live life and transcend the ties that bind. It’s a dazzling work all by itself. As a reflection of the era shown in the works above- it is as fascinating as anything you’ve read this year.

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For more posts like this, like, comment, or follow, or check us out on Twitter @BlankDid.

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My Top 50 Favorite Nonfiction Books (Ranked)
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Quidditch And The Snitch Problem: This Sport Makes No Sense [Harry Potter]

All Harry Potter fans love quidditch. And that love causes us to look the other way at some of the more obvious absurdities of the sport. Because quidditch is delightful! A pure joy for all readers and the fictional characters who play it. Picking a fight against this beloved sport would be unnecessary. A person would have to be a real jerk to sit down and take the time to attack our collective favorite fictional pastime.

But I got some real problems with quidditch… Actually, it’s one big problem and some offshoot problems it creates. The big problem is the scoring. I am by no means the first to vocalize the absurdity of making each score of the Quaffle worth ten points, and then catching the snitch worth ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY POINTS. 

And since I am not the only one to vocalize this absurdity and since Twitter exists, Rowling has responded to these, incredibly fair, criticisms. Here is her response…

“It makes total sense. There’s glamour in chasing an elusive lucky break, but teamwork and persistence can still win the day. Everyone’s vulnerable to blows of fate and obstructive people, and success means rising above them. Quidditch is the human condition. You’re welcome.”

Okay, Rowling. Slow your roll with the ‘you’re welcome.’ You didn’t mic drop anyone. It is a good response, but it does not come anywhere near satisfying my complaints. Her argument comes from two fronts. She answers in regards to the logistical way this plays out in sports, and she answers it from the life lessons sports can teach us.

I want to start by addressing this from a sport’s logistics perspective. Everyone recognizes the off balanced nature of the snitch, what Rowling referred to as the ‘elusive lucky break,’ but the problem is not that the lucky break exists, but that it is the end all be all. The seekers are not chasing ‘glamour.’ They are trying to end the game, and because that action ends the game, and for the amount of points that action receives, catching the snitch is the only thing that matters. I actually like the idea of it being an elusive lucky break, but in order for this to be the case, Quidditch would need to have a clock or periods like every other sport on the planet. But no, she wanted to be too cute for that, and it creates a situation where everything other than the catching of the snitch does not matter.

Why would anyone care what happens outside of the seekers? Even in a scenario where the lead on the pitch increases beyond the one hundred and fifty point lead required to be safe from the devastating snitch catch, we are still just waiting for that team’s seeker to catch the snitch. The massive lead only makes the game less interesting, because only one person will be ‘seeking,’ but always, the game will be decided by the battle between the seeker. So no Rowling, ‘teamwork and persistence’ cannot win the day, only the elusive lucky break can, because it, quite literally, ENDS THE GAME. 

But, you might say, what about Viktor Krum. He caught the snitch to end the game because he recognized his team lost. Therefore, teamwork and persistence can win the game. Let’s get one thing straight. Viktor Krum is a loser, and he presents the largest case that quidditch is not a sport. If quidditch was a sport like football or basketball or soccer, which aired on ESPN and had fans like these other sports had, then Krum would be the equivalent of Lebron James or Tom Brady. And if Lebron James or Tom Brady quit in the middle of the Super Bowl or Game 7 of the NBA finals, they would be eviscerated for the rest of their careers. Lebron gets routinely criticized for not taking the last shot and passing it to the open man… imagine if he went to the bench in the third quarter because he *checks notes* recognized his team couldn’t win.

And this leads to the second vein of thought in Rowling’s response. The psychology of sport. A fictional sport must necessarily have a component of sport’s psychology to both move the narrative of the story and to be a sport that makes sense. And this is the portion of Rowling’s response that reveals quidditch as a nonsensical sport. Rowling defends the imbalance of the sport by comparing that to the ‘human condition.’ Which is probably fair. I think all sports fans see sports as a commentary on the human condition. That is what gets us out of our seats for big comebacks and brings us to tears over a terrible loss. But her explanation as to how quidditch represents the human condition is lacking…

She explains that there is ‘glamour’ in chasing the snitch as a lucky break and that ‘Everyone’s vulnerable to blows of fate and obstructive people, and success means rising above them.’ This sounds super poetic. And it is a terrific representation of Harry Potter as a series, but this is definitely an explanation of sports from an author, not a sports fan. Rowling may even be a fan of sports, I am not sure. What I am sure about was that this response only shows that quidditch is a great narrative device, but a nonsensical sport. 

