Everything Our Editors Loved in April
‘The Good Lord Bird,’ Mary Ruefle, and a podcast that breaks down the Olivia Rodrigo power ballad ‘Driver’s License’
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
In April, Outside editors caught up on Oscar-nominated documentaries, found comfort in the soothing voice of an NPR host, and prepped for our summer getaways by reading about sunnier places and watching surprisingly heartwarming Vrbo ads. Here’s everything we loved this month.
What We Read
This month, I read Madness, Rack, and Honey, a collection of lectures by poet Mary Ruefle, which I bought after reading her incredible essay “Dear Friends” in the Sewanee Review. For 15 years, starting in 1994, Ruefle gave intermittent lectures, loosely about poetry, to groups of graduate students, which were later collected here. Each has its own subject—secrets, for instance, or fear—but they’re all really about how to think. I don’t know if I can properly explain this book. In moments, it’s criticism; in others, it’s philosophy, or essay, or poetry. What I can say is that it is brilliant and funny and kaleidoscopic. Through Ruefle’s eyes, the world splinters madly and beautifully, and she pulls disparate parts together in new and dazzling ways. —Abbie Barronian, associate editor
I’ve been working my way through James McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird. A work of historical fiction that follows abolitionist John Brown in the years leading up to the Civil War, the book was critically acclaimed when it was released in 2013 but gained an even larger audience last year after becoming a Showtime miniseries. Brown is best known for his 1859 raid on a federal armory at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and The Good Lord Bird builds up to that raid while detailing Brown’s other efforts to spread abolition across the country. The book, narrated by a formerly enslaved man nicknamed Little Onion, balances tragedy, action, and plenty of comedy. McBride portrays Brown and other historical figures as both eccentric and unreliable, challenging historical narratives that often paint them as noble, all-knowing heroes. —Kevin Johnson, editorial fellow
In preparation for a summer trip to Hawaii, I read Aloha Rodeo, by David Wolman (a former Outside contributing editor) and Julian Smith. It ties together the worlds of the Big Island’s paniolos and their cowboy counterparts at Wyoming’s famous Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo, where, in 1908, the mainlanders were bested in steer roping by a trio of Hawaiians, to the shock of everyone in the Wild West. Little did many of them know, today or back then, that Hawaiians had been herding longhorn cattle up and down the rough slopes of the island’s volcanic landscapes since the early 1800s. Packed with interesting facts, colorful characters, and well-researched details that bring each chapter alive, this book completely changed my perspective on both the history of our 50th state and the multifaceted legacy of the American cowboy. —Tasha Zemke, copy editor
What We Listened To
I hadn’t realized that the bridge had disappeared from today’s pop music scene until Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, of the New York Times podcast Still Processing, pointed it out. One thing I certainly had noticed, though, was Olivia Rodrigo’s cry-in-the-shower, bang-your-spatula-on-the-counter, belt-it-out-in-your-car-alone power ballad “Driver’s License.” If you, too, are curious as to why a former Disney Channel star singing about her breakup with another Disney Channel star has taken up meaningful real estate in your head, allow Morris and Wortham to break it down for you. They get into the power of the bridge and explain why it has become “as extinct as the spotted owl and the sitcom laugh track” in pop music. They also dig into how TikTok has influenced contemporary music and why Rodrigo’s song seemed designed to be sung in isolation during the pandemic. I would (and frequently do) listen to just about anything these two have to say, but this episode is the one I’ve recommended the most in the past few weeks. If you’re new to Still Processing, be sure to check out earlier episodes, like this one on Janet Jackson and how race and gender informed the fallout from the 2004 Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction. —Natalia Lutterman, editorial assistant
This month has been an emotionally turbulent one. In addition to all the global and international causes for both concern and hope, I’ve had personal ups (vaccination) and downs (breakup) weighing heavily on my psyche. One of the pillars of stability I’ve clung to is—stay with me—Marketplace, NPR’s economics show. Growing up in an NPR household, the soaring strings of the Marketplace theme meant the end of school and workdays and the beginning of the rhythm of evenings at home. Kai Ryssdal has hosted the show since 2005, lending a conversational, chipper tone (one of the top three NPR voices, in my opinion) to everything from deeply personal stories of local economies to fluctuations in global markets. I hadn’t listened to the show regularly in years, but now I find myself refreshing my feed every day at 5 P.M. and scrolling through the back catalog to tune in to long-stale stock reports, looking for my daily hit of news swaddled in nostalgia. I could listen to Kai do the numbers for hours, slowly washing away my personal anxieties one index at a time. Despite the simultaneously volatile and potentially dull field it covers, Marketplace manages to be steady and comforting, funny and poignant—exactly what I need. —Maren Larsen, associate editor
