Category Archives: Books

Omnibus (week of Feb. 4, 2018)

Happy Family Day. 13 reviews, one of which is basically just a link. But it’s a link you should click.

Literature, etc.

Herman Melville: Moby-Dick — Hey, look over here.

Stephen King: It (audiobook) — At last, I’ve gotten through all 45 hours of this behemoth. I’ll start by praising the audiobook. The TV actor Steven Weber does a bang-up job bringing the dozens of characters in King’s sprawling narrative to life: many of whom in both child and grown-up forms. He seems to particularly relish Richie Tozier, who obsessively does voices himself. Frankly, Richie’s variously-offensive stereotyped characters get really annoying after a while, but that’s King’s fault for writing it that way. Weber’s commitment is commendable. As for the book itself, I’m comfortable saying that it’s one of the most extraordinary works of popular fiction I’ve read in a long time. There are elements of it that are dated, offensive, or simply a bit dumb, but they’re drowned out the same way that “Rocky Raccoon” is drowned out on the White Album. It is so sprawling, ambitious and heterogenous that its most flawed moments can easily recede from your mind when you consider the whole. Except one. You may have heard about the controversial child orgy in It? It is just as icky as you think. King has responded to criticism of this scene by saying: “it’s fascinating to me that there has been so much comment about that single sex scene and so little about the multiple child murders.” That only serves to demonstrate that he doesn’t understand the problem. Child murders are terrible, but they are a thing that happens. Fiction is a perfectly good way to try and work through that fact. But that sex scene, which involves eleven-year-old children, is both explicit and completely arbitrary. The whole time it was happening, all I could think was “Man, you didn’t have to do this! Why did you do this?!?” I like Stephen King, and I think he is a decent person. But this one moment is really very bad. Since we’ve gone straight into the negatives, so is his general treatment of his one substantial female character. But all of this is a preface that will allow me to enthuse in more general terms about the rest of the book. In On Writing, King has some very convincing things to say about theme. Basically, he thinks you should write your story, and then figure out what it’s ‘about.’ Once you’ve figured that out, keep it in mind while you edit, and work to emphasize it. It is a strong book because King clearly knows what it is about. It is about memory: about the way we selectively recall our pasts, forgetting things for our own sanity. It’s about how the memories we choose to suppress can continue to subconsciously inform our lives, and how they can come back to hurt us suddenly and unexpectedly. Most of the time when horror is about something in this way, the metaphor is personified by the monster. (See Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s endless cavalcade of beasts, each reflecting an element of high school life.) It doesn’t work that way, though. The shapeshifting Pennywise is a marvellous, terrifying creation, but he is not materially a representation of memory or suppression. Instead of baking his theme into his monster, King bakes his theme into the book’s structure. Throughout the novel, we flash back and forth in time, learning about a group of children’s brave stand against Pennywise in 1958, and simultaneously about their adult selves’ return to Pennywise’s domain to finish what they started in 1985. And as we learn more about the events of 1958, we begin to become wiser than our protagonists’ adult selves, who remember none of this, and are thus walking blindly into a danger they can intuit but cannot understand. King’s metaphor of choice for their amnesia is the phenomenon where you forget your nightmares almost immediately, only recalling them in vague detail much later in the day when they can’t disturb you anymore. Pennywise is aware of all this, but he ties into a different theme in the book: belief. His power, like the power of many childhood story characters, comes from people believing in him and believing him powerful. Still, though: Pennywise knows the importance of memory to this story, and he ties the two key themes together in one of the book’s most powerful lines: “Come on back and we’ll see if you remember the simplest thing of all — how it is to be children, secure in belief and thus afraid of the dark.” Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that the book is most powerful in these moments: the moments where Stephen King indulges in a bit of autocritique. I particularly love one moment with the young Stan Uris: a skeptical, bullied, Jewish boy who later claims that he’s fine with being scared, but can’t abide being dirty. He can’t abide things that present an offense to how he thinks about the world. He can’t find the words to express it to his friends, but the thought crosses his mind: “It’s offense you maybe can’t live with because it opens up a crack inside your thinking, and if you look down into it you see there are evil things down there, and they have little yellow eyes that don’t blink, and there’s a stink down there in that dark and after a while you think maybe there’s a whole other universe where a square moon rises in the sky, and the stars laugh in cold voices, and some of the triangles have four sides, and some have five sides and some have five raised to the fifth power of sides. In this universe there might grow roses which sing. Everything leads to everything, he would have told them if he could. Go to your church and listen to your stories about Jesus walking on the water, but if I saw a guy doing that I’d scream and scream and scream. Because it wouldn’t look like a miracle to me. It would look like an offense.” This passage is what this book is capable of at its best. It sprawls because it goes deep: deep into the history of its setting and characters, deep into the moments that change people’s lives, deep into the parts of our communities and minds that we don’t want to think about. That we’d rather forget.

Alison Bechdel: Fun Home — I have always wanted to write a book like this: a book that approaches real life as a subject for literary criticism. But unlike mine, Alison Bechdel’s early life actually justifies that approach. Fun Home tells the story of her relationship with her distant father, a complicated aesthete living in a tiny Pennsylvania town, who died young in a probable suicide. This is a man who spent his free time obsessively remodelling a dilapidated old mansion to old world splendor: a mansion that served as the family home. Immediately, you know this guy has to be interesting. The other major story element is Bechdel’s coming-of-age story, leaving home and discovering her own sexuality. The two stories entwine with one another and prop each other up. But the real connective tissue in Fun Home is the mutual obsession that Bechdel and her father have with classic literature. Each chapter revolves around a different work of literature that resonates with Bechdel’s story: the myth of Icarus and Daedalus as told by Ovid in Metamorphoses, Camus’s A Happy Death, a side-by-side reading of The Great Gatsby and The Portrait of a Lady, In Search of Lost Time, The Wind in the Willows, The Importance of Being Earnest, and finally — because that’s not enough of a reading list — Ulysses. This is the perfect kind of story to tell as a graphic novel. Again and again, Bechdel allows her expressive, beautiful cartoons to tell the surface-level story of her life with her parents, and reflects on this literature in the text that runs parallel. Never has a book that muses at length about Joyce been so staggeringly moving. It’s easily in my top five comics. Maybe top three. Read it immediately. Pick of the week.

Theatre

The Old Trout Puppet Workshop: Jabberwocky — I’ve wanted to see a production by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop since way back in high school, when I was a marginal contributor to a puppetry company myself. I dunno why I never did. I now live even farther away from them than I did back then. But this show was a marvellous entrée into their weird world. Jabberwocky is a cheap and janky-looking production that was clearly engineered to show all of its seams, and that’s what makes it so compelling. From the very start, the four members of the on-stage company make you feel like you’re witnessing something that will barely hold together. And then, within the context of that aesthetic, they tell a story that just knocks you flat. It’s a reinterpretation of the famous Lewis Carroll poem — specifically just that poem, and none of the Alice-related material surrounding it. So, it really is working with a bare minimum of source material. Essentially, the story of “Jabberwocky” is: a father warns his young son to beware of a terrifying monster, that young son impetuously goes off to slay that monster, and he succeeds and makes his father happy and proud. The Old Trouts have rethought this elementally simple story as a parable on how we shunt off all of our hopes and dreams for ourselves onto our children. It is a multi-generational retelling of “Jabberwocky” in which nobody gets to slay the Jabberwock. It is brilliant storytelling, brilliant theatre, and a brilliant reinterpretation of a too-familiar story.

Television

The Chris Gethard Show: “Whatever Happens, Happens” & “Bring It Home” — I like this show because I like Chris Gethard, but I sometimes wish he’d spend less time talking about how he wants to break the format of a TV talk show and more time just getting on with it. Still, there are great moments in these episodes: Nick Kroll staring down the camera, a cameo appearance by a goat, and a recurring bit in which Ira Glass wanders around the studio, alone.

Doctor Who: “The Ribos Operation” — The first classic Doctor Who story that I’ve watched a second time. I think there’s an argument to be made that this is not only one of the most brilliant and non-dated episodes of the classic series, but that it is the best possible starting point for new viewers. The writing is solid, of course; this is Robert Holmes we’re talking about. But it’s also one of the most self-aware stories in the classic series, where the comedy lands most successfully. It introduces an awesome new companion who, in spite of the Doctor constantly being a dick to her, holds her own and is a boss. It takes place in a few easily-rendered locales, so the sets aren’t too embarrassing. And most crucially, the acting is great all around. Every actor in this serial knows exactly what kind of story they’re in, namely a silly quasi-medieval space caper with terrible monster puppets, and they seem to appreciate both its ridiculousness and its brilliance. That is everything you can hope for from classic Doctor Who. This is amazing, and if you haven’t ever seen the classic series, watch this. I’m not saying you’ll love it, but if you don’t, I doubt there’ll be anything much for you in the rest of the series.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 3, episodes 1-8 — I didn’t love the second season of this because the jokes weren’t landing for me. But they sure are in this season. I’m uncertain about some of the ongoing jokes, like the caricatures of campus leftism who are seemingly the sole denisons of Columbia University. But Maya Rudolph as Dionne Warwick is a thing to behold, and there are jokes in this that I can’t believe anybody could come up with. “You know what yuppies eat? Ice cream that tastes like lavender.” “No! That’s a smell!” Love it. I’ll probably finish it in a couple days.  

Music

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Deluxe Edition) — The latest instalment in my increasingly tortured attempt to listen to every Stones album up to Tattoo You in order. I like Some Girls, but I feel like those who call it the best post-Exile Stones album undervalue Goats Head Soup. And the bonus material on this deluxe edition that I decided to check out for god knows what reason is fairly strong, but only by the standards of a band that was already on its downward slide.

Bruce Springsteen: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. — This is maybe the clearest demonstration of “early promise” ever recorded. Compared to its successor, The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, which remains one of my favourite Springsteen albums, this is Wordy As Hell. And while Bruce’s best songs will always be a bit hyperverbal, this is a bit much. For the only time in his career, Bruce’s lyrics are more clever than they are meaningful. I still like it, and “Spirit in the Night” is particularly essential. It’ll probably grow on me.

Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. — This marks the point where I’ve heard every studio album from the Boss’s heyday. This week, I listened to the records that are commonly thought to bookend that period: this and Asbury Park. I deliberately saved them for last because I had a feeling that they were going to be the ones I liked least, and I was right. That said, neither one of them are outright bad. I find Born in the U.S.A. a bit slick. The title track, regardless of its universal misinterpretation, is a cliché. So is “Glory Days.” But weirdly, I like “Dancing in the Dark.” That chorus has three iconic lines in a row “You can’t start a fire without a spark/this gun’s for hire/even if we’re just dancing in the dark.” That’s skill, right there. And the smaller songs on this are really great, especially “Darlington County” and “My Hometown.” Now I’ll just round this whole binge off with the live set, and commence repeat listening.

Podcasts

Slow Burn — This series from Slate about the weirdest, freakiest details of the Watergate scandal is a great binge listen, and it’s done now, so get to it. The main idea is that it took Watergate a long time to find its way into the public consciousness, no matter how shattering an event it seems now. The show is a reflection on a state of scandal that resembles the current political craziness, but in a pre-internet age. It’s a bit wonky — this is Slate, after all. But listen to the first episode, which is about a woman who was forcibly tranquilized to keep her from talking, and see if you’re not hooked.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — The Grammys will always disappoint Stephen, an Eagles victory will always delight Gene, and Roxane Gay will always be a fantastic chat. Darkest Hour sounds dire. Over and out.

More Perfect: “One Nation Under Money” — The second season finale keeps up the pace. This, as much as any other episode of More Perfect, made me understand a debate that I didn’t know was happening. Essentially, it is about the legal and ethical knots that America ties itself into when lawyers try to win cases by making everything about money. That is a vast oversimplification, but like all of the best things Jad Abumrad is involved with, it cannot be summarized easily. More Perfect is the best thing he’s done in a long time, and this is a great episode of it. Pick of the week.

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Notes on Moby-Dick (which I have not finished): Part 1

OKAY. Time to crack open this CLASSIC MASTERPIECE. My Norton Critical Edition has taken up long-term residence on my nightstand and I am PUMPED to set sail on this LITERARY VOYAGE. HERE WE FUCKING GO.

Etymology and extracts

So I feel like this introductory quasi-chapter probably has a lot to say about what kind of book this is going to be. Most novels start with one or two epigraphs that are relevant to the story or themes. If you’re Steven King, maybe you’ll indulge yourself and stretch it out to five or six. Moby-Dick starts with A WHOLE CHAPTER OF EPIGRAPHS. There are EIGHTY of them.

Also, most authors present their epigraphs without comment. They just put them there in the middle of an austere, mostly empty page. NOT HERMAN MELVILLE. This guy’s got to make-believe like he got his etymology of the word “whale” from a schoolmaster who died of tuberculosis (“a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School”) and his cavalcade of epigraphs from a vanishingly minor drone at a public library (“a Sub-Sub Librarian”).

It’s important to note that neither of these people are real. Melville definitely did all of this himself. We haven’t even properly started the book yet and Melville is already trolling us. (MOBY-DICK IS FAKE NEWS)

But that doesn’t mean these epigraphs aren’t sort of an amazing accomplishment. Imagine trying to find eighty resonant extracts about whales in texts ranging from Shakespeare to ship’s logs — without the help of the internet. Melville has really gone the extra thousand nautical miles, here. And that’s something that I happen to know will be a recurring theme in the early bits of the book. (Prolly the rest of it too.) We’re not just dealing with a storyteller, here. We’re dealing with a person who Knows Stuff and has Read Things and Really Could Go On For A While. Moby-Dick couldn’t have happened without the depth of research that’s indicated by this bewildering introduction.

So: let’s take stock, quickly. We’re ten pages in and we’ve already witnessed a gratuitous display of erudition, nested in a weird structure game where you can’t quite tell the real from the fake; the comical from the plain faced; the sane from the mad.

Onwards.  

Chapter 1: Loomings

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Richard Basehart in the 1956 movie version I haven’t seen.

Reading this chapter made me want to read all of Moby-Dick. Before I picked up the book and read chapter one on a whim, I’d assumed that Moby-Dick was just a super long adventure story about a one-legged obsessive’s insane quest for revenge on a great white whale. I’d assumed it was a banal potboiler with puffed-up literary ambitions. This chapter immediately dispels that notion.

