You’ve Got Red on You (CBR14 #5)

You've Got Red on You: How Shaun of the Dead Was Brought to Life

You’ve Got Red on You details the story of how 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, a low-budget British movie about Londoners battling zombies in a pub, became a horror-comedy whose fan base only continues to grow and with each passing year cements its place in pop culture history. Clark Collis takes the work he did on his 2017 oral history of the movie for Entertainment Weekly and grows it into the definitive look at a movie that would simultaneously help revive a genre while inventing a new one (the zombie romcom) and help launch the careers of some creatives you may have heard of (Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, Nick Frost, Lucy Davis, Kate Ashfield, Peter Serafinowicz, Bill Nighy) and other “below the line” talent you may not have, but whose work continues to entertain.

This 400-page beastie follows the creative journey of the movie’s talent – and how they all came together – from inception through to the production, the distribution and reception, and the evolving place the movie and its creatives have found themselves in during the nearly two decades since. Collis accomplishes a lot in this work, providing what will likely become the bedrock of definitive biographies of the main artistic contributors to the movie, as well as deep dives into the genre of horror movies, and zombie movies in particular, which influenced Wright and Pegg as they conceived and wrote the screenplay giving the reader the necessary information to understand both how they got there, but also what an uphill climb it was to get this movie financed at the time when zombie movies had gone out of fashion. Further, he paints a picture of both the movie production landscape at the turn of the last century, as well as the nascent days of online film journalism.

Collis takes the best parts of an oral history, having the personal accounts of people directly involved in the moment, and expands the view on who might be included in a movie’s history. There is not a creative department unheard from, or an angle on the life cycle of a movie left unexamined. But Collis doesn’t just leave it there, he builds a narrative that drives the book forward, having a clear authorial voice while sharing so much real estate with the words of those involved. You’ve Got Red on You is tightly organized book (with great chapter titles) that incorporates details of day-to-day shooting, pages of set photos, and promotional materials into the story it is telling. It also includes portions of the early brainstorming sheets done by Pegg and Wright as well as storyboards sketched by Wright and his brother Oscar which let the reader in on the process of creating the now iconic images from the movie.

The final chapter of the book brings readers up to date on the post-Shaun lives of the cast and crew, and honestly, I would read any book Collis would choose to write about any of those pursuits (Hot Fuzz is my favorite of the Cornetto Trilogy, but Shaun holds a special place in my heart as the first zombie movie I ever liked) or whatever he may tackle in future. I heartily suggest this one to fans of Shaun of the Dead or the people involved, or how movies are made. There’s something here for almost everyone.

Nadiya’s Kitchen & Easy Gourmet (CBR13 #66-67)

Nadiya’s Kitchen 

After having fallen in love with Nadiya and her outstanding bakes on the Great British Bake Off (Great British Baking Show in the U.S.) and placing her season (who am I kidding, all GBBO) in my self-care television routine I purchased her first cookbook in January of 2020 without really doing much digging into what it contained. I was pleased to discover how easily Nadiya’s authorial voice reminded me of the version of her we were all introduced to on the show. The book features favorite recipes of Nadiya’s and her family’s. Chapters are broken up less by type of food and more by when or why you might be eating them, one for example is ‘Lazy Sunday Mornings’ and others are ‘Midnight Feasts’, ‘Snacks and Sharing’ to ‘Dessert for Dinner’. Which, while not singular in the cookbook arena did make for a nice break from mains, sides, desserts. Nadiya does in this book what she did on GBBO, twists on traditional classics and incorporating flavor profiles of her Bangladeshi heritage.  

There were some small, but significant obstacles for me with this one. First, this is a book for the non-American audience, the measures are all in weights which is not how most Americans including myself cook. I was raised in the fine tradition of the Boston Cooking School, cups and such for me please, which has meant that I must do some homework before attempting any of the recipes, or I need to break down and buy a kitchen scale. The other is that I do not enjoy cooking fish at home (although I do enjoy eating it) and there are a lot of recipes in the book featuring fish, including her Cod and Clementine. But the handful of things I have tried have been good, and this is just a comforting read, having Nadiya tell you about food usually is.  

