What is Making Me Happy: Brandon Sanderson’ Cosmere

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: Brandon’s Sanderson’s Cosmere.

Brandon Sanderson’s latest novel drops next week. Rhythm of War is the fourth book in the Stormlight Archive, the cornerstone epic second-world fantasy to his larger authorial project. What makes this project, the Cosmere so impressive is that it consists of multiple different series, each set on a different second-world and with a different feel, but also contributing to a larger story that is just starting to be made clear.

Ordinarily, I vary my reading, rotating between authors and genres, but my ability to focus on books rapidly diminishes through the fall semester, often going into hibernation sometimes in mid-October. Despite my present exhaustion, I have mostly managed to avoid that fate this year by just letting myself get absorbed in the escapism of epic fantasy, starting with many of the Cosmere books that I had not yet read.

There are three things in particular that make me happy about Sanderson’s work.

First, I appreciate the ambitious scope of these novels. I have now read or am reading thirteen novels and novellas in this universe and, while I can pick up on many of the easter eggs between the stories, the larger story is just now starting to take shape. Seriously. Sanderson currently plans 35 novels for this universe. Some of these books don’t work as well for me as others do, whether because the characters don’t land or the world doesn’t quite work, but I love the sheer variety of these books.

Second, in a recent Writing Excuses podcast episode on Fantasy World-building, Patrick Rothfuss expounded on how some fantasy systems tend toward the numinous, perhaps with defined rules, but playing on a sense of wonder wherein ‘magic’ breaks the defined rules of the universe (effectively, a soft magic system). On the other end of the spectrum, he posited, are scientific (hard) systems where characters treat ‘magic’ as the world as it is and thus studying them are little different from any other scientific pursuit. Sanderson’s magic systems are decidedly scientific. Each series explores a different aspect of a common system that becomes increasingly complex as it iterates. Thus, discussion of the Cosmere often comes back to trying to figure out what the characters can do based on an analysis of the known laws of the universe rather than wondering what new abilities a character might manifest.

Third, and perhaps my favorite thing about reading so many of Sanderson’s books, is watching an author mature and develop. Sanderson’s early books are exceedingly competent, which I often chalk up to his formal education in and teaching of English. As much as I love some of the characters in his early novels, I also sometimes found the prose itself to be mechanical, workmanlike. His focus was on the worlds and the plots, which made for deeply satisfying stories that didn’t always have the most polished prose. I have noticed that starting to change in his more recent novels, where he’s started to wed prettier prose to his technical excellence. Sanderson is still stronger at world-building and the technical side of writing, which allows him to publish at a prodigious rate, but raising the level of his prose has made some of the scenes in his recent novels particularly powerful.

Watching this sort of development in the line-to-line excellence of their prose, which I have noted in authors as esteemed as Ernest Hemingway always makes me happy, if for no other reason than it gives me hope for my own writing.

I suspect I’ll keep reading mostly genre fiction for the rest of this year since I’ll likely remain tired and I have on my shelf Alex Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Yoon Ha Lee’s Raven Stratagem, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, but this week what is making me happy is Sanderson’s Cosmere.

What’s Making Me Happy: Discovering Classic Country

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature at least for the at least next few weeks.

This week: Atlanta Burned Again Last Night

I’ve written here before about my love for country music, and particularly for country that that these days might be termed classic. My personal inflection point was 2003, at which point my listening to mainstream country radio largely fell away though I still tune in sometimes while I’m driving to see if I can catch older songs. One of the local country stations rewards this gamble more often than not, playing a variety of songs that skew older and with multiple shows per week dedicated to classic country. My favorite part of these shows is getting, occasionally, to stumble across a song I’ve not heard before.

Exactly that happened this week. From 1983, I give you “Atlanta Burned Again Last Night,” by Atlanta:

In some ways it is a pretty typical catchy country song waxing lyrical about a romantic engagement now gone. I wouldn’t go quite as far as Wikipedia in describing “a teenaged boy’s sexual initiation by a married woman” as a “common theme in country music,” though there are certainly broad similarities to a song like Garth Brooks’ “That Summer.” However, the lyrics here are both more explicit and more pointed about the impropriety of this particular adultery with both parties seeing other people and him not yet 18:

She was over thirty
He was barely seventeen
She was in her second marriage
He dated a high school queen.

These lyrics alone would be enough to make me happy, but what makes it art is the confluence of this subject with the song’s title making reference to and co-opting Sherman’s destruction of Atlanta in 1864.

Atlanta burned again last night
And all the water in the ocean
couldn’t put out the fire this time
They gave in to sin again, but lord it felt so right
When Atlanta burned again last night

The absurdity of the entire package is why I can’t stop laughing.

