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Everything Our Editors Loved in January

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As we settle into a new year and wait patiently for our COVID-19 vaccines, Outside editors are consuming an eclectic mix of entertainment, from retellings of Greek myths to a documentary about arcade gaming. Here are the books, films, and podcasts keeping us company through the long pandemic winter.

What We Read

I just read Circe, by Madeline Miller, a reimagined Greek epic starring the demigoddess and witch you might remember from The Odyssey. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, so dropping into a world of gods, monsters, curses, and magic spells felt like a balm during what was, objectively, a pretty fucked-up month. Circe is a peripheral character in many myths, including the story of the Minotaur and the tragedy of Medea. In this 2018 book, Miller lets Circe take center stage, imagining what filled all the space between her appearances in ancient tales. The writing is smart and evocative, and Miller’s characters are finely drawn. Circe was exactly the book I needed: a page-turner with wonderful prose that offered a brief respite from reality. —Abbie Barronian, associate editor 

In January I slowly savored Daniel Mendelsohn’s 2017 memoir An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic. Mendelsohn is a classics professor at Bard College in New York, and when the book opens, his 81-year-old dad, Jay, has just decided to audit his freshman course on The Odyssey. What follows is a meandering narrative that’s difficult to classify: it’s partly the story of a complicated father-son bond that spans decades, partly a travelogue about the “Retracing The Odyssey” cruise the two men eventually take together, and partly a rigorous close reading of Homer’s famous epic. Throughout his book, Mendelsohn illuminates the parallels between his relationship to his father and Odysseus’s relationship to his son, Telemachus. While this conceit might feel forced in the hands of a lesser writer, Mendelsohn pulls it off surprisingly well. And as someone who hasn’t cracked open The Odyssey since ninth grade, I was delighted to revisit it with a guide as skilled as Mendelsohn—he made me realize just how much I’d missed when I read it as a teenager. —Sophie Murguia, assistant editor

There are some writers you discover and subsequently decide you must follow to the ends of the earth. After reading Carmen Maria Machado’s first book (Her Body and Other Parties, a collection of women- and queer-centric horror stories that I will lend to friends and reread until it crumbles to dust), she became one of those for me. Last month I read In the Dream House, Machado’s memoir about her first relationship with a woman, which quickly became abusive. Each short chapter takes the form of a different genre—stoner comedy, self-help bestseller, modern art. Some are beautiful, many are terrifying, and all have an uncanny realness, bringing you with Machado as she endures the physical and emotional pain of intimate partner violence while lucidly analyzing the horrifically familiar story she’s living through. “Putting language to something for which you have no language is no easy feat,” she writes, yet she manages to do so with unflinching grace. Reading it felt like a gut punch, but I simply couldn’t put it down. —Maren Larsen, Buyer’s Guide deputy editor

I read Strangers Drowning, a book by Larissa MacFarquhar about extreme, seemingly compulsive altruists. MacFarquhar delves into the case studies of a family who can’t stop adopting children (they end up with 22 in all), couples who donate nearly all of their income, and other individuals who feel just as compelled to help strangers as they do their own family—and who will go to much greater lengths than the rest of us to do so. MacFarquhar is a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, and between these stunning individual stories, she weaves in history, philosophy, and psychology in an attempt to understand what drives these do-gooders, and why there’s something unsettling about people who choose to live their lives like saints. I couldn’t stop talking about this book and the questions it raises with anyone who would listen. —Molly Mirhashem, digital deputy editor

I’m about halfway through Quit Like a Woman, a book by Holly Whitaker, who comes from the Silicon Valley tech world but later went on to found the recovery program Tempest. Whitaker writes about the rise of women’s drinking in America and the cultural influences that got us here. She rejects Alcoholics Anonymous, which she calls “male-centric,” and goes in search of a different path to sobriety. It’s partly a memoir and partly a history lesson on how Big Alcohol attracted and hooked women. When I picked it up, I wasn’t necessarily looking to stop drinking myself, but I saw a bunch of writers I admire tweeting about the book. Now, though I’m only halfway through, I’m certain I’ll never drink another beer without thinking about its health risks and the advertising dollars behind it. —Abigail Wise, digital managing director 

What We Listened To

I listened to a Goop podcast with Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard who has a new book out called Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding. Lieberman uses an evolutionary lens to understand why many of us aren’t motivated to exercise. He explains that hunter-gatherers tried to save their energy when they weren’t hunting, so we’re actually hardwired not to expend unnecessary energy. Lieberman knows how to make the science and physiology approachable and has a compassionate view of those of us who struggle to maintain a fitness routine. He gives us permission to make exercise easy and accessible, since the more difficult we make it for ourselves (a long drive to the gym, a hard workout that we hate), the less likely we are to do it. After listening to him break down all the reasons exercising is good for us, I definitely felt like getting off the couch! —Mary Turner, deputy editor 

What We Watched 

We’ve all experienced something like 20 phases of the pandemic at this point, and if I were to put a name to my current one, it would be “Making My Loved Ones Watch My Favorite Stuff.” Last week I introduced my parents and a good friend to the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. This film delves into the fascinating world of competitive arcade gaming, following two men engaged in a bitter battle for the title of Donkey Kong record holder. It’s a wild ride that will pull you in quickly and have you laughing, crying, and yelling at your screen before it’s over. —Tyler Dunn, audience development editor

The Netflix docuseries Lenox Hill just blew my mind. Filmed before the pandemic at the Manhattan hospital of the same name, it follows an ER doctor, an obstetrician, and two neurosurgeons as they work with patients who are experiencing everything from cancer to TMJ disorder to childbirth. I cried at least once each episode, usually from the heartfelt compassion and respect that the physicians brought to their interactions with patients. But what made the show marvelous was its juxtaposition of joy (one mom pulled her own baby out of the birth canal and into the world) with anguish (those who, even after numerous surgeries and the latest in experimental therapies, cannot be saved). I often had to turn away from the footage of doctors carefully sucking away gelatinous brain tumors from an opened skull, but the fact that two people underwent brain surgery while they were awake completely amazed me. The whole show changed my views of modern medicine for the better. —Tasha Zemke, copy editor 

I’ve written about the genius of both Harry Styles and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in past roundups, so of course I’m going to recommend this music video combining both of their talents. The song “Treat People with Kindness” is one of the lesser known tracks on Styles’s recent album, and the video features him and Waller-Bridge cheerfully strutting around a cabaret set in matching sparkly sweater-vests. If those last four words don’t sell you on the video, perhaps the dance routine that starts at around 2 minutes 20 seconds will. —Kelsey Lindsey, associate editor

Lead Photo: AlexRaths/iStock

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