Easy Gourmet 

Easy Gourmet is the first cookbook by Stephanie Le, creator of I am a Food Blog. I was pointed in the direction of Le by emmalita’s review of her forthcoming cookbook with her husband, That Noodle Life. Impatient about waiting until April for that book to publish and wanting to get a feel for her writing I decided to see what my library had in stock, and lo and behold, Easy Gourmet was waiting for me.  

This is a very visual book. Le’s beautiful photography is a strong presence and matched with her strong friendly voice you feel empowered to cook. Which, while the recipes looked delicious there were still a couple of boundaries to me jumping right in. The first is that some of these recipes are a little fancier than I traditionally cook/eat – it does say gourmet in the title, I was sufficiently warned. The other is that a couple recipes called for equipment I don’t have at home, specifically (and annoyingly) a waffle maker for several of the breakfast recipes.  

Easy Gourmet is full of updated modern twists on your favorite classics (the Sriracha Hot Wings are calling my name), many of which are things I’m wanting to make for myself. Basically, it succeeded on making me excited for That Noodle Life, so that definitely counts as a win for me 

Cultish (CBR13 #65)

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism

Amanda Montell is a language scholar who takes her readers on a trip through social history using linguistics. I read and enjoyed Montell’s Wordslut two years ago, and in her second book, Cultish: the Language of Fanaticism, Montell is interested in examining the edges of our culture that can exhibit some unhealthy habits by examining the way language is used in them, and that is the kind of thing I am going to sign up for every time.  

Utilizing both storytelling and independent research Montell exposes the linguistic elements that make a wide spectrum of communities “cultish,” revealing not only how cult language affects followers of notorious groups that make headlines when their followers are harmed, but also pervades modern start-ups, fitness brands, and our Instagram feeds. This book is incisive and darkly funny (but never punches down, Montell has ample respect for people who have found themselves members of cults built from her father’s experiences as a teenager) and delivers an important view on the power linguistic structures have in our day to day lives.  

We tend to throw around the word cult, and while Montell does not exactly land on an answer to why, she gives us the necessary information to come to our own conclusions. For me, it is that cults are so difficult to define in the first place (a concept backed up by the researchers Montell spoke to for the book) that we go to the word to describe when something feels wrong about a group dynamic. It is in those group dynamics, both amongst members and between members and leaders, where the linguistic mechanics identified by Montell are most pervasive. When discussing things that are cult-ish there are a few categories to consider but language is, perhaps, the most crucial. 

Montell breaks down how the way popular culture codifies the way people think about cults and the images that come to mind when they do, how it leads us to focusing on the horrific (mass murder in Jonestown, the fires and deaths in Waco, the Heavens Gate suicides) instead of the commonplace. Most importantly though, is Montell’s focus the way the term “brainwashing” has become a catch-all piece of terminology when what we really mean is a massive change in someone’s way of thinking, because brainwashing is not a thing, but small, specific linguistic tricks can get to the outcome that we on the outside view as brainwashing. Montell breaks down how charismatic leaders use a variety of techniques to exploit people’s desire for community and inclusion (and have for as long as we have had societies). If only for the sections on love-bombing and thought-terminating clichés this book is worth reading, and it will help explain how multi-level marketing schemes are so successful at recruiting.  

Demystifying Disability (CBR13 #55)

Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally

I read NTE’s review of Demystifying Disability and immediately put it on my library request list since a good, 101-level introduction to current disability discourse is just a very good idea to read full stop, but highly relevant to my life. And if it got the NTE stamp of approval, then it was an easy choice for me.

At work we’re taking part in an IMLS funded project in partnership between the NYU Ability Project and the Intrepid Museum that is focused on improving the visitor experience in Historic Sites which make up almost half of all museums in the United States. The final product will be an ebook, Sensory Tools for Interpreting Historic Sites, that offers concrete strategies to increase visitor engagement at museums of all sizes, while supporting visitors with a wide range of physical, sensory, cognitive, or behavioral abilities. As we move towards reinterpreting our historic home and sharing what tools work for us in order to support our visitors (including making our accessible entrance our main entrance), it’s important that the team is as up to date as possible, and since I’m recently added to it, I wanted to make sure I was as well.

