On my radar: Gretchen Rubin's cultural highlights

The American writer and happiness guru on Dolly Parton, the power of hearing – and focusing on wellbeing during the pandemic

Born in 1965, Gretchen Rubin is a bestselling author and speaker who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. Best known for writing on the themes of happiness and wellbeing, she published The Happiness Project in 2009 and, most recently, Outer Order, Inner Calm in 2019. Her podcast, Happier With Gretchen, which she co-hosts with her sister Elizabeth Craft, has won several awards, including a Webby earlier this year. She lives in New York with her husband and two daughters.

1. Music

Mule Skinner Blues by Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton.
Dolly Parton – ‘a secular saint’. Photograph: ABC Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television/Getty Images

I came across it randomly, this old, almost yodelling song covered by Dolly Parton in 1970. It’s a country classic and has this refrain of “hey hey” – If you need a lift, it will make you happy. I love Dolly Parton. I feel like she’s one of the few universals. All of the books that she’s donated over the years for her Imagination Library… She’s done so much for the people of her state and country – and now the world with her donations to vaccine research. She’s a secular saint, in a way.

2. Podcast

Twenty Thousand Hertz

Artwork from the Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast website showing a man walking down the street listening to the sounds around him.
Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast – ‘explores noise and special effects’. Photograph: https://www.20k.org/

One of the ways I work off my restless energy from all the Zoom meetings and not travelling is by going for long walks in Central Park while listening to a terrific podcast. I’m loving this one. Beautifully produced, it’s all about the power of hearing, exploring noise pollution, special effects in movies and so on… It really awakened my sense of hearing and my appreciation of the auditory world, and made me much more aware.

3. Fiction

Wild Seed by Octavia E Butler

Author Octavia Butler poses near some of her novels at University Book Store in Seattle.
Author Octavia Butler at University Book Store in Seattle. Photograph: Joshua Trujillo/AP

Nothing makes me happier than coming across an exciting new author. I love science fiction, and I discovered Octavia E Butler this year. Wild Seed is the first [chronologically] in her Patternist series. It’s sci-fi fantasy and makes you think about human nature and history. The four books cover freedom, control, science, history – all the big themes. Some are about enslavement, others mind-control, and alien species controlling another species. Each can stand alone, but I read them all, and in the preferred order.

4. TV

Russian Doll (Netflix)

Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll.
Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll. Photograph: Netflix

This is a comedy-drama about the meaning of life and relationships. The main character is a game developer who keeps dying and reliving her 36th birthday and slowly begins to understand her own life. It sounds like the story would quickly run out of steam, but they’ve figured out a way to explode it open that’s really surprising. Natasha Lyonne stars, and created it with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, an eminent creative team. It’s just very thought-provoking and incredibly binge-able – I loved it so much I watched it twice!

5. Place

Metropolitan Museum of Art

A visitor wearing a facemask at A New Look at Old Masters, a newly installed gallery for European Paintings, on 10 December 2020, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
A visitor to A New Look at Old Masters, a newly installed gallery for European Paintings, on 10 December 2020, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

At the start of 2020, I decided I was going to visit the Met every single day. And I did that until it shut down in March because of Covid, but now it’s open again – only five days a week and with cut-back hours but it feels like such a treat after not being able to go for so long. They’re very careful about making sure people don’t crowd. It’s their 150th anniversary and this was supposed to be a huge year of celebration, with the show Making the Met 1870-2020, full of all the greatest hits.

6. Nonfiction

Hunger by Roxane Gay

Author Roxane Gay.
Author Roxane Gay – ‘a powerful voice’. Photograph: Jennifer Silverberg/The Guardian

This is American writer Roxane Gay’s memoir about her relationship with her weight and it’s so searching it really makes you think about your own identity, expression and relationships. Gay’s struggle with her weight has been an important element in her life and identity. The book looks at that and also tries to understand her childhood. Gay has such a powerful voice. I have read a couple of things by her, and I follow her on Twitter, where she’s hilarious, but I feel like this one went the deepest. It’s a super compelling read.


Kadish Morris

The GuardianTramp

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