There is no glamour in lucky breaks in sports. The lucky break of the ref’s flag that bailed out a team, or the non-call that went in the winning team’s favor, are only derided as things that ruined the game. And the snitch more closely resembles these bail outs from something outside the competition than any last second shot or incredible goal ever did. Because a last second three contested by the opponent is won in the same way the game had been played all along, not by some external factor that was a completely different part of the game. Which is exactly why I’m not buying this explanation that everyone is vulnerable to blows of fate and obstructive people, and success means rising above them. That’s true, and as wonderful as all the other stuff Rowling writes. However, the Chasers get beaten by Bludgers too, and the Beaters are obstructed by other people too, and the Keeper is just as likely to break an arm as a Seeker is. Yet only what the Seeker does matters. Quidditch would be ripe for harrowing tales of Keepers making last second saves to win the game, or Chasers with broken arms carrying their team to a victory. But no, none of that matters when all of those amazing feats of sport are wiped away with the snatch of a Snitch.

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You Go Around And Pity For Yourself [The Sopranos] (Season 6A)

If an unexamined life is not worth living than an unexamined series is not worth ending. And The Sopranos season 6A, the great build-up to the great ending of a great season, is a twelve episode examination of the lives these characters led, where they currently stand, and what life has become for them. Was this worth it? Is my life valuable? Did I do wrong? And through these questions comes an implicit feeling of doom. A confrontation with the end of life. 

Season 6A is, in effect, the man on death row or with a terminal illness recalling his past and trying to make sense of it all, before his entire life is in the past. On watching it for the first time, this is easy to write-off as a product of a series that announced its end. But for those re-watching, it is much easier to read as the confrontation with the death that marks season 6B.

The season is littered with recollections of the past. Each episode is reminiscent of season 5’s cover image, with the cast standing over the buried bodies of the past. Chrissy can’t stop bringing up Adriana or leave his addictions in the past. Carmella can’t help wondering about Adriana as well, and she finally asks Roe about Jackie Jr. after her many interactions with the woman who is a shell of her former self based on previous season’s tragedies- Jackie Sr., Jackie Jr., Ralphie. AJ becomes a massive problem, the little shit, and Tony and Carmella review every parental decision they’ve made in an attempt to make sense of how he got this way- remember when he told us God is Dead? He was always so sweet, what happened? We as viewers are painfully aware of how he got this way, reminded of every cringey parental decision that failed to hold their son to any standard of respectability. Meadow continues her trek to become the polar opposite of her father, drawn to the law, fighting for justice rather than creating injustice. And she and Finn come face-to-face with Finn seeing Vito giving a construction worker a blowie. Janice, always fond of recalling the past, continually reminds Tony of their mother, and how they were raised. Johnny Sack and Phil, the dynamic duo, hang on to every slight and memory they can in order to twist the proverbial knife into Tony. And Junior is maybe the best instance of the past resurfacing. In his senility he almost completes what he and Liv set out to do so long ago- off Tony. And he becomes another body, this one alive, buried under the seasons’ churn. 

All of these instances, literal and symbolic, come with ‘remember when’ moments in the dialogue, constantly casting backwards into the well-developed plotlines that became our refuge throughout our journey with The Sopranos. It’s a beautiful set-up for the conclusion of the series, no matter how they choose/chose to end it, allowing us closure and preparing the series for an epic conclusion that will have no time for such sentimentality.

The closing scene of this season seems like a more traditional series ending, the way it would end if The Sopranos wasn’t in conversation for the greatest television show of all time. All the characters sat around the Christmas tree- Tony, Chrissy, AJ, Carmella, Janice and Bobby, and even Meadow from afar, and they all finally seem to have their shit together. They all seem able to recede behind the final curtain with the audience allowed to conjure hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow for our favorite characters. But we know better, because the story was told better than that. All that crap- alcohol and junk, AJ’s poor relationship with Blanca, Tony’s relationship to New York, Chrissy’s marriage- is buried under the ground, littered with the bones of bad decisions. And that ground threatens to collapse beneath them at any moment. So the scene feels nostalgic and positive, a real come together moment, but it also feels doomed, as if there is no way it can last, as if no one is actually enjoying a moment that should be so special. 

All of this skirts around the big man, Tony, and his reflections on his past and struggles to move forward. His coma and its dream sequence are the beginning of the season, and in many ways sparks all the reflections about the lives they led. He was no exception. 

The first time I watched the coma-dream with Tony as Kevin Finnerty, I just wanted it to end. It felt long and drawn out, and I wanted to get back to Satriale’s and The Bing and the ‘real’ stuff. The dream felt stifling to the story. On each subsequent re-watch I appreciate it more. And this time it seemed like such a perfect set-up for this last season (both parts).

