Welcome to Grantland Recommends, in which Grantland staff members share some of their favorite discoveries and obsessions of the month, whether new, old, or new again. This month we’re loving a live stream of an actual stream, a thoroughly anachronistic Robin Hood, one last binge of a long-running, soon-to-be-departed show, and everything in between.
Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking)
Jonah Keri: Author Christian Rudder might not show us all the gory math, but a quick glance at all the lines, dots, and squiggles in the pages of Dataclysm might be enough to scare off those who don’t enjoy statistical analysis, which is to say most people (and that’s even if it didn’t have an impossibly nerdy title like Dataclysm). Since Rudder relied on data compiled from the guts of OkCupid (which he cofounded), you might, like me, further conclude that the book would be far less interesting to those of us who are happily married or simply not frequenters of dating sites.
You (and I) would be wrong. For all its data and its seemingly dating-specific focus, Dataclysm tells the story set forth by the book’s subtitle, in an entertaining and accessible way.
The first time my jaw dropped came a few pages into the opening chapter, titled “Wooderson’s Law.” In it, Rudder maps out two different data sets: women’s ages versus the ages of the men who look best to them, and the flip side, men’s ages versus the ages of women who look best to them. From the women’s perspective, you can draw a nice, orderly diagonal line, showing that the ages track close together: 24-year-old women are most interested in 25-year-old men, 30-year-old women desire 30-year-old men, 40-year-old women want 38-year-old men. But this was not the case from men’s perspective at all. Per Rudder’s data set, 20-year-old men were most interested in 20-year-old women. But 28-year-old men were also most interested in 20-year-old women. So were 35-year-old men. And 39-year-old men. And 49-year-old men. The accompanying quote from Matthew McConaughey’s character in the movie Dazed and Confused says it all: “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.”
OK, so maybe men desiring younger women isn’t the biggest revelation, even if the full scope of that age gap might be more than a little creepy. But Rudder does a great job of leveraging data to challenge conventional wisdom, too. Some of those against-the-grain findings include the results of a 2013 promotion called “Love Is Blind Day,” in which OkCupid wiped out profile pictures, set people free to go on true blind dates, and found that the characteristics both men and women claim to be most important actually had very little bearing on how people connected. The book goes also goes well beyond exploring the nuts and bolts of attraction; in one well-crafted section, Rudder uses data to bust the myth that the rise of short-message media like text messages and Twitter and are making us worse writers and generally dumber. Turns out the opposite is true.
Dataclysm takes all this data and synthesizes it into a book that’s informative, eye-opening, and (gasp) fun to read. Even if you’re not a giant stathead.
Women in Clothes
Katie Baker: “I admire women who have a sense of humor about the whole thing,” writes one of hundreds of contributors to Women in Clothes, a new 500-plus-page collaborative book that explores why we wear what we do. “I mean, about our lumpy little bodies roaming around the planet, covered in bits of woven cloth.”
Clearly, this is not your usual glossy high-fashion coffee-table book, nor is it another aspirational/scolding “How to Dress for Success” tome. Women in Clothes looks like a novel, reads like a passed note from your best friend, is illustrated mostly with crisp, stark photo mosaics, and contains the thoughts of everyone from Molly Ringwald to Ruth Reichl to random moms.
There’s plenty of silly whimsy: New York Times staffers Xerox their hands and discuss the rings they’re wearing. One woman draws “Family Circus”–style “trail maps” of her strolls around various clothing stores, marking with dots where she “stopped to touch an item.” A “smell scientist” is dispatched to sniff through the jackets at a restaurant coat check and make judgmental pronouncements regarding their owners. (This bit is equal parts horrifying and hysterical: Turns out the smell scientist does not like Axe body spray.) But there are also legitimate jolts to the heart, particularly in a series in which women write about photos of their mothers taken before they were born. Beneath every bathing suit or shoulder-padded blouse is a life story, after all.
The book balances the many essays and blurbs from the literary Brooklyn set with ruminations on clothes and style from women around the world. One garment factory worker notes that the bras she wears don’t have proper stitching, unlike the ones she sews. Another, an 18-year-old from Bangladesh, plainly describes surviving the 2013 factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 people. The only do’s and don’ts to be found are in a searing fashion-advice list written for “the teenage Israeli female soldier” by a writer who was once one herself.
