As I’ve written about at length, Japanese video games have been a huge part of my life since I was a kid playing Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. Alongside those experiences, I was obsessed with Sailor Moon in seventh grade, Dragon Ball Z by ninth grade, and the films of Hayao Miyazaki as a high school grad. Japanese art and pop culture has had a tremendous influence on my life as a fan and a creator, second only to western epic fantasy.
Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World from Matt Alt is an exhaustive and entertaining look at my history—about how a generation of kids and teenagers were influenced as much by Hello Kitty and Gundam as Barbies and G.I. Joe. It’s the story of Japan’s rise to cultural dominance in the post-war era, and paints a chillingly direct line from the creation of anonymous message boards in Japan to modern day political unrest in the United States.
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Before my wife gifted me a copy of her book Life in Code for Christmas, I’d never heard of Ellen Ullman despite her long, impressive career as a programmer, software engineer, and author. Turns out, I’ve been missing out on one our the sharpest and most insightful writers on tech, culture, and feminism. Ullman is witty and broadly experienced, and has a terrific voice that flits between amusing and professionally rich without batting an eye. I know who Ullman is now, and, boy am I sorry it took me so long to find her.
(And major thanks to my wife for putting in work and research to find an absolute GEM of a book.)
Life in Code is a collection of Ullman’s essays ranging from the late ’90s to days after the 2017 US presidential inauguration. Posited as an auto-biographical account of her experience as a woman in a male-dominated industry and culture, Life is Code is also a biography of technology and web culture over the past 20 years. It’s a detailed, real-time look at all the mistakes we’ve made as we’ve chased the ghost in the machine and the allure of fast, endless capital at the expense of privacy and social safety nets.
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It’s impossible to understate how obsessed I was with dinosaurs during my youth. I devoured the thick textbook-style tome that covered dozens of dinos, each with its own detailed sketch, to-scale comparisons against humans, maps detailing where they lived. It had it all. It was beautiful. By the time I was nine, I’d moved onto Michael Crichton’s classic Jurassic Park. I still vividly remember sitting in the movie theatre, lights dimming, and trying, frantically, to finish the novel before the film started. I didn’t quite manage it, but was quite pleased, hours later, to discover the the ending of the book is quite different than the film. I’m sure my parents heard about all the differences between the book and the film for weeks.
I was dino crazy.
As a teen and adult, I wasn’t quite so vociferous in my dino fandom, it was replaced instead by a newfound love for epic fantasy, but I’ve always been drawn to their vast history and all the millions of question marks that remain about our planet’s most enduring species.
Steve Brusatte’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is the absolute best re-entry point I could ask for as a formerly-dino crazy kid who, as an adult, wants to learn more about the history of dinosaurs. It’s thorough and academic, but not at the expense of being readable and charismatic. It’s clear that Brusatte is more than a dry scientist—so much of his passion and knowledge about the subject shines through with his clear, often humourous voice. At times, especially during the first couple of chapters, he can become a little self-referential, dropping extensive lists of names and anecdotes about his fellow palaeontologists, but once he digs into the history of the dinosaurs, everything is smooth sailing.
At this point in my life, most of my knowledge of dinosaurs has dwindled to not much more than “it happened in Jurassic Park.” I’ve been pleased with Brusatte’s work both from the perspective of easing me back into the dinosaur world, but also his efficacy as a narrator and storyteller. There’s something epic and beautiful about the way he writes about the slow, labyrinthine rise and inevitable, tragic fall of the dinosaurs.