Living Some Kind of American Dream at Sizzler

To us, Sizzler was the epitome of the American meal. We could have big steaks, the likes of which were expensive in Korea, reserved only for special occasions. There were nice cloth napkins you put on your lap. The waitresses were friendly and would refill your drinks for you; the drink glasses were enormous. At restaurants in Korea, we had to refill our own drinks and serve our own tea from a pitcher on the counter. We had to yell to get the waitress to come to our table. The American waitresses came by on their own, and brought us complimentary slices of cheese toast — warm and crisp, salty and buttered, with just the right amount of soft white bread in the middle.

And, of course, there was the salad bar. Like the steaks, it was also the American dream epitomized, in all its shiny brass-and-glass glory. It was all-you-can-eat — you could never go hungry in America. All the vegetables, fruit, and lettuce you could ever possibly eat were here.

Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee writing in Eater about moving to America from South Korea and shaping her new life through American icons like Sizzler.

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Back in the USSR: A Reading List

Svetlana Boym, an eminent Leningrad-born literary scholar, died earlier this month in Boston. She was a versatile and eloquent critic, novelist, and photographer, but is perhaps best known for her work on nostalgia, a cultural and psychological phenomenon that she described as “a strategy of survival, a way of making sense of the impossibility of homecoming.”

Boym left the USSR in the early 1980s. Since then, her country of birth has formally disintegrated, but has also become one of the most fetishized nostalgic objects of our post-Cold War imagination, a political entity that continues to cast spectral shadows in unexpected places — in Russia, in the former Communist Bloc, and in the West.

Writing about post-Soviet Kaliningrad/Königsberg, Boym described the city, and by extension contemporary Russia as a whole, as a “theme park of lost illusions.” The stories in this reading list — from a haunting travelogue through an abandoned Soviet mining town in the Arctic to Boym’s account of Moscow’s 850th anniversary celebrations in 1997 — take us on a ride through the park’s gaudily uncanny landscapes.

1. “The Most Soviet Park in Russia.” (Charles Shaw, The Appendix, March 2014)

Shaw guides us through the sprawling kitsch and grandiose architecture of Moscow’s VDNKh park, a World Fair-style amalgamation of pavilions and exhibition spaces. In the post-Soviet era VDNKh has morphed into a mishmash of commercial outlets and tourist attractions (including “two competing live shark habitats, one of which is housed in the former pavilion to Friendship of the Peoples”), and this essay channels the surreal ambiance of the space it describes.

2. “Nostalgia for Russia’s Soviet History.” (Anya von Bremzen, Travel + Leisure, September 2013)

After writing Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, a memoir of Soviet food cultures, Anya von Bremzen returns to her native Moscow with her mom. Between sumptuous meals, the two explore the strange vogue for Soviet design, fashion, and food among younger Muscovites who never lived through — or can’t remember — the struggle and hardship that went hand-in-hand with (now-retro) objects like Red October Chocolate or avoska mesh bags.

3. “The Cold Rim of the World.” (Colin Dickey, Longreads, March 2015)

Pyramiden, an abandoned Soviet outpost in the far reaches of the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, has turned from utopia to dystopia in the short span of 15 years. Once a seemingly prosperous mining town, now in ruins and overtaken by gulls, Dickey sees in Pyramiden not just the collapse of an ideology, but a vision of a post-human landscape, “where human history has once again joined the deep geologic time of the earth itself.”

4. “Into the Cosmos” (Chloe Aridjis, Granta, August 2012)

“Looking back on his early years, writer Zinovy Zinik describes how the mere knowledge of Sputnik 1 orbiting the sky instilled a sense of triumphant flight (and, later in life, of tragic landing) — it was much easier to become a cosmonaut than to obtain an exit visa to travel abroad, and therefore all Soviet adolescent boys wanted to fly.”

In her essay, Aridjis explores the parallels between Soviet cosmonauts and circus performers, and how both captured a distinct Cold War-era fascination with the vertical.

5. “My Midwestern Soviet Childhood.” (Liesl Schillinger, Virgina Quarterly Review, January 2015)

From recitations of Pushkin over dinner (in Russian!) to poppyseed birthday cakes, Schillinger evokes her unconventional upbringing by two Slavophile professor parents. Bemoaning the sad fate of the study of Russian in the US, she sees a silver lining in the renewed tensions between Moscow and the West: perhaps Russia’s greater political relevance will also resuscitate interest in Russian culture, as it did back in the days of the USSR?

