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Author | Journalist | Speaker

  • Ken Ilgunas

Updated: Mar 4

When I saw The Rider (2017) by Chloe Zhao (now 39), I was amazed that a young Chinese person (with less than 20 years of experience in the U.S., and most of that time spent in culturally elite milieus and/or coastal metropolises) could so vividly and accurately portray the working-class in The American West, which is a region many Americans themselves are unfamiliar with.

How did she do it? The details in speech, atmosphere, and vocation were so spot on and precise. How does she get non-actors to act... pretty damn well? She made me think of Nabokov or Conrad, who wrote English masterfully despite not becoming familiar with the language until well into adulthood. That level of mastery, without the head start, is just, well, unfair. You wouldn't be mistaken if you detect the slightest hint of envy, but it's also hard to be envious of superlative talent.

I watched Nomadland last night, which didn't disappoint. It's the rare Best Picture winner that I think the Academy got right. Or right enough.

I lived in my van for two years, though in less rugged circumstances than Fern, played by Frances McDormand. Fern had to use a bucket as a toilet, work jobs for low pay, and move her van according to the seasons. Me, on the other hand... I lived on a college campus, which had every convenience I could desire within a short walk.

Anywho... I thought Zhao captured the vandwelling lifestyle wonderfully--everything from impromptu bathroom emergencies, to worrying about people harassing you, and to feeling snug under your covers as rain gently drums against the van's metal roof. I've read a few think pieces about how Nomadland delivers a cutting critique of 21st Century American capitalism. Okay, but let's not forget that Fern was a restless soul who craved her own company. The movie makes it clear that she had the option to take on a more comfortable lifestyle, but she voluntarily chose the thornier path. The scene I identified with most was the one where she was offered a big comfy bed in a room of her own on a farm. Yet she leaves the room and sleeps in her van. I remember that feeling. It's not just the coziness of your enclosed space, and its delightful mix of cold air and warm sleeping bag. Your van feels like a kind of pet, and you feel like it's wrong to leave it outside, all alone. In the van, you feel closer to the natural world. You don't feel the need to stifle snores or wake up at a respectable hour. Really, you just feel free in your little tin shell. Fern wasn't rundown by the system. Nor was she running. She was just happier alone. That's my take.

Last year, I was disappointed to learn that Zhao signed on to direct a superhero movie after the critical success of The Rider. A comic book movie plays to none of her strengths (capturing moody landscapes, drawing authentic performances from non-actors, and having characters engage in openhearted dialogue). How will she pull that off with Marvel characters for a general movie-going audience hungry for winky one-liners and CGI explosions?

When I read about the superhero movie, I thought she was doing it for the money (understandably so, given how little her first two movies made). If she could go back in time, I wonder if she'd still sign up for a superhero movie knowing that Nomadland would win the Oscar and open a lot of doors. My hope is that Eternals will be an interesting mistake, she'll cash her check, and Zhao will go back to making interesting stories about everyday people in America, set in lands in between NYC and LA. God knows we don't need more stories about writers, actors, and musicians.

  • Ken Ilgunas

Updated: Feb 22

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer (1960) This is one of the best history books I've ever read. It relies almost entirely on primary documents (speeches, letters, etc.). I appreciated how there was no cautiousness in Shirer's style; Shirer writes clean prose with moral ferocity. There's no vacillating university relativism here. It's not a dry read by any means. It reads like a thrilling war movie that ends happily ever after.

Machines like Me by Ian McEwan (2019). This is a relationship novel more than anything, and there are a lot of funny and insightful things about the romance. But I was in it for the robot. I greatly enjoyed all the ethical questions the book explores, though I thought Adam, the robot, sometimes was powered off too much so the kitchen sink drama could play out. McEwan's smart prose makes up for any deficiencies in the plot. The counterfactual history (with a thriving Alan Turing) was a lot of fun.

Heimat by Nora Krug (2019). This is a delightful book that's admirably researched. Krug reflects on her Germanness, and how she grapples with the complicated history of her wartime family.

Walking the Great North Line by Robert Twigger (2020). This book goes to show that you don't need to walk around the world to write a good travel book. It's about Twigger's straight-line walk up England connecting weirdly aligned historic landmarks. The writing is fresh; there's something special on every page. Lots of honesty, history, humor, and hi-jinx: everything I love about the travel memoir genre.

"To develop that earlier thought about not starting at the beginning, there should be a word for the instinct to start things in a half-arsed fashion (Farsing? Harsing?), as if starting properly will jinx the enterprise, set it up on too high and unachievable a pedestal. The instinct to start in a half-arsed way for fear you'll never start at all."

Bushcraft by Mors Kochanski (1997). This past spring I got an email from a producer of the TV show, Alone, inviting me to apply to be a contestant. I'd never heard of the show, but I've since become a fan and have begun a multi-year project to apply, get on, and win. I have lots to learn! I've read about five bushcraft books this year, and this one is the best. Mors is meticulous and scientific. The illustrations are very helpful.

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff (1989) This is a memoir of a teenage boy written with the detail and dialogue of a novel. I compare it to another old favorite, Angela's Ashes, except that This Boy's Life takes place in 1950's America. No one has ever captured how a young teen acts without thinking as well as Wolff has. It's as if the boy fails to have any ability for self examination and awareness, which is probably how most of us existed in our youths. We just can't remember it. But someone Wolff, as an adult writer, not only remembers this, but, somewhere down the line, discovered his amazing powers for intrapersonal intelligence. The De Niro/ DeCaprio 1993 movie of the same name looks too bleak; the book has a bit of humor on every page if you can find it.

Self Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams (2019)

Eloquent and bold. As with sexuality, it might do us some good to someday blur and ultimately forget about binary racial boundaries, as helpful as they can be. I wonder if boundary dissolution will be one of the great social movements of the 21st Century.

"[S]ince the outcome of the 2016 election, I’ve been dismayed to see an opportunistic demagogue provoke racial resentment across the country and within families as well, but I’ve also been troubled to watch well-meaning white friends in my Twitter timeline and Facebook news feed flagellate themselves, sincerely or performatively apologizing for their “whiteness,” as if they were somehow born into original sin. The writer and linguist John McWhorter (who happens to be black) has called this development “the flawed new religion” of Anti-racism, or “The current idea that the enlightened white person is to, I assume regularly (ritually?), ‘acknowledge’ that they possess White Privilege,” he writes in a 2015 essay of the same name. “Classes, seminars, teach-ins are devoted to making whites understand the need for this. Nominally, this acknowledgment of White Privilege is couched as a prelude to activism, but in practice, the acknowledgment itself is treated as the main meal . . . The call for people to soberly ‘acknowledge’ their White Privilege as a self-standing, totemic act is based on the same justification as acknowledging one’s fundamental sinfulness is as a Christian. One is born marked by original sin; to be white is to be born with the stain of unearned privilege.” In other words, it is to walk that special path."

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