I read this again and again, often out loud, before I managed to move onto the second chapter. I fucking love this, and I’m going to try and explain why. In the process I’ll hopefully explain briefly what happens in this chapter — which, in a sense is nothing. But in another sense, CHRIST ALMIGHTY DOES SHIT GO DOWN.

This chapter introduces us to one of the best narrators in any book ever: Ishmael. I mean, maybe that’s his name. Famously, he tells us to call him that, but the first sentence isn’t “my name is Ishmael.” I dunno why he’d lie, but it’s strange phrasing, isn’t it? “Call me Ishmael.” Why? What else would I call you? Are you fucking with me again? (“CALL ME ISHMAEL” IS FAKE NEWS)

Moby-Dick has a reputation for being a bloated, overlong, unnecessarily discursive novel with far too many redundant, superfluous, unnecessary words. Remember, this is the book with eighty epigraphs. But by the end of the first page, you should realize that the book is not like this because of any indiscipline on Melville’s part: it’s like this because Melville has created an extraordinarily rich and idiosyncratic narrator in Ishmael. Ishmael is a genius and a polymath. He’s manic, and everything fascinates him — particularly language. He loves language so much that he often gets excited and uses more of it than he needs to. He’s the personification of all the joy there is to be had in observing the world.

He is also traumatized. It shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to say that Moby-Dick does not end happily. (I’m far from finished the book as I write this, but I know the plot from cultural osmosis. I guess most people do.) Ishmael is telling the story in retrospect, some years later. (“Never mind how long precisely.”) I don’t think he emerged from his maritime ordeal unscathed. Look at the way he first brings up the whaling voyage that’ll be the whole subject of the book: “But wherefore it was that after having repeatedly smelt the sea as a merchant sailor, I should now take it into my head to go on a whaling voyage…” That sentence is the turning point of the chapter and the first indication of what the story’s going to be — and it’s just sitting casually in the middle of a paragraph. He basically crab walks his way into the story. I have a personal theory that part of the reason Ishmael beats around the bush so much and talks about pyramids and Niagara Falls and other irrelevant topics is that he’s actively trying to avoid telling the story for as long as possible. Because it is definitely going to be an emotionally taxing story to tell. Moby-Dick is a novel where a storyteller peels off an emotional band-aid as slowly and haltingly as possible.

There are indications that Ishmael had some issues before he ever set foot on the whaling ship that traumatized him. He proclaims, semi-jokingly, within the first few sentences of the book that he likes to go to sea “whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off.” This is CONCERNING TO SAY THE LEAST. But it is ultimately what pulled me into the novel in the first place. I’m not sure how interested I am in revenge stories, maritime adventure, or obsessive captains. But I am ALL IN if the story’s going to be told by a narrator capable of this kind of polymathic mania, interrupted by occasional intense melancholy. A narrator as rich as Ishmael could make ANY story interesting.

And even though he clearly has some serious baggage related to his time at sea, he obviously thinks this story is a good one. Look at how his language takes flight at the very end of the chapter, as he’s about to launch into the narrative proper: “the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.” That gives me chills. And it’s still more effective when you think about how this guy can even conjure up some Wonder At The World’s Miracles when he’s thinking about the worst experience of his damn life. “I am quick to perceive a horror,” Ishmael tells us, “and could still be social with it — would they let me.” Would that we could all be so charitable towards our traumas.

In chapter one, we meet our mysterious, manic, melancholy guide through the tale of Moby-Dick. He tells us essentially no details about the story or about his past life. But he does something much more profound and compelling: he shows us how his mind works. He tells us about why he loves the sea and why he loves being a lowly sailor rather than an officer. He tells us about the doldrums that take hold of him when he lingers too long on land. And, maybe half by accident, he exposes us to the sheer force and charm of his personality and makes us want to pay attention — whether he’s getting on with the story or not.

Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag

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This is what a carpet bag looks like. Whatever his many virtues, Ishmael is not a strong accessorizor.

Ah, look! We have some honest-to-god story! Things Are Happening! Essentially, the next several chapters detail Ishmael’s wanderings in New Bedford, a whaling town that seems at this point to have superseded Nantucket in its industry prevalence. But Ishmael, being something of a Hipster Whaler, makes a point of expressing his disappointment in this fact. He is headed for Nantucket, thank you very much; nothing but the OG whaling port will do for a man of history such as our narrator. Still, he can’t help but start his narrative long before the action begins. So, we’ll follow him around New Bedford for a few chapters while he waits for something to happen. (Did I say Things Were Happening? I was speaking in the broadest possible terms.)

In chapter two, Ishmael walks through the streets of New Bedford with his weird bag, looking for a decent place to stay. It contains one of my favourite examples of his tendency to use far too many words to get his point across: he means to say “I didn’t have much money, so I needed to find a cheap hotel.” Instead, he says: “With anxious grapnels I had sounded my pocket, and only brought up a few pieces of silver,—So, wherever you go, Ishmael, said I to myself, as I stood in the middle of a dreary street shouldering my bag, and comparing the gloom towards the north with the darkness towards the south—wherever in your wisdom you may conclude to lodge for the night, my dear Ishmael, be sure to inquire the price, and don’t be too particular.” Marvellous.

In any case, Ishmael settles on a place called the Spouter-Inn, which will make up the setting and title of the next chapter.

Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn

Our narrator’s account of his arrival and first night at the Spouter-Inn contains a bunch of top-shelf Ishmaelisms about the weird painting by the bar, and one crucial plot element. This is the chapter in which we meet our first non-Ishmael main character: Queequeg, a cannibalistic harpooneer from a made-up island in the South Pacific who unexpectedly becomes Ishmael’s (literal) bedmate. (Now Things Are Actually Happening.)

My understanding is that Queequeg becomes important later in the book because he’s Melville’s way of making Moby-Dick into a modern, internationalist kind of story — a pretty impressive impulse for a white dude writing in 1851. We’re meant to see Queequeg — with his fully-tattooed skin, tomahawk, and pidgin English — as a person who would be written off as a “savage” by most of the characters in the novel, but who is in fact noble, kind and intelligent. I’m not far enough into the book to judge how Melville’s very early attempt at an anti-racism narrative plays out. So far, I’m a bit concerned that Queequeg is, at least in part, a stereotype. The pidgin English is a problem. Melville made up his home island out of whole cloth. And the first facts we learn about him are that he’s a cannibal and he’s been out selling shrunken heads on the street. Regardless of what we learn about him later, this characterization traffics in some typically colonialist assumptions. Still, it’s worth noting that this is not entirely blind prejudice on Melville’s part. Some of the islands in the South Pacific actually were among the few places where cannibalism was still practiced when Melville wrote the book. The man did his research. (Eighty epigraphs.) But we can’t expect a guy from almost two centuries ago to adhere flawlessly to modern sensibilities about race in fiction. And he doesn’t. Best acknowledge that.

But the way he introduces Queequeg is kind of ingenious. The landlord — which is what Ishmael calls the innkeeper — of the Spouter-Inn does the bulk of the heavy lifting. His surname is “Coffin,” a word which will come to take on a substantial significance for both Ishmael and Queequeg later in the book. (I know this because I have cheated and read the epilogue.) This Peter Coffin is a right dickwad. The biggest of the dickwads. Moby-Dickwad. It’s this guy who decides that Ishmael and Queequeg will sleep two-to-a-bed this night, and as soon as he makes that decision it becomes a huge private joke for him. Coffin’s well aware that Queequeg is harmless — though whether he regards him as fully human is doubtful. Still, he insists on dropping cryptic, racist hints to Ishmael that his sleeping companion may in fact be mortally dangerous. So basically, before we get to know Queequeg through Ishmael’s more progressive eyes, we see him as he is seen by the bulk of the Americans he interacts with: as a disfigured monster. In the end, though, it will turn out that this book’s disfigured monsters — human and otherwise — will be white.

At the end of the chapter, Peter Coffin’s practical joke pays off: Queequeg is startled to find a strange man unexpectedly in his bed, and Ishmael is mortally frightened to find himself in the company of a startled man he has every reason to think is a murderer. Hearing the commotion in the room where he’s paired them off, Coffin arrives to defuse the situation, and all is well. It’s as close as classic literature gets to farce without actually being a straight-up farce.

Chapter 4: The Counterpane

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For the faint of sight: “Queequeg and his Harpoon”

Ishmael wakes up to find Queequeg’s arm flung around him matrimonially. Hmm, I wonder if I Google “Ishmael/Queequeg fanfic” what would OH MY GOD

This is the chapter where we’re made to start seeing Queequeg as a human being, rather than the monster that Peter Coffin portrayed him as. Still, Ishmael regards him as a bit of an archeological curiosity. The business about him being part “civilized,” part “savage” is distasteful. It points out that, no matter how much we may want to identify with Ishmael, he is by necessity a person of his time, because Melville was a person of his. Still, even if he expresses it in a less than modern way, this is the beginning of an awakening in Ishmael. An awokening, if you like.

Also, every time Ishmael shares a memory from before the start of this story, it is fucked up. First there was that bit in the first chapter about knocking people’s hats off in the street. Now there’s stuff in this chapter about him hallucinating a phantom hand as a child. Our narrator has a jolly demeanor, but I feel like he could benefit from a bit of modern counselling.

(By the way, if it seems like I’m glossing over the plot, that’s just because the plot is still happening in dribs and drabs at this point. The plot of chapter four is “Ishmael and Queequeg wake up.” What actually transpires has a lot more to do with the characters and their relationship than the story. So you’re pretty well caught up.)

Chapter 5: Breakfast

Ishmael descends from his room to eat a hearty morning meal. He generously forgives Peter Coffin for his skullduggery. He observes that you can tell how long a whaler has been ashore from his tan. And he complains that none of his fellow tenants at the Spouter-Inn want to talk at the table. It’s easy to assume, because he’s the narrator of the book — and a verbose one at that, that Ishmael is one of those people who never shuts up. But how could he have become so worldly-wise if he weren’t also an accomplished listener? I understand his frustration at this silent breakfast. If you’ve got a good story: tell it, goddamn it. In as much detail as possible.

Chapter 6: The Street

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This is another of Ishmael’s purely descriptive chapters, so let me just take this moment to say Holy Hell, does New Bedford ever sound a lot like my hometown. I’m from Fort McMurray, Alberta, a middle-sized oil town in what most people would consider the frozen north. Like New Bedford, it is a place where the land itself is almost comically inhospitable and ugly. When Ishmael describes New Bedford, he tells us that “parts of her back country are enough to frighten one, they look so bony.” And yet, “the town itself is perhaps the dearest [most expensive] place to live in, in all New England.” He makes a big thing of how big and lavish the houses are in this landscape that ought to be desolate — all because of whaling: the mad slaughter that was at the time the fifth-biggest industry in the United States. All these mansions, Ishmael says in an impressively cinematic turn of phrase, “were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”

Fort McMurray is much the same. It is a deeply inhospitable part of the world. First off, it’s freezing. My mom still lives there and lately she keeps texting me complaining, justifiably, about the fact that it’s been minus 40 for a week. It snows for half the year. Also it’s flat and featureless and a million miles from the nearest ocean and/or mountain. But mostly it’s just bone-chillingly cold. The cold in Fort McMurray is so pervasive that it’s practically a state of mind. Live there long enough and your soul freezes.

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Photo credit: Gord McKenna

And yet, much like Ishmael’s New Bedford, it was until recently cripplingly expensive to live there. Some of the houses in the nice neighbourhoods are, if not impressive and beautiful then at least imposing and large. And why? Because of the prevalence of an equally destructive industry as the whale slaughter that Ishmael will come to abhor. Whence came yonder lofty McMansions? One and all, they were dug out of the earth and refined out of the sand.

Not quite as evocative as Ishmael’s image of houses being dragged out of the ocean, I grant you. But I’m not Herman Melville, no matter how hard I try. Anyhow. Back to business.

Chapter 7: The Chapel

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The modern Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford, which stands on the same land as the OLD Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford which burned down, but which was the inspiration for Melville’s chapel.

Ishmael and Queequeg spend the next three chapters in church. The church they go to actually exists, by the way. It burned down in the 1860s, but they rebuilt it. It was originally a church specifically for the whalers of New Bedford and their families — a place to go and pray that neither you nor any of your loved ones will get eaten by sea monsters. It’s a valid mandate for a church: people died at sea in droves back then. The main purpose of this chapter is to establish that fact. The memorial plaques on the wall of the chapel make us aware of the fact that we are following Ishmael on a journey of staggering risk. It’s Melville’s way of ratcheting up the tension, the way a fantasy writer might point out all of the human bones in the cave that the would-be dragonslayer has just entered.

Except that it’s also really powerful. As Ishmael observes the grieving families around the chapel’s memorials, he reflects: “Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say—here, here lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these.” It’s an observation that applies to more than nautical deaths. Imagine having a missing loved one. Plenty of people in that situation, in this country. “Ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these.”

Chapter 8: The Pulpit

In keeping with the chapel’s general decor, the pulpit is fashioned in the likeness of the prow of a ship. Ishmael doesn’t come out and say it, but this is real tacky. The whole idea of decorating a whaler’s chapel like a ship is tacky. It’s like the pastor thinks the congregation needs these symbols of seafaring life to remind them of their shared identity. If that’s true, then it isn’t a very strong shared identity. There was a seafood restaurant like this in Fort McMurray, which is full of nostalgic expat Newfoundlanders. Rigging along the walls, part of a rowboat affixed to the ceiling. I always thought, how can this possibly be helping?

Here’s something interesting: Wikipedia tells me that the tacky pulpit was Melville’s invention. There was no such thing in the actual chapel. But after Moby-Dick became a hit, they made one. Ugh.

A final observation: Ishmael expresses an opinion that the pulpit is at the head of the world. The person giving a sermon is in the lead, and everybody else follows. Given certain things that happen in the next few chapters, I’m inclined to think that this is less a display of religious conviction from Ishmael than a display of faith in the power of language. The pulpit is a place where speeches are made, and people act on those speeches. That’s powerful, and it’s a good illustration of why Ishmael believes in language, and storytelling, more than anything else. (Alas, his faith in language will betray him when he falls under the spell of a famously adept speechmaker with one leg and an axe to grind, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

Chapter 9: The Sermon

(We’re still at church. Nothing’s happening still.)