Without fully examining the coma-dream (that can be another post for another time)-  Tony confronts a different life he could have led. In some ways that life was the choice of going into infinity, death, or waking up, life. But in other ways Tony is choosing a type of life. He has always wrestled with the life he chose. And as he traverses his coma-dream. Seen as a thief, trying to fight for his identity, he must choose to become Tony Soprano the mafia boss once again. And once he does, that life becomes a rebirth. 

We see his changes in minor ways after he wakes. He seems more loathe to take a life, not wanting to kill Vito (even though his hand is finally forced), and when Phil beats him to it, he doesn’t kill a man in return, as suggested, but blows up a building. 

But in a larger scale, he tries to finally set up a stable life, one that won’t lead to the premature end he faced. He tries to keep Carmella happy with a trip to Rome and eventually, after much prodding, getting the spec house back up and running. He finally stops making excuses for AJ’s bullshit and tries to get his life on track. He does right by Janice, by getting her Johnny Sack’s house, and he tries really hard to work with Phil. Giving in at times in ways he never would have pre-coma. 

But here’s the rub. We have followed The Sopranos for five prior seasons, as all of those characters reminded us of in the ways listed above- there are too many bodies buried. And unfortunately, Tony’s desire to stabilize his tumultuous life is too little too late. Maybe before he scorned Johnny Sack. Maybe before he didn’t support Chrissy’s sobriety. Maybe before Tony B. But not now. 

But we don’t know that yet. We just know that things finally seemed to come together and that it seems a little too good to be true. Unfortunately, it is. 

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For more posts like this, like, comment, or follow, or check us out on Twitter @BlankDid.

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Sometimes we’re all hypocrites. [The Sopranos] (Season 2) Part 2
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You’re a captain, Ralphie, when I say you’re a captain. [The Sopranos] (Season 3)
The Long Slow Burn: [The Sopranos] (Season Four) Review
Tony’s Pride [The Sopranos] (Season 5) Part 2
The Threat Of New York [The Sopranos] (Season 5) Part I

The Meme Maker [Crazy, Stupid, Love]

I just watched Crazy, Stupid, Love for the first time. It was pretty good. I laughed quite a bit even if those collective moments didn’t make an amazing movie. But what I noticed most was that this movie was a font of memes. Every scene seemed to produce a different gif for the internet to use to react to news and tweets. But even more so, there were three top-tier reaction gifs that I had no idea belonged to this movie. 

The morning I watched the movie, Ryan Gosling was trending on Twitter (which may have been the subliminal reason I chose it) because one dude got into a Twitter fight with another dude and tried to flex on him by sharing a picture of himself with his girlfriend, only to get decimated by Twitter-trolls all over the world because his girlfriend shared more than a passing resemblance to Ryan Gosling. Cue an infinite number of reaction gifs of Ryan Gosling, in sunglasses, showing over-the-top levels of disgust in different contexts- disgust at himself realizing why he was trending, disgust at the girl, disgust at the strangeness of this twitter trend (Twitter is a very meta place). What I did not realize is that that gif is from Crazy, Stupid, Love, and happens in a hilarious moment when Steve Carell’s character whips out his velcro wallet in front of the impeccably stylish character played by Ryan Gosling.

Ryan Gosling Judging You GIF

 This gif makes its round all the time, even outside the bounds of odd machismo Twitter battles that become viral due to odd celebrity look-a-likes, and only now did I connect it to a movie- a very new age feeling of serendipity. 

Crazy, Stupid, Love also is the home of the Steve Carell’s, drink, point, and wink gif which is used to celebrate all sorts of clever comments, congratulations, and celebrations. The moment is made when Cal Weaver finally hits his stride as a man’s man as opposed to the man who lost his masculinity. As he woos woman after woman with his newfound set of skills, he eventually tops it all off with a raise of his glass, which internet users everywhere continue to use in moments of acknowledgement.

someone gets GIF

And as if two all-time gifs were not enough for one movie- and a not super popular movie at that- Crazy, Stupid, Love has a third. In the climactic scene the main male actors sat in a row on a bench, and in a moment of ironic commentary, Ryan Gosling tries to stifle a laugh, with legs crossed and a hand over his mouth. It’s a nuanced reaction to be sure, but one that fits a specific internet need, where an OP or tweeter does not realize the irony or humor in their post, or a news headline or video is shared that is funny in a way it should not be, or we feel bad for finding something funny. 

Ryan Gosling Reaction GIF

If you were to search any movie title and ‘gif’ into Google, you would find dozens of gifs for it, Crazy, Stupid, Loveincluded- these are by no means the only gifs from the film. However, most movies do not have one commonly used, top tier reaction gif or meme in the internet world. Crazy, Stupid, Love has three, which, for longtime lurkers or big-time shit posters, is a fun fact for the ages. 