Much of the book was generated from a wide-ranging and, most important, honesty-inducing survey conducted by coauthors Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton. Seeing the breadth of answers in the aggregate is fascinating, and comforting: I now feel far less alone in my misbegotten splurges and my misplaced sunglasses and my envy of those whose extra effort always makes them appear effortless. It’s nice to know how many people live as I do: with piles of clothes on the floor but nothing, ever, to wear.
Bingeing on Sons of Anarchy
Note: There is a spoiler in here from Season 2 of Sons of Anarchy.
Shea Serrano: I received an email from a dead man once, and it was basically the best thing.
The email came from Henry Rollins, who is a musician and writer and actor and angry person, by way of Ben Westhoff, music editor of L.A. Weekly. Rollins, as you know, is not dead. But the person he played on Sons of Anarchy, the leader of a white separatist group packed full of hate and ignorance that serves as the accelerant for Season 2, is.
If you do not watch Sons of Anarchy, I am going to assume it’s because you think you’re too smart for it, because that’s why I didn’t watch it for the first five years it was on television.
But Sons is extra dope. (I binge-watched all the previously aired six seasons over the course of about a month, which is why I feel comfortable referring to it as “Sons” now, btw.) It’s intense (sometimes cartoonishly so, but only in the best way possible), tightly wound, and hyper-easy to get lost in. After I burned through all of the available-to-consume seasons (1-5 are free on Netflix; 6 is available for purchase), after I’d completely exhausted all the rocket boosters on my spaceship to propel myself as far out and as deep into the Sons galaxy as I could get, after I’d ordered a Sons of Anarchy T-shirt for my baby modeled after the leather vests they wear on the show (it even has tattoo sleeves, bro), after I’d read all the reviews and recaps and after I’d lurked around on the message boards and all of that, I emailed Ben.
My message was something close to: “Hey, man. Do you watch Sons of Anarchy? Rollins is on there. Or, he was. The guy that he plays just died on my television and he just died the realest death of all. Please tell him I said he was amazing in that last episode.” Not much later, a forwarded message from Rollins arrived, saying something like, “Cool. Thanks for watching.”
I wanted to respond with something clever, or maybe engage him in some sort of very intelligent conversation about the show, maybe something about the ideas and themes that stretch across episodes and seasons and what they might mean in (and for) real life. That’s what I wanted to do. But what I did was nothing.
The final season of Sons of Anarchy starts next week. Watch it. It’s love. Watch all the previous episodes. They’re love, too.
Explore’s Live Streams
Molly Lambert: I want to recommend the free live-streaming cams on Explore that allow you to remotely watch things like the “Brown Bear and Salmon Cam” from Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, Alaska. It’s been so hot lately that I keep the brown bear cam open in one tab all day, so I can periodically look at it and imagine I am a brown bear standing neck-deep in an Alaskan stream searching for fish with my mouth. This is my personal way of coping with the California drought. There are other live cams on Explore — you can watch a watering hole in Laikipia County, Kenya, or a puffin burrow on Seal Island, Maine. I spent a full year addicted to the “Kitten Rescue Cam” channel. As far as weird Internet rituals go, this one feels pretty chill, although who knows, maybe the animals hate being surveilled and just want to catch salmon in peace rather than be observed by some weird human from behind a computer.
Emily Yoshida: There is plenty of new music I might be playing more right now, but the output of enigmatic producer Sophie is what excites me the most. His/her first head-turner, “Bipp,” dropped last summer, and in the year since, each subsequent release has been a fresh bunch of unnaturally gleaming GMO bananas. I read a handful of blogs that use each new Sophie track as an opportunity to perfect their verbal description of what he/she does, so here’s my stab at it: Sophie is bite-size blocks of pop concentrate, what advanced-intelligence aliens would ingest to understand house divas, J-pop, grime, trap, and countless other genres in a single bite. Lots of “sound of the future” hyperbole has been thrown around, and I mean it as the highest of compliments when I say that I neither believe in nor could live in a future where everything sounds like Sophie. “Lemonade” is the best jam to date, a seemingly never-ending cycle of sinister, revving synths and bubblegum snaps that intermittently gives way to sped-up superkawaii pop nonsense.
