Many things this year have been crappy. However some, thankfully, have been delightful, beautiful, or delicious. I wanted to leave 2016 on a high point and recommend a few random things I really enjoyed this past year.
In seventh place is a double feature: the recent blockbuster film starring Amy Adams, and the collection of short stories by Ted Chiang that inspired it. This is a cheat for a top 2016 list because I read Chiang’s book for the first time in 2012. But I did reread the novella “Stories of Your Life” before seeing the movie. This time — unlike the time I re-skimmed Cloud Atlas before seeing the mess that resulted from the film adaptation — I was pleasantly surprised. The geopolitical plot turn they added to the film was effective, and while the mood of the short story didn’t entirely make its way to the big screen, it still transported me. I love that Ted Chiang works days as a technical writer for Microsoft, and he’s a methodical writer who doesn’t Tweet.
I’m a fan of Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley’s podcast Gastropod, which examines stories about history and science told through food. This episode from April was my favorite. It describes how all of the citrus fruits we consume today evolved over many generations from just a few native plants by breeding them in various combinations and recombinations. They also talk about scurvy, investigate modern threats to citrus cultivation, and visit the Citrus Variety Collection at UC Riverside to taste test many unusual varieties of citrus.
This 2007 book by first-time novelist Min Jin Lee may not be for everyone (hence the 3.6 star rating on Amazon), but I loved it and devoured it in a weekend. A friend of a friend recommended it to me at a party— she and I connected about first, being Korean-American, second, growing up in a conservative evangelical household, and third, being gay. She and her partner highly recommended this novel because it covers a lot of shared cultural ground for children of immigrant parents, but also a lot of specific details about growing up Korean. For instance, it included a memorable storyline about a musical director and a soprano in the church choir. Amazon tells me Lee has a second book on the way expected in February 2017, which I’ll be eagerly awaiting.
Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel about the end of the world is the most beautiful thing I’ve read in a long time. The book tells the story of what happens just before and the years after a few people survive a fast-acting plague, but the science fiction premise is just a backdrop for a moving, epic story about art and the human condition. I don’t want to spoil anything more about the book, so I’ll end this recommendation here. Just read it.
I watched Season 3, Episode 1 of Netflix’s Black Mirror on my co-worker Brad Artziniega’s recommendation, and it stayed with me for days afterwards. Generally I’ve been take-it-or-leave-it with Black Mirror — sometimes the episodes go darker, or more absurd, or more contrived than I prefer, but “Nosedive” explores a focused premise and paints a perfect and believable portrait of a desperate individual. I loved the odd third act, with a great exchange between Sope Derisu and Bryce Dallas Howard, the ep’s protagonist.
It’s a mystery to me why Michael Ian Black’s show How To Be Amazing doesn’t routinely make the top 50 podcast lists. In each episode he interviews a notable figure in the arts, media, or culture, from Lin-Manuel Miranda (after In the Heights was on Broadway, but before Hamilton was a thing) to Elizabeth Gilbert to Neil deGrasse Tyson. He banters with guests with a self-deprecating humor and comes up with interview questions that draw from an intense curiosity about each subject. You can tell he’s really listening. He has a knack for connecting back to answers throughout the interview as he moves along. His interview with Tim Gunn was a delight and my favorite episode so far. Michael Ian Black asks some great questions, and Tim Gunn responds with amazement at his insight (remarking that the host should pursue a career as a therapist). Tim Gunn’s earnestness and grace shine throughout this interview and was a pleasure to listen to.
1. Sourdough bread via the Ken Forkish method
This fall I started learning about breadmaking using wild yeast captured from the air. This is what they call ‘sourdough’ bread, and as I learned from Michael Pollan’s series Cooked, what they used to call simply ‘bread,’ before the industrialization of food. A couple weeks after watching Michael Pollan artfully massage bread dough on the tv and wax on about wild yeast, I came across a short Facebook video about breadmaking in my feed starring Laura Wolfgang, a former colleague who now works at Epicurious. I asked Laura for advice on getting started, and she recommended Ken Forkish’s YouTube channel. I followed the New York Times’s recipe to get my starter going, bought Forkish’s book Flour Water Salt Yeast, and began my journey.
Once you have the equipment Forkish recommends (a couple large plastic tubs, an electronic scale, an instant-read digital thermometer, a couple proofing baskets, and a couple cast iron pots), the process is not too messy and nearly foolproof. You have to use a lot of flour to keep the starter yeast fed and happy, though, and to bake a couple loaves of bread on a Saturday morning you also need to be home for a step on Thursday morning, Thursday evening, Friday morning, Friday afternoon, and Friday evening. I’ve had varying success with each batch I’ve made so far — some have turned out too moist, some have been too dark. But all have still been tasty, and it’s rewarding to get your hands into the dough.
In 2017 I’m excited to branch out, experimenting with different flours, nuts, and seeds, and learning more about other techniques.
Hope you enjoyed my 2016 recap, and here’s wishing your 2017 is filled with many thought-provoking, lovely, and fun experiences.