What’s Making Me Happy: Country Music

This is an occasional series following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment. I use some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

I grew up listening to a lot of country music, both the recent vintage from the 1990s and classic artists like Johnny Horton. To this day, I regularly put on country albums or songs when I want to scratch a nostalgic itch, so I was thrilled to learn that the latest Ken Burns project is the history of country music, now airing on PBS.

The first episode of the series explores the origin of country music and the associated instruments, including the fiddle, the banjo, and the acoustic guitar before turning to examine the first stars of the genre, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. The second episode continues the story westward to Texas during the Depression.

Burns makes a couple of specific choices in the first episode that make it one of my favorite installment in any KB documentary.

Burns chooses to identify all of the talking heads––an all-star mix of writers, singers, and musicians from Merle Haggard to Roseanne Cash to Ketch Secor to Rhiannon Giddens to John McEuen––by their state rather than by their job, profession, or title. Although he goes away from it for the second episode, this decision makes country music a national genre rather than uniquely Appalachia and underscore the power of place. At the same time, it underscores other themes of the episode such as how groups like the Carter Family came from rural Appalachia, others, like the Atlanta factory worker Fiddling’ John Carson, consciously adopted a rural aesthetic––a presentation that the record companies later encouraged their stars to do.

Another thematic point that I appreciated in the first episode is how Burns explores intersection through its connection to the Blues and early Jazz. Some of this was negative like Henry Ford anti-semitic diatribe against jazz that accompanied his decision to sponsor country dances of his youth, but much more was neutral or even positive. Burns examines how A.P. Carter (the problematic character behind Sarah and Maybelle Carter) acquired music for the group, including from black churches and how Louis Armstrong performed on Blue Yodel #9 with Jimmie Rodgers.

In addition to the substantive intersection between these genres, Burns also explores the power of the record labels and radio stations (complete with John R. Brinkley and the station he created to promote his xenotranplantation procedure that restored male performance by putting goat testicles in humans). In Burns’ telling, the earliest record labels that put out country music were the labels that put out music for ethnic minorities. The original Grand Old Opry radio show on NBC, by contrast, followed immediately after performances classical music and opera.

Suffice to say, I am not disappointed. This is a recognizably Ken Burns production, complete with Peter Coyote and slow panning shots of old pictures, and, for all of its detail, there are points where he has to leave out the complexities of early pioneers in order to tell the story of the people whose contributions most shaped the genre. The second episode largely picks up where the first one leaves off, but gave back a couple of the subtle points like the identification of people by place. Nevertheless, the first two episodes are a richly-textured story of a genre interwoven with the currents of American history.

What’s Making Me Happy: The Good Place

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

This week: the T.V. show The Good Place, created by Michael Schur (just put out on Netflix).

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is dead and in the afterlife, greeted by Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of the community, and introduced to her soul mate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), and her new neighbors Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto). This is “The Good Place,” heaven, she is told, where she will be rewarded for all the good deeds she did while alive. The problem, of course, is that Eleanor Shellstrop wasn’t a good person while alive. In fact, she was a prickly, callous narcissist. There are reasons for this, including a dysfunctional childhood, but by wanting no part of genuine relationships, Eleanor went through life as an amoral jerk. Now, surrounded by “good” people, Eleanor wants to change, and so her ethics-professor soulmate Chidi takes her back to school even though the situation causes a constant ethical dilemma.

Then there are Tahani and Jianyu, also soul mates. Tahani is the less-accomplished child of a wealthy and influential family, with famous “friends,” while Jianyu is a Buddhist monk who took a vow of silence….or possibly a not-yet-successful amateur DJ from Jacksonville. Really, this pair is no more perfectly matched than are Eleanor and Chidi.

I’ve been a fan of Michael Schur for some time, and while I’ve not seen Brooklyn 99 and am not that fond of The Office, I am hugely fond of Parks and Recreation. On a joke-for-joke level I still prefer Parks and Rec, but in terms of an overall show—characters, plot, pacing, feel—The Good Place is spectacularly good. Organized into chapters, the first season builds upon itself in a clear narrative arc guided by a singular question: will Eleanor be allowed to stay in the good place?, but with a conclusion that perfectly sets up a second season.

Beyond an avalanche of jokes, visual and verbal, highbrow and simplistic, is the warmth of The Good Place. The main characters bond over the course of the thirteen episodes, developing genuine emotional connections that become their own form of torture in turn. More than that, though, basic premise of “The Good Place” is a sort of gamification of life crossed with an eternal Match (dot) com, with points accrued or deducted for most every action, but the demerit system in particular is meant to be its own layer of jokes. There is no malice intended for any of the listed items, but the overall message about living a life that helps other people is most welcome. The viewer is invited to ask whether people can improve themselves, and while it may not be of much use within the immediate context of the show, the answer it gives is an unambiguous yes.