6. “Nostalgia, Moscow Style.” (Svetlana Boym, Harvard Design Magazine, Winter/Spring 2001)

“For the celebration of Moscow’s 850th anniversary, in 1997, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov ordered the clouds over the Russian capital to be dispersed.”

Taking a cue from the extravagant festivities that marked a mostly fabricated anniversary, Boym explores the persistence — and fragility — of Soviet-inflected narratives of grandeur in post-Communist Moscow, from the sprinkling of massive historical monuments all over the city to the construction of Europe’s largest underground shopping mall beneath Manezh Square.

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Oliver Sacks: 1933-2015

In Vanity Fair, a rare look at the early career of Oliver Sacks. Lawrence Weschler, a close friend of Oliver Sacks, looks back on the life of the best-selling author and neurologist in the early ’80s. The neurologist and acclaimed author died today at the age of 82.

He wrote his first book, “Migraine,” in nine days. “It had gotten to the point,” he tells me, “where I said to myself, ‘Now look, Sacks, you really must write this thing. I’ll give you 10 days or else we’re going to have to kill ourselves.’ This worked. It scared me into starting.”

He says, “At times, the world seems rife with malevolence, chaos. I am almost overwhelmed, but then it suffices for me to perceive the spectacle of quiet goodness, say the Little Sisters of the Poor, and everything is all right.

“I see 10 patients a day and write 500 words on each meeting—a thousand patients a year, a thousand stories.”

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On Learning & Losing Language: A Reading List

Language shapes every facet of our lives—how we communicate, how we act, how we feel. When we can name something, we feel comfort and security (think of the medical diagnosis, the new baby’s name). We feel relief: common gestures while haggling in a marketplace, cognates in a textbook. Without language, we are lost. But what happens when language gets lost—violently uprooted by colonialism, for example, or dissipated in the annals of time? Can language be reclaimed? These six articles explore how language is disseminated, preserved, decoded, and, ultimately, cherished.

1. “How an Artificial Language from 1887 is Finding New Life Online.” (Sam Dean, The Verge, May 2015)

Lernu! When L.L. Zamenhof invented Esperanto in the late 19th century, he hoped it would erase language barriers and bring about world peace. Today, Esperanto is gaining traction in the digital language-learning community due to its enthusiastic adherents, relative simplicity and logical structure.

2. “The Interpreter.” (John Colapinto, The New Yorker, April 2007)

Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations.

The Pirahã have no interest in other cultures or modern discoveries, let alone learning other languages. Communication, therefore, has been historically impossible. This is the story of Dan Everett, one of the only non-native people in the world to master the Pirahã language, and how his subsequent knowledge may have groundbreaking ramifications for commonly accepted linguistic theory.

3. “The Most Secretive Book in History.” (Erin McCarthy, Mental Floss, March 2015)

What is the Voynich Manuscript? Is it a code, a cipher or an altogether unknown language? Drawings of plants and hieroglyphs fill its pages, but its origins are murky.

4. “I Read and Write in English, But I Still Dream in Amharic.” (Hannah Giorgis, The Guardian, July 2015)

In this beautiful essay, Hannah Giorgis meditates on her Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage, the inadequacy of English and the author’s responsibility to decolonize their art.

5. “After Centuries of Colonial Violence, a Resurgence of Indigenous Language Learning.” (Jason Coppola, Truthout, August 2015)

“You could reasonably say every single Native American language, including the large ones, are endangered,” said linguist K. David Harrison, a National Geographic fellow teaching at Swarthmore College. “There’s no room for complacency whatsoever.”

In New Zealand, Hana O’Regan integrated Maori customs into her family life—with profound results. In South Dakota, Tipiziwan Tolman teaches Lakota language at the Lakota Language Nest Immersion School. Both women want to help indigenous youth overcome the pernicious effects of white colonialism.

