Omnireviewer (week of Sept. 25, 2016)

If you’re interested in being frustrated by me more frequently and for shorter periods at a time, I’m now doing this on Tumblr as well. I post the reviews as I write them. I’ve got three followers already! Two of whom I don’t even know IRL!

17 reviews.

Literature, etc.

The Book of Tobit — I read the version of this that can be found in the “Shorter Books of the Apocrypha” volume of the New English Bible, along with the commentary provided therein. I know nothing about whether or not this is a good way to read Tobit. It’s just what my library had most conveniently at hand. It’s the first Biblical reading I’ve ever done, aside from a brief teenage tear through Revelation. Odd choices, I’m sure. An apocryphal text and a fever dream. But I’m now the proud owner of a copy of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, and I understand that the demon from this Biblical story makes a substantial appearance there. Might as well do my homework. So, how was it? Well, I learned that the Grateful Dead got their name from one of the folktales sourced in Tobit. Also near the start, Tobit is blinded when a sparrow poops in his eyes. Also there’s a bit where the archangel Raphael appears in disguise, and talks about his friend “Gabael.” Seriously, Raphael? You might as well have said “Schmabriel.” You are bad at subterfuge, and I bet your disguise is just Groucho Marx glasses. Also a huge fish tries to swallow a man’s foot, but the book never says whether it tried to bite it off first. Odd phrasing. Very hard to swallow a foot when it is still attached to a leg. So basically, laffs o’plenty.

Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale: Batman: The Long Halloween — Superhero comics aren’t really my speed, these days. But a friend leant this to me and I LOVED it. It’s less of a conventional superhero story than it is a crime drama, and its clearest reference points outside of the Batman canon come from The Godfather and The Silence of the Lambs. Tim Sale’s art is both stylishly noirish and practical in its storytelling — many things are illustrated that did not actually happen, but it is always clear what they are. There are a lot of bad guys in this story, and while shoehorning in multiple antagonists has hurt movies like Spider-Man 3 and The Dark Knight Rises, Loeb finds a way to make each iconic villain’s appearance serve the main thrust of the narrative. Indeed, the structural device of “iconography of a major holiday + recognizable villain + grisly murder by an unknown hand” in each issue makes for nearly perfect serialized storytelling — especially when the structure begins to break down in the Riddler chapter. I laid down on the couch to start reading this early on a Sunday afternoon, and did not get up until I was finished. That’s the mark of a good suspense story. Pick of the week.

Tanya Gold: “A Goose in a Dress” — This Harper’s feature from last year addresses the shitty side of the culture war by way of lacerating, hilarious food criticism. A selection of top-tier New York restaurants is made to exemplify what is wrong with America’s cultural elites, and products made for ostensibly refined tastes are exposed as a consequence of intense anti-intellectualism. This can apply to so many elements of “high culture.” Intellectual laziness is easily bred in environments where an artistic idiom’s value is held up as unquestionable (see also: classical music, Shakespeare). This is why you cannot learn anything worthwhile about the world from reading Gramophone magazine, but you can learn plenty from reading reviews of Kendrick Lamar records. Gold’s piece is the necessary (and hugely satisfying) negative side of poptimism applied to food. For the positive spin, look no further than the Sporkful podcast: a labour of love on behalf of the full spectrum of culinary experience. This feature is incredible. Read it. There’s a line about Charles Foster Kane that is so brilliant you’ll eat your computer.

Adrian Tomine: Shortcomings — I don’t quite know how to respond to this. I was totally involved in the story and completely believed the characters, but I came out of it without a clear sense of what I was meant to take from it. I’ve never been one of those people who writes off a story because of unsympathetic characters. Which, you just can’t be if you’re going to get anything out of this. The protagonist is an unrepentant jerk with zero self-awareness. But I feel like it’s going to stick with me. And I like that feeling — when there are just thoughts swirling around, and eventually they may coalesce into a broth. And that’s basically what this blog is: just a record of that process in something close to real-time. But where this comic is concerned, it isn’t happening fast enough for me to have anything much to say. I do think it’s probably very good. It’s definitely engrossing, in a soapy kind of way.

