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What's making us happy: A guide to your weekend reading and viewing.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan and Nora Zehetner as Laura in <em>Brick</em>.
kpa Publicity Stills
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Alamy Stock Photo
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan and Nora Zehetner as Laura in Brick.

This week, we witnessed a gray whale give birth, learned how to stay on track with New Year's goals, and found a way to declutter.

Here's what the NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour crew was paying attention to — and what you should check out this weekend.

Babel, or the Necessity of Violence by R.F. Kuang

Babel, or the Necessity of Violence by R. F. Kuang book cover shows a black and white and landscape with a shinning white tower in the center. Title and author in golden yellow capitalized font.
/ Harper Voyager
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Harper Voyager

I did not want to have to explain this book to everybody, but I find myself in the position of being able to bring you this wonderful novel that is a little hard to explain. The book is Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution by R.F. Kuang. It is a historical fantasy novel, and it's been compared to Philip Pullman's book, The Golden Compass. It's kind of easy to see why, as the novel takes place in a fictional Oxford University.

This book has a system of magic, which is so special and so well told. In the novel at Oxford there is a specific place called Babel, which is built on translation and the power of London, which is still sort of the head of the empire in Victorian England. It is made of these silver bars that are imbued with the powers of translation. So, if a word is somewhat similar in one language but doesn't quite mean the same thing, the distance between those words create a magic which is imbued into the bars.

Was this book made for me? Sure, it was. But I also would argue it is made for you. And here's why: You know how there are some epic books that you sort of go right through? This is one you're going to want to take a little bite of one time after another, and you're going to want to read little parts of it. You're going to want to think about the magic, and then you're going to want to think about words, what is the magic in your life of translation? This book is stunning. The author R.F. Kuang is a wonderful fantasy writer who's also got some other books that you should check out. But this is the one that just knocked my socks off. Barrie Hardymon

Sultana's Dream by Begum Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain

Blue cover with yellow medallion with illustrated women in the center and illustrations surrounding. Title in white font.
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Tara Books

There is clearly a theme here. I watched Women Talking and I went back to one of my favorite books. ... It's called Sultana's Dream. It's written by Begum Rokheya, also known as Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain. She wrote the book in 1905 in English. She was a Bengali Muslim feminist, and she started a girl's school, which is still there in Calcutta, where I grew up.

She wrote this book and it was published in the Indian lady's magazine. And it's basically about a world — a feminist utopia called Ladyland — in which women run everything and the men stay at home in seclusion, which is like the purdah system that a lot of Muslim women lived under. The science fiction part comes in because it is set in this very high-tech universe where they have these machines that make farming easy. There are also these flying cars that make traveling more efficient and it's just so beautiful.

It's a beautiful compliment to the film Women Talking directed by Sarah Polley and to think that it was written in 1905 in English by a Bengali Muslim woman. It just reminded me that we're all in this together and we've been in this together for centuries. Bedatri D. Choudhury

NPR's podcast La última copa/The Last Cup

This is a little bit of a home team pick. NPR's own wonderful Jasmine Garsd Garcia has used to be one of the hosts of Alt.Latino, has been doing a lot of really interesting and wonderful work in podcasts. And I have recently been listening to her recent podcast, The Last Cup, which is about Lionel Messi and his sort of journey through being this incredibly powerful and important soccer/football star without ever having won the World Cup for Argentina. Jasmine had the presence of mind to be making this in the lead up to the World Cup so, there's sort of something particularly magical about listening to it.

Now, I think I started this podcast after the end of the World Cup, so I sort of spoiled the ending for myself. Although Jasmine didn't know the ending. It is about sort of his history in Argentina, but it's also about Argentina. It's about Argentina's relationship with soccer. It's about Jasmine's relationship with soccer, growing up very near a soccer stadium. It's about her family coming to the United States from Argentina when she was young. And one of the really cool things about this podcast is that they put it out in both English and Spanish. Linda Holmes

Brick

I'm always in the mood for a good whodunit, murder mystery, whatever. But Glass Onion has definitely made me even more into it as of late. ... I decided to revisit Rian Johnson's directorial debut, Brick, which is so good. It's been, I don't know, probably a decade, since the last time I watched the film? I went into it completely forgetting pretty much everything that happened, which is actually the way I like to go into my whodunits, just completely forgetting who did it so I can relive trying to figure out who did it.