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More recently, Sophie teamed up with A.G. Cook as QT for the Aqua-reminiscent “Hey QT.” There has also been talk of a collaboration with meta J-pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. If two experts in transcendent hollowness get together, do they cancel each other out? Or do they make the musical equivalent of adamantium?
The Last of Us Remastered — Multiplayer Mode
Jason Concepcion: For console video-game enthusiasts, fall is why you hoard personal days. The days grow shorter, the nights a bit colder, and the release dates for new games draw nearer. Feeling the need, like an athlete in the offseason, to keep my skills sharp and my hand-eye coordination primed, I decided to head to the woodshed. By which I mean, my PlayStation 4, and the only game I own for that console, The Last of Us Remastered. An admission: I had ignored The Last of Us’s multiplayer mode until about a month or so ago, because the single-person story was such an emotionally satisfying masterpiece and, generally, I don’t like third-person multiplayer games. This, I have discovered, was a mistake.
I’m a first-person-shooter enthusiast. A good virtual shooting session helps clear the mind, I find. Unfortunately, it’s a genre that, right now, feels deader, creatively, than Professor Xavier’s legs. The graphics improve with every successive generation of game and console, but really, not much else changes. A leopard with increasingly high-resolution spots is still a leopard.
The Last of Us’s multiplayer mode has been a breath of fresh air. It has everything to do with the pace, which is Sabbath to Call of Duty’s or Battlefield’s speed metal. You don’t charge in, guns blazing. You lie in wait with, if you’re lucky, a shiv and a Molotov cocktail, and you listen. You watch. You spend a lot of time planning, trying to figure out what your opponent is trying to do. Or wondering if this is a good time to open up your backpack to craft a health pack. The genius of the game is how vulnerable you feel, despite your corporeal body not being in the least bit of danger. Playing TLoU, I find myself yelling — with real, felt urgency — things like, “Look out, he’s right behind you!” Being the last player alive on my team simulates a feeling of stress in my nervous system such that I hope it is never replicated in non-virtual life. And comebacks from those lone-survivor situations are definitely as close as I’ll ever come to hitting the game-winning shot.
Graco Pack ’n Play: An Autobot for Babies
Mark Lisanti: There are a number of items your friends with kids will tell any expectant parents within earshot that they absolutely must own: that rocking Fisher-Price thing with the pancaked, My First Sit on My Face Puppy inside it; those rubber French giraffes; a grip of extra-soft bamboo blankets; emergency syringes of NyQuil to be self-administered for those crucial midday naps for Mommy and Daddy. But the king of these obligatory registry items might be the Graco Pack ’n Play. It’s an ultra-portable infant incarceration unit that’s a marvel of engineering. A couple of tugs here and button presses there and it’s transformed from a bassinet or playpen into a surprisingly manageable pile of mesh netting, folding pads, and support tubes that’s easily luggable from living room to bedroom, allowing any nursery-installed crib to lie unused until the new parents learn to quiet the deafening “YOU’LL NEVER KNOW IF HE’S NOT BREATHING IF YOU’RE NOT IN THE SAME ROOM AT ALL TIMES” voice that rings through their heads at any moment not otherwise occupied by a diaper change or crying jag. Those veteran friends know: You can’t put a price on peace of sleep-deprivation-addled mind. And when you start letting the little guy sleep in the crib, you can fill the Pack ’n Play with the thousand rubber giraffes you got at the baby shower until it’s playpen time.
Robin Hood (BBC)
Holly Anderson: I have this untreatable condition where I’m predisposed to ravenously consume any version of the Three Musketeers story that makes it onto a screen anywhere. Last spring I had a torrid 10-hour affair with the BBC’s latest version, which is slyly funny and has plenty of overflowing bodices, but looks like a prestige program in case anybody’s watching you watch it on a plane, because everybody looks kind of dirty all the time. With the usual interminable hiatus between BBC seasons in effect, I’ve gone crawling back this summer to another old cross-pond friend: the utterly bonkers, gleefully anachronistic Robin Hood series that ran on BBC One from 2006 to 2009.