“Listen to this podcast!” feels like a lame response to someone struggling with paralyzing anxiety and dread about the climate crisis, but if that sounds like you, I’ve got a podcast for you! It’s called A Matter of Degrees, and it’s hosted by two climate wonks: Leah Stokes, a professor studying energy and the environment at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Katherine Wilkinson, a writer and TED Talker with a PhD from Oxford. They’re both extremely smart—it’s hard to imagine anyone with a more granular grasp of the policies and technologies needed to address climate change—but they’ve made this show for the “climate curious,” people like me who kinda-sorta pay attention to depressing climate news but aren’t experts or hardcore climate activists. Wilkinson and Stokes have great chemistry and make the show funny and engaging while also adding helpful context and integrating supremely well-executed interviews with policymakers, entrepreneurs, and activists into each episode. They don’t sugarcoat the scope of the climate crisis—or the intractable, systemic nature of it—but they are hopeful and inspiring about humans’ ability to take it on. I’ve learned surprising new things from each episode—for example, that it’s totally feasible for the United States to transfer the vast majority of its electric grid to carbon-free sources like wind and solar by 2035. The podcast has been the one source of climate solace for me amid my existential anxiety. —Luke Whelan, senior editor
What We Watched
Every few nights for the past several months, I have traveled back in time. My portal has been YouTube. My destination: The Dick Cavett Show. The most popular iteration of the show ran on ABC from 1968 to 1974, although Cavett hosted various other talk shows with the same name until 2007. Today, more than 200,000 people subscribe to The Dick Cavett Show YouTube channel, a time capsule of a late-night program now 50 years old. My own path down the rabbit hole began with a bout of insomnia, of course, and an irritating curiosity about the young Chevy Chase. That led me to click on a video from the show titled “Chevy Chase Talks Cocaine Parties.” Wouldn’t you? I could write in an embarrassing amount of detail about why I’ve fixated on this show, but I’ve promised to keep this blurb short. Instead, I’ll just say that I’ve seen Miles Davis give Nicolas Cage a trumpet lesson, I’ve witnessed Salvador Dalí create art in front of Satchel Paige, and I could probably write a thesis on Cavett as an archetype for American whiteness. It’s a wild deep dive into television history. —Tyler Dunn, audience development editor
I want to shout out the “Your Together Awaits” commercials created by Vrbo, which have nailed our need to be near friends and family after so much time apart, as well as our longing to be outdoors. A rental house where a kid can finally play checkers with his grandpa in front of a crackling fire? A property where my screen-addicted teen can fish with her pa? Yes, please. I watch these ads all the way through, even when they pop up for the umpteenth time, and they always make me tear up. —T.Z.
I recently saw the Oscar-nominated documentary Collective by Romanian director Alexander Nanau. The film, which is streaming on Hulu, begins with haunting footage of a 2015 fire in a Bucharest nightclub called Colectiv. Twenty-seven people died in the fire, but 37 more perished in Romanian hospitals afterward when they sought treatment for their burns. The first half of the documentary focuses on Catalin Tolontan, a journalist at a sports newspaper who discovers that the burn victims have been dying because the disinfectants used in many Romanian hospitals are heavily diluted—leaving patients vulnerable to deadly bacteria. Tolontan’s reporting eventually uncovers a far-reaching corruption scandal that implicates everyone from leading politicians to prominent hospital managers. The second half of the film follows Vlad Voiculescu, the idealistic new health minister who’s appointed after Tolontan’s revelations bring down his predecessor and who tries in vain to reform his country’s health care system. Nanau’s filmmaking is so artful that it often appears artless—he stitches the film together using scenes from the scandal as it unfolded in real time; you won’t see any cutting away to interviews here. Unfortunately, Collective doesn’t have a happy ending, but it’s a powerful look at the Sisyphean task of trying to change a corrupt system. —Sophie Murguia, associate editor