On my radar: Carrie Brownstein’s cultural highlights

The Sleater-Kinney riot grrrl and Portlandia creator on sci-fi, Steve Gunn’s guitar-playing and the joy of simple curry

Born in Seattle, Carrie Brownstein studied sociolinguistics at Olympia College in Washington, centre of riot grrrl, the feminist art movement. There she founded rock band Sleater-Kinney in 1994 with Corin Tucker. They worked with several drummers before finding Janet Weiss in 1996, and released their third, breakthrough album, Dig Me Out, in 1997. Following 2005’s The Woods, the band took a backseat while Brownstein wrote music criticism for NPR, co-fronted punk band Wild Flag, and conceived Emmy-winning sketch show Portlandia with Fred Armisen. In 2015, Sleater-Kinney reunited to make No Cities to Love, and Brownstein released her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. The book is out now in paperback (Virago £7.99).

1 | Book
Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith
‘A beautiful, trenchant exploration of divided and whole selves’: Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. Photograph: Brian Dowling/Getty Images

Two young women growing up in London both aspire to be dancers, but only one of them has talent. The novel tracks their childhood and a huge schism in their friendship. One character works for a version of MTV, which seems like such a bygone era. I was drawn to Zadie’s exploration of this time, when these structures seemed very impervious to change – that hubris before the fall. I always like those contexts. It is a beautiful, trenchant exploration of divided and whole selves, and the ways a sense of partiality determines what we seek. Searching for completion in others is both an act of self-preservation and self-obfuscation. Plus there’s so much about movement, music, bodies, and all the ways we perform selfhood, girlhood and friendship.

2 | Music
Eyes on the Lines by Steve Gunn

Steve Gunn
‘It has such a soaring quality ... my favourite guitar-playing in the past decade’: Steve Gunn’s Eyes on the Lines. Photograph: Constance Mensh

This year has been an embarrassment of riches: Blood Orange, Solange, Angel Olsen, Beyoncé, Young Thug, Bon Iver, Vince Staples, Anderson .Paak. But this Steve Gunn record stands out. It has such a soaring quality – I think it’s some of my favourite guitar-playing in the past decade. There’s certainly precedent to it – Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead – but it’s unique. Because I don’t listen to much guitar-based music, I forget that it’s an emotional instrument. Every once in a while I’m reminded that we don’t need to keep deconstructing and manipulating it in order for it to tell a story. That’s what this record made me feel – the simplicity and primacy of the story. I was almost relieved by it. I listen to it every Sunday when I read the paper.

3 | Exhibition
Radio Imagination, Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, California

Artwork by Connie Samaras, inspired by the science-fiction writer Octavia Butler, on show as part of Radio Imagination.
Artwork by Connie Samaras, inspired by the science-fiction writer Octavia Butler, on show as part of Radio Imagination. Photograph: Connie Samaras / Armory Center for the Arts

Admittedly, I am a little late coming to sci-fi. I went to this Octavia Butler show and realised that there was this world that millions of people are drawn to, and here was someone that I’d never heard of – this award-winning woman, one of the best known in the field. I felt this complete lack of awareness about somebody who seemed to completely resonate with my own explorations in music and writing. The exhibit finds a handful of artists creating works inspired by Butler’s writing. Since so much of her work is about freedom and self-examination, the pieces take on modes of expansion, both internal and external. It got me completely down this track of reading Butler and also Ursula K Le Guin.

4 | Television

‘Like an epic poem’: Thandie Newton stars in Westworld.
‘Like an epic poem’: Thandie Newton stars in Westworld. Photograph: HBO

In a television landscape that has become granular in its storytelling, Westworld came in like an epic poem. I love narratives that tackle universal themes placed within small, precise contexts, but occasionally I like to see grand themes be sprawling. More and more, science fiction feels like a prescient and progressive take on humanism and futurism. I don’t know how to dissect the present tense without the lens that science fiction and absurdity provide. It’s dystopian sometimes, but there’s potentially an optimism that permeates it – I am fascinated by a belief in the power of imagination, and the need to protect it. Although Westworld speaks to the aforementioned, I watch it for pure escapism at this point.

5 | Podcast
BackStory With the American History Guys

BackStory With the American History Guys.
‘I like getting a sense of both emergence and provenance’: BackStory With the American History Guys. Photograph: handout

Each week these three history professors explore a current event through the events of past centuries, which I find strangely reassuring. Everything feels so unprecedented right now, and there’s a heaviness to something that feels brand new. The slightly alarmist way that the media report events gives news an urgency and a direness. Not that things aren’t urgent or dire, but precedence makes things feel part of a pattern, and even if that’s a pernicious pattern, it’s helpful for comprehension. There is so much that we take for granted as being intrinsic to our lives, not just technologies, but entire concepts. I like getting a sense of both emergence and provenance because it forces me to examine notions of fundamentalism and certainty.

6 | Restaurant
Hat Yai, Portland, Oregon

Hat Yai restaurant, Portland, Oregon.
‘Delilciously simple’: Hat Yai restaurant, Portland, Oregon. Photograph: http://hatyaipdx.com

I decided to start cutting out the superfluous. Not that I have anything against social media, but I stopped looking at Twitter and Instagram because I felt like it was becoming white noise and getting in the way of retention of information and concentration. I’ve streamlined my habits in order to create regimen and structure, because otherwise I feel like I’m dabbling constantly. It’s almost a system overload, so even with eating I’ve become very habitual. I’m trying to create routine and habit, almost as a form of meditation. This Thai restaurant serves a really delicious, simple menu: fried chicken, curry, roti. And that seems like the perfect antidote to the overly fussy, precious presentation of cuisine. I eat probably half my meals there every week.


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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