If the chapel’s decor was tacky, then Father Mapple’s constant use of sailor-speak as metaphors is downright vulgar. “…one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures.” Please.

Still, the Father’s sermon is pretty clever. He starts off with a hymn: a whaling-inspired adaptation of Psalm 18 in the hymnbook Melville grew up with, in which a sinner is filled with fear and anxiety before finding salvation in prayer. Ever heard Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman?” That’s a better version, with kickass piano and no happy ending. After the hymn, Father Mapple tells the story of Jonah, which is A LITTLE ON THE NOSE YOU’VE GOTTA ADMIT. But he tells the story of Jonah’s encounter with the whale in a way that makes it fit the narrative of Psalm 18 (and “Sinnerman,” actually). That’s a bit of a rhetorical ninja move. And he is capable of some really good lines, our Father. I particularly like this one: “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.” Kind of backs up Ishmael’s antipathy towards paying passengers in the first chapter, doesn’t it?

Also, do you think this priest talks about Jonah every Sunday? Maybe he alternates between Jonah and the whale and Noah’s ark? I feel like this guy doesn’t have time for Bible stories about the desert.

Chapter 10: A Bosom Friend

First, the plot: Ishmael gets back from church, bonds with Queequeg, and worships a wooden idol with him – no small thing for a Presbyterian.

Here we have a chapter where my Norton Critical really comes in handy. The good Dr. Hershel Parker’s footnotes have pointed out to me that the 30 pieces of silver Queequeg gifts Ishmael with are an echo of the 30 pieces of silver Judas received for betraying Jesus. They also inform me that, in spite of Ishmael’s straightforwardly admirable and humanist justification for joining Queequeg in his worship ceremony (dude just wants to be friendly) it is a blasphemous justification according to the conventional reading of Exodus. (“I am a jealous god” and all that.) So, 30 pieces of silver for a betrayal of the lord. A neat metaphor. But I’m with Ishmael on this one. Screw the jealous god. Just be nice.

The footnotes also assert that Melville’s blasphemy was maybe the second-most important reason why his writing career ended prematurely. The first, seemingly, was piracy. Not the fun maritime kind of piracy, though. That would just be too on the nose. The banal, intellectual property kind of piracy.

Chapter 11: Nightgown

Another chapter in which Ishmael and Queequeg bond with each other in bed. Ishmael carefully elides any sexy business that may have happened, leaving gaps for the internet to fill in. I do wonder whether Melville actually wanted us to see Ishmael and Queequeg as lovers. I hope so. They’re delightful.

Also: I really love Ishmael’s point about us not being fully ourselves unless we have our eyes closed. It’s a way of shutting out the reality outside and constructing our own reality. There’s a degree of narcissism in this. I suspect that no narrator, and indeed no writer, could manage a book like this without being intensely narcissistic. But Ishmael’s is a benign narcissism: in fact it allows him to understand others better because he has fully taken stock of himself.

Chapter 12: Biographical

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These pictures are from Rockwell Kent’s old-as-balls illustrated edition, BTW.

At last we get to hear Queequeg’s backstory. He’s the son of a king on a non-existent Pacific island. “It is not down in any map,” Ishmael informs us, “true places never are.” Whatever, dude.

Basically, Queequeg decided one day after an encounter with some white men who came by on a ship that he’d like to visit Christendom, learn what he can, and return to his people to help engender some kind of cultural exchange. So, he managed with great difficulty to convince the captain of the ship to take him to America. But soon he came to realize that white Christians could be cruel and venal and that this wasn’t his world. But then, neither was his home island, anymore. He felt he was too Christianized to rightly ascend his father’s throne. Thus, he is a man of the sea: a skilled harpooner who can live nationlessly aboard whaling vessels until such a time when he feels it’s right to go home.

Chapter 13: Wheelbarrow

AND WE’RE MOVING. After eleven chapters in New Bedford, our narrator has finally set off for the OG whaling port of Nantucket on a schooner. He’s got Queequeg in tow and thank god for that, because this chapter also contains some HONEST TO GOD ACTION, a thing our scholarly narrator seems slightly ill-adapted for, however much of a salt he is.

I seriously love this moment where we first see Queequeg in action. One of the would-be whalers (Ishmael calls him a “bumpkin”) on the schooner dares to mock Queequeg, and he responds by calmly THROWING HIM INTO THE AIR and flipping him around SO THAT HE LANDS PERFECTLY ON HIS FEET. SIDDOWN, BUMPKIN. Naturally, this display of Jackie Chan-style comedy violence provokes the ire of the captain. But that ire can only last so long, because the ship’s boom comes detached, leaving everybody on deck scrambling. Having now established that Queequeg is Spider-Man, it makes perfect sense when Ishmael tells us that he single-handedly fixes the problem in a whirlwind of jumping and lasso twirling — rescuing our lowly bumpkin in the process since he’s been flung overboard in all the commotion. I guess that’s how awesome Queequeg has to be if he wants to not get treated like shit. He has to be an actual superhero.

Do these tall tales of Queequeg’s derring-do strain credulity? (QUEEQUEG IS FAKE NEWS) Maybe. But remember what book we’re reading. You can’t quite tell the real from the fake; the comical from the plain faced; the sane from the mad.

Onwards.

To be continued.

Omnibus (week of Jan. 21, 2018)

A big week for podcasts, a small week for everything else. Also, if you’d like to hear me try and make a connection between a prototypical sound recording from 1860 and a Bruce Springsteen song, you are cordially invited to scrub to 2:00:57 in this podcast.

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Herman Melville: Moby-Dick — This is happening. I’m putting my whole reading list on hold for this, and I have no regrets so far. For now, I will only signpost that I’ve started it. I guarantee I will have lots to say about it at some point, but who knows when and in what form that will come. In any case: I have started reading Moby-Dick. Pick of the week.

Adam Gopnik: “The Corrections” — This is a long essay I found thanks to a link in a shorter essay I found thanks to the fact that I’m reading Moby-Dick. (By the way, I’m reading Moby-Dick.) Gopnik wrote it in 2007, which was actually a fairly long time ago, and it contains some blasé sexism that I suspect Gopnik would regret nowadays. Or, maybe I should say — it contains some blasé acceptance of the sexism in James Bond movies, but it adds up to the same. Also, it hails from a time when DVDs were dominant and people watched movies with director’s commentaries. (I do miss director’s commentaries.) Still, it’s a good piece of criticism. The subject is essentially alterations being made to established texts — like the abridged version of Moby-Dick, or Apocalypse Now: Redux. The Moby-Dick bit is the best. I’ll quote his conclusion here and leave you to read the rest should you see fit: “…when you come to the end of the compact ‘Moby-Dick’ you don’t think, What a betrayal; you think, Nice job — what were the missing bits again? And when you go back to find them you remember why the book isn’t just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby.”

Music

Barbara Hannigan: Tiny Desk Concert — What a perfect choice for the tiny desk. Hannigan is maybe the most exciting artist in classical music, full stop. And in this miniature set, she sings four weird German art songs by Alexander Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler, Hugo Wolf, and Arnold Schoenberg, which are all captivating. I would say I’d like to hear more art songs at the tiny desk, but frankly most art songs bore me to tears. It takes an expert curator with sublime musicianship to bring this off. It’s great.

Movies

Don’t Think Twice — I’ve been meaning to watch this since it came out, and was reminded of it on Chris Gethard’s last podcast. I confess, I have a personal stake in this because I feel as though it outlines an alternate timeline version of my life. It’s about a troupe of 20/30-something improv comedians on the precipice of either breakout fame or the need to give up entirely. I was an improv kid in high school, and I can attest to the accuracy of this movie’s portrayal of adult improvisers. When you spend so much of your time on an art form that demands constantly saying yes to everything and essentially ignoring your god-given impulse control, it can cause you to act really strangely in social situations. I gave improv up after high school, studied classical trumpet, and was never spontaneous again, thank Jesus. But I know people who kept going with it, and they were increasingly difficult to associate with because improv makes your brain work in a weird way, like you’re constantly on a mild stimulant. Mike Birbiglia (who directed this and wrote the bits that aren’t actually improvised) understands this, and in that sense, Don’t Think Twice is a fascinating movie to watch. The casting is flawless, with Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs standing out in particular as two very different kinds of people that improv attracts. Key is the hyper-performative show-off whose sense of self depends on the attention of others. (I was this.) Jacobs is the team player who believes in the art, and the slightly mystical notion of “group mind” that it’s based on. Birbiglia’s best decision as a writer was to take these two archetypes and put them in a relationship. The personal drama in the film springs from the same personality differences that make its two central characters such different presences onstage. Birbiglia and Gethard flesh out other important elements in the troupe’s collective psyche. Birbiglia plays the flipside of Key’s character: the one whose hunger for attention goes unsatisfied and makes him an insecure man-child. And Gethard plays, seemingly, his younger self: a person who can’t find purchase in the world around him, and takes solace in an increasingly untenable dream. (If you don’t like movies about sad creatives, give this one a miss.) The problems I have with the movie are the same problems I have with Birbiglia’s stand-up. He’s a fantastic storyteller, but he always has a theme in mind and he’s completely unwilling to let it arise naturally. His impulse is always to use the most obvious metaphor. For example: he establishes at the beginning of the movie that the first rule of improv is to say yes. When you negate something a teammate says onstage, it’s called “blocking” and it’s the most basic error in the improv book. Near the end of the movie, Birbiglia has a relationship come to an end during an improv scene — in which the breaker-up blocks the break-upee. It’s too much, and in a movie about spontaneity, it really exposes the strings in a way that takes you out of the experience. This sort of thing happens a lot: an audience member will shout something to the troupe for the purpose of showing the movie audience how the characters are feeling, or an improv scene will ham-fistedly reflect on the goings-on offstage. But the contrivances in the story can be mostly forgiven because of how real the characters feel. I suspect this is a movie that plays a lot better for people who have some experience with improv. Watch it if that describes you, or if you like any of the actors in it, because it’s worthwhile for the performances alone.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Romans” — I enjoyed this more than I expected to, given my lack of enthusiasm for a) historically-focussed episodes of Doctor Who, and b) the William Hartnell era in general. But for all its manifold flaws, there are some charming things in this. First off, Hartnell himself is finally playing the Doctor as a character that’s identifiably the same as his future, more famous incarnations. You need only look at his gleeful expression when he realizes his role in the burning of Rome to recognize that Hartnell, for all his manifold flaws, invented this character in a way he’s not always given credit for. He’s flubbing his lines as much as ever, but he’s so charming in this. This version of the Doctor, the gleefully Rome-burning one, comes back in many a future “geronimo,” “would you like a jelly baby,” and “oh, brilliant!” It’s also marvellous to have Vicky around instead of Susan, because she was always a problematic character to say the least. Maureen O’Brien plays Vicky as intelligent, curious and brave — three things that Susan was manifestly not, in spite of the characters’ assertions that she was. I’m quite a fan of Nero being portrayed as a bumbling idiot whose key purpose is to get fucked with by the Doctor, who is in a particularly playful mood this time around. I am less fond of Nero’s tendency to chase Barbara — the show’s longest-standing female character — around his palace in a clear attempt to commit some form of sexual violence. That last bit aside, I have basically just enumerated all of the redeeming qualities in this story, which very much remains television from the 60s that is mostly of historical interest.

The Good Place: “The Burrito” — I’m still waiting for this show to repeat itself. This takes place almost entirely in settings we haven’t seen before, and introduces another whole mechanic into the show’s cosmology: an ageless judge played by Maya Rudolph — my second-favourite guest appearance in this show so far, after Maribeth Monroe as Mindy St. Clair. She can spin a line like nobody else. Still, I find myself much more interested in the twists and turns of the story itself than I do in the show’s larger thematic concerns or, crucially, the jokes. To a certain extent I think The Good Place is the first sitcom I’ve watched where the jokes aren’t always funny but it doesn’t matter. There’s a perfect example in this episode. Near the beginning, Jason comes up with the loony idea that perhaps the burrito sitting before the group is in fact the judge they’ve been looking for. Tahani replies: “Don’t be so bloody ridiculous. Judges aren’t food, judges are serious people who wear long silk nightgowns and big white powdered wigs.” In a Tina Fey show, that would not pass muster. It’s a moment where, according to the rhythms of a single camera, non-laugh track sitcom, there should be a joke, and that line fills the space — not especially well. But you don’t really need to laugh during this scene, because, crazy as it sounds, you’re actually caught up in the question of what is actually going on with that burrito. And Eleanor refocusses the conversation on that pretty much immediately afterwards. It’s a very distinctive comedy that can make you care about the identity of a burrito more than you care about the jokes.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Viking’s Choice: The Year In Cathartic Screams And Meditative Drones,” “New Year, New Mix: Typhoon, Lucy Dacus, Anna Burch, More” & “New Mix: David Byrne, Sylvan Esso, Nils Frahm, More” — I always love the year-end Viking’s Choice episode with Lars Gotrich, but the MVP of these three episodes of All Songs is definitely the most recent of them. It features a David Byrne track, co-written with Brian Eno (I’m already salivating), an appearance from Tom Huizenga to talk about Nils Frahm (whose new album sounds more promising than his last, which I did like), and a beautiful track by Darlingside, who I hadn’t heard of but whose album I will 100% check out. Likewise for Typhoon. Mostly I’m writing this to remind myself what to listen to later.

Imaginary Worlds: “Brain Chemistry” & “Doctor Who?” — “Brain Chemistry” is a collaboration with The Truth that I liked well enough, though I never especially like The Truth. This is about a guy who gets cryogenically frozen and wakes up as nothing but a brain. Listen if that sounds like a fun premise. The real attraction, though, is the first episode of Eric Molinsky’s Doctor Who mini-series. It’s very 101, but for most people that’ll be necessary. Also Molinsky does something here that he’s done before, which I always love: he focuses in on the reception of a piece of fiction rather than its making, and he finds people whose reception of that fiction is unique in some way. The best part of this episode features an interview with a trans man and his wife about how the Doctor’s constant state of change gave them a language to use in reference to his transition. It’s lovely stuff, and I’m looking forward to seeing what more specific topics Molinsky dives into.

