The Usonian "Unwrapped"
2021 in retrospect
For my first blog, a little project called Expedictionary which I started in high school, at the end of the year I made a point of writing a post that listed the books I enjoyed the most that year.
With this newsletter project, I hope to start a similar tradition. Of course, I also think it’s important to track the progress of the newsletter and highlight the most important stories of the year, so this post will serve a few functions at once.
In any case, it’s time to account for what’s gone on this year and get ready for the next. Spotify wraps in early December, but this is The Usonian Unwrapped, and we wrap up after all the presents are open.
I’m not being original when I write that it’s been an interesting year for the world, to say the least (but we need not get into specific variants). In that vein, it’s also been an exciting year for me as a writer and for this newsletter project, which officially launched in March. This year, I graduated from my MFA program in Nevada and drove across the country before moving to Cyprus to start my Fulbright year.
The Usonian newsletter project started off strong with Nevada-based travel pieces about Ichthyosaur-Berlin State Park and the Black Rock Desert. I also spoke with Neon in Nevada organizer Teresa Schultz about a new project to record the state’s neon signs before they are lost.
The Usonian Interviews comprised a series of eleven installments this year, featuring interviews with writers and artistic professionals around the globe. This year, The Usonian spoke with Jennifer Shyue, Robin Rosen Chang, Angeline Jacques, Brendan Donley, Aaron Robertson, Tiffany Cates, Shannon Winston, Lin King, Andy Butter, Leanne Howard, and Bruce Clark.
The Cyprus Files included seven pieces about the island of Aphrodite, with some reportage alongside the practical aspects of living abroad during my Fulbright year. Check out a full list of the articles here, including the flagship posts, The Two Nicosias Parts I and II.
In lieu of “best-of” the year lists, let me just recommend a couple of titles this time. I keep up with current movies better than I do with current fiction, so here’s a movie I enjoyed the most this year, and a novel I really liked, too.
The movie I enjoyed the most: The Green Knight (2021)
Though I loved Denis Villeuneuve’s Dune (2021), the film I can’t stop thinking about is David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021). Despite its self-seriousness, The Green Knight’s complexities and ambiguities make it a rich quest story to ponder over.
Based on a medieval poem about Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s court, the story follows the young, partying Gawain (Dev Patel) who, upon the encouragement of his witch mother Morgause and King Arthur himself, accepts the challenge of the monstrous, titular knight. If he strikes a blow against the knight, the knight will get to strike the same blow against Gawain in a year’s time. To Gawain’s surprise, the Knight lowers his head in the pose of a man demanding execution. Gawain obliges, but the Green Knight survives despite being decapitated and demands that Gawain meet him a year hence, when he will kill Gawain in return. Gawain battles through a year of dread before he sets course to meet his destiny.
What is the hero’s journey if it is based on a lie? How should we live our lives, and what risks are necessary to live a full life? These are the questions The Green Knight poses, in a rousing adventure story that is wise enough to just choose one Arthurian legend to explore, and not try to cram them all in like most Arthur movies (cough Excalibur (1981)).
The novel I enjoyed the most: John Fowles’ The Magus (1965)
Upon learning of my upcoming move to Cyprus, a family friend recommended John Fowles’ The Magus (1965). Fowles is better known for novels such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but The Magus was apt counter-programming for a Mediterranean island situation.
In The Magus, a young disaffected Brit named Nicholas Urfe takes an English teaching gig on a small Greek island, abandoning a souring romance in London. On the island he encounters a mysterious Greek named Conchis, who invites him to his estate. The locals tell Nicholas to beware, because it is rumored Conchis collaborated with the Germans during the war. Despite this warning, Nicholas begins hanging out with Conchis, who begins telling him elaborate stories and asserts that he is a psychic. A series of bizarre games cause Nicholas to question if his experiences are real, or staged.
The Magus is a novel that keeps you guessing at every turn. Just when you think Conchis will step out from behind the curtain, the plot will thicken and undermine the shape of the mystery you expect.
There’s also a maligned film adaptation starring Michael Caine as Urfe and Anthony Quinn as Conchis, in sort of a tribute casting as a dark version of Zorba. The film isn’t as bad as people say—though Peter Sellers apparently said, when asked if he’d do anything differently if he could start his life again, that he’d “do everything the same except [he] wouldn’t see The Magus.”
In case you missed it
I published a lot this year, but among my favorites included my piece on the often under-appreciated Black architect Paul Revere Williams in Nevada Humanities, an essay on Experiment in Terror (1962), a late noir forerunner of modern serial killer movies in The Brooklyn Rail, and a feature on the Apple TV+ series The Mosquito Coast (2021) for CrimeReads about the story’s relationship with the colonialist-adventure sub-genre.
I could not pursue a writing career without the kindred spirits who follow The Usonian. Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and thank you always for reading. See you next year!