Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 11)

 

In case you’re one of the people who I don’t actually know who wanders through here from time to time, here is a link to my new, other, much more specific blog that you might like to check out. It is about Pink Floyd, progressive rock, and the way that societies make collective decisions about art.

For everybody else: 23 reviews.

Literature

Kurt Vonnegut: Slapstick — I think this may be Vonnegut’s most misunderstood book. This isn’t a broad satire of anything specific, though Vonnegut does snipe at his favourite targets from time to time: war, American exceptionalism, etc. This begs to be read not as a story but as a sort of self-therapy on Vonnegut’s part. It’s a way for him to express his grief about his sister’s death and his despair at the resulting loneliness. When you read it semi-psychoanalytically, it’s maybe the saddest book of Vonnegut’s career. If you try and read it only for its content, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. (Though, considering how direct Vonnegut is about the autobiographical nature of the story in the prologue, I’m not sure how anybody reads this any other way.) This is exceptionally companionable book during a sleepless night, and the most underappreciated thing that Vonnegut ever wrote.

Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger & Scott Shane: “The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower invaded the U.S.” — I don’t usually include news pieces in this thing, but this New York Times feature is magnificent journalism. Its content is extremely disquieting, especially where the D.N.C.’s response to the initial discovery of its security vulnerabilities is concerned. But the construction of the piece is a thing to be marvelled at. Without sacrificing fairness or veering out of the somewhat austere voice that news should be presented in, the authors make careful note of the quiet poetry in certain elements of this story: the fact that the infamous filing cabinet from the Watergate burglary is sitting in the D.N.C.’s basement, or that the Russians sent a phishing email in which the bad link was to a fake Harvard paper called “Why American Elections Are Flawed.” The investigation is thorough, and the story is presented in a way that makes linear sense in spite of the many moving parts and their various aliases. I would likely not have taken the time to read this if I hadn’t subscribed to the Times. I am already glad that I did. This is top shelf.

Shirley Wu: “An Interactive Visualization of Every Line in Hamilton” — I confess that I find Wu’s actual analysis a little bit obvious throughout this feature, but having the data broken down in this interactive format is endlessly fascinating, and maybe my new favourite piece of Hamilton’s fan-made paratext. This allows you not only to look at visualizations of characters’ lines throughout the musical, but also to see where they are addressing each other directly, and when they make use of particular lyrical leitmotifs like “that would be enough” or “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” It makes certain observations simple, like the fact that Aaron Burr’s role is actually not much smaller than Hamilton’s, and also that Lin-Manuel Miranda almost never makes two characters sing together in duets. This is the lord’s work.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus: “The Great A.I. Awakening” — This is the best magazine feature I’ve read in a long time. It is impressive mostly because it has so much business to attend to throughout its length. It has to juggle a huge cast of characters, mostly computer scientists at Google. It has to touch on decades of history that are relevant to its story. It has to deal with the complexities of institutions, such that a relatively small service (Google Translate) can be at the forefront of innovation for a company. And, perhaps most dauntingly it has to explain complicated computer science concepts to a lay audience. Lewis-Kraus pulls it all off while also being funny. He is also neither alarmist nor boosterist where Silicon Valley is concerned, though he’s closer to the latter than the former. Also interesting is that I read this on the same day I started watching Battlestar Galactica. And in spite of Lewis-Kraus’s reassurances that A.I. in its current state is only here to help, there were many moments here where I found myself interjecting: “But Cylons.” Nonetheless, a fascinating read. Provided that Google doesn’t bring about the apocalypse in the next few years, I’d suggest that Lin-Manuel Miranda should learn to rap in about 100 more languages and consider this as the subject for his next musical. Look back at that list of all the business that Lewis-Kraus has to deal with in this feature and tell me it doesn’t play to LMM’s strengths.

Television

Planet Earth II: “Cities” — I had not expected this somewhat tangential finale to be the highlight of the series, but it absolutely was. The opening sequence features monkeys fighting over turf on rooftops, and it’s like something out of a Jackie Chan movie. Throw in adorable Torontonian raccoons and catfish who have learned to hunt pigeons, and you’ve got an incredible episode of television that also makes a compelling argument: the natural world is powerful enough to coexist with us in our modern environments if we only allow it to. This whole series has been some of the year’s best television, and this single episode is the one that makes this new instalment of Planet Earth the most distinct from its esteemed predecessor. Pick of the week.

QI: “Kinetic” & “Knowledge” — The “Knowledge” episode is one of the funniest of all, partially on account of its premise, which is that most facts turn out not to be true — and that therefore QI’s history is packed with falsehoods. Makes it disquieting to watch back episodes on YouTube. But what am I going to do, stop?

Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries — Ooh, this is exciting. It’s been a long time since I binged a show, and I can feel a bender coming on with this one. This two-part backdoor pilot for the show that followed is mostly stunning television. Specifically, part one is outstanding throughout. The efficiency with which it introduces its world, setting and characters (that long take!) is really impressive, and the opening exposition sequence is genius. Let’s think about that for a second. If you haven’t seen it, just go watch the first five minutes of this. And note how much labour is done simply through the set design. The détante between the humans and the Cylons is explained through onscreen captions, but the interior set for the armistice station tells you exactly how the meetings between the two factions are supposed to work. There’s a long hallway with a big metal door on each side. The hallway widens a bit in the middle, and there’s a desk there, with a chair on each side. When a man walks through one of the doors and sits down at the chair on his side of the hallway, we know that the same thing is supposed to happen on the other side because of the symmetry of the set. This is brilliant. And the entire first episode, jumping as it does from character to character, is buoyant and propulsive, even when it turns into a war movie. The second part doesn’t fare quite as well. The first half hour introduces a moppetty child whose only function is to make a standard trolley problem a bit more emotionally wrenching, but it doesn’t work because the strings are so visible. It also introduces a sort of ostentatious philosophizing that I would like to go away, please. Mind you, the character most responsible for that becomes more interesting very quickly. So, a fabulous bit of television that flies off the rails halfway through. Sure hope this isn’t foreshadowing of anything.

Music

Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment: Surf — This is just pure joy. I’ve never quite heard this particular genre fusion: rap meets jazz and gospel in a mix that would rather relax then be aggressive. It’s super fun, and “Sunday Candy” is a masterclass in why everybody should love Chance the Rapper.

John Cale: Paris 1919 — I guess it was about time to give John Cale another shot. Years and years ago, I bought the set called The Island Years, which collected his albums Fear, Slow Dazzle, and Helen of Troy, plus some bonus material. I had high expectations for Fear, at least, given that it was one of his most acclaimed albums and featured notable contributions from Brian Eno. But I was thoroughly underwhelmed by all three records. They seemed to me like songwriter records, except that they were made by somebody who is definitely more of an experimental musician than a pop songwriter. Based on my recollection, the songs aren’t that interesting, either in their lyrics or their structures. So, I was never particularly inclined to check out the one John Cale album that most fans would recommend. How much better could it be? Well, as it turns out, a lot better. This is still not quite my thing, but it’s drastically different from the albums that came after in that it is a huge symphonic record rather than a stripped back art pop record. And that broader sonic palette (reminiscent of Procol Harum, but with a sense of irony) makes Cale’s pedestrian lyrics and taste for extremely basic chord progressions and song structures less important. If that seems like faint praise, it is. I don’t love this album. I think it’s fine. But by and large, John Cale’s solo career is one of those bodies of work that music nerds love for reasons I will never understand.

The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground — The first time I reviewed this album, I said this: “I’ve loved the first two Velvet Underground albums for years, but never got around to checking out this or Loaded. Apparently, Eno loves this album so much that he’s never owned a copy for fear of becoming overfamiliar. I do see the appeal, though I definitely prefer the debut. I love the first album as much for its noisy sonic adventures as for its songwriting, and that element sort of left the band with John Cale. Still good.” Reading that now, I’m reminded of the value of repeat listening. There was a time when listening obsessively to full albums was my default, but that gradually fell away as I stopped buying physical CDs. These days, the temptation is huge to just listen again and again to the one or two tracks on a given album that capture me initially. And the temptation is even bigger to dismiss albums like this one, that don’t make an immediate strong impression. But I’m glad I took it in mind to hear this again, because the second listen was astronomically more meaningful than the first. Now, I think that “I’m Set Free” might be Lou Reed’s most beautiful song, “The Murder Mystery” might be their most compelling extended experimental track, and the entire album is full of subtle gems. It’s an introverted record, unlike its two predecessors. Nothing here has the epic sweep of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” or “Venus in Furs.” But it’s the kind of thing that’s designed to sink in gradually. I think I need to consider whether writing this ridiculous blog encourages me to listen more broadly and less deeply. I like writing this blog, so occasionally I find myself listening to new stuff and things I haven’t heard before just to have something to write about. That takes away from the time I spend getting to really know an album. In any case, I’ll be listening to much more of this.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “This Is Us and Speechless” — Maybe it’s just because my personal pop culture experience of 2016 has revolved around music a lot more than around TV and movies, which remain the primary focus of this show, but I’m not getting as much out of PCHH as I used to. I have no intention of stopping, obviously. But I wouldn’t mind if this panel did tackle music once in awhile. Because All Songs Considered isn’t ultimately about discussion. It’s about playing music, usually. Anyway, this is fine.

A Point of View: “Holes in Clothes” — Presumably, right now Adam Gopnik is thinking “I was clearly so insightful about Trump… I wonder if I can get people to listen to me talk about jeans with holes in them?” And the answer is obviously yes. And his take is neither stodgy or vapid. This is a slight thing, but proof that Gopnik is a worthwhile voice, even when he’s tackling current affairs from an oblique angle.