Constellations: “joan schuman – walking in bad circles” — Of all the podcasts I listened to while I was cooking this week, this is the one that probably got the rawest deal. Always listen to Constellations through headphones, folks. It’s the only way it works. All the same, I really like the phrase “walking in bad circles,” which makes up a significant part of this short piece.

Criminal: “The Choir” — A deeply affecting story about Lawrence Lessig, of internet law fame, and the way he dealt with a horrifying instance of childhood abuse by a predator. This is one of the heavy episodes of Criminal, which I can sometimes find hard to take. I like when this show does light subject matter, because it shows the flexibility of their premise, which is basically “crime!” But this one’s good.

The Memory Palace: “The Prairie Chicken in Wisconsin: Highlights of a Study of Counts, Behaviour, Turnover, Movement and Habitat” & “The Nickel Candy Bar” — The Memory Palace has a few kinds of stories that it does often. One of them is “driven, iconoclastic woman from a bygone time defies the norms of her era.” This is a good kind of story, and the first of these two episodes is a particularly good iteration of it. It also incorporates elements of another Memory Palace standby: the environmental parable. So, it is altogether one of the most Memory Palace episodes of The Memory Palace, and that is a good thing. “The Nickel Candy Bar” is a lovely thing with a bit more structural adventurousness than usual. It starts with one story, abruptly transitions to another, brings them together, then undercuts the whole thing. Marvellous.

Bullseye: “Rian Johnson & The Go! Team” — The Rian Johnson interview is what makes this worthwhile. He’s a charming and funny guy, and this conversation really drives home the thing I’ve been saying about The Last Jedi all this time: it’s just a Star Wars movie. A very good but totally ordinary and in no way groundbreaking or unusual Star Wars movie. The only exception to this that Johnson and Jesse Thorn get to is that the reveal about Rey’s parentage reverses the franchise’s reliance on bloodlines for narrative importance. Granted, that’s not a small thing. But it’s only one thing in a whole movie full of things that strongly resemble everything else about Star Wars.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: Four-episode catch-up — I’ll be seeing The Florida Project ASAP, but I believe I’ll give Mrs. Maisel a miss. This panel wasn’t hot on Phantom Thread, which doesn’t surprise me, but I’m quite certain I’ll like it more than them. I’m prepared for it not to be There Will Be Blood or The Master. But I’ll like it. I’m 90% sure. Will I watch The Good Doctor? No I will not.

Reply All: “Apocalypse Soon” & “The Bitcoin Hunter” — Okay, now I’m starting to want more bespoke stories and fewer segments on this show. “Apocalypse Soon” is a fine and deeply entertaining episode. Anything that finds Alex Blumberg giggling about a meme is okay by me. And “The Bitcoin Hunter” is a captivating Super Tech Support that does everything you want a Reply All story to do. But I want more Sruthi Pinnamaneni.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “House of Night – The Lost Creation Songs of the Mojave People” — This is the story of two men who recorded and archived hundreds of Mojave songs. Being a Kitchen Sisters piece, it’s full of amazing archival tape and sounds great. But the story is compelling in itself. I always love how the Kitchen Sisters foreground the way that recordings and archives don’t just document, but can actually affect the course of history. In this case, a recording of a mostly forgotten song helped to save the Ward Valley and Colorado River from development by proving the longstanding Mohave connection to that land.

Theory of Everything: “Utopia (part iii)” — Instead of reviewing this I will tell a story about something that happened to me as I was listening to it. I started it on my lunch break, at which point I went out for a salad. As I sat and ate, I had a realization of a kind that I frequently have: that somebody I know has been trying to get my attention. In this case, it was a co-worker, and she was about to give up completely and leave me to my lunch when I looked up and saw her. Little did I know, this was not the whole story. The next day, a different co-worker came up to me and told me that he’d been waving at me and calling my name in that same restaurant at that same time, to no avail. He was just about to walk up to me and tap me on the shoulder when I noticed my other co-worker standing in the line. Two separate people tried and failed, or nearly failed, to get my attention while I listened to this. I guess it must be good.

Radiolab: “The Voice in Your Head – A Tribute to Joe Frank” — Oh god, how I wish I could dive into this guy’s archive for free. Joe Frank is a radio innovator I had never heard of until a few weeks ago, and I can already see how his work informs so much of what I love in radio. This features Jad Abumrad, Brooke Gladstone and Ira Glass talking about him, but aside from those three I see a huge debt to Frank in Nate DiMeo’s work, and even more so in Jonathan Goldstein’s. I could even see Kaitlin Prest being an acolyte of his. The stories they play here are outstanding and I will definitely be buying some of his pieces from his website (this is how he operated, even in a post-podcast world). This made me want to go make radio immediately. Pick of the week.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “Boy Crazy” — This is a lighter episode of Beautiful/Anonymous, and also a lesser one. The caller is a 21-year-old artsy college student with some insecurities. The thing that makes the conversation work when it works is that Chris Gethard really relates to her, having been in much the same situation himself. But it’s awkward and meandering in a way that these conversations usually avoid being. I mostly enjoyed this. But the appeal of this format is that it isn’t always going to work. Really, the appeal of anything Chris Gethard does is that it isn’t always going to work.

Fresh Air: “Paul Thomas Anderson On ‘Phantom Thread’” — P.T.A. seems like a decent fellow. I’m prepared to basically enjoy Phantom Thread without being over the moon about it. But hearing the director talk about working once again with Daniel Day-Lewis and Jonny Greenwood makes me remember how much I love this guy’s work and everybody in his orbit.

99% Invisible: “Speech Bubbles: Understanding Comics with Scott McCloud” — Coincidentally, I just started a class on writing for comics. I read Understanding Comics a few years ago, and it blew my mind. McCloud is a very clever guy, and hearing him talk with Roman Mars is fun because they both get angry about bad design.

Song by Song: “Gun Street Girl, Rain Dogs, Tom Waits” — Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer are the only two guests so far in the Rain Dogs episodes who haven’t really worked. You need pop culture geeks for a show like this, and as much as I love Criminal, Phoebe Judge manifestly isn’t that. Lauren Spohrer may be slightly more so, but this isn’t a very enlightening conversation.

Code Switch: “The ‘R-Word’ In The Age Of Trump” — In which Kat Chow gets called out by a listener for not calling Trump racist. But… institutions like NPR are huge beasts that can sometimes force you to work against your better judgement. Fortunately, there’s such a thing as Code Switch, where conversations like this can happen publicly.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The 4th Amendment and the Border” — “The border” is not a line, legally speaking. It is a space of up to 100 miles wide. Who knew?

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Secrets #3 – Broken Dreams” — A man hides his unemployment from his father for months. A good story, but the weakest of this series so far. I am not very invested in this, I’ll confess. But I’m too far in now to quit.

Omnibus (week of Jan. 7, 2018)

I was recently in a room that contained nearly all of the people who read this blog. (Hey guys!) I sometimes reflect that it is an act of madness to continue writing thousands of words per week on a blog whose audience numbers in the low dozens. But here we are.

13 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage — Having re-read His Dark Materials in its entirety in anticipation for this, along with all of its supplemental novellas, Audible-exclusive short stories etc., I am happy to announce that I am by no means disappointed with La Belle Sauvage. However, I may have approached it with slightly too much enthusiasm, egged on by the good reviews. Surely, I thought, if the critics love it this much, I’ll love it more. But here’s the thing: La Belle Sauvage feels very much like the first book in a trilogy. Specifically, it feels like The Golden Compass. Pullman’s original trilogy of novels about Lyra and company gained steam as they went along. There’s little hint of the cosmic warfare and tragic romance of The Amber Spyglass in the Arctic adventure story of The Golden Compass. And what shreds of it exist in that first book aren’t obvious until you finish the last. It seems to me that Pullman might be pulling something similar in the trilogy that will make up The Book of Dust. This book is a fairly straightforward adventure story, and it takes place in a much smaller geographical space than The Golden Compass did. But there are hints and suggestions here, particularly near the end of the book, that the fantastical multiverse of the first trilogy may have even more facets and mechanics than we’d been led to believe. And there are also seeds being planted about the trilogy’s themes. Where His Dark Materials was about the virtue of human curiosity and progressive values, The Book of Dust looks like it’s going to tackle the nature of consciousness. But it’s not there yet. The closest that La Belle Sauvage comes to Pullman’s acclaimed critique of religion and authority in his previous work comes in a slightly heavy-handed plotline about a government organization that encourages children to narc on their parents and teachers for being inadequately pious. This is an early incarnation of the fearsome theocracy we see in His Dark Materials, which has yet to consolidate its power. All the same, Pullman paints it with a far thicker brush than in his other books and once or twice he comes off as didactic, which he never has before. Still, his powers of description are as sharp as ever, and he leads his characters through one setting after another that comes straight to life the same way that Bolvangar did in The Golden Compass or the land of the dead did in The Amber Spyglass. As a child, I was determined to go to university in large part because of the way Pullman described Oxford in his books. Fifteen years later, La Belle Sauvage made me wonder whether I might like to run a pub in my retirement. Its main characters can’t compete with Lyra and Will, but how could they. It’s a fantastic yarn, and I have no doubt that it’ll balloon outwards into something really special in the next two books. If The Subtle Knife is any indication of where Pullman’s going next, it’ll be terrifying.

Music

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run — I grew up listening to music from my parents’ generation. I expect this had something to do with my own somewhat perverse interpretation of what it means to be rebellious, which was to act like an alien who arrived in Fort McMurray, Alberta from Jupiter, by way of Edwardian London and subsequently Haight-Ashbury circa 1967. All teenagers have their affectations. Mine were just really specific. As part of my effort to distance myself from my actual circumstances, which were that I came from an upwardly-mobile family in the nice part of a shabby little oil town, I consciously avoided all of the music that my peers enjoyed. After all, they all came from those same sorts of families. Strange, then, that it was the music of the authority figures in my life — parents, music teachers, etc. — that transported me farthest away: classical music, and rock from about 1965-80. Soon enough, I found myself exploring corners of those idioms that my elder gatekeepers hadn’t ever seen. Beethoven and Chopin at age 12 led to Stockhausen and Ligeti at 16. Pink Floyd and the Beatles in middle school led to Van Der Graaf Generator and Captain Beefheart by junior high. This music was the score to my teenage years, which were a long-term piece of bad performance art. (As is this blog. Some of our worst impulses follow us around forever.) It occurred to me at some point during my first full listen through Born to Run this week that Bruce Springsteen’s music is custom made for the purpose I used Stockhausen and Beefheart for back then. Born to Run is a hymnal of anthems about escape. It’s an outlet for youthful energy with nowhere to go. It’s a reasonably accurate portrait of me at age 17. (Only psychologically, though. Even today, I can barely drive. Wendy would not have got to Thunder Road with me behind the wheel.) It is also a record I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to at that age. If I had, I would have thrown it away in embarrassment if anybody found out. Why have I only come around to this a decade after it was actually relevant to me? I have a theory: the last thing that would have served my need for escape in my Fort Mac days is music about the need to escape. Back then, I didn’t choose music that I could identify with. I listened to music that had as little to do with me as possible: deliberately alienating music like John Cage and Jethro Tull, or music with seemingly cosmic significance like Mahler or Yes. I have only come to listen to music on the basis of its resonance with my own life within the last few years. (Therein lies the basis for my late 2017 obsession with Margo Price, my early 2016 obsession with John Congleton, and my perpetual need to listen to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. Take from each of these what you will.) It took a long time for me to fully shake off my aversion to any music that reminded me of my own mundane circumstances. And in that time, those circumstances changed. Now, when I listen to Born to Run, I don’t especially sympathize with Springsteen’s characters and their youthful restlessness. But I remember feeling that way. The boundless romanticism of this music makes me realize that my former perversity, the impulse that would have led me to reject Springsteen at the time, was born of the very same romanticism that he’s expressing on this record. Sub out Springsteen’s chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected, velvet-rimmed suicide machines for a carpeted basement floor and a pair of headphones pumping out harpsichord music, and you’ve got a perfect image of me exactly ten years ago. I expect that a similar substitution exists for nearly everybody. Pick of the week.

Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town — Somewhere in the gap between the release of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen was the age I am now. Maybe that has something to do with why my initial thoughts on this album are so much less clear than my initial thoughts on Born to Run. Darkness is famously less optimistic than its predecessor, and those who connect with it really connect with it. That’s clear from a cursory look through remarks in various online fan communities. It’s also clear from some of the retrospective reviews in professional outlets. When this album was repackaged with a slew of bonus material as The Promise a few years back, Pitchfork gave it an 8.5 and an actually quite insightful review that characterizes it as an album “about grim acceptance and pressing on in the face of doubt.” That’s very accurate. If Born to Run is a dream of a far-off Utopia, Darkness on the Edge of Town is a diary about making the best of it after you’ve given up on that dream. It isn’t until one album later that Springsteen will ask “is a dream a lie if it don’t come true,” but the spirit of that inquiry is here in spades. I like most, if not all of the songs on this, but the one I find myself revisiting obsessively is the title track, which suggests that even after Utopia has faded from view, it doesn’t stop some of us from lingering in the liminal spaces where we used to catch a glimpse of it. Wanting is a key concept in Springsteen, and he’s never written a verse more eloquent about it than “Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost / I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost / For wanting things that can only be found / In the darkness on the edge of town.” This is going to be a grower.

Bruce Springsteen: The River — This is a hard album to pin down. In spite of their drastically different subject matter, Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town share a relatively consistent aesthetic, thanks to the amazing E Street Band. Their huge sound on those albums, with Clarence Clemons’ saxophone in the fore, and a mix of piano, organ and glockenspiel sitting alongside the guitars in the central texture, is an obvious forerunner of totally over-the-top artists like Meat Loaf and Arcade Fire. And that sound is present on The River, in tracks like “Hungry Heart” and some of the ballads — “I Wanna Marry You” in particular. But the overall impression is like a more polished Exile on Main St., where the band is willing to experiment in public. It’s a huge album, clearly, at nearly an hour and a half. And it contains a handful of songs that rival the emotional high points of the previous two albums for poignancy: “The River,” “Wreck on the Highway,” and especially “Drive All Night,” which feels a bit like “Darkness on the Edge of Town” stretched out to twice its length and with twice as much regret. But The River is too big of a thing to have even a shadow of a thesis statement about on one listen. I’ll figure it out next time. But first, let’s address the elephant in the room, namely “Cadillac Ranch.” This is a song that I did not know was by Bruce Springsteen. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s cover of this song was the score to an unpleasant episode in my youth wherein my classmates and I were taught, nay, forced to line dance by the physical education curriculum of the province of Alberta. Too bad, because Springsteen’s original would be an irresistibly energetic bit of country rock if it didn’t retraumatize me. What a fine pile of weird memories this Springsteen binge has dredged up.

