Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 24, 2016)

20 reviews, and I seem to be gradually getting back on track with podcasts. Only 26 episodes to go before I’m caught up with my subscriptions. Also, I finally finished Three Moments of an Explosion and can now finally begin writing up my favourites of 2015. So, you know, look for that eventually. These things take time.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: “Listen the Birds” — There are two or three tiny stories in Three Moments of an Explosion that are formatted as scripts for movie trailers. The trailer is a medium that Miéville is particularly adept at, it turns out. Because, a trailer introduces a premise and a sense of mystery or suspense, and leaves you with lingering uncertainties, so that you might like to see the film. And that’s kind of the same way that Miéville’s stories work. I don’t mean to say that they end unsatisfyingly, but there’s a sense in which resolution is sort of beside the point. The stories in Three Moments are all sort of like trailers, actually. But of the ones that actually go for that explicitly, this is far and away the best. I’d love to see the trailer produced. It would take a profound genius to actually make the movie, though.

China Miéville: “A Mount” — Occasionally, a writer manages to reproduce my own thought processes on the page, with added clarity and purpose. This guy does it an awful lot, including here. It makes me very, very jealous.

China Miéville: “The Design” — The final story in the collection, and one of the most remarked-upon in reviews. It is one of the most simple stories in its telling, but one of the most beautiful for the relationship between its narrator and its protagonist. It also contains one of the most beautiful sentences I’ve read recently, which will not spoil the wonderful premise of the story by my quoting it here: “I sat alone in the kitchen, in a world in which beautiful, elegantly wrought secrets lie hidden less than an inch from sight.”

Television

Mildred Pierce: Parts 4-5 — In its last two parts (which aired together on HBO), Mildred Pierce finally becomes one of those Todd Haynes works that makes you go, as Marc Maron put it, “Shit, I’ve gotta reckon with this.” Now that Veda’s grown up into an entirely different actor (Evan Rachel Wood), she’s an amazing character. Still deeply frustrating, but in a good way. Without revealing too much, there is a scene in this in which we watch several people listening to the radio, and it is the most compelling moment in the entire series. Mildred Pierce is a flawed television program, but since there are only five episodes, and two of them are these excellent ones, I’d recommend it for sure. Pick of the week.

QI: “Medieval and Macabre” — Apparently, Air Singapore has “corpse cupboards” on their planes to store people who die in-flight.

Doctor Who: “Paradise Towers,” episode 1 — It’s been a while since I sat down with some ropey old classic Doctor Who. This is unambiguously fantastic. Much of it looks like a crap 80s video, but the premise is super and the acting is frequently hilarious — and not in the way that classic Doctor Who sometimes is, where you expect that the actors aren’t in in the joke. As a general rule, the McCoy era is one of my favourites. For all of its shortcomings in terms of production (let me reiterate that this looks completely terrible), the writing was more consistently sharp than in any other era and its taxpayer-funded anti-Thatcherism is a wonder to behold. There will be more to say specifically when I’ve finished the serial. But for now, suffice it to say that it’s one of the funniest stories I’ve seen that isn’t “City of Death” or “The Ribos Operation.”

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “New Music From Ray LaMontagne, Lucius, A Bowie Cover From Glen Hansard, More” — This is essential for Hansard’s “Ashes to Ashes” cover alone. It’s at the beginning. Just start listening to this episode to hear it, then keep it going, because there’s a bunch of awesome, huge sounding pop on it by people like Lucius and Theo and the Get Down Stay Down. I’d heard of neither of them, but loved both.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Giant Foam Finger: How Do You Choose Your Favourite Team?” — This is PCHH’s occasional sports themed edition. I listen to these not because I’m a sports person at all, but mostly just because they show up in my subscriptions. I do enjoy them, though, because it’s not “sports people talking sports” — it’s an NPR music guy and the lead blogger for Code Switch talking sports. (Everybody go check out Code Switch. It’s NPR’s blog about race and culture, and it’s really good.) Stephen Thompson and Gene Demby are such culturey types that they’re more interested in sports as a phenomenon than as an actual thing with its own mechanics to discuss. This one’s basically about the concept of fandom, which I’m totally on board with. So basically, this is the proof that there’s nothing Pop Culture Happy Hour can do to lose me.