Disabled people are an estimated 15% of the world’s population but too often disability remains a mystery, sometimes even to those of us who find ourselves disabled later in life. In Demystifying Disability Ladau keeps the conversation simple and direct while weaving in her own experiences into the wider conversations being discussed. Ladau aims to builds towards understanding and human connection, and by and large accomplishes just that.

This book discusses topics such as disability etiquette, how to talk about disability, recognizing and addressing ableism, and portrayals of disability in the media. Ladau pulls in her own anecdotes and those of many other disabled activists to provide as many different lenses as possible onto the lived experiences that are part and parcel of the disabled community. Ladau discusses the importance of understanding intersectionality pointing out on multiple occasions in the book that we all live it differently and part of the beauty of Demystifying Disability is that Ladau is intentional in her attempts to leave room at the table for nearly everyone and show/remind others to do the same.

Children of Monsters (CBR13 #53)

Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators

I had been looking forward to this one for a while, and I’m bummed I didn’t enjoy the reading experience more. I know, you’re wondering what exactly I thought I’d be “enjoying” while reading about the titular “children of monsters” in Jay Nordlinger’s 2015 book. I find the human mind fascinating, and when it comes to some of the biggest “monsters” of the twentieth century, how much could be expected to travel from parent to child? I’m not sure Nordlinger is the author to write the kind of book I was actually looking for or expecting when I picked this up. I was on the hunt for a book that was a psychological study of these people, and the milieus they were developed in, but that is not really this book, unfortunately.

Structurally the book is comprised of biographies to tell a story through the historical narrative. Each chapter is a description of a dictator and his children. Nordlinger is obviously attempting to build a case for a handful of psychological profiles of the progeny of dictators. The problem is, it smacks of armchair psychology. Nordlinger states what seems right to him without considering empirical data, without accessing the larger body of psychological work. In fairness to the author, he does have a good amount of primary sources in the form of books and interviews with people in positions to know at least some of the truth, but it falls short.

One downside was the failure to define dictatorship at the start, the author decides what he wants a dictatorship to be for his needs and announces his loose organizational structure in the Foreword and jumps in. What becomes clear is that the dictators are cherry picked to suit a certain western audience. There was no mention of South American dictators which is a glaring omission. The other component is that dictators’ regimes are often hermit kingdoms, closed in many important ways to the outside world. Which made getting information for this book, and providing appropriate context difficult and made it even stranger that these 20 were chosen, or that it was 20 at all.

The author’s tone also threw me off, its both often too sympathetic towards people who have done terrible things as well as being very casual with the reader generally. The idea, I’m guessing, is to set up the experience like a conversation, but it just doesn’t quite hit the right balance in order to be approachable while also maintaining intellectual authority. By failing to maintain the balance the writing does not match the seriousness of the topic, nor does the book commit to being lighter pop history fare.

All the Young Men (CBR13 #43)

All the Young Men

I read a lot of memoirs; I love listening to someone tell me their story. All the Young Men tells Ruth Coker Burks’ story as a young single mother in Hot Springs, Arkansas, who finds herself driven to the forefront of the AIDS crisis, and becoming an activist in the fight against AIDS.

Coker Burks story starts in the way that I think many of us hope we would respond – while visiting her friend recovering from cancer surgery she notices nurses drawing straws to see who would take care of a patient inside, all of them reluctant to enter the room. Ruth herself enters the quarantined space and immediately begins to care for the young man inside, being with him at the end of his life, offering what comfort she could. The young man inside would be the first in a long line of men Coker Burks would care for, advocate for, and in some cases provide a final resting place for.

In 1986, Aids was a death sentence. There was still no reliable treatment, let alone a cure. The fear, ignorance and stigma were so great that hospitals regularly refused to treat patients, something we see over and over in Coker Burks recounting. Informal networks of care were predominantly centered in the urban areas along the coasts. In the south, people were coming home sick and terrified, hoping for refuge with their families, only to be rejected and die alone. All the Young Men tells the story of Coker Burks work from 1986-1992 to provide care and support otherwise unavailable to the men returning to Hot Springs.

While the underlying story is five stars, the delivery here is average. It doesn’t really rise above what it is: a pretty straightforward by the numbers memoir. She’s honest about who she is, what her experiences are, but she’s not diving any deeper. I was emotionally connected to Coker Burks’ telling but it could’ve been more if it dug deeper into the larger moment. Coker Burks and her co-writer start, but they don’t get all the way there. It should be noted that Coker Burks is a straight white lady recounting the history, but she makes sure to center the men she’s talking about, but I wish she had been able to make sure we really knew all the men as well as we know some.

Our Women on the Ground (CBR13 #8)

Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World

Looking back, I can’t quite remember how this book ended up on my TBR back in February 2020. It did though and I’m glad to have read it, even if it took me longer than I hoped to actually complete it. There is something incredibly valuable about learning a story from the person experiencing it; of seeking out authentic voices and sources. In bringing Our Women on the Ground, Zahra Hankir puts the voice of women journalists from the Arab world front and center, where they should be.

The countries represented in this work are as varied as the nineteen women writing from and about them. It is, by its very nature, an advocation for local voices. Reading these essays I was struck again and again how these voices are by and large missing from the media narrative, or if not missing certainly overshadowed. We usually hear from Western correspondents who might cover the area for a year or two and then return to their home countries where they might write memoirs or authoritative non-fiction books and become the go to sources for the area. By this model we are being denied the voices from this area of the world who have the ability to bring a more authentic telling of events to the surface. They have unique and intimate access, and as such are able to tell the story of the Arab world and broader Middle East with a profound sense of nuance and cultural understanding which rises to the surface in each of these essays. On top of that, this book is nothing but women’s experiences – even the translated works are translated by a woman – and I find myself more and more seeking out women’s voices to balance the absurd over abundance of male voices in the media.

Dressed for the Photographer and Vintage Fashion (CBR13 #6 & 7)

I’ve been preparing at work for a program discussing women’s fashion 1830 – 1930 for International Women’s Day/Women’s History month. For me it has been an excuse to pull some pieces out of storage and get them new photographs and update their records, as well as just working on something I find interesting. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past decade getting conversant on the changing women’s silhouette during that century of time (which is our primary interpretive period) and honestly – if I was going to volunteer to deliver digital programs, I’m going to try to keep it to topics that I want to talk about since I really don’t enjoy being on camera.

Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900 by  Severa, Joan L. (1997) Hardcover: Amazon.com: Books

That doesn’t mean I didn’t need to go back to some of the resources and refresh myself (and get some additional images to share). First up is a book which really doesn’t have an equivalent in my experience, Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. Joan Severa spent years funded by an NEH grant compiling and studying early photography to unpack the visual evidence for what it can tell us about fashion history, and what fashion history can tell us about the larger social trends in place. Severa examines the material culture, expectations, and socioeconomic conditions that affected the clothing choices depicted in the photographs from across the country. Her depth of knowledge regarding attire allows her to date the images with a high degree of accuracy – which in turn helps others turn around and date their own images – and to point out significant details that would elude most observers, including me on what is probably my third or fourth trip through this book.

This work, weighing in at over 300 pages, is a deep dive into visual history and provides extensive information for understanding the social history and material culture of this period. There are hundreds of reproduced photographs and Severa unpacks what can be seen in each. What I appreciate most is that not only are there so many images, but that the images feature people of all ages, sizes, wealth levels, and a variety of racial backgrounds. Severa avoids falling into the trap of whitewashing history by including black, Hispanic, and indigenous peoples in her examples. While I was primarily focused on women’s fashions this go through it is also an indispensable resource for children’s and men’s fashions.

