Everything Our Editors Loved in September
‘Only Murders in the Building,’ Shirley Hazzard, and a whimsical TV musical
September is back-to-school season, so it seems appropriate that some Outside staffers spent the month reading up on new topics—from the life of Cleopatra to the migratory histories of trees. Others took a less educational approach and kicked back with a lighthearted Hulu series and a guitar-heavy rock album. Here are all our favorites from September.
What We Read
Last month I read The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard. Hazzard was an Australian-American writer who moved to the U.S. in the 1950s and authored four novels, several nonfiction books, and dozens of short stories. The Transit of Venus, published in 1980, is considered her breakthrough work. The subject matter is straightforward—two sisters from Australia move to England and make lives for themselves—but the beautiful writing turns what could be a simple story into a meditation on individuality and intimacy. —Abigail Barronian, associate editor
I spent most of September looking at trees. They’re on people’s minds more this time of year (the deciduous ones, at least), captured in envy-inducing social-media posts and seen as vibrant backdrops to outdoor activities. And that inspired me to read journalist Zach St. George’s 2020 book The Journeys of Trees, which focuses on how forests have migrated over time and the convergence of tree lives and human lives throughout history. As anecdotes shift between evidence of ancient forest travel recorded in fossils and the possible future of forestry, the book translates the research of ecologists into an engaging look at the relationship between humans and the forests we inhabit. —Kevin Johnson, editorial fellow
I was looking for a biography of a strong woman, and I found an amazing one with Stacy Schiff’s bestselling Cleopatra: A Life. It was a slow read, for the right reasons: facts upon facts about the legendary Egyptian queen, her rule in Alexandria, her devoted relationships to Caesar and Antony, her escapades, and her downfall and death at age 39 (not, as many would have it, at the fangs of an asp). But the author’s abundant details do not drown the narrative, only enhance it. I was especially buoyed by descriptions of the emphasis that Cleopatra’s society placed on education and equality (women had many rights, far more than their counterparts in Rome) and by how much her wit, intelligence, and understanding of various cultures won over two of the world’s most powerful men—and considerably unnerved and unsettled others. It goes to show how long formidable women have been fighting a double standard. Ever since her death, her story has mostly been told by male writers who cast her as a femme fatale, but as Schiff puts forth, Cleopatra was an intensely focused, “silver-tongued and charismatic” marvel, the “stubborn, supreme exception to every rule.” She was an iconoclast, in the best sense of the word. —Tasha Zemke, copy editor
What We Listened To
Usually, my “suggested for you” selections on the Apple Podcasts app are flops—I get about ten minutes into a new show and end up bailing. But on a recent road trip, the app finally delivered, recommending the podcast 9/12, hosted by Dan Taberski. The premise of the show is vague: it promises to explore how “9/11 the day became 9/11 the idea.” I’d summarize it as a deep, introspective look at how 9/11 changed all levels of society, from how we processed the immediate aftermath to the racist policing of Muslim Americans. What really makes this podcast great are the stories Taberski uses to illustrate these points: we learn about Onion writers struggling to find things to lampoon the day after 9/11, Hollywood producers who were recruited by the CIA to imagine future hypothetical terrorist attacks, and a conspiracy theorist whose ideas turned against him. It’s equal parts funny, sad, confusing, and concerning—a mixed bag of emotions that mirrors what Americans feel about the event 20 years later. —Kelsey Lindsey, senior editor
Ty Segall is a prolific modern psychedelic rocker who produces more records than just about any other artist out there (13 solo albums since 2008 and many more with other bands). But his most recent dry spell lasted more than two years, which makes Harmonizer, the album he dropped with no warning in early August, even more delectable—it surprised fans like me with a synthesized, laser-infused wall of sound. It’s Segall’s most eighties-inspired collection, yet it stays true to his garage-rock roots. The monster guitar riffs, head-banging hooks, and dark lyrics are still there, but it’s a new direction for an artist who never ceases to amaze me. —Will Taylor, gear director
What We Watched
A surprise cultural highlight of my September was Schmigadoon!, the six-episode miniseries released this summer on Apple TV+. The show stars Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong as Josh and Melissa, a couple of New York City doctors who go on a backpacking trip to rekindle their relationship and stumble upon a mysterious place called Schmigadoon, where all the residents seem to be trapped in a mid-20th-century musical. As Josh and Melissa try to escape this strange town whose residents constantly break into song, the series becomes an affectionate parody of classic musicals, with an original score that borrows elements from shows like Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, and The Music Man. The cast is full of recognizable names, including Martin Short, Jane Krakowski, Alan Cumming, Fred Armisen, Kristin Chenoweth, and Jaime Camill—and in contrast to recent Hollywood musicals like La La Land, all the film and TV actors here can genuinely sing. My favorite performance, though, was from Ariana DeBose, a true triple threat, in the role of a schoolteacher who becomes romantically entangled with Keegan-Michael Key’s character. If you only watch one song from the show, make it her delightfully silly tap number “With All of Your Heart.” —Sophie Murguia, associate editor
Another favorite show of mine this fall has been Hulu’s comedy series Only Murders in the Building. Also featuring Martin Short—this time in a starring role alongside Steve Martin and Selena Gomez—the show revolves around three residents of an upscale Manhattan apartment building who decide to investigate the murder of one of their neighbors. They soon start a true-crime podcast based on their experience, but things get complicated when it becomes clear that Gomez’s character, Mabel, may know more about the murdered man than she lets on. The podcasting elements of the show are my least favorite—we’re far enough into the true-crime boom that many of the jokes feel tired—but the three lead actors have great chemistry, and I’m finding myself more and more invested in the series each week. —S.M.