Podcasts

Code Switch catch-up — I am nearly caught up on this now, after having been backed up by two months. One does not miss an episode of Code Switch, because to do so is to miss an opportunity to be a slightly better, or at least more knowledgeable, person. Their year-end wrap up really puts the final nail in the coffin of 2017 being remembered as anything but a dung heap. It’s great.

The Memory Palace: “On the Shores of Assawompset” & “John C. Calhoun from the Opposite Side of the Line that Divides the Living from the Dead” — Two good ones. “On the Shores of Assawompset” is one of Nate DiMeo’s periodic episodes that pokes holes in colonial narratives. These are always appreciated, and you should listen to this if you’d like some clarity on the truth of the relationship between the pilgrims and the natives of the land they came to. The John C. Calhoun episode is more lighthearted, but still manages to tie in with pre-Civil War slavery narratives. This show really isn’t like anything else.

Crimetown: Three bonus episodes — I remain mixed on this show and uncertain whether I’ll be back for season two. It depends on the city they choose to explore, I suppose. But these bonus episodes tell some good stories. The most eminently recommendable is also the one I’d be most cautious to recommend: “Courtney” is about a woman who fell into an abusive relationship with a powerful predator while she was a minor. It’s harrowing stuff, but she’s allowed to tell her own story and if you’re not concerned about the potential triggers it’s worth hearing. It also stands alone pretty well, so you don’t necessarily need to have heard the whole of season one. And I’m not sure I’d recommend that you do that unless you’re a pathological true crime consumer.

Imaginary Worlds catch-up — The biggest news in the three episodes of this I listened to is that Eric Molinsky will be opening the new year with a series on Doctor Who. I don’t know what to anticipate. I really liked his series on Star Wars and Harry Potter, but those are franchises I have limited engagement with, at least insofar as I have no idea what their respective fandoms are on about these days. But Doctor Who is a thing I love dearly — it’s probably the one franchise that falls under Molinsky’s aegis that I’d call myself obsessed with. I wonder if I’ll still get something out of this show when I’m deeply familiar with the subject matter. In any case, I’ll listen with interest. As for these episodes, two of the ones I listened to deal with The Expanse, which I’ve neither read nor seen and don’t have much interest. But that’s part of the appeal of this show: I can get a sense of what something like The Expanse is on about without spending more than an hour. The update of Molinsky’s episode on The Force Awakens that deals with The Last Jedi is interesting, but once again I’m baffled at why anybody feels it is such a radical departure from the previous films. It is a perfectly adequate, safe, blockbuster with some really great scenes with Luke and some really nonsense scenes with Benicio del Toro. It’s Star Wars. Get over yourselves. Sorry, I have to be a jerk sometimes.

Constellations catch-up — Again, not quite caught up. But there was some good stuff in there: Aleksandra Bragoszewska’s “Coarse and Janky” is a lovely portrait of outsider artists doing what they believe in. Craig Desson’s “06-30-24” is an elegant bit of dreamlike sound art about his MacBook. Apparently he’s a bit Adam Curtis fan. It shows, and that’s good.

More Perfect: “The Architect” & “Justice, Interrupted” — “The Architect” is an updated episode from the previous season and “Justice, Interrupted” is a mini-episode about a thing I’d read about before: the constant interruption of the female Supreme Court justices by the male ones. It’s a good episode, but it’s pretty straightforward by this show’d complicated standards. I can’t wait for the season finale, though.

StartUp: “StartupBus Part 1: Monday” — Insufferable. This show has been on the skids for some time, and while I have tentatively high hopes for the next season, which will be serialized in the vein of this show’s three best seasons, I will not be listening to the remaining four episodes of “StartupBus.” Serialized it may be, but I’ve seldom heard a podcast that reminds me more of the godawful contrivances of reality TV. Basically, one of the show’s producers gets on a bus with a bunch of random strangers who are all on that bus to start companies within the span of a weeklong trip. The StartupBus is a machine built to generate needless conflict, narrative and otherwise. It is full of buzzword spouting delusional people with no calling and no passion. I hate it. I wish it didn’t exist. Do not listen to this.

On the Media: “Outrage Machine” — Worth it for Bob Garfield’s interview with Michael Wolff, the author of Fire and Fury, who defends himself reasonably well against charges of having misled his sources. Also for Brooke Gladstone’s one-year-later follow up interview with Masha Gessen, who was on the show previously to talk about her rules for surviving autocracies. How are we doing at “believing the autocrat,” asks Gladstone? (Not well, but he doesn’t make it easy.)

In Our Time: “Moby-Dick,” “Beethoven” & “Hamlet” — Melvyn Bragg’s final run of the year includes three episodes on huge things. I listened to these one after the other and it’s definitely the most fun I had doing dishes this week. Bragg is clearly enjoying himself in all of these episodes, especially given that the topics at hand are relatively well understood by lots of his listeners, probably. So he can facilitate a discussion that basically asks, “we know how this thing is, but why is it like that?” I’m fondest of the Moby-Dick episode, probably because I’m least familiar with that topic. (I haven’t read Moby-Dick, but I’ve reread the first chapter at least a dozen times. It is one of my favourite things in all of literature. I dunno why I’ve never gotten any farther. Sheer intimidation, probably.) By the same token, the Beethoven episode is the weakest, simply because I can’t accept one of Bragg’s panelists’ take at face value. I’ve listened to Beethoven for hundreds and hundreds of hours. And while I find him deeply inspiring, I cannot accept that his music is fundamentally about overcoming adversity. The idea of instrumental music being about anything at all strikes me as wrong, as it did Leonard Bernstein. But that’s just me, and disagreeing with things is part of what makes this show fun. The Hamlet episode is great, particularly for some of the details about the play’s development from its early versions, which I’ve never read. (Nobody has.) I really love this show. Even when it’s about stuff that I know a little about, I never feel like it’s condescending to me. It is one of a precious handful of public radio shows that always proceeds under the assumption that its audience isn’t dumb. Pick of the week.

25 things I loved in 2017

Each year, I compile my own personal, inevitably idiosyncratic list of my favourite things from that year. This year, congratulations are owed to me for actually getting it out in the actual calendar year I’m writing about. So what if I haven’t seen all the movies I meant to see and barely read any of this year’s acclaimed books? In the end, a year is what it is. This is the best art and entertainment I personally experienced in my version of 2017.

The list is ranked. That means I’m comparing the relative virtues of music and stand-up comedy, movies and podcasts, novels and video games. It’s not so much that it’s like comparing apples to oranges; it’s more that it’s like comparing apples to oranges to avocados to pork tenderloins to fine china to used hatchbacks to racoons to sand. Therein lies the fun.

Let’s skip the tired remarks on what a trying year it’s been and get straight to the honourable mentions, shall we?

In podcasting: my perennial favourites Reply All and Theory of Everything stayed the course and made some of the year’s best individual podcast episodes. Two shows whose first seasons I liked but didn’t love, More Perfect and Homecoming, returned with far stronger second seasons that made me certain I’ll be back for the third. Jesse Thorn’s limited series of interviews with interviewers, The Turnaround, entertained me far more than a show with that premise ought to. The Museum of Modern Art and WNYC had the extremely good idea to cut Abbi Jacobson loose in the MoMA with a microphone in A Piece of Work. And The Daily arrived to show us how to cover the news on a podcast. It is frankly the most significant innovation in the form since the first season of Serial, and it would surely be in the upper echelons of this list if I’d actually had the wherewithal to listen to it more than a handful of times. The news is stressful.

In games: my most neglected medium of 2017, Detention scared the bejesus out of me while also illustrating what it’s like to live under the yoke of totalitarianism. And the sixth and final chapter of The Dream Machine brought that story to a deeply ambiguous conclusion, but not before sending the player through a wild, rhapsodical odyssey through the deepest realms of the collective human unconscious.

In comedy: Mike Birbiglia, Patton Oswalt, and Marc Maron all delivered intermittently brilliant specials that proved (by both positive and negative example) that the way forward for stand-up comedy in a bewildering political age is to get personal.

In film: two drastically different Marvel movies proved that solid storytelling can transcend the doldrums of the increasingly exhausting superhero genre: Spider-Man: Homecoming and Logan

In television: two of Netflix’s most acclaimed juggernauts lived up to high expectations: BoJack Horseman and Stranger Things. And Game of Thrones, freed from the expectation to conform to George R.R. Martin’s plotting and pace, delivered far and away its strongest season yet.

In comics: The Wicked and the Divine remains the coolest, smartest thing in the world. And Bitch Planet’s long-awaited second trade collection amped up the action and intrigue while remaining awesomely blatant about feminism.

In books: I deeply regret the non-inclusion of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage on this list. It is a worthy expansion of a fictional world that was very dear to me as a child. If I were more than halfway through it by my self-imposed drop deadline, it would surely be here.

In music: “classical” and “experimental” won the day for me this year. Highlights included Brian Eno’s Reflection, William Basinski’s A Shadow in Time, Marc-Andre Hamelin’s recording of For Bunita Marcus by Morton Feldman, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s brilliantly straightforward recordings of the complete Mendelssohn symphonies. In popular music, two things that don’t quite count as “music from 2017” bear mentioning: Neil Young’s long-unreleased 1976 recording Hitchhiker and Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell Live: a concert film that I nearly awarded a very high spot on the list before deciding it wasn’t really eligible.

Finally, in stuff that doesn’t fall under any of the above categories, Bill Wurtz’s history of the entire world i guess is one of those things that occasionally manages to make me not hate the internet.

***

And now the list. An observation: there are only three honourees here who have been on one of my previous lists. This wasn’t by design. I suppose I was just in the mood for new things this year. Onwards.

No. 25: Blade Runner 2049

We didn’t need a new Blade Runner. And the one we got has its problems. But like its predecessor, one of my ten or twelve all-time favourite movies, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel operates at the very highest level of cinematic spectacle. The way Roger Deakins’ camera hangs and drifts across the film’s incredible sets makes the world feel grandiose in a way that many other CGI extravaganzas fail at. The shockingly aggressive, kickass score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch helps. They respect the legacy of Vangelis’s marvellous, rhapsodical score for the original movie, but aren’t afraid to get a hell of a lot louder.

Although Blade Runner 2049 is not as good a film as Blade Runner, it is one of the best examples of respecting the source without replicating it in this era of endless rehashes. It would have been simple to remake the original film beat for beat, like in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which I like). But Blade Runner is a different kind of film from Star Wars and calls for a different kind of sequel. Blade Runner is slow, thinky, painterly, and not culturally ubiquitous. In keeping with that, Blade Runner 2049 is a slow, thinky, painterly film that relies as much on its director’s unique vision as on the canon it inherits from the nostalgia object that begat it. If there is anybody who can make Dune into a movie that’s actually good, it’s probably Villeneuve. I’m on tenterhooks.

No. 24: Code Switch

codeswitch_itunes2_sq-cc90dbc5dcdff7b93734f2a1a29864cb77742948-s300-c85Code Switch became NPR’s best podcast awfully fast. 2017 found the Code Switch team reflecting at length on the legacy of Barack Obama, exploring racial identity in the Puerto Rican diaspora, and exploring the increasingly pressing questions surrounding hate, police violence, and deportation in year one of the Trump era. They’ve also put out some of the best pop culture journalism of the year.

But the show’s crown jewel is the four-part series “Raising Kings,” based on a full year of reporting on a new school where a faculty made up mostly of black men teaches a student body made up mostly of black young men. It’s a sensitive, insightful, and frequently challenging piece of documentary radio that everybody should hear. Code Switch is a show you shouldn’t ever skip an episode of. It’ll help you get through life in a more practical way than just about any other show.

No. 23: Barbara Hannigan & Ludwig Orchestra: Crazy Girl Crazy

There are several levels of “why bother being this good” at play here. Barbara Hannigan could easily have settled for being merely one of the great sopranos of our time. But no: she has to also be a trailblazer for contemporary music, daring to learn the heretofore unlearned scores of composers who write vocal challenges few but her could rise to. (This is the version of Hannigan that brought us last year’s best classical recording: let me tell you by Hans Abrahamsen.) But even that isn’t enough for her. She’s also got to be a brilliant conductor. And since she can both conduct and sing, she clearly has to do them both at the same time. In music that’s crazy hard to begin with.

Crazy Girl Crazy is Hannigan’s first disc as a conductor, and indeed her first disc as a conductor/singer. It contains a selection of music from the 20th century that all feels like it’s at the core of Hannigan. At the centre of it all is a lush, romantic reading of Alban Berg’s beautiful Lulu Suite. Hannigan has been the soprano of choice for the role of Lulu for years now. Hearing her take on the orchestral music from that opera just confirms that she owns that piece as thoroughly as any musician owns any piece of music. The Ludwig Orchestra, a young ensemble that makes its recording debut here, plays skillfully, and with all of the intensity of an orchestra that’s not sick of making music yet. And Hannigan proves again that she’s one of the most multifaceted artists working in classical music today.

No. 22: Chris Gethard: Career Suicide

I got a lot out of Chris Gethard’s various projects this year. Whether he’s being exceptionally silly on The Chris Gethard Show, turning listening into a high art on Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People, or telling the story of his own struggle with suicidal depression in this comedy special/one-man show, Gethard’s objective is simple: he just wants you to feel a bit better.

He’s a useful fellow to have around, even if your low points are a heck of a lot less dire than his. Gethard’s comedy and storytelling is something close to a public service. He’s working to normalize talking about mental illness, and he’s working against the stigmas surrounding medication for mental illnesses. But he’s also super funny, and this 90-minute HBO special is the best distillation of everything he’s been working towards. Where other comedians tend to address their own traumas with a facade of glibness or with the aid of characters, Gethard is not afraid to simply put punchlines aside for lengthy stretches and tell a story. And it’s a really good story with amazing characters including Morrissey and a therapist called Barb who thinks that the human brain was manufactured by aliens. 