6. “The Real Secret to Learning a Language Online.” (Nithin Coca, The Kernel, August 2015)

Apps like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone replicate language classes, but Nithin Coca suggests the fastest way to immerse yourself in a new language (besides moving to a foreign country) might be indulging in its media. You heard him: go check out subtitled French (or Korean, or German, or…) television and film.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.

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1. Beyond the Breach

Wright Thompson | ESPN Magazine | Aug. 24, 2015 | 107 minutes (26,875 words)

Ten years after Katrina, Wright Thompson reports on the transformation of New Orleans, meeting with athletes, activists, community leaders, journalists, and legislators to get a sense of how far the city has come, and the difficult work that still needs to be done.

2. Searching for Sugar Daddy

Taffy Brodesser-Akner | GQ | Aug. 27, 2015 | 17 minutes (4,429 words)

A very blunt and humorous examination of the sugar daddy/baby dynamic.

3. Homes for the Homeless

Susie Cagle | Aeon | Aug. 28, 2015 | 14 minutes (3,600 words)

An illustrated look at Utah’s approach to providing housing for the homeless with no strings attached. It’s turning out both cheaper and more effective than other solutions, but why haven’t other cities followed suit?

4. Who Won Science Fiction’s Hugo Awards, and Why It Matters

Amy Wallace | Wired | Aug. 24, 2015 | 18 minutes (4,708 words)

Controversy at the Hugo Awards, which has been plagued by accusations by a faction of mostly white male authors who argue that storytelling has taken a backseat to identity politics.

5. A Common Language

Kristina Shevory | The Believer | Aug. 20, 2015 | 26 minutes (6,550 words)

A profile of Ron Capps, an Army combat veteran and former Foreign Service officer who served in Iraq, Darfur, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Eastern Congo and Kosovo during his career. After returning home, Capps was suicidal and haunted by PTSD; writing brought him relief and helped him make sense of his experiences.

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Relationships in a Time of Excretory Trouble

Dating is laborious and embarrassing. Irritable bowel syndrome is, too. In Narratively in March 2014, food critic and memoirist Gwendolyn Knapp wrote about both, detailing the humor and stamina involved in dating with IBS in a city of spicy food like New Orleans.

When you feel the need to shit uncontrollably, dating is tough. Like your mind, your whole existence is in the toilet, has been for years, and you certainly can’t expect to drag someone down there with you. One poor guy, Michael, contacted me after I hadn’t spoken to him in two years. He’d just moved back to New Orleans after a brief bout of grad school and veganism and wanted to know if anything cool and cheap was happening on Saturday night. We met up in Mimi’s, where most of these horror stories begin. It’s a popular bar in the Marigny that has great tapas and nightmarish bathrooms. The ladies room has two toilets that practically face each other and no stalls. There’s always the chance some crazy bitch will follow you in and lock the door, drop trou and sit down on the pee pee drops, looking at you like, “What, you pee shy or something?” Sucks for you.

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Nothing Beside Remains (of the Space Jam Website)

Last week, Rolling Stone came out with a fantastically detailed and weird deep dive into the history of the Space Jam website. While technically operating under the purview of one of the world’s largest entertainment companies, a ragtag group of unsupervised young coders built something really revolutionary. The site was a pioneering example of how a studio could market a film online, way back in 1996 when very few movies even had websites.

And then it just sat there for a decade and a half—etched in time and completely untouched—before being rediscovered and going viral in 2010. It was an antique visitor from a distant land, a riveting and slightly horrifying reminder of what the web once was. In other words: it looked aesthetically very similar to the unauthorized Harry Potter fan site that I maintained on GeoCities for most of third and fourth grade (flashing gif icons for every section, bright red Times New Roman text on a black starry sky background, et al).  Erik Malinowski’s entire account of the site’s history and legacy is fascinating, but perhaps most interesting is the fact that this oft-mocked website has outlasted nearly everything else surrounding the highest-grossing basketball movie ever made:

Today, the Space Jam site’s popularity has outlived almost everything to which it has been connected. The Fifth Avenue [flagship Warner Bros.] store shuttered in 2001. Both stars of the movie’s stars made forgettable exits in 2003 – Jordan with the Washington Wizards, Bugs with Looney Tunes: Back in Action. And every person directly associated with the site’s creation has now left the studio.

But the site lives on, aging for 19 years but free from influence, to our enduring delight.

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