Television

Last Week Tonight: September 25, 2016 — One joke format that I love when it is delivered well is the “ruthless overkill” joke. John Oliver saying “fuck you” to an eight-year-old Ron Howard is exactly what I mean by that. Also, this show’s occasional compilations of ads for WCBS News features are always hysterical and remind me why I mostly hate television. The main course was especially relevant since I watched this immediately after subjecting myself to the first presidential debate. More than any specific factual misrepresentation or shameless dogwhistle, I found myself enraged at the general tenor of the debate, which was light on policy and heavy on accusations of scandal. This helps put a lot of that in perspective, but it is still absolutely not what I want to hear the candidates talk about. And I think we can expect more from exactly one of the two.  

Games

The Last Door: Season 1 (Collector’s Edition) — This game offers proof of concept remarkably quickly. In its opening scene, it shows you something extremely disquieting, rendered in its self-described “lo-fi” 8-bit aesthetic, and the juxtaposition of that terror with the lack of detail in its illustration is intensely effective. It’s like what Scott McCloud writes about the power of cartoons: you can impose yourself onto a figure without much detail. It’s a tremendously effective technique to draw on in a horror game, because it makes the terror that much more visceral. The key reference point in most reviews seems to be H.P. Lovecraft, but as ever, his influence is overestimated compared to that of Poe. Sub out crows for ravens and you’re halfway there. Lovecraft rears his head in the form of a Thing That Lies Just Beyond Our Senses That Is Incomprehensible And Ruthless, but the aesthetic of this is firmly in Poe’s Romantic idiom. It is so unsettling. I’ll play through the second season as soon as I get the chance.

Music

Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter — You know, it scratches an itch. Country music is a sometimes food, but Margo Price is the real deal: a hard living, mistake making modern human with a killer band and a capacity to express hard personal truths with directness. I’m not sure I love this as much as some of Price’s biggest fans, but — and I never thought I’d say this — it’s possible that I’ve listened to more country music than some of this record’s cheerleaders. So it isn’t revelatory, so much as merely excellent. I love “Hands of Time.” This has no weak tracks, but that one is an instant classic.

Miles Davis: On The Corner — Jeez, let me tell you, listening to this in the grocery store makes for some odd juxtapositions. Hearing John McLaughlin soloing over tablas and Miles’ wah-wah treated trumpet while you sort through the onions for a firm one just feels wrong. In spite of its prosaic title, this album isn’t the sort of thing that pairs well with real life. The music of On the Corner sounds like it couldn’t have happened in a place, no matter how hard that title tries to wrangle it down to earth. It is artificial music — fictional music. No doubt that’s the result of Miles, a person who came up in a musical idiom where whatever happens in front of the microphones is what goes on the record, actively swerving as far as he could to the other end of the spectrum. Bitches Brew may be more adventurous; Jack Johnson may be more rock and roll. But On the Corner marks the farthest point out on Miles’ electric peninsula. I love it. It might be my favourite Miles Davis record.

Podcasts

Radiolab: “The Primitive Streak” — Jad is clearly not taking his vacation seriously. Still. This is one of the best Radiolab stories in recent memory, maybe partially because it strongly resembles the Radiolab from two or three years ago that I remember so fondly. No media outlet does the “science deals with a difficult ethical question” story as well as Radiolab does. And good luck finding one with such glorious eerie synth music.

The Gist: “Rapid Response: The First Presidential Debate” — It’s as good as it can be. Of course I’m going to listen to recaps like these, but I’m just tired. What’s there to say anymore?

NPR Politics Podcast: “The First Presidential Debate” — This podcast is incredibly useful, in that it features people who I can stand to listen to talking about people I can’t stand to listen to.