No. 21: Mogul

I feel like I’ve been waiting for this podcast. I didn’t know it would come from Gimlet and I didn’t know it would be about the life and death of a hip hop businessperson. But I knew that at some point, somebody would make a rich sounding, story-driven music documentary that would prove there’s a hunger for music-focussed radio that doesn’t play full tracks. Mogul is the future.

It is also a second breakthrough for Reggie Ossé, AKA Combat Jack of The Combat Jack Show. Ossé’s approach to hosting this show isn’t quite like anything I’ve heard before. He comes to the story of Chris Lighty with a nearly complete knowledge of the musical culture that he sprang from and helped to shape. But that knowledge is secondary to the warmth and sensitivity with which he handles the story. Mogul is, among other things, a story about mental illness and domestic violence in the hip hop culture. It’s clear that, apart from the music, this is what compelled Ossé to tell the story in the first place. There is a second season forthcoming, and with the allegations against Russell Simmons that have come to light since season one wrapped, there are still plenty of thorny questions for Ossé and company to address. (Edit: I was unaware when I wrote this that Reggie Ossé passed away recently. It’s a terrible loss for podcasting. Mogul will stand as the high-water mark for music-related audio storytelling for a while to come.) 

No. 20: Tacoma

The Fullbright Company’s second game stands in a very long shadow for me. Their debut, Gone Home, was the game that re-introduced me to games after a decade’s absence. It demonstrated to me that the medium had grown and changed. Now, there were games specifically for those of us who appreciate the exploratory and narrative elements of games, but would rather not have to demonstrate sophisticated hand-eye coordination or work through complicated puzzles to get to the next bit of story.

When footage from Tacoma surfaced, two things were clear. First, this would be a more directly interactive experience than Gone Home, with more to actually do. Secondly, it was going to take place in that most “video games” of video game settings: a space station. Both of these concerned me. You may well conclude from my concerns that I essentially don’t like video games. And you may be right. But I liked Gone Home, and I held up hope for Tacoma. My hope was not misplaced. Tacoma’s approach to story is a cut above Gone Home, thanks to an innovative system of interactive cutscenes you can actually move around in. I still prefer the ambience of Gone Home’s creepy, empty mansion to the cramped quarters of the Tacoma space station. But my faith in the storytelling of the team at Fullbright is even stronger now.

No. 19: Lady Bird

I always love a movie with a good sense of place. Often, that place is New York City. Hollywood has provided a huge variety of takes on what it’s like to live in New York, from West Side Story to Rosemary’s Baby. It’s a setting that has been so well developed in movies that a) it no longer lives up to itself, and b) it’s almost shocking to see another American city painted with the same detail on the screen. With the release of Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s Sacramento joins Vince Gilligan’s Albuquerque and the Coens’ Fargo/Brainerd among the great cinematic depictions of Places People Don’t Ever Think About.

There are plenty of reasons why Lady Bird is one of the year’s best movies, including two of the year’s best performances by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, and a screenplay that handles even the smallest characters with finesse and warmth. It’s a lovely depiction of a relationship between a mother and a daughter. It’s admirably aware of the realities of class in America and the ways it plays into raising a family. But my favourite reason to love Lady Bird is that it paints a portrait of an unloved place, lovingly.

No. 18: Kendrick Lamar: DAMN.

I slept on To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015. I missed the whole conversation. It’s not a mistake I ever intend to repeat.

I suspect that in the future, we’ll still think of Butterfly as Lamar’s breakthrough moment — his Are You Experienced. (Lamar once said he’d like to be talked about like Dylan, Hendrix and the Beatles. Happy to oblige.) But DAMN. feels like the sort of record you make when you’re out to prove you’re not interested in replicating past successes and following formulas — Lamar’s Band of Gypsies, maybe. It’s the kind of album that, if you pull it off, makes you not just accomplished but vital: an artist who is brilliant regardless of the idiom in which they choose to work. Kendrick Lamar is vital.

No. 17: The Beguiled

This coiled snake is the year’s most underrated movie. The subject of The Beguiled is propriety — particularly Southern propriety — and how it’s just one tool in the patriarchy’s huge, indulgent workshop. But like all good storytellers, Sofia Coppola doesn’t start from the theme and build outward. In fact, it starts from a source that has different themes entirely: the 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle of the same name. (Or, perhaps more accurately, the novel that it’s based on. But it was the original film’s liabilities that prompted Coppola to remake it.)

The premise of both films is the same: a seminary school full of women loyal to the south is shaken by the arrival of a rather dashing but grievously injured Union soldier at their doorstep. Coppola’s masterstrokes are all in the telling of the story, rather than the story itself. Her film is as mannered and meticulously composed as the Southern ladies who inhabit it. And as the story’s potential for violence rises steadily, the tension comes from the discrepancy between the increasingly ugly atmosphere at the seminary and the film’s continuing insistence on pretty-as-a-picture decorum in its visual style. I haven’t seen filmmaking simultaneously so beautiful and savage since Hannibal got cancelled.

No. 16: Everything

I have a friend who likes to joke that my problem with video games is that I want them to be books. Fair enough. But that’s only half the story. What I really want is for a video game to be either a book or a theme park. In either case, I should ideally not have to shoot or jump over anything. The point is, I don’t need games to expect skill from me. I don’t need them to be things I can win or lose. I just want them to be experiences. For me, a great game is like Disneyland (but without the creepy half-reality that keeps you from fully suspending your disbelief). It’s a constructed reality for you to explore at your leisure. You can’t win or lose Disneyland. And yet it is still (ostensibly) fun. This is what I want from a game.

Enter Everything, my favourite game of 2017. Everything has no goals or trials to overcome. It has no traditional story. It is simply an interactive exploration of a single idea: that everything is connected. This runs the risk of getting cod-philosophical, and indeed it includes narration by the proto-hippie philosopher Alan Watts that can be hard to take seriously. But developer David OReilly undercuts his game’s potential for ham-fistedness by making everything else about it absolutely raving crazy. This is a game that offers the opportunity to be everything in it: to move around as anything from a bighorn sheep to a tiny elementary particle to a sentient hovering tea kettle the size of the sun. Everything is a fully-realized pocket universe full of planet-sized cows and trombones that travel in herds. I have never seen anything like it.

No. 15: Dunkirk

Seeing Christopher Nolan’s latest, best film in an IMAX screening sits very near the top of my list of great moviegoing experiences. Take note that this list is distinct from my list of favourite movies, and even from my list of favourite movies I’ve seen in theatres. A movie need not be a masterpiece to be an incredible experience in a theatre. Dunkirk is a truly great film, but my opinion of it is entirely contingent on the experience of seeing it in film projection, on an IMAX screen.

The beauty of IMAX is that it nearly fills your field of vision, encouraging you to forget everything that lies beyond the edges of the screen. So, when Nolan puts his camera in the galley of a ship, and it gets hit by a torpedo and fills instantly with water, you feel like you’re going to die. That, in a nutshell, is why Dunkirk is a great film: Nolan understands that cinema is an experience as much as a narrative art form, and he uses his mastery of the craft to put the audience inside of one of the most traumatic and unprecedented chapters in the history of warfare. And at the end, maybe we understand it a bit better.

14: Twin Peaks: The Return

While I was watching Twin Peaks: The Return on a week-by-week basis, I was uncertain whether I felt it was rising to the level of Twin Peaks’ original two seasons. Now that I’m not watching it week by week, I am quite certain that it altogether surpassed them. The Return was frustrating for its relative lack of familiar characters and story beats — particularly the almost complete lack of participation by the original protagonist, agent Dale Cooper, in any recognizable form. But now that the thing is complete, we can see that this series wasn’t supposed to be about Coop, and in fact that it wasn’t supposed to be about very many of the same things the original series was at all. If you can accept that and watch the show on its own terms, it reveals itself to be maybe the strangest and most ambitious season of television ever transmitted.

The eighth episode is a case in point. Much of its duration consists of abstract, non-figurative images in the vein of Stan Brakhage. Nonetheless, it does tell a recognizable story — an origin story, in fact. An origin story for the totemic evil that has haunted this show’s characters since its first episode. This could have turned out like Hannibal Rising: an unnecessary and disappointing wad of backstory that cheapens the previous instalments in the narrative. But by telling the story through lyrical, abstract, largely wordless filmmaking, David Lynch short circuits our rational brains and manages instead to convey a feeling of profound wrongness, and to convey it at length. This is how the whole of Twin Peaks: The Return worked, to a certain extent: by bypassing rationality entirely and speaking to something more primal in us. This is not something you’re supposed to be able to do on television. But it happened. There are seasons of television in higher slots on this list. But I doubt I’ll rewatch any of them. I will rewatch this.

No. 13: Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts

I fell down a Decemberists hole in April. That’s when I bought my ticket for their show at the Orpheum in August. I have never been so excited for a show. But by the time the concert actually rolled around, I was more psyched for the opening act. Olivia Chaney is one of my favourite discoveries of the year. Her solo record The Longest River has now soundtracked many a walk home in the Vancouver rain. And I owe that discovery to this record, a collaboration between Chaney and the Decemberists that rises to the standard of Chaney’s solo work and far surpasses the most recent music by the Decemberists.

The Queen of Hearts is a revival of a revival. It consists of English folk songs arranged in the style of electrified British revivalists like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. This is a legacy that both halves of the collaboration have dealt with before. Chaney draws the folk component of her repertoire from the same pool as these bands, and the Decemberists’ trilogy of masterpieces — Picaresque, The Crane Wife, and The Hazards of Love — all crib liberally from the sound of the British folk revival. Together, they prove not only that the songs still have power, but that the style does. And Chaney’s solo rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” will melt you.

No. 12: mother!

About three seconds after the house lights came up at the end of mother!, the friend I saw it with burst out into hysterical laughter and couldn’t stop for several minutes. That is the most appropriate review I can imagine for this aggressively fucked up, semi-trolling movie by Darren Aronofsky: one of modern Hollywood’s strangest auteurs. The only reaction to mother! that I may treasure more is from the New York Times commenter who wrote: “It’s been a long time since I overheard Ma and Pa Kettle talking about a film on the way out of the theater. Art above all else should be misunderstood loudly.”

From the moment that the exclamation point appears in the title card, mother! is arch and theatrical. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem give completely committed and sincere performances, but nothing else in the movie is sincere in the slightest. There are those who feel mother! can only be dealt with as a Biblical allegory — and they’ve certainly got Aronofsky’s distressingly specific remarks in interviews to back them up. He seems to be doing everything he can to reduce his creation, which offers a whole world of abstract possibility, into one tidy interpretation. But Aronofsky’s movie is too big to be held to a fixed meaning. I’m increasingly convinced that Aronofsky’s insistence on explaining away the movie’s contradictions is part of the performance: he’s casting himself as an extension of Bardem’s theological poet character, demanding dogmatic devotion to a specific meaning of his holy text. Perhaps only a critic as myopic as myself could possibly see this movie as a critique of the slipperiness of interpretation. But I do see it that way. Anyway, the real truth is just that I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, and I want it to be more than a banal Biblical allegory. Mother! is completely bonkers crazy and you’ll probably feel a little cracked at the end. Good enough for me.

No. 11: George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo (audiobook)

Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t even really about Lincoln. It’s about the processes of death and grieving that affect us all, presidents or not. Abraham Lincoln and his son Willie, who died at the age of 11, are in this story only to give it the profound specificity that all very moving stories require. They set the story in a time and a place, and give it the context of a particular personal tragedy with which we are all familiar. But the emotional heft of Lincoln in the Bardo actually stems from characters that George Saunders made up out of whole cloth: a kind old fool who died moments before consummating his marriage, and an effusive young man who regrets his suicide. These two reside in an uneasy state of quasi-friendship in a not-quite-afterlife like no other fantasy realm in fiction. Every line they speak is enthralling.

And speaking of speaking, Lincoln in the Bardo also represents the moment when the audiobook really came into its own. The cover art brags of 166 narrators, but the ones you really need to know about are Nick Offerman and David Sedaris, who play the two central characters. They are brilliant, and even Sedaris, who is not an actor, inhabits the text like a good coat. Offerman audibly delights in his character’s tendency to coin phrases that allow himself to remain in denial of his own passing: phrases like “sick box” in lieu of coffin, or “sick form” in lieu of corpse. And both are heartbreaking in their final scene together. I can’t say whether the audiobook is the definitive format, having not read the printed book. But try it. The performances measure up to the material.

No. 10: Margo Price: All American Made

Sometimes you have a year when you just feel like you’ve accomplished nothing. Like you’ve gone backwards. Everybody has those years. It can’t be helped. And if 2017 was a year like that for you, I’d like to suggest you listen to some country music. Margo Price’s second album cements her as the queen of modern Nashville. Lots of it is rollicking fun country music with a band that sounds like it comes straight from a Jerry Lee Lewis record. (Indeed, it was recorded at the Sam C. Phillips Recording Studio, where many a country and early rock and roll icon cut acetates.) “A Little Pain” is probably the pump-up jam you need. But it’s the ballads that keep me coming back, and particularly “Learning to Lose,” Price’s duet with the great Willie Nelson. “I’m so far away from where I started,” Price sings in the opening verse, “but no closer to where I belong.” Oof.

It’s important to have songs like “Learning to Lose” in your life. Songs about the moments when life disappoints us, and humanity disappoints us and we disappoint ourselves. Because songs like this reassure us that disappointment, loss, rejection, loneliness, failure, acrimony, and strife are normal facets of the human experience that everybody goes through. And we now live in a world where everybody has their whole life on display on Facebook and Instagram, except that all of that stuff gets airbrushed out. So where do you turn for a quick hit of catharsis when it seems like everybody else is busy following their bliss? Turn to country music. Turn to Margo Price. And hope that next year, we’ll learn to win.