Did you like this post? Click here for Did You blank It? homepage.

For more posts like this, like, comment, or follow, or check us out on Twitter @BlankDid.

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My Top 50 Favorite Nonfiction Books (Ranked)

Collecting my top 50 favorite nonfiction books took a long time. I only add books to the list when I give them a 5-star rating. And I had to read a lot of nonfiction before I found 50 that felt worthy of a 5-star ranking. 

I thought a lot about why this might be. One conclusion I came to, is that writing a nonfiction piece is much more difficult than fiction, it is limiting in the point you are able to convey when working in the confines of truth, and it’s a much more difficult task to create a form that reflects the research rather than to blend form and story as needed. 

This seems connected to the second conclusion I came to. Less people are writing nonfiction because of the amount of work it takes to write a good one. So goes the old joke about every Joe and Schmo writing their ‘memoirs’, a much more accessible version of nonfiction that takes less time, money, and journalistic know-how than the more advanced nonfiction. 

As a result, finding a vein of intriguing nonfiction took me some time. A lot of nonfiction is written with a pre-requisite amount of knowledge that I did not have, so I needed to grow and learn before approaching some of the more complex works. And others were just plain boring, more a testament to what the author found interesting, than any important information to convey. 

This made me adopt a standard in nonfiction. Most of it can be reduced by 25%. Most nonfiction authors include 25% of writing that is something they found interesting but is unrelated to their point, or they add something they spent a lot of time and money finding and couldn’t bear to cut it out or was just filler to get them to some pre-determined length that made their book feel significant.

Eventually, I got used to these norms of nonfiction and shifted my expectations in a healthier direction. 

Out of this journey came the list I might be most excited to share- My 50 favorite nonfiction books ranked.

A note about my ranking process: 

  • This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, only the books I found interesting and picked up and read. There was not a serious effort to be inclusive of gender and race when compiling this list, only reflecting on which books I enjoyed, all biases of my own included. This would not be the same list I recommend to someone if I am trying to make them well rounded.
  • I judge my books on a few abstract standards- Enjoyment, Quality, and Significance
  • Enjoyment– I have to like the book I read. If it feels like work to read it, that’s a problem. And I might not always be able to name the problem, but I don’t need to. Because the choices an author makes are as good as their ability to communicate and engage with the reader.
  • Quality– The book should be well structured and written. Nonfiction offers a challenge in finding a way to organize and write information that already exists and has meaning. This can go really well or really terribly. I want to see an author structuring and writing their ideas well.
  • Significance– There are a lot of fun nonfiction books, written well, but nonfiction demands to be significant. To write about something that actually happened is to declare it has significance, and if I cannot apply the book to the world around me or understand that world better after reading the book, it lacks significance and therefore is degraded in its evaluation. 

So without further ado… My top 50 nonfiction books in reverse order.

50. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

49. Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean

48. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

47. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

46. The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success by Ross Douthat

45. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi

44. An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It by Al Gore

43. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

42. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

41. Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert

40. Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations by Adm. William H. McRaven

39. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

38. Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein

37. League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

36. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

35. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

34. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

33. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

32. Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

31. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre

30. No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram by Sarah Frier

29. The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson

28. The Revenant by Michael Punke

27. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

26. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

25. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman

24. She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

23. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X

22. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

21. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells

20. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

19. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders

18. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

17. Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger

16. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

15. Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

14. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

13. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

12. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

11. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

10. The Blind Side by Michael Lewis

9. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

8. A Promised Land by Barack Obama

7. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

6. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis

5. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

4. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

3. American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center by William Langewiesche

2. All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

1. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

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If you liked this, you may also like:
Personal Top 50 Fiction Book List (Ranked)
My List Of Most Read Authors By Book Count
Nonfiction Authors Worth Reading
Books About Writing
Admiral William McRaven [Sea Stories: My Life In Special Operations; 10 Life Lessons]

One Cut Was Enough [1917]

This post was written over a year ago after seeing 1917 in theaters. For some reason, I did not get around to posting it until now.          

The first time I really heard about the concept of less cuts in film was with The Revenant. This might have been when the national conversation about it, outside of directors, began, but it certainly was when it began for me. I was told with awe and amazement that The Revenant“barely had any cuts,” and used “as few shots as possible.” I was confused. I wasn’t sure why that would be better. I didn’t think it would make it worse, and I understood why that would make the creation of the film more challenging for the director, but I had trouble comprehending how it would enhance my reception of the story being told.