I don’t even know where to begin with this, except to order you, as a stranger on the Internet who loves you, to just go dig up the DVDs somewhere and dive in. This is not a prestige program. This is a Robin Hood series that sets itself in a time period when you had to make your own cloth if you wanted a new dress, and then has an episode centered around A CASINO NIGHT AT NOTTINGHAM CASTLE. It’s stuffed with prestigious faces: Richard Armitage is Guy of Gisbourne; Harry Lloyd is Will Scarlet; Joanne Froggatt joins the cast in Season 3 after they kill off Maid Marian. (Right: Lucy Griffiths was Maid Marian, and they totally killed her off after the second season and kept right on going. They actually killed Robin at the end and tried to keep on going after that. I promise I’m not ruining anything. You’ll forget all about how the show ends when you see how they change scenes with a THWACKING arrow sound.)
The Works of Lawrence Block
Michael Weinreb: On September 19, writer/director Scott Frank will release a movie called A Walk Among the Tombstones, starring Liam Neeson as an alcoholic private detective named Matthew Scudder. This movie might be very good, or it might be very bad; I have no idea, and in a way, I only care insomuch as it boosts the legacy of the man who wrote the book on which it is based. His name is Lawrence Block, and he’s been writing since the 1950s, and his output is heroically abundant. He got his start writing paperback erotica; eventually, he began writing several different series’ worth of crime novels. He’s 76 years old, and he’s authored, I don’t know, maybe around a hundred books, including seven writing-advice books, a memoir, and a short tome called The Specialists, upon which the A-Team may or may not have been based. (A few months ago, I picked up a novel of Block’s called Random Walk; it was a trippy New Age story about a bartender who, you know, goes on a random walk. It wasn’t one of his best, but that almost wasn’t the point; even the Tony Robbins–meets–Stephen King undercurrent of the plot was tempered by Block’s utterly humanizing portrayal of his characters.)
In the crime-fiction world, Block is already viewed as an American treasure, but he, like his old friend Donald Westlake, is one of those writers who deserves to transcend his genre. All the Matthew Scudder books I’ve read have been dank and harrowing little gems, especially the ones set in New York before it became an adult theme park. (In other words, it’s possible Neeson could be perfectly cast.) Block knows New York; he’s lived in the West Village since before it became an aspirational address. (He’s admitted to struggling with alcohol himself, and he’s given to bouts of depression, which, like everything else, he discusses in his work.) But my favorite Block novels are the ones he started writing in the late 1990s; they’re about a stamp-collecting hit man who calls himself Keller, who’s continually trying to get out of the business he’s in but can’t seem to bring himself to do it. I can’t imagine there’s ever been a more likable and competent killer in modern fiction, which is a testament to Block’s abilities, and to his longevity, and to the idea that writers like Block — skillful and professional and utterly unafraid of failure — should always be a rare and treasured commodity.
David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks
John Lopez: When you pick this one up, try to check whatever collective prejudices you inherited from the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas at the door. David Mitchell wrote the novel on which that ill-fated film was based, but no matter what you think of the movie, you can see how Larry and Lana lined up so many stars when you read Mitchell’s prose. From his breakout omnibus Ghostwritten through his lushly detailed historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell’s books have the feel of a metaphysical manga or boys adventure series written by a moonlighting Chekhov. There’s plenty of the supernatural, mythological, and world-building impulse behind them — Mitchell has talked of his works as connecting into one overarching über-novel — but far more enjoyable are the vivid, intricately drawn characters and pure, sparkling verve of the writing. The Bone Clocks jumps across time and space, gradually unveiling a Highlander-esque cosmic battle between two clans of immortals. But really that’s just a backdrop for the emotionally resonant moments he captures as he sketches the life of his main character, Holly Sykes — and the lives of those she loves — across the decades, from a poignantly drawn ’80s suburban English childhood to her postapocalyptic retirement in an Ireland racked by the collapsing civilization of a climate-changed world. Sure, everyone gets caught up in the epic battle between good and evil, but what’s amazing is how relatable it all is. Critics may disagree as to whether Mitchell’s work is highbrow fiction you can enjoy, or genre pulp classed up with keen psychological insight, but few deny that you have fun reading it.