In Our Time: “Zeno’s Paradoxes” — This is marvellous, easily the best episode of In Our Time that I’ve heard. It is propelled forward by Melvyn Bragg’s total fascination with the hysterical, raving absurdities of paradoxes like Achilles and the tortoise, and Zeno’s arrow. His guests are articulate enough to make you genuinely think twice about the notion that a line could possibly be made of discrete points. This sort of abstraction is totally fascinating to me. References to the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who are just a bonus. Okay, that’s the end of the review, but this made me remember a story I feel compelled to relate. Once, way back in grade 11 chemistry, our teacher Ms. Agnew was trying to demonstrate pipetting. The chemical reaction she was undertaking required a super specific amount of a solute to be added to a beaker of some solvent or another. She asked for a volunteer to attempt the feat, and when only the usual suspects raised their hands (yours truly, and a few of my friends), she forced the stoner in the back row to step up. I can’t remember his name. Let’s call him Jordan. Just a listless troglodyte of a teenager. He dragged his knuckles up to the front of the room and started going through the motions of the demonstration, as Ms. Agnew instructed. When he had just about added enough of the solute and the solvent had still failed to change colour, like it would with the proper amount, Ms. Agnew told him “just add half a drop.” Jordan froze. He turned his head slowly, and uttered more words than any of us had ever heard him say before: “you can’t have half a drop.” Agnew brushed him off and told him to just try and add the tiniest bit more to the solution, but he wouldn’t be dissuaded from this question that now occupied him. “No, wait — it’s not possible to have ‘half a drop.’” Agnew asked what he meant. Thus began the pantomime. Jordan put his right hand to his forehead and raised his left index finger, eyes clamped shut as if in mental agony. “A ‘drop’ is however much water falls out of that thing. If I try for ‘half a drop,’ that’s still just a drop. A smaller drop.” Ms. Agnew was running out of class time, but this was a train she couldn’t help chasing. “No, the pipette can dispense sort of average-sized drops, and if you’re really careful, it can do half-drops.” Jordan would not relent. The rest of our class was spent watching this debate, which was not unlike the conversation on this episode of In Our Time. After 15 years of semi-sentience, this ontological impossibility had hit Jordan in the brain so hard that it roused him from catatonia. It was a thing to behold. Pick of the week. 

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist Part 5: The Strange Love of Barbara Stanwyck: Robert Taylor” — When this podcast promises “secret and/or forgotten” stories from Hollywood (god, how I wish she’d quit with the and/or thing) it certainly delivers. This episode reveals not just how a now forgotten actor typifies the attitudes of blacklist-era Hollywood conservatives — it reveals how the HUAC hearings may have been the direct result of his participation. This is consistently outstanding stuff.

The West Wing Weekly: “Special Interim Session (with Aaron Sorkin)” — I don’t really understand why this is now a member of Radiotopia, aside from it being Hrishikesh Hirway’s other show. It’s not story driven or audio rich: it’s really just a discussion show, and a niche one at that. Which isn’t to say it isn’t good. As a huge West Wing fan, I really enjoyed this discussion of the gap between the first and second seasons with Sorkin himself. I’ll probably listen again when they discuss my particular favourite episodes. (“Two Cathedrals” is coming up pretty soon.) So, all well and good. Just, it’s going to be Radiotopia’s strange fish from here on out.

Code Switch: “The Code Switch Guide To Handling Casual Racism” — Code Switch inherits a proven formula from On the Media. The panel gives several examples of times when they either have or have not called out casual racism when it occurs, and use that as a starting point to figure out when it’s best to say something, versus just leaving it alone. News you can use. Code Switch is awesome.

All Songs Considered: “Brian Eno Sings, New Dirty Projectors, Leonard Cohen, More” — I didn’t love the track by the Gift that features Brian Eno the first time I heard it. I found the first two minutes generic, and it only picked up when Eno took the lead vocals. I’ve since listened to it a few more times and seen the video, which is amazing, and I’ve warmed to it enough that I might check out the album. The Gift has a female lead singer who sings in a baritone register. It’s an amazing sound. And that moment when Eno comes in hits me right in the Here Come the Warm Jets centre of my brain. Dirty Projectors’ new song is a four-minute abyss gaze. I loved it. And oh boy, am I ever excited for the new Leonard Cohen record. I’ve skipped a couple, but the title track from You Want it Darker is brilliant.

Desert Island Discs: “Joyce DiDonato” — Considering what my job is these days, I don’t know why I decided I wanted to listen to an interview with an opera singer in my spare time. (These days my job is producing a podcast/radio show of opera-related interviews.) But Joyce is special. Before I heard her recital disc of music from Naples, I’d never really been wowed by an opera singer before. Operas, yes, but never a specific musician. She is probably my favourite classical singer working right now, and it is so wonderful to hear about how her total virtuosity was built on a foundation of hard graft as much or more than natural ability. She’s coming to Vancouver soon, and I have only been this excited to see a classical recital maybe twice before in my life.

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