No. 9: Baby Driver

I have a friend who tells a story about how Brian Eno saved his life. “I suffer from tinnitus,” he wrote. “These days I’m mostly able to ignore it, but when I first noticed it, it was terrifying. I couldn’t sleep through the night without having this track (“Music for Airports 1/1”) on repeat in the background, just loud enough to distract me from the buzzing in my own head, just quiet enough to allow me to sleep.” He went on to coin a phrase I like: “societal tinnitus”: the terrifying sensation that the world is inescapably noisy. Music for Airports can drown out this kind of tinnitus, too. So can essentially any other sound recording. Music can offer a near-complete respite from the obligation to be present in the world. When you put in earbuds, you are doing two things in equal measure: connecting yourself to an imaginary reality that exists in a recording, and disconnecting yourself from the auditory portion of the empirical reality around you. It’s wrong to view the latter phenomenon as a byproduct of the former. Your inability to connect with the world around you when you’re wearing earbuds is a feature, not a bug. The world is so loud. To escape, simply superimpose a louder one. Disengage.

Baby Driver is a movie about a person suffering from tinnituses both literal and symbolic. (Well really, Baby’s literal tinnitus is a symbol in itself, for his emotional trauma.) It is a movie about music’s ability to subsume the empirical reality around you and replace it with a different reality that you can cope with, until you’re ready to cope with the real one. The movie’s relationship with music is different from that of lesser films like Garden State or even High Fidelity, both of which are about how a person’s relationship with specific genres, songs and artists help to inform that person’s identity. Baby Driver isn’t about any music in particular. It is about the act of listening itself. For Baby, music is neither indulgence nor signifier, but a basic necessity to drown out the constant ringing in his ears, to function in his job, to empathize with the girl he loves, and to drown out the noise of a dysfunctional household. (So this is what the volume knob’s for…) Baby Driver is not a music nerd movie. It is not a movie about listening to music. It’s a movie about not having to listen to the rest of the world, which is loud and confusing and stressful. It also has the best chase scenes ever. It is large. It contains multitudes.

No. 8: Better Call Saul

This scene, which you should not watch if you’re not caught up on the show, is everything I love about Better Call Saul in a nutshell. This show’s most dramatic moments take place in ordinary rooms and draw their strength from well-established relationships. When we think back to its esteemed predecessor Breaking Bad, it’s easy to recall it as a show full of train robberies and shootouts. But think of how many earthshaking moments in that show were actually really quiet. Hank finding Leaves of Grass. Walt lying to his doctor about his fugue state by telling the truth. Even “I am the one who knocks” is a quiet moment in the most literal sense. Better Call Saul is any one of those moments stretched out into a whole show. It’s a show where nearly every episode has a scene that feels like a set piece, but those set pieces seldom involve action. Jimmy’s trick with the phone battery in the scene above is a case in point. It’s not easy to write stories about con men, because you’ve got to be able to come up with cons. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have proven themselves equal to the task.

The third season of Better Call Saul is its best by miles. By reintroducing yet another beloved character from Breaking Bad, Gus Fring, the writers risked treading needlessly far into that show’s shadow. Instead, they doubled down on the relationships that have always been at the core of this show. The constant risk to Jimmy’s romantic-ish relationship with the intensely sympathetic workaholic Kim Wexler is one of the season’s key tension generators. And his relationship with his cruel, doctrinaire brother Chuck finally deteriorates past the point of no return. Better Call Saul is the best character drama on television. Every year, I seem to forget how much I love it until the new season starts. Not this time.

No. 7: Jon Bois: 17776

The greatest literary masterpiece I read this year was published on the sports news website SB Nation and it’s about three sentient space probes in the massively distant future watching humans play increasingly Dadaist games of football because they stopped dying and aging in the 21st century. I slightly regret that I have now spoiled the surprise of the story’s very opening. But if there were no more to 17776 than its bonkers premise, it would hardly be a literary masterpiece, would it? Come for the gonzo, unclassifiable, mixed media craziness. Stay for the beautiful prose about humanity’s place in the universe and the dialogue that elevates the game of football to a form of sublime performance art.

I can immediately think of at least four moments in 17776 when I got choked up — this in spite of the fact that it is a silly story rendered in Web 1.0 style, and that I have no grasp of how football works. It moves me because it forces me to consider, as Jon Bois has evidently considered at length, the actual importance of my particular passions. The humans of 17776 have unlimited time to spend on football and presumably other sports and pastimes. I do not. And yet I write a blog where I regularly review more than 20 things I watched, read and listened to during the course of a single week. No wonder 17776’s take on human ambition and the purpose of play resonated with me. I think a lot about something Bois wrote in a sort of afterword to the piece: “I think 17776 might get one thing right about the future: we’re never gonna leave the solar system… Too much distance, too much radiation, and too little incentive. If that ends up being the case, we’ll have nothing to do but solve our problems on Earth. I’m being really optimistic when I guess that we might someday. After we do that, we’re gonna want our games, our art, and each other. One day, we might see those as the only reasons we’re here.” Is it wrong that I feel a little better because of that statement?

No. 6: American Gods

Bryan Fuller’s last show, Hannibal, was one of the greatest screen adaptations of a familiar property ever made. American Gods is maybe better. The Neil Gaiman novel from which it is adapted is a grand old romp through various mythologies, with deeply affecting narratives of the American immigrant experience woven throughout. But that novel was written before 9/11, let alone before Trump. Let alone before Facebook. The show is a substantially different thing for a bogglingly different America.

American Gods rethinks Gaiman’s take on Anansi, the kindly African spider god of storytelling, as a ruthless pragmatist who finds his way to America on the remains of a slave ship he entreated the captives to burn. It suggests that our protagonist’s wife may be the reincarnation of an Irish immigrant who brought the leprechaun Mad Sweeney to the new world, where he wastes away from lack of belief. (“A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” is my favourite episode of the year, save possibly for Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return.) And it gives us a terrifying contingent of “new gods.” Media, a shapeshifting Gillian Anderson, distorts and distracts in equal measure. The Technical Boy is no longer a truculent fat kid surrounded by wires as he was in the novel, but a sleek, hollow Instagram star of a villain. Television’s American Gods enacts a battle for the life of an America with a more immediately threatening kind of cancer than the slow-acting one Gaiman detected in the late 90s. It is the best show I watched this year.

No. 5: Maria Bamford: Old Baby

Maria Bamford is my favourite comedian. She’s a better writer than anybody else doing comedy right now. See: her husband’s column in her “emotional sudoku” bit: “Your great-grandfather was a violent alcoholic in the army who beat his son, who was a violent alcoholic in the army who beat his son, who was a violent alcoholic in the marines who beat you. You’re not in the armed services at all. You don’t drink. But you have PTSD so bad that you think you can clench your buttocks and fly the plane.” All written out like that it almost seems like something Joseph Heller would write.

She’s also a better performer than anybody else doing comedy right now. She can flip from character to character as cleanly as Robin Williams. (“Hello! Is the beef fresh? … This is so powerful if you act it out… Is the beef fresh?”) Her material still lives in dark places: her experience and her family’s experiences with mental illness are at the centre of everything. But she is such a skillful comic that laughing never feels uncomfortable. Bamford has the rare gift of being able to make you realize that the same event can be both intensely traumatic and hysterically funny — that there’s no contradiction there. “Anybody been in a psych ward?” Bamford once said in another context. “It’s really funny in retrospect.” That’s a perfect joke. The humour comes from both the darkness and the construction. That’s why Maria Bamford is so funny: she insists on applying an extremely rigorous sort of structure to completely chaotic subject matter. Bamford proves that comedy about mental illness doesn’t need to be a sort of public therapy. I have not laughed harder at anything in recent memory.

No. 4: The Heart

The Heart is over. At least, for now. I’m as choked about this, if not more, than I was when Gimlet cancelled Mystery Show. This show has been in a league of its own since it rebranded from the earlier Audio Smut and joined up with the Radiotopia network. No other podcast discusses sexuality with the same combination of frankness, diversity, and beauty. This last quality is especially crucial. It’s possible to talk about The Heart as if it is merely noble: a sex-positive, intersectional feminist institution that Gets Important Conversations Started. But that is a drastically inadequate characterization of this show. It is also consistently the most beautiful sounding, atmospheric and subtle show in the podcast space. More than Radiolab. More than Love and Radio. The Heart is a show about the most intimate relationships between humans. In keeping with this, it uses its sound art aesthetic to forge an intimacy with the listener that is stronger than anything else I’ve ever heard.

2017 found The Heart offering two mini-seasons and a smattering of one-off episodes. It’s the second of the two mini-seasons, “No,” that makes this The Heart’s strongest year. It is a complicated, fair, and fearless sexual memoir by Kaitlin Prest, the show’s host. She interrogates her own past, from childhood through to the present day, and charts her own sexual boundaries over that time. Her story becomes a springboard for a nuanced discussion of consent that I can imagine being useful for every listener in a different way. The series also finds Prest at her best as a sound designer, going so far as to apply filters to tape of her own sexual experiences so she can assess the tone of her voice without hearing the words she’s saying. There is nothing else like The Heart. Whatever the team behind this show are planning next, its end is a tremendous loss.

No. 3: Ted Hearne/The Crossing: Sound from the Bench

Sometimes I like to just type out a sentence that describes a thing. It’s only fun when the thing you’re describing has lots of unexpected moving parts. I’m going to do that now. Here, look: My favourite music of the year is a cantata for mixed chorus, drums and two electric guitars with words drawn from ventriloquism textbooks and the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. See? Wasn’t that fun?

Ted Hearne is one of the great contemporary composers for the human voice. I first discovered him through his oratorio The Source, which features an auto-tuned chorus called “We Called for Illumination at 1630” that floored me — it is the sound of humans trying to escape from a digital hellscape. This is what Hearne does with the voice: he uses it as a sympathetic force to latch onto in a world controlled by bewildering and absurd systems. Sound from the Bench is a semi-comedic piece that gets a lot of mileage out of the perversity of hearing a brilliant choir sing lines like “these corporations have a lot of money” and “you are not talking about the railroad barons and the rapacious trusts.” But the actual comedy of Sound from the Bench is a sad comedy. Citizens United, you may recall, is the Supreme Court decision that ruled that money is speech because corporations are people: two of the most patently absurd things that body has ever asserted. Sound from the Bench is a comedy about people doing their best to laugh at the absurdity of a world whose crazy rules they have to live with in spite of the fact that it makes their lives worse. It’s Twelfth Night as a contemporary cantata. It is unaccountably moving, hysterical, and vibrant. It is brilliantly performed by the Crossing, a magnificent choir based in Philadelphia. It is everything I want out of music.

No. 2: S-Town

“I did nothing good today,” reads an inscription on a sundial in S-Town. “I have lost a day.” Depending on your mood, it’s a sentiment that can reflect a profound resignation to the brevity of life, or a desperate mania to accomplish something in spite of it. S-Town’s hero, John B. McLemore, embodies both facets. He is a man alternately consumed by depression and ablaze with fascination for whatever project he’s putting his time into now: repairing antique clocks, growing a hedge maze in his yard, building a swing set for his adult protegé’s edification — or, most crucially, living his life as a story worthy of attention from an acclaimed This American Life producer.

S-Town is a story so full of pat, obvious metaphors that it would be insufferable if it were fiction. But producer and host Brian Reed didn’t actually devise any of these metaphors himself. His main character, McLemore, deliberately surrounded himself in metaphors. He’s a man who lived his life as a story, and then actually found somebody to tell the story. He is Hamlet, exerting a pull on the narrative that exceeds that of the storyteller. There are those in the blogosphere who disapprove of elements in Reed’s telling of the story. But as I listened to S-Town, I couldn’t help feeling McLemore’s hands on the strings of the story, even when it would have been impossible for him to affect it in real time. Woodstock, Alabama is a stranger-than-fiction town with implicit metaphors baked in. John B. McLemore is a stranger-than-fiction man who saw the metaphors, and cast himself as the tragic protagonist amidst them. Brian Reed knew to hit record, and made the best radio of the year.

No. 1: Get Out

One thing I discovered about myself in 2017 is that I am a bottomless fountain of slightly facile theories about the horror genre. Here is one of my facile theories: horror and comedy are the two most intimately related genres of fiction. This is because laughter and fear, at their root, are both ways of responding to the absurd. If you encounter something absurd, something that challenges your sense of what’s “normal,” you’re likely to either laugh or feel fear, depending on the framing of the event. The genius of Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out is that the comedy and the horror are derived from the same central absurdity: a black man’s sense that there is racism all around him, even though he is being constantly told there is not.

This movie is the most brilliant social commentary that’s been in movie theatres for years, but this is me writing here, so let’s think about from it a structural, movie nerd perspective. There are plenty of comedy-horror movies out there. Scream comes to mind. If you squint a bit, Scary Movie fits. It’s a long tradition, dating back at least to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Probably earlier. But these movies are parodies. The jokes are at the expense of horror movie tropes. Get Out is a horror comedy that is not a parody. It is a comedy-horror movie in which both the comedy and the horror arise from the same source, and neither undermines the other. It is a new approach to this particular fusion of genres that walks a delicate balance without ever putting a foot wrong. And in finding a way to negotiate this balance, Jordan Peele has devised a new mode of social critique — one that works particularly well in a world where every single thing that happens is both hysterical and terrifying. Smile into the void, children. Smile into the void.

***

And that’s the list! When I started writing this, I confess I was a bit on the fence about it. Looking back through my list from last year, I couldn’t help thinking that 2016 was a way better year for pop culture. I still think I may be right about that. But writing this took me way longer than I expected because I kept going back to these things, remembering what I loved about them, and spending more time with each of them than I could afford. (I am looking specifically at you, Jon Bois and Maria Bamford.)

This stuff matters to me. It helps me understand the world and the people around me. I apply the lessons from each entry on this list to my life, every day. It has been a good year.

I’m going to go outside.

Omnibus (weeks of Dec. 10 & 17, 2017)

Hello again and Merry Christmas. As you’ll have gathered from the fact that I am here to write this, I am both alive and uninjured following my alpine adventure. What follows are reviews of the things I managed to take in before and since that adventure. I didn’t totally disconnect from pop culture in the mountains, but I did disconnect from thinking about it. If you want the definitive image of my last couple weeks, picture two snowsuited white men in a Mazda 3 singing along to this.

It strikes me that my two picks of the week are both at a pivotal moment in their history as texts. The first has been recently reawakened by the publication of a new book that I’m going to try and get to before New Year’s Eve. And the second has just reached its bittersweet conclusion after a run as one of the greatest achievements in podcasting. Read on.