All in all, The Good Place is a warm, funny, clever show, and easily one of my favorite things I’ve seen this year. With season one binged in less than a week, I’m excited to see where season two goes.

What is Making Me Happy: Uncharted Atlas

I haven’t done one of these in a while, so….following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

I have always loved maps. I loved maps so much in middle school that girls teased me about how I would “read” atlases. (The fact that it was girls doing this is not important, but it amuses me in hindsight.) I am an absolute sucker for all sorts of maps, whether fictional or actual, old or new. A good map is essential to my love of fantasy series, even if many of those maps are provocatively incomplete and I have a deep and abiding love of geological histories of fantasy series. In another set of circumstances, I easily could see myself having been a cartographer or geographer.

All of that is by way of preface. This week I found a twitter account @UnchartedAtlas that sends out a tweet every hour with a new, randomly generated fantasy map. There is also a website that explains the method for generating the maps and lets you play with the tools. This is because these maps start with a random point generator that then connects them in a rough outline, adds terrain and rivers, erodes that terrain based on earth-like geology, and then populates it with cities based on a set of criteria. A paired code generates the names.

Certainly not every factor is accounted for, particularly in terms of city placement, but the maps represent a fascinating blend of criteria derived from historical geology and derived from the predilections of fantasy authors. I’ve been loving the map updates and the processes of creation, both, and thinking about what lies beyond the text of the maps. The inner map geek in me is like a kid in a candy store with this site.

Below are a few of my favorite maps from recent updates.

What is Making me Happy – Podcasts

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

I have a wildly erratic relationship with music—I like it on in the background and like obscure groups, but only recently started listening to complete albums and don’t ever keep up with recent releases. I also don’t listen to audiobooks, partly because they require too much commitment, partly because I like physical books, partly because I aspire to making enough money to keep the physical book publishing industry alive just with my own purchases. In the place of books–since this is the void it would fill–I listen to a wide range of podcasts, even after I recently unsubscribed from several that have too many piled up episodes. These range from sports teams or sports I like, to more general intellectual or artistic interviews and discussion roundtables. Some of my favorites on my long list are favorites specifically because they are tailor made for people of my given interests, deep-dives into relatively narrow topics that I just happen to love. Others are wider and more likely to bounce from topic to topic. There was a confluence of releases on Friday that dropped something ten individual episodes in a single day–including old standbys and several podcasts that are new or restored ventures by producers I like. While overwhelming, this deluge gave me a moment to reflect on these shows and, by extension, give a few recommendations.

The Lowe Post : A more sports-centric podcast, Zach Lowe is my favorite NBA writer and one of the main reasons why my interest in the NBA is waxing again. Lowe’s podcasts are another interview show, but specifically focused on individuals associated with the NBA, including players, coaches, former coaches, and writers, and will sometimes go into the nitty-gritty of tactics on the court, trade speculation, player personalities, the art of creating an interesting story, and major news stories. It is a catch-all discussion of the NBA, and the only podcast of its sort I will make a blanket-recommendation for.

The Watch and Pop Culture Happy Hour : The Watch is Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald’s podcast on the Bill Simmons Podcast Network, in large part rebooting Grantland’s Hollywood Prospectus. In this show they talk about the happenings in television, but have started talking more about movies and music now that Greenwald is not first and foremost a television critic. They frequently discuss shows and music I haven’t seen, but I listen regularly anyway. Pop culture Happy Hour likewise covers music, tv, movies, and (to a lesser extent) books, generally in the form of specific topic, general topic, and then a segment of recommendations. (In contrast, The Watch tends to be just talking about shows that are relatively current and that they want to talk about; there is planning involved, but it is not nearly as formulaic.) These two are in the same category because they are my two standbys for discussion of pop culture. I like both, even when they talk about culture I don’t consume because they remind me of conversations with friends that I rarely have these days, ones that are thoughtful and playful. More than even the topic, I think it helps that the people on the shows remind me of friends near and far and I just like the conversation.

There are many others I like, including the podcast version of Fresh Air and BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, but I am a little pickier about which ones I listen to simply because the topics covered don’t always hold my attention. In contrast, the ones above I listen to regardless of topic.

This barely scratches the surface of my podcast list, but I am also open to suggestions. If there are particularly good shows I ought to be listening to, please share.***

***I have not listened to Serial, I have been told I should listen to Serial, I don’t know that I ever will listen to Serial. However, it is on my radar.