To be completely honest, I was not all the much more convinced after watching The Revenant. I liked the movie. I still remember the fight scene with the Native Americans, arrows flying onto the screen, camera taking us from one man to another, in and out of action. It was really cool. But holistically, it felt like it came short of impacting the overall movie. I guess I thought I wouldn’t have even noticed unless someone had told me. The impact of those scenes would have still been there, and it made the film better, but the conversation to application seemed off balance. And as time went on, I fell more and more disenchanted with the idea and concept. In short, I felt it created fun scenes. But was mostly an overblown way for ‘film buffs’ to pretend like they could be directors.

Therefore, I was a little dubious when I was told about 1917… the movie done in one cut. This again? Sure, it’s cool, it’s difficult, but does it impact the story? Doesn’t it just feel like a Wes Anderson movie? Fun to look at but not in complement to the story (except for Moonrise Kingdom, I think it complemented the story being told in Moonrise Kingdom)? These were the questions I walked into the movie with, and as far as a mindset to walk into a theater with, it was a death sentence. 

Fast forward one hour and fifty-nine minutes.

I loved it. It blew me away. One cut was enough. In this case, the method of shooting the movie all in one shot fit the story and enhanced the emotions inherent in that story. To me, The Revenant was this ode to directing and film-making. “Look upon these challenging things I have done and tremble!” But I probably missed ninety percent of what was cool and challenging about that movie, because I don’t think that movie was made for me, it was for the director and other directors. But 1917 was made for viewers, for me. The challenges were overcome for me, the style was selected for the story, the movie was told for my emotional engagement. If The Revenant was masturbation, 1917 was making love.

The scenery was the most obvious reason that the one-shot method enhanced the experience. I was entirely caught up in drinking in every image possible, recognizing I was failing, and trying to take in even more as the camera followed Skofield on his epic journey. I have never felt that urge more. The scenery was that good, and I had the time to consider it since there were no cuts. The director was committed to moments that most movies skip over. This could have detracted from the story by adding unnecessary moments. But it didn’t. It added a level of detail to parts that other movies don’t even have.

This was the same for character development and dialogue. They had the time they had in the film, and they had the journey they had. So when the characters were walking across a field or through a trench they were committed to showing it all. So the time was not just filled with amazing camera shots and settings, but it was used to help us understand the characters and the relationships they have with others. In a movie that communicates the humanity present in war as powerfully as any movie, these moments don’t become a necessary evil, but are leaned on as crucial opportunities to establish who the characters are before putting them in unfathomable situations. 

The efficiency of the opening scene is maybe the best example. Blake is called to the officer’s quarters and Skofield re-closes his eyes to pretend he is asleep. Blake holds out his hand because he knows he is faking, and Skofield grabs it even though he doesn’t want to go. In that moment we know exactly what type of friendship they have and they just need to establish it further. Its efficient and effective and engaging and it more than gets its return when these characters stick their heads above the trenches and wander in to no-man’s land or when Skofield cuts open his hand and sticks it in a dead body. It all meant something because of the quiet moments that came before that were embraced by the method of shooting the film.

The most abstract impact created by not cutting was how time impacted the viewer. In a movie that was a race against the clock, we felt every minute lost as something precious. 

But I experienced something deeper than that- a sense of ‘not again’. Because I knew nothing else had happened in-between. The moments of respite were laid out in front of me, and the fresh memories of the traumas and trials they had gone through were even fresher to them. I couldn’t make excuses about how much time had elapsed or about what they were able to do or experience while the camera cut away. I had seen it all, and in doing so, I felt the speed and intensity of the journey. Skofield had just been buried alive in stone and saved by Blake not too long ago as he cradled the body of Blake after having bled out from his knife wound. And the pain on his face as he tried to lift the truck out of mud was the pain of a man who had lost a friend because it was what we all were still thinking about. We witnessed the whole journey, and it all felt more present because of it. 

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If you liked this, you may also like:
On Trial [Parasite] vs [1917] (Best Picture)
Technology In Film: As Seen In [Patriot Games]
Language, Wharfianism, Diplomacy, and [Arrival]
National Pride [Dunkirk]
The Dance [Pride and Prejudice]

Christmas Lights Scene: RUN [Stranger Things]

All three seasons of the Stranger Things series have been good thus far, but even so, I, and a lot of people, will remember the series for one moment in particular. THE defining moment of the series. And I will go out on a sturdy limb and say that season four will also not contain a moment as panic-inducing as the moment in season one where Joyce Byers strings her Christmas lights against the wall in order to communicate with her child in the Upside Down.

Here is why that scene is so good…

Joyce’s Crazy

Winona Ryder brought the heat and the crazy when playing Joyce Byers. The grief of a mother who lost their child is not easily captured or conveyed, but her descent into hysteria, her adoption of her mission to find her child, and her certitude in what appears crazy to everyone else, comes to a boiling point in this moment. 