Steve McPherson: A two-year-old game just now seeing release for Xbox One and PS4, Diablo III doesn’t start promisingly. I began the loot-driven dungeon crawler as a demon hunter, and shooting rinky-dink crossbow bolts off of endlessly shuffling undead wasn’t that entertaining. But once your palette of skills begins to fill in, you start assembling these wonderful little chains of actions, and then you start finding and eventually modifying items to maximize your results.
Now I vault into mobs of demons trailing fire in my wake, and then unleash a fan of knives before loosing a hail of arrows into the sky that will perforate every zombie, plague carrier, and succubus in the area.
Diablo III offers that most stupidly addictive carrot of gaming: a joyous burst of gameplay pleasure that can be repeated ad infinitum because it’s all in the service of crafting a nigh-unstoppable avatar of pure, uncut badassery. The damage totals pinging off the minions of evil are less like expensive dinners and more like the GNPs of small yet ambitious countries. For someone raised on a strict diet of Dungeons & Dragons’ modest 3-to-18 range for attributes, 440,390 points of damage is dizzying and every new legendary item is a chance to stack it like paper — all that’s missing is Skyler White asking me how big the pile has to be.
I guess the only answer I can offer is another question: How big can it get?
Ben Lindbergh: In baseball, the secret to graceful aging is a diversity of skills. Athletic, high-contact hitters who play good defense and run the bases well tend to last longer at a high level than one-dimensional sluggers. Pitchers with a wide assortment of offerings and speeds tend to tail off less steeply than those who live and die by a blistering fastball.
If the same principle applies to music — and I suspect it has some merit in most fields — how would you construct a future-proof band? Naturally, you’d seek out only skilled, distinctive songwriters to minimize filler and pick up the slack if one or more members lost inspiration and started recycling. It would help if all of them could sing, both for vocal variety and as insurance in the event that someone stopped hitting the high notes. You’d want committed, collaborative music buffs with the foresight to found their own label, the range to float from power pop to hardcore covers, and more quirky charm than sexy self-destruction. And hell, it couldn’t hurt if the drummer played guitar, the bassist played guitar and drums, both regular guitarists played bass and drums, and everyone played piano.
I’ve just described Sloan, the Toronto (via Halifax) foursome that continues to write, record, and tour with its original lineup 23 years after uniting and 20 years after producing a Canadian classic in Twice Removed, its last major-label release. Sloan’s four-album run from Twice Removed through 1999’s Between the Bridges remains one of the most impressive peaks in recent rock history, and the band is still adept at crafting songs that demand sing-alongs on first listen and reveal new layers later. For most acts, a “Beatles-esque” label is either a curse or code for a kind of derivative, Rutles-ish pastiche, but in Sloan’s case, it’s neither dismissive nor a comparison the band can’t back up.
Sloan’s 11th LP, Commonwealth, out this week from Yep Roc Records, was designed as a double vinyl with one side for each songwriter — a gimmicky conceit, given that almost every Sloan release features contributions from all four members. Segregating the recordings saps some of the listener’s sense of song-to-song discovery, but the structure accentuates each artist’s gifts, and the group’s cohesive harmonies bind the album’s component parts into a whole as formidable as a fully formed Voltron (or a complete Wu-Tang Clan). Highlighted by a silky five-song set from Jay Ferguson, the group’s most consistent melody man, and an 18-minute, hook-soaked suite from Andrew Scott that features a barking dog, a string section, and a children’s choir, Commonwealth works both as an introduction to and an encapsulation of Sloan’s career.
Telling a mostly American audience about a beloved band from north of the border that’s surprisingly underappreciated in the States feels a bit like bragging about a Canadian girlfriend, but Sloan is real, spectacular, and streamable on Spotify (Commonwealth here; back catalogue here). “Out of favo(u)r with the flavo(u)r of the week’s where I’ll be,” bassist and unofficial frontman Chris Murphy sang on 2006 mini medley “Fading Into Obscurity.” This week, though, Sloan deserves the spotlight.