What is making me happy: Cowboy Mouth

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

My big failing in the trivia night I usually go to is that I have gaping blind spots when it comes to music. I’ve always said I like what I like and don’t usually go out looking for new stuff. However, I have recently started listening to Spotify’s “discover weekly” and then listening to full albums from the artists whose songs I liked. Yesterday I came across the group Cowboy Mouth, a New Orleans rock group whose driving sound and bombastic lyrics I am quite enjoying. I don’t agree with the lyrics in every song, but neither do I find them objectionable the way I do in some songs commonly on the radio.

There weren’t many high quality videos I could find, but this is one of the more popular songs, “Jenny Says”:

And then there is the ever-subtle “Do You Want To Do It Right Now”:

What is making me happy: Simon Pegg

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

I’ve enjoyed Simon Pegg on screen for a few years, but he is not someone who I had ever heard speak as himself. Earlier this month, though, he was on Studio 360 to talk about his movies in general and the latest Mission Impossible film specifically. As part of the conversation he spoke about a sound-byte of his that caused a stir earlier this year where he supposedly accused comic book movies of causing society to become more childish. In talking about all of these issues I found Pegg to be personable and thoughtful.

The interview:

https://www.wnyc.org/widgets/ondemand_player/studio360/#file=%2Faudio%2Fxspf%2F521443%2F

What is Making Me Happy: Ha Ha Tonka

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming. This week: the Missouri band Ha Ha Tonka.

I am weird about music. It helps me attune myself to what I am doing and have to have something on while I write. I also like a fairly wide selection of genres and can really get into artists, but am by no means a music snob. It is not an artistic medium that I care a great deal about and my tastes frequently diverge from those of, for instance, the writers at NPR music. Partly for that reason, I usually don’t spend much time browsing for new music in the way that I do for books and recipes. On the other hand, when I usually add things to my playlists when I hear something I like in other contexts. In this case, I saw Ha Ha Tonka on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations when he visited their home region of Southern Missouri (the Ozarks episode). Within twenty four hours of seeing the episode I listened to four Ha Ha Tonka albums and looked up their tour dates for when they will be in Columbia, Missouri next so that I can see them live.

The song that has hooked me the most is “Staring at the End of Our Lives,” from Lessons (2013), but I couldn’t find a readily available link to it. Second, though, is “The Usual Suspects,” Death of a Decade (2011), the video for which is linked below and was featured on No Reservations. I like the combination of catchiness and lyricism and highly recommend all four albums.

What’s Making Me Happy: The United States of Amnesia

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final topic, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming. This week: The United States of Amnesia, a documentary about Gore Vidal and Gore Vidal’s America.

I’ve been a Gore Vidal fan going on ten years at this point. Once, while working in the library in college, I successfully persuaded one of the library directors that she should read his novel Creation and she liked it well enough that she pitched the idea of a library-staff-led book club where we would take turns suggesting books and leading discussion. The idea fell through (for which I was relieved), but it felt good that she liked my suggestion.

G.V. is a polarizing, divisive, and compelling character. This documentary, which came out in 2013, the year after G.V. died, marries the large number of T.V. pieces V. did in his lengthy public career, with interviews that he did with the producers in the last years of his life. The result isn’t as restricted a scope as Errol Morris’ work on Donald Rumsfeld, but, at the same time, the outside interviews about G.V. (including with Christopher Hitchens) take a backseat to V.’s outsized, yet reclusive personality.

As any good biographical documentary would, it begins with G.V. as a young man and the relationship with his parents and their relationship to the American Elite–his father, Eugene Luther Vidal, was one of Roosevelt’s aviation advisors (and may have had an affair with Amelia Earhart) and his mother, Nina Gore, was married from 1935-41 to Hugh D. Auchincloss, whose third wife was Janet Lee Bouvier, the mother of Jacqueline Kennedy. This was very much high society. G.V. liked to say that he was desperately trying to escape it.

But other than noting with some regularity, because how could one not, the strata of society that G.V. occupied, the documentary didn’t dwell on these relationships. Nor does it dwell on issues of sexuality and censorship that plagued him. Instead it worked to reconcile G.V.’s intellectualism and aloofness with his charismatic and aristocratic mien and his acerbic wit in the frequent appearances as one of the country’s most prominent public intellectuals. The United States of Amenesia touches on all of the prominent controversies (including one where the BBC called G.V. and William Buckley “Controvertialists” rather than commentators) so that it can cover the broad scope of G.V.’s work and appearances, but (at 83 minutes) it doesn’t drag.

I don’t agree with G.V. entirely, but find him to be fascinating. Ultimately, The United States of Amnesia provides one final rostrum for an exceptionally insightful and utterly unabashed public intellectual to speak from. Love him or hate him, Gore Vidal remains worth thinking about.