To the viewers, her character always walks a thin line. We cheer and root for her, encouraging her to pull the right thread in order to uncover what only we know to be true. But we also are ashamed of her more public implosions, wishing she would tug on the thread, but maybe not so hard, and maybe not in that way…

So when the light finally goes on (pun intended so hard) in the privacy of her own home in a way that could lead her to the truth we desperately want her to know, it is hard not to invest all the way, to lean in. This moment is going to be significant.

Christmas Lights

But as with a lot of great horror scenes, there is a dissonance involved. Like the possessed child or the murderous clown, we see lights turning on (as beautiful piano music tinkles in the background), and we are triggered by the hopefulness of the Holiday season, the beauty of a house lit by Christmas decorations. And we have to consciously recall that which lies underneath, a missing child, a netherworld filled with horrors and monsters, a holiday season with a family separate, not together.

But when those lights first rhythmically twinkle on and off and that hopelessly entangled strand of C7/C9 bulbs ignites in Joyce’s hands… we wonder if this could be a beautiful moment. Then Joyce asks, “Are you safe?” and those beautiful lights blink twice, and we know it could never have been beautiful. 

The Optimism

Even though we know this will not be a happy moment, as Joyce paints letters on the wall, it dawns on us that this could be a helpful moment. She can finally talk to Will. She has tugged on the right thread, we can begin the journey to reconciliation. 

And as Will lights up that first answer R-I-G-H-T-H-E-R-E, everything is working out unexpectedly well. It is easy to view this scene, unsettling though it is, with hope. 

We have wanted Joyce to succeed all along. We wanted these lights to represent the epiphany they so often symbolize. The scene intellectually trends in the direction of a positive breakthrough.

But the brilliance of Stranger Things, in the time it represents, and the nostalgia we view it with now- all fashion and technological dreams, D&D and absent parents- is that it focuses on the Upside Down, that which we do not see, or choose not to see, or are incapable of seeing. And this scene does that to us. So when Will finally lights up his final word R-U-N, and the bass hits behind each letter, and those once beautiful lights flicker on and off in some bizarre language of panic, we feel that dread and doom like never before.


Every horror movie should strive to include a good “RUN” scene. Any time one character, borne out of knowing and pressed for time, tells another character to RUN, my adrenaline surges. My personal favorite is Minority Report, where Agatha screams RUN at Anderton right before it cuts to a shot of his pursuers descending on the house via helicopters and repel lines. It will never not chill me to the bone.

Put this moment right up there. In the midst of calm and peace, being so close to a breakthrough, the RUN pierces our perception, creating chaos and confusion when we were the most physically and intellectually settled. 

And because of the themes of Stranger Things, and the acting of Winona Ryder, and the cognitive dissonance in the scene, this moment hits harder than most. It is beautifully done, and not likely to be outdone in the series, as good as Stranger Things has been since then.

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Technology In Film: As Seen In [Patriot Games]

It’s not even worth pointing out how quickly technology has advanced. We see it and live it every day. But there are moments where this hyper-acceleration of technologies comes into sharp focus, and this often happens when technology of today is put in contrast with the technology of yesteryear. 

We become nostalgic around a pay phone or an image of a phone booth or at the size of old cell phones. We marvel at the size of old computers. “The first computer filled up an entire room,” teachers tell the spoiled youth. Old televisions look absurd with their giant backs storing all sorts of excessive tubing, much like the inefficiency of old cars that got a total of thirteen miles to the gallon. 

However, we enjoy these trips down memory lane. They attest to the advancement of man, and recall a simpler time, where there was less technology, so it demanded less of us. But mostly we like to remember the awe we felt at such simple advancements compared to the callous disregard we have for infinitely better technology we navigate so frequently nowadays. 

I felt this way while watching Patriot Games, a movie filled with political intrigue and technological warfare. Where they used ‘satellite imagery’ and ‘interpreted data’ and had ‘advanced weaponry.’ 

All of it seemed so outdated, and the reverence they held for these, at the time, technological marvels felt quaint. But this kind of technology, that was unwieldy and demanded something of its users, was a much better companion to film than what we have today.

Of course, even this belief could be smeared with the grease of nostalgia, but maybe not. 

I was struck by this different type of relationship in the climactic scene, when Miller’s rogue IRA sect attacks Ryan’s home. The crew approaches the house in black wet suits, automatic rifles, and these massive night vision goggles that stuck out, what seemed like, a foot from their face. And when the movie cut to images from the view of those goggles, the data green view was objectively worse than the lighting of the dark rooms they were traversing (more of a problem with the cinematography than the tech, but it only served to feed my thoughts). I knew that I was supposed to fear these men. They and their tech-based outfits and weaponry were the height of deadliness and efficiency. But they just looked like giant frog-men to me.

I did not like my dismissive attitude, but I immediately knew why I had it. If this was a movie made for today’s audience, the tech this kill team would have would be infinitely more advanced, sleeker, and deadlier. Technology has advanced so much further since when Patriot Games was made, and so, therefore, has our expectations. The bar for awe and fear of the technological has been raised.

But I also appreciated that the gap in technology and what it could efficiently do at that time, left more room for a story to be told. Ryan, his family, and his guests, were able to use some ingenuity and a couple hand guns to escape the house before the kill team descended upon them. I am not sure, if a technologically advanced kill team descended on a house in a movie made for today, the family would have any chance of escape without technological assistance of their own. 

At one point, the people in the house turned the lights on at a well-timed moment and the night vision goggles became an impediment rather than a help, blurring bright white at a moment where the assassin needed to see most. Not to mention, that Ryan and his guests navigated the house just fine without the night vision goggles, making them appear more like a fashion statement then any kind of help.

Earlier in the film, as Ryan tried to find the camp of the men that would become this kill-team, he discovered a series of satellite images of what he assumed was their camp. The images only showed tents. The people who lived and trained in the camp had figured out when the satellite was above them taking images and would hide every time it passed by. So Jack Ryan asked some guy in charge to change the timing of the satellite to get some images of the men and women in the camp. The man protested asking Ryan if he knew how difficult it was to re-route a satellite.

This was a great little storyline. It is clever and advances the cat-and-mouse game Ryan had been playing with his family’s would-be killers all movie long. But again, I was struck by how this is just not a plot point in 2021. This would not be a complication for any number of reasons, drones being the simplest explanation.

There is also another moment when Jack Ryan, with reams of printout paper in his hands, and banks of fat, tube computer monitors surrounding him, interprets data for the crew in charge of finding this rogue IRA sect. It felt so barbaric. The computers printed out facts without any analytics. A world without analytics, where men and women interpreted meaning… wow.

And so I might just enjoy a trip down technological memory lane, but I also feel like this technology and its clear limitations allowed for a more human story. Notice, that in all these examples, the technology was as only as good as the man using it, and technological superiority meant nothing.

Jack Ryan came out of the house alive, and the kill team dead, despite the technology gap because Jack Ryan was the better man. And pre-Jack Ryan, despite the CIA’s technological leg up, the IRA sect had gotten the better of them up to that point. The technology used was not so far advanced that the man no longer mattered. And therefore, great movies can be made about the human.

And, anecdotally, it seems much easier for movies today that have technology as a focal point to make comments about the technology rather than the men who use it. Similar to our own lives, where technology makes demands of us now, technology becomes the point, not the tools the characters use. And the conflicts and solutions become more and more intricate workarounds for why the simple tech solution we all have cannot be used, and therefore human ingenuity is at last needed. 

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Is [Die Hard] A Christmas Movie?

My List Of Most Read Authors By Book Count

True confessions: I am a book hoarder. I do not rent books or buy e-books, I buy my books and they all sit behind my desk on carefully curated shelves, organized in a way that makes sense to me. And when I am lacking inspiration or need a moment’s breather from whatever work is occupying my time, I will often spin my chair around and scan the shelves to recall all my memories that are actually stories that were implanted into my life through these books.

And as I have read and collected more and more books to hopefully pass down to children and grandchildren- in an effort to foster a love for literature- I have also reflected on my reading tastes by the types of authors that end up on my shelves, and the genres that occupy the most space.

The most easily identifiable of these categories are how many books I have read by one author. So I counted. And here are the authors that I have read the most by book count. I did not include an author if I only read one linear series.

1. Stephen King- 31

There is a good chance many readers have a shelf dedicated entirely to Stephen King. I am almost at two and for good reason. King is so prolific it’s hard not to come across his novels in bookstores and other mainstream media- like all the movies and series based on his creations. Couple this with the quality and consistency of his work and it’s hard not to grab a King every once in a while to supplement adventures into other less charted literary waters. Sure, not all of his books are to the level of It or Misery, but almost all of them entertain, and when an author boasts a bibliography of over 80 books, that makes them a legend.

So King has become an author I consistently revisit over and over again year after year. I am sometimes daunted by my inability to catch up to his writing pace, but he did have a sizable head start.

2. Brian Jacques- 22

I smiled as I counted my Jacques novels. I wasn’t expecting this dive into my most read authors to be a journey through my life of reading, but I knew it would be when I realized Jacques was my second most read author. Twenty of those books were from the Redwall series (not a linear series so I decided to count it), and a couple books about the Flying Dutchman. 