Fresh Air: “From ‘Lost’ To HBO’s ‘Leftovers’ Show Creators Embrace The Unknown” — Damon Lindelof is a thoughtful guy, but I’m still not going to watch The Leftovers. No matter how much awesome, moody Max Richter music there is in it.

Slate’s Culture Gabfest: “Lazarus Edition” — I think I’m just about through my Bowie mourning podcast playlist. (Though you may have noticed that I’m not reviewing any music lately. That’s because it’s still pretty much non-stop Blackstar.) This is the perfect example of how this podcast is less fun than PCHH. Everybody present has smart, interesting things to say — especially Carl Wilson: the best music journo in all the land. But they don’t seem to have any interest in what the others are saying, or what it says about those people’s tastes and personalities. This is fine. It’s really only ever fine.

All Songs Considered: “Our Top Discoveries At globalFEST 2016” — A solid 8/10 for picking interesting music from all over the world. About a 5/10 for having anything interesting to say about it.

The Memory Palace: “Below, from Above” — This starts off as “Nate DiMeo does 99% Invisible,” which actually works really well. But no podcast except this one could conjure the labour and misery of working for weeks at a time at the bottom of the East River, building the Brooklyn Bridge. Also, it’s nice to hear that DiMeo has been able to hire another producer the help out with the audio. The more time DiMeo can spend writing, the better. 

Song Exploder: “MGMT — Time to Pretend” — I don’t know this band, but the snippet at the end of the last episode pulled me in. This is fun. It’s especially interesting to see how the final version of the song evolved from an earlier version that the band made on a crap laptop in college.

99% Invisible: “The Fresno Drop” — This is a story about how credit cards started with an experiment in Fresno. It goes through a bunch of different early iterations of credit cards and why they worked and didn’t. It’s a lot more interesting than I’m making it seem. But if you listen to this show, you’ve learned by now that everything in the world is interesting.

The Heart: “The Wrath of the Potluck” — A charming, funny story of a dude getting what he wants at exactly the wrong moment. As always, trying to write about The Heart is making me bashful. Just, everybody go listen to an episode of The Heart.

99% Invisible: “Fish Cannon” — I think I’d heard about the Salmon Cannon on John Oliver, but I didn’t know about the opposition from anti-dam activists who claim that it’s treating a symptom of a larger problem. Really interesting. Although, Roman Mars does this thing sometimes where he starts an episode talking about a totally different thing than the episode is about, and when the episode is about shooting fish out of cannons, you wonder why he wouldn’t lead with that.

Reply All: “Raising the Bar” — I love this show’s “Yes Yes No” segment, and I also love how frequently “Yes Yes No” involves Alex Blumberg wading unknowingly into the most horrible, hateful parts of the internet and subsequently feeling dirty and awful about humanity. But the actual story in this episode is one of Reply All‘s best: the tale of why Twitter’s only black engineer in a leadership position quit. It’s for all the reasons you might expect, by the way, but this story (reported by the brilliant Alex Goldman) dives into the actual math of diversity in workplaces and emerges with an incredibly compelling conclusion. Pick of the week.

Reply All: “PSA: Hidden Trove” — Even when these guys don’t have a story and they’re just telling you about a thing they used to make for a couple of minutes, they’re still entertaining.

Serial: “The Captors” — I love that there is now a popular platform whereby a great journalist can go into way more detail on a story than journalists are normally afforded. But I can’t say that the details of Bowe Bergdahl’s story are interesting me as much as Adnan Syed’s. I’m sort of waiting for the part where he gets home and finds himself the subject of intense controversy. I guess it’s weird that I find that more interesting than the story of how he survived captivity, but I’m really starting to feel like the part of the story that takes place in Afghanistan has run its course, now. All the same, I got more out of this episode than the previous one because the Haqqani network is really interesting and I didn’t know anything about it.

Serial: “Announcement: New Schedule” — It’s no “PSA: Hidden Trove,” but what is?

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