Vintage Fashion: Collecting and Wearing Designer Classics, 1900-1990:  Wright, Emma Baxter: 9780061252013: Amazon.com: Books

The second book I’ve been working with is Vintage Fashion: Collecting and Wearing Designer Classics, 1900-1990 by Emma Baxter-Wright. While I was primarily working with this one for its first third, it is a useful look at fashion in the 20th century. While Dressed for the Photographer is interested in telling a more middle-class story Vintage Fashion aims for a higher socio-economic level. This one is only a three star read for me not for choosing design houses over popular fashion, but for not providing more examples of the trends being discussed. Each section has a round-up of what to look for in a given timeframe, but there just wasn’t enough variety in the images for me. Also, this is a book about women’s fashion, menswear is almost entirely absent. But, as a primer for large trends it does a commendable job.

American Kingpin (CBR12 #39)

American Kingpin by Nick Bilton

I had already decided to read American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road this year before I saw the Cannonball Read Bingo board, and the minute I saw the Money! square I knew this book had to be the book I read for it. The instructions for the square are rather straightforward: A fiction or non-fiction book about money, acquiring money legally or illegally, or following the money. American Kingpin is a narrative non-fiction recounting of how one man started a website to trade in illegal goods, how his empire grew exponentially into a billion dollar business, the employees he hired, and the government agents who worked to trace the buyers, sellers, website employees, bitcoins, and finally the man behind it all who called himself Dread Pirate Roberts. 

I remember reading the 2011 Wired article about the Silk Road and its place at the forefront of the anonymous, untraceable world of buying and selling drugs on the internet. What I didn’t know is how is all came crashing down just over two years later. For nearly three years one man’s dream of a libertarian oasis (yuck) where the government couldn’t decide for you what was or wasn’t legal to ingest grew into a behemoth of a sales place that specialized in the things you couldn’t find anywhere else. The problem was that dogged investigators found a way to trace what was thought to be untraceable (oh how little mistakes along the way will catch up with you) and unmask the anonymous. They also managed to be shit at their jobs along the way and several of them committed crimes just because they could.

The thing I found most fascinating about this story was the tracing of one relatively small idea (in this case the argument for the legalization of narcotics leading to the idea of providing a place to demonstrate how the open market would work in order to force the government’s hand) can quickly grow into a monster when the person committed to the idea goes a bit megalomaniacal. I’ve seen comparisons between this story and that encapsulated in Bad Blood but what this story has which that one doesn’t is the interior view. The reader of American Kingpin is given access to the thought processes of the mastermind from documents that he wrote only for himself. Cue Stringer Bell.

is you taking notes on a criminal fucking conspiracy? - Not Amused ...

Due to the contents of the book I don’t know that I would recommend it for everyone, the discussions of what was sold on the Silk Road don’t hold back. But this is a highly readable book unpacking a complex crime committed by a bunch of assholes and the complexities of hunting for the perpetrators particularly when law enforcement is busy pissing on each other’s shoes instead of working together. The author, Nick Bilton, writes in a perfectly serviceable manner but it isn’t the heights of great craft. This is a book meant to be consumed – its short chapters feeling more like social media posts at times – and not necessarily thought too deeply about. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t things to unpack, and thoughts to be had. My biggest one was usually “why aren’t these assholes in countries without extradition?”

How To (CBR12 #35)

How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems

I laughed out loud when I saw the How To square on this year’s Cannonball Read bingo card – days before a friend had given me Randall Munroe’s latest  How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems when I had lamented my inability lately to sink into reading anything. Her answer to that problem (and it is a good answer) was something intended to be read in small pieces and not all at once, and something that is both humorous and full of interesting information. Checks all around.

Reviewing this one is difficult, because I basically just want to ask you, my fellow readers, questions and if you answer yes, then this is a book you might want to pick up. Questions such as:

  • Do you find yourself wondering if you could accomplish a basic task in the most ludicrous method possible?
  • Do you enjoy random facts and footnotes?
  • Are you someone who enjoys and appreciates the beauty of well-done stick figure drawings?
  • Are you already familiar with xkcd and Russell Monroe?
  • Is absurd, but strait-laced humor, your jam?

See, its more about you the reader than the book itself. I stand by this assessment.

If your answers to even most of those questions is yes than this is something that you might want to pick up for yourself to have around. I will mention that you probably absolutely want to read this book in dead tree format – you want the graphics – and I’m just not sure how they would show up on your eReader of choice and you’d lose them entirely in the audio version.