I started reading Jacques in the 5th grade after finding Redwall at a book fair. I liked reading before Jacques, and I loved it afterwards, and for that, I will always be indebted to him (no I am not overselling it). For a while as I was learning to love reading, I read only him, which accounts for the amount of his books I have read despite not having read one in years and years. I didn’t realize, at the time, that I was enjoying the act of reading, not just reading Jacques’ amazing books in an amazing world of all too noble woodland creatures. 

Every young boy or girl needs a Jacques in their life. An author that starts out as the author they like and transitions them, through dint of writing that grabs the reader and propels them into new books and worlds, into writer they like. Jacques was this for me.

3. Chuck Palahniuk- 12

I hit my nihilistic angsty reading phase in my late teens and early twenties, where I craved an author that both ‘got me’ in that wonderful way only teens want to feel ‘gotten’ and felt significant. I was done with thrillers and fantasy and YA as my main means of reading and wanted something a bit more literary. Cue a wonderful Barnes and Noble worker who recommended I check out Palahniuk. Once I saw he wrote Fight Club, a movie I loved, I was all in.

Palahniuk is crass and over the top and tears down all that the world holds sacred, and I was ready for that. My angsty youth made me hyper conservative and anti-government and establishment. I wanted to be left alone to succeed because I could, and I knew what was best for me (I didn’t obviously, but no one could have told me that). Palahniuk’s irreverence for a social order that seemed so nonsensical to me at the time and his vitriol for painting the world with a pretty brush was a welcome change of pace from my fantasy heroes who did good all the time and young adult heroines who were deeply flawed but never failed to overcome those flaws to become better people. 

As time has gone on, I fell out of love with Palahniuk, maybe because his books lost a step and became egregious and unnecessary or maybe because I am no longer in the headspace to appreciate his themes. And I am no longer in that place, ironically, due to Palahniuk’s books and how they helped me navigate that mental space.

4. Haruki Murakami- 10

Crazily, or maybe not, the same worker who recommended Palahniuk to me, years later, recommended Murakami to me right when 1Q84 came out. And, maybe ridiculously, 1Q84 was my first Murakami, and it remains my favorite. I was at a place in my reading life where I was reading classics and modern works of great literature, working through the dense thicket of plot and narration. And so, when I read Murakami’s fantastical and abstract stories with magical realism woven into every story along with the slightly foreign lilt of his translated texts, I found a breath of fresh air, an author I could read and not search for literary critic’s explanation of what they meant (not something I should have been doing anyway) or trying to fit together the social commentary of a modern work. Murakami taught me to lead with my emotion and respond to a text first. If you don’t do that when reading his books, then you don’t have much. 

5. Terry Brooks- 9

After Jacques and his Redwall series ushered me into high school and the world of reading, I needed to figure out what else I liked. Something more serious than Redwall but certainly not the crap my teachers made us read for class. So I continually entered the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of Barnes and Noble, looking for the next series I could love. Terry Brooks, as he has done for so many young readers, provided a place for me to go. His land of wizards and witches and druids felt gritty and vast, and the only part I didn’t like about it at the time (but would probably love now) was how I could not put the many series he wrote into a neat linear box. I didn’t appreciate that I didn’t need to know everything that had happened to appreciate any one of his narrative strains. If this hadn’t been the case, Brooks’ book count might be up there with King and Jacques. 

6. Kazuo Ishiguro- 8

Ishiguro only has eight books. If he had fifty-five, I would have read fifty-five. He is my favorite author, and it’s not close. He is disproportionately represented in my favorite books list because other than The Unconsoledand When We Were Orphans, I have a hard time not thinking his books are five-star masterpieces. I can’t tell you why they speak to me right now like I can with Jacques when I was in middle school, Brooks when I was in high school, Palahniuk in college, or Murakami in my young adulthood, but I couldn’t have told you why I loved those authors back then either. Maybe in a decade or two I will be able to speak to how Ishiguro’s gentle prose and intricate stories comfort and enthrall me, but for now, I am not going to overthink it. I am just going to enjoy it and let his works lead me into new books and new authors that will sit on my shelves for years and generations to come.

Honorable Mentions at 6 books apiece: John Updike, Michael Chabon, Michael Lewis, and Neil Gaiman

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If you liked this, you may also like:
Personal Top 50 Fiction Book List (Ranked)
Ishiguro’s Unreliable Narrators [Klara And The Sun]
[Harry Potter]’s Legacy: Often Imitated, Never Repeated
The Dance [Pride and Prejudice]
Are We Living In An Orwellian State? [1984]