Homecoming: “PINEAPPLE” — This continues to be dark and beautiful, but I’m not feeling myself pulled in by the suspense in the same way that I did with, for instance, Limetown. Possibly it’s in part because the story comes in such small bits, and possibly it has something to do with the MANDATORY documentary segments at the ends of the episodes. But this feels slight to me. I imagine it’ll grow on me. Maybe I’ll try a few episodes at a time, next I listen. I am behind, after all.

On the Media: “Imagine That” — OTM’s public existential crisis continues apace, but they’re still doing great work on topics like digital security. If the segment on Pizzagate is somewhat underwhelming, that’s only because OTM’s former reporter Alex Goldman has already covered the hell out of it elsewhere.

Too Much Information: “On Four Lions, Comedy, Radio and Idiots” — Firstly, it’s weird to hear Benjamen Walker do a straight interview. He’s in a strangely good mood here, grunting affirmatively at most of what Chris Morris says. But then, Benjamen Walker is clearly a huge fan of Chris Morris. And with good reason: Chris Morris is the comedian equivalent of Benjamen Walker. Everything is tediously researched. Nothing is sacred. Most of what’s called “progress” isn’t. They’re two peas in a pod. Interesting.

Theory of Everything: “Useful Idiots” — Holy bonkers. The final segment of this episode connects Jeremy Bentham to Putin’s key advisor by way of Grigory Potemkin. And after some cursory verification, I don’t think I’m being fucked with. This show is valuable as much for its tendency to breed scepticism as anything. I have often felt compelled to make sure that something on this show that seems fake is actually fake, and vice versa, because I fear being made a credulous fool. But that final interview here (starts at 16:50) seems like the real thing. And it is earthshaking. Pick of the week.

Bullseye: “John Cale & TJ and Dave” — This is really why I listened to Paris 1919 this week: the live version of the title track that Jesse Thorn plays a snippet from here is infectious. The interview is great, though it does hue rather closely to the best-known elements of Cale’s career: meeting Lou Reed, getting kicked out of the Velvet Underground, producing the Stooges, etc. The TJ and Dave segment isn’t as funny as you’d like, but it’s vulnerable. Bullseye is a pop culture interview show done mostly right, in that the focus never really moves too far away from the sensibility of its host. It’s not trying to be for everyone. But also, it’s just so cool, sometimes. And I find that offputting, frankly. That’s why I listen so seldom. On the other hand, I can wholeheartedly recommend the one segment from the episode after this one that I did listen to: Jesse Thorn’s love letter to 19th-century paintings of cows. Magnificent.

Code Switch: “Audie and the Not-So-Magic School Bus” — Nice to hear Audie Cornish on Code Switch finally. This is a bit odd in the sense that it’s a behind-the-scenes look at a story that Cornish did on All Things Considered, but they don’t play the actual story. I suppose I could go find it, but it would have been nice if they could have played at least a little bit more than the one tiny clip that they used. Still, this is a really interesting trip through the history of busing and school segregation.

99% Invisible: “Plat of Zion” — The best 99pi in ages. (I think I probably say that a lot. But I honestly don’t remember another episode this year that’s as good as this one.) This is a discussion of the urban planning of Salt Lake City, Utah, which is seen by Mormons as having been divinely revealed. This is maybe the single greatest urban planning story in American history, on account of simply being so crazy. I love it.

Crimetown: Episodes 4-5 — This turned out to be really bingeable. This show is built around incredible interviews with charismatic mobsters, of various degrees of regretfulness. It is so fun to listen to these complicated people talk. Gimlet doesn’t hit it out of the part every time, these days. But this one is destined to be one of the crown jewels in their stable.

Imaginary Worlds: “Working On the Death Star” — I guess now this podcast is also doing Star Wars every year? Whatever. This is fun. Hearing serious people talk about non-serious things is always fun. And in this episode, a prosecutor and a judge argue about the legality of the Galactic Empire’s labour practices, and an economist argues that the Rebel Alliance might have been wrong to blow up the Death Star, because it would throw the galaxy into economic disarray, which would have dire consequences even for those with no enthusiasm for the Empire itself.

StartUp: “Anger” — This is a fairly elegant solution to the problem that Dov Charney won’t talk on the record about the shit he did that got him fired. Lots of other people will. This is a details-heavy episode with lots of contractual talk, but the drama never flags. I’ve actually really warmed to this season of StartUp since I started hating Charney. Lisa Chow has always been more of a reporter and less of a personality than some of her fellow Gimlet hosts, which is greatly to her credit. Even when she’s stretched to her limit by an extremely complicated subject such as Charney, who is occasionally openly hostile to her, she doesn’t make the story about her for more than a couple of minutes. It’s kind of amazing. This season is a real return to form for this show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and La La Land” — I think I’ll actually sit Rogue One out. Maybe I’ll watch it when it’s on Netflix. But I’m not giving money to Disney for a bad Star Wars movie. I’ll give them money for the good ones. I was more enthusiastic about La La Land before I listened to this, but the panel kind of threw cold water on that as well. What can you do. 

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