But what I love about this film — it's a neo-noir murder mystery that's set in a California suburb against the backdrop of a high school. So most of the characters are supposed to be high school students. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Brendan, who's this kid who's investigating the murder of his ex-girlfriend. It's got clever dialogue, comical bits, lots of twists. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character keeps getting beat up in the most comical ways, and it's kind of the blueprint for all of the Rian Johnson films that he made afterwards. You can see that DNA in this film. This was a slam dunk for me. I'm glad I re-watched it. You can rent it on pretty much all the major streaming sites. —Aisha Harris

More recommendations from the Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter

by Glen Weldon

Taliesin Jaffe (Percy de Rolo), Marisha Ray (Keyleth), Sam Riegel (Scanlan Shorthalt), Ashley Johnson (Pike Trickfoot), Travis Willingham (Grog Strongjaw), Laura Bailey (Vex'ahlia), Liam O'Brien (Vax'ildan), Sunil Malhotra (Gilmore) in <em>The Legend of Vox Machina.</em>
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Amazon Prime Video
Taliesin Jaffe (Percy de Rolo), Marisha Ray (Keyleth), Sam Riegel (Scanlan Shorthalt), Ashley Johnson (Pike Trickfoot), Travis Willingham (Grog Strongjaw), Laura Bailey (Vex'ahlia), Liam O'Brien (Vax'ildan), Sunil Malhotra (Gilmore) in The Legend of Vox Machina.

The second season of the animated series The Legend of Vox Machina is coming to Amazon Prime on January 20th. I liked the first season a lot, even if it didn't approach my hopeless, heedless love for Critical Role, the "nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons & Dragons" web series it's based on. Season 2 is a notable step up – it's faster, funnier and more dynamically/thrillingly animated. Plus more dragons. So. I mean. (Note: Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters and also distributes certain NPR content.)

I'm working my way through the unabridged audiobooks in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R. R. Martin. They're read by the late actor Roy Dotrice, and I get now why he's such a controversial narrator. Dude makes some big, puzzling vocal choices, and uh ... not all of them work. (His Brienne angers up the blood and his Arya, in particular, is a hate crime.) But as someone who's recorded a couple of audiobooks myself, I gotta admire the sheer tenacious grit involved (17+ hours per book!), and the Guinness Book of World Records versatility. And as someone who's mostly stuck to the TV show and the wikis, it's nice to get a deeper sense of just how much mind-boggling, world-building detail Martin has poured into this endeavor. Without those damned wiki popups.

Sequence is one of those board games that sat on the game shelf of pretty much every house I ever visited, growing up. No one ever busted it out though, so I came to think of it as a weirdly ubiquitous element of '80s decor, like those giant wooden salad utensils people used to hang on their walls. Finally tried it over the holiday break, and it fit the bill perfectly. Understand: We're still struggling to figure out Wingspan, with its maddeningly European "Every turn consists of four phases, and in each phase you can choose one of four actions, and each action ..." rule set. Sequence could not be simpler – cards, board, chips, go. A nice mix of luck and something approaching strategy. (And before you go calling me basic: Look, we're gonna conquer Wingspan next weekend, as soon as we can fire up one of the (30 minutes?! Come on!) YouTube tutorials.)

My husband and I made a cassoulet for Christmas Eve dinner. We followed this NYT recipe by Melissa Clark. It's a two-day affair, and it's not for the faint of heart (literally, because it's duck confit plus sausage plus more sausage plus pork plus lamb plus more duck fat – sure, there's some heart-healthy beans in the mix too, but it's been weeks and I can still feel my blood congealing). It is the perfect meal for a cold dark winter's night, though. Be warned: Flavor and consistency-wise, every bite packs the density of a white dwarf star. Seriously. Spacetime bends around this dish, is how dense it is. Serve yourself how much you think you can eat, then halve it. Trust me.

And finally a request:

We're going to be talking about the beloved sitcom Cheers on an upcoming episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour, and we'd like to get your thoughts on what, specifically, to talk about. If you've got a question for us to tackle, send us a voice message to pchh@npr.org. Thanks!


NPR's Pilar Galvan adapted the Pop Culture Happy Hour segment "What's Making Us Happy" into a digital page. If you like these suggestions, consider signing up for our newsletter to get recommendations every week. And listen to Pop Culture Happy Hour on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barrie Hardymon
Barrie Hardymon is the Senior Editor at NPR's Weekend Edition, and the lead editor for books. You can hear her on the radio talking everything from Middlemarch to middle grade novels, and she's also a frequent panelist on NPR's podcasts It's Been A Minute and Pop Culture Happy Hour. She went to Juilliard to study viola, ended up a cashier at the Strand, and finally got a degree from Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars which qualified her solely for work in public radio. She lives and reads in Washington, DC.
Bedatri D. Choudhury
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.
Pilar Galvan
Pilar Galvan (she/her) is a reporter whose work focuses on the intersections of media and culture. She is passionate about film, music and sports. She recently graduated from Yale University where she double majored in anthropology, specializing in ethnomusicology, and art, concentrating in digital media. She previously worked in digital media at art institutions including MoMA PS1 in Queens, NY, and the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal.