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Welcome back to The Daily’s Sunday culture edition, in which one Atlantic writer reveals what’s keeping them entertained. Today’s special guest is our associate editor Kate Cray. Kate edits for our Family section; she’s also reported on what semi-retirees know about work-life balance and made the case against the fun fact.
Kate is watching a therapy-centered reality show that’s more like a documentary, exercising great patience in the lead-up to Olivia Rodrigo’s D.C. concert next summer, and reminiscing on the joy—and secondhand embarrassment—of seeing Bottoms in theaters.
First, here are three Sunday reads from The Atlantic:
The Culture Survey: Kate Cray
A good recommendation I recently received: One of my best friends, who is getting her Psy.D., suggested a few months ago that I check out Couples Therapy; I’d been curious about her future profession, and she knows the thrill I get from analyzing strangers’ interpersonal dynamics. I went in expecting reality TV, but what I got was closer to a documentary. The show simply records the psychologist Orna Guralnik’s sessions with clients over the course of their treatment. There are no producer-provoked theatrics, but there don’t need to be. The tension that can arise after decades of marriage (or even just years together) is more than enough.
Villains do emerge, but the conceit of the show inherently injects nuance into any one-note portrayal, and many people seem to genuinely grow—this is therapy, after all. Guralnik probes gently at first, then insistently, uncovering the childhood wounds playing out in each pair’s relationship. But the episodes’ most satisfying moments come when her clients arrive at these types of realizations on their own; they identify the ways they’re hurting a partner and commit to doing better.
The last thing that made me snort with laughter: I never dared to imagine that it could be possible to unite the disparate poles of my humor into one film until I saw Bottoms, which perfectly marries queer feminist comedy and immature scatalogical gags in a masterpiece of cringe. I may have laughed more uproariously at certain moments than others (“Feminism. Who started it? (a) Gloria Steinem, (b) a man, (c) another woman”), but I was vibrating the entire time, even at moments that weren’t traditionally comic. For example, when the opening chords of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” came on after a fight between the two protagonists, the audience erupted. I left the theater high on life, immediately texted my funniest friend to recommend it (her reply: “Bitch I’ve seen it twice!!!”), and listened to Lavigne’s anthem on repeat for a week. I can’t remember the last time I experienced so much secondhand embarrassment, or so much fun. [Related: The raunchy teen comedy gets a queer twist.]
The last museum or gallery show that I loved: I took a dream vacation to Japan this past summer, and one of my favorite stops in Tokyo was the Sumida Hokusai Museum. Its collection unfortunately doesn’t have as many of Hokusai’s original prints as I’d hoped—many of them live in the Freer Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C.—but the curation was still masterful, helping me understand the artist as I hadn’t before. I especially enjoyed perusing the popular sketchbook series he created, which promises to teach readers how to draw. The simpler, more relaxed line illustrations in those books offer a different window into his style than his more formal prints do. Plus, who wouldn’t want Hokusai as their art teacher?
The upcoming event I’m most looking forward to: My housemate recently scored us tickets to Olivia Rodrigo’s tour. I’ve got a while to wait—she’s not hitting D.C. until next July—but I’m confident my patience will pay off. The serotonin boost from hearing “Good 4 U” live, if she plays it, is sure to sustain me for at least a month. [Related: The problem Olivia Rodrigo can’t solve]
Best novel I’ve recently read, and the best work of nonfiction: I’ve heard people talking about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels for years. I don’t know how or why I held out on reading them for so long, but I do know that the delay was my mistake. Other books just aren’t like this. I was subsumed entirely into the protagonist Elena’s mind, the Naples neighborhood she grew up in, and her messy but absorbing relationship with her childhood friend Lila. I know how intoxicating bonds like that can be, and I’ve never seen one captured so well on the page before.
I read a lot of nonfiction in search of excerpts and original pieces for our Family section. That’s how I came across Leah Myers’s Thinning Blood, which seamlessly combines memoir, history, and myth in a fascinating story about her ancestors, herself, and her tribe’s future. I may have started the book for work, but I finished it for pleasure. [Related: Blood-quantum laws are splintering my tribe.]
A favorite story I’ve read in The Atlantic: It’s hard to compete with our magazine features (“Jenisha From Kentucky,” which a few of my colleagues have already recommended, is one of the best of those, ever), but for people looking for something shorter, Amanda Mull’s observations in “Bama Rush Is a Strange, Sparkly Window Into How America Shops” have stuck with me since I first read the story over the summer. Much like those sorority hopefuls, I too will pair an expensive ring and a cheap polyester dress in one outfit without much thought—a choice that, Mull points out, is a relative historical novelty. I’ve long been fascinated by the sometimes-convoluted ways that consumption choices serve as status signifiers, and Mull’s argument about how the internet is changing that relationship is so sharp.
An author I will read anything by: I received Norwegian Wood as a birthday gift of obligation from a peripheral friend in high school, decided to actually read it when I was rushing to the airport and had nothing else on hand to entertain me, and have been devouring Haruki Murakami ever since. In many books and shows, plot structures are familiar enough that I often end up guessing what will happen next and spoiling it for myself, but with Murakami, I never know what’s coming. Reading him is just so refreshing. A favorite is hard to pick, but Kafka on the Shore stands out. Or, for a slightly less heralded work, I also really enjoyed Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. [Related: Haruki Murakami on where his characters come from]
A poem, or line of poetry, that I return to: Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas” may open like a philosophical treatise, but it grows more tender as it unfurls, ultimately arriving at a moment of such reverence that I’m convinced the last line should be recited as a prayer: “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.”
The Week Ahead
- The American Buffalo, a documentary by Ken Burns, traces the animal’s significance to Indigenous communities, as well as its near-extinction (premieres Monday on PBS).
- Tremor, a new novel by Teju Cole, focuses on a West African photography professor and the violence in the everyday (on sale Tuesday).
- Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, based on David Grann’s book about the Osage Indian murders (in theaters Friday)
The Greatest Invention in the History of Humanity
A sallow light rises over the land at the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the most celebrated movies of the 20th century. Stanley Kubrick’s shot pulls in on a band of furry man-apes gathering around a watering hole; no women, no children—or at least none easily discerned. The scene shifts to a young male, who pulls a large bone from a skeleton. He stares at it for a moment before beating the ground, slowly at first, then furiously. He soon runs off and uses it to bludgeon another hominin to death. Prehistoric man has invented the first weapon.
This is the story of what I call “tool triumphalism”: Man invented weapons, claimed dominion over his peers and the rest of the animal kingdom, and all of our achievements flow from there. As a culture, we still tell ourselves that this special cleverness is why we’ve succeeded as a species. And maybe that’s true—but not in the way you might think. Among our ancient ancestors, the most prolific tool creators probably weren’t male. And I propose that the most important early invention people came up with probably wasn’t a weapon, fire, agriculture, the wheel, or even penicillin. Humanity’s greatest innovation was gynecology.
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Swimming with whale sharks, feeding time for thousands of ducks, and more in our editor’s selection of winning photos from the 2023 Epson International Pano Awards.
Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.