10 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Amber Spyglass — My 11-year-old self’s favourite book is still a masterpiece. Reading the first two instalments of His Dark Materials for the first time as an adult, I was struck by how similar an experience it was to what I remember feeling as a child. But reading The Amber Spyglass felt different. And I think the reason for that is because my first encounter with The Amber Spyglass actually changed the kind of person I was. When my well-meaning but not entirely in-the-know mother bought me these books, I was being raised, nominally, as a Christian. I went to church most weeks and learned Bible stories in Sunday school. For the rest of the week, it wasn’t really a concern. But the incontrovertible truth of the Bible and the inherent goodness of God were things I had been led to take for granted. So, reading this book, I could accept that the church depicted in its pages was corrupt and evil. Certainly, that was never in doubt. They tried to kill Lyra! Trying to kill any child is bad enough — but Lyra! Still, when they talked about Lyra’s coming role as the second Eve — a girl who would be likely to fall victim to the temptation of the serpent — I just thought they were wrong about her. They just don’t know Lyra well enough. Surely, she won’t fail the test like the first Eve did! She’s far too good for that. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I realized what Pullman was actually on about: that God himself was as evil and authoritarian as the church he begat, and that it was therefore best for Lyra to accept the temptation. For Pullman, original sin is something to be celebrated and Eve is a hero. All of humanity’s most admirable traits spring from that mythic moment in Eden, and the villain of Genesis is God. This hit me like a thunderbolt when I was 11. I didn’t immediately renounce my faith or anything, but it was one of the first moments in my life when I was made to recognize that received wisdom shouldn’t be accepted as a default. Reading it 16 years later, I had mostly forgotten the specifics of the plot. But this time, I read the book hoping for Lyra to fall. I think I can award Pullman a share of the credit for this transformation. Reading The Amber Spyglass with the benefit of 16 more years experience in the world made me admire other elements of it as well. Pullman dramatizes a “first contact” narrative in Mary Malone’s plotline, which is roughly analogous to the sorts of stories we hear from the early days of European colonialism — except that in Pullman’s telling, Malone comes to regard the strange creatures she encounters as her equals. It’s worth quoting here: “When she saw how they worked, not on their own but two by two, working their trunks together to tie a knot, she realized why they’d been so astonished by her hands, because of course she could tie knots on her own. At first she felt that this gave her an advantage — she needed no one else — and then she realized how it cut her off from others. Perhaps all human beings were like that. And from that time on, she used one hand to knot the fibers, sharing the task with a female zalif who had become her particular friend, fingers and trunk moving in and out together.” There is not enough YES in the world to express my feelings about this passage. Where Malone could easily have gone on thinking herself superior to the inhabitants of this new world, she instead has the self-awareness to recognize that their way of doing things has its own value that hers does not share. Would that people could always be like this. There are some complaints to be had about this book. Is Lyra sidelined for a good chunk of it? Yes. Is she in need of rescue by a cast of largely male characters? Yes. Is this frustrating? You bet, for a couple different reasons. But does it undermine her role as the primary hero of His Dark Materials, with the highest amount of agency? No, it does not. She is still the character whose decisions matter the most at the end of the book. She is still of cosmic importance in a way that Will, for instance, is not. I daresay the reason that Lyra is given a whole book to herself, before Will is even introduced, is that Eve is the hero in Pullman’s reading of Genesis. She is the originator of original sin, and therefore the single most laudable and important personage in the history of creation. That is the company into which Pullman thrusts Lyra. The reason we come to love her so much, and that we are so frustrated by the stretch of The Amber Spyglass that finds her drugged and comatose in a cave, is that Pullman himself has such obvious affection for her. This is also the reason why we can never accept Lord Asriel as a hero, in spite of the fact that he is a great leader on the right side of history. His indifference towards Lyra makes him a monster. Even the vile, murderous Mrs. Coulter does not commit this sin. And frankly, if there’s anything in The Amber Spyglass that isn’t entirely convincing, it’s the transformation of Mrs. Coulter from irredeemable villain to perversely doting mother. It’s an obvious attempt on Pullman’s part to cast her as a foil to Asriel: the monstrous, inhuman “white hat” vs. the humanized, tragically flawed “black hat.” But to Pullman’s credit, he realizes that both of these characters are so irredeemable in their respective ways (and also because they are both child murderers) that the only sensible ending for them both is to die horribly at the climax of a vast historical conflict they were on opposite sides of. Whatever the flaws of their plotlines — and Coulter’s in particular — their endings are perfect. And speaking of endings, all of my most vivid memories of The Amber Spyglass come from the last few chapters, after the cosmic war the entire trilogy has been building towards is over. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about His Dark Materials is that God literally dies in it, and that’s not even the climax of the story. The larger, more contextual story of His Dark Materials concerns the huge vortex of theological conflict that Lyra and Will find themselves drawn into. That narrative climaxes with the death of God. But the more crucial story in the trilogy, which may have even more importance within the story’s cosmology, is the story of Lyra and Will as the new Eve and Adam. And, of course, with Dr. Malone as the new serpent — a character I barely remember from my first readthrough, but who I’m now convinced is the second-best character in the trilogy. The smaller story of these three characters plays out quietly, intimately, and heartrendingly in the final chapters of the book. Pullman saves his most beautiful writing for after the cosmic war is over: all of the sound and fury of the war in Heaven is eclipsed by a simple, elegant story about marzipan, and a star-crossed young love affair of Shakespearean proportions. It is one of the great endings conceived by any novelist of our time, writing for people of any age. The Amber Spyglass is nearly perfect. It is exhibit A in sticking the landing at the end of a series. If I ever have kids, I really hope they read these books. But I would never force them to: Pullman taught me too much for that. Pick of the week.

Philip Pullman: Lyra’s Oxford, Once Upon A Time in the North & “The Collectors” — While I’m revisiting Pullman, I figured I may as well check out the three miniature books he’s written to tie into His Dark Materials before I move on to La Belle Sauvage. The first, Lyra’s Oxford, is a beautiful short story that demonstrates Pullman’s ability to write beautifully and movingly even when he doesn’t have a gigantic narrative canvas to work with. The story is low on continuity, though it relies on one’s familiarity with His Dark Materials for effect. The note the story ends on — the idea that Lyra and her daemon are being protected by Oxford itself, the city they call home — is much more effective when you know that Lyra is responsible for freeing the dead so that they can become part of everything. More than anything, Lyra’s Oxford is an illustration of the grace Lyra has received in return for her heroism and compassion in The Amber Spyglass. That makes it worthwhile. Also, I appreciate that there are only a couple of mentions of Will, as if her love for him was something very important that happened to Lyra, changed her, and now is over. That said, one of the most moving things in the book is a real photograph of a real bench in the botanic gardens at Oxford, where we are to assume, I suppose, that Lyra and Will still meet once a year in their separate worlds. The picture is shown on a postcard sent by Mary Malone, who jokes about what a crap postcard it is — because presumably these are just pictures taken by Pullman, or somebody working for him, of landmarks chosen for their narrative importance rather than their actual beauty. It’s a nice touch. Once Upon A Time In the North is a slightly more substantial read. Lee Scoresby was always the supporting character in His Dark Materials who seemed most likely to spin off. And indeed, this is a satisfying adventure story for him, with a substantial walk-on part for Iorek Byrnison. But the real heart of the story is more development of the relationship between Lee and his daemon Hester, which is probably the most colourfully rendered human/daemon relationship in the books. Rather than simply being a sort of emanation of her person, Hester is a snarky manifestation of his better judgement. Pullman knows well what Lee’s most memorable scene in the main trilogy is — his final stand in The Subtle Knife — and he’s sure to subtly evoke it just once. This is, among other things, the story of how Lee got his Winchester rifle. And because it’s Pullman, it cannot simply be a rollicking shoot ‘em up action story: it is also a political allegory for how demagogues hide their agendas behind hateful rhetoric. Philip Pullman: teaching kids the important shit since 1995. As for “The Collectors,” a short story available only as an audiobook read by Bill Nighy, it focuses on the specific element of the His Dark Materials universe that probably initially attracted me as a kid: namely its roots in the crusty yet oddly seductive world of British academia. I was a weird kid, and the culture of these head-in-the-cloud scholars that Lyra grew up with seemed nearly as romantic as the northern wastes where The Golden Compass’s adventure begins properly. It’s the most intimate of these three stories, consisting largely of a conversation between two art collectors, with its connections to the main trilogy existing mostly by implication. And perhaps unexpectedly, given all of this, it is also more straightforwardly horror-tinged than most of Pullman’s other writing. In this conversational setting, Pullman’s explanation of his version of the many-worlds theory comes off like something out of Borges — but horror Borges. So, basically China Miéville. I love that Philip Pullman can channel that. My only complaint is the recording: a better engineer might have rolled off some of Nighy’s natural sibilance. Funny how this is only an issue in audiobooks and never in the more professional echelons of podcasting. Taken together, these three stories really do enrich the world of His Dark Materials. I’m unspeakably excited to dive into the next proper novel.

Stephen King: On Writing — I bought it impulsively and it turned out to be one of the most useful books I’ve ever read. It is also approximately half autobiography. I came to this for good solid advice, and then suddenly he’s writing about how his wife’s poetry made him fall in love with her and suddenly I’m crying in the airport. THAT’S NOT WHAT I SIGNED UP FOR. Still, the autobiographical sections of the book are lovely illustrations of how a writer’s craft can interact with the rest of their life — without superseding it. That’s crucial. Of King’s many wise dictums, this may be the wisest: “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” As for the more practical section of the book, I was surprised to find myself seldom disagreeing with King and taking a lot of what he wrote to heart. I love King’s writing, but it’s really different from the more ornamented sort of prose that I usually admire. I somehow expected to find him dogmatically insistent upon simplicity and directness, like George Orwell. But he’s actually one of the least dogmatic writing teachers I’ve ever encountered. Mostly he just wants you to focus on the story. His thoughts on theme and symbolism are wonderful: don’t start with either of those things, but they’ll certainly help your readers make sense of the story if they arise naturally. I can see myself revisiting this periodically when my worst impulses as a writer start coming out again.

Movies

Lady Bird — A beautiful movie. Greta Gerwig’s story takes its name from its protagonist, but it could just as easily be called Sacramento. Lady Bird is a movie about the specific experience of growing up in that town: a hard place to be for a kid with a big sense of herself. Speaking as somebody who was once a highly performative small-town teenager with a penchant for weird music and theatre, this movie sooooo gets it right — the drama club scenes in particular. Those are the kids who are in drama club. And those are the songs they sing at auditions. And that’s the way they sing them. The thing that makes Lady Bird such a brilliant coming-of-age story is that it focuses on Lady Bird’s changing sense of her place in the world. Her character arc starts with shame: shame of where she’s from, shame of her class and the neighborhood she lives in, shame of her parents. Then, we see her try to escape from the life that causes her shame. We see her attempt this through theatre, through a deeply misbegotten relationship with another theatre kid, through an even more misbegotten relationship with an antisocial aesthete type, and finally by actually leaving. And finally we see her accept her circumstances. Much of what’s been written about this movie focuses on the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, which is only appropriate since that’s actually the core of the movie. (And because Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf both give incredible performances.) But it’s the sense of place that jumped out at me more than anything: the sense that every human settlement is a network of connections and memories and regrets that have richness for the people who live there, whether they like the place or not.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi — Hey, this is fun! I never have much to say about Star Wars movies because it’s just not a franchise I feel a lot of attachment to. I get why others love it so much, but for me it’s just something that exists, and I’m not really engaged enough to have strong opinions one way or the other. I have opinions of middling strength. I liked The Force Awakens because it had a fun cast of loveable new characters romping through familiar story beats. I didn’t like Rogue One because it was dull, had a cipher for a main character, and Mads Mikkelsen was badly miscast. I can’t quite access the sort of adoration for this franchise that leads people to proclaim their childhoods ruined when it puts a foot wrong. I do, however, have some strong opinions about Rian Johnson movies. I think Brick and Looper are two of the most dazzling genre movies of the last two decades. And I think The Brothers Bloom is maybe the only Wes Anderson impression that’s actually worth anybody’s time. Among Star Wars movies, The Last Jedi is firmly in my upper echelon, along with the first two instalments of the original trilogy. But alongside Rian Johnson’s other work, I’d put it in the bottom half. I find it hard to credit the notion that anybody would find this more accomplished than Brick, with its virtuosic dialogue and flawless location shooting, or Looper, with its complex but comprehensible story and outstanding action. But it’s a good movie! You should go see it if you weren’t planning to.

Music

Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy — I dunno what possessed me to listen to this just now. It’s been like five years since I even thought about listening to Led Zeppelin. But this is still awesome. Either this or Physical Graffiti is my favourite Zep album. They’re a bit more elaborate than the more celebrated first four, and I like that. There are clunkers on Houses of the Holy (“The Crunge,” “Dancing Days”), but the best bits are sublime rock and roll. “The Rain Song” is one of their very best. It finds Jimmy Page elaborating on a few very simple ideas, including one of the most delicate acoustic riffs he ever devised (that syncopated thing in the sixth measure). The song’s slow build, from John Paul Jones’s elaborations of the harmony on Mellotron through John Bonham’s brushes, to the point where the band kicks into full electric mode, is to my ears a major refinement of the same idea in “Stairway to Heaven.” (Yeah, “The Rain Song” is better than “Stairway to Heaven.” Fight me.) “Over the Hills and Far Away” might be my favourite of the band’s major singles. Perhaps it’s a bit clichéd, but don’t blame Led Zeppelin for that. Blame the second-best guitarist at your high school. The one who was better than the dude who could only play “Smoke On the Water,” but not as good as the girl who could play “Eruption.” It’s a song where Jimmy Page’s abilities as a producer are really becoming obvious. Listen to the way the acoustic guitar starts off dead centre of the stereo image, as a matter-of-fact statement of the song’s musical material, then splits into a wide open binaural image on the second time through. It would sound hollow in the long term, but then Robert Plant comes in dead centre and holds it all together. Lovely stuff. And that little ten-note riff that Page brings in just before the outro is one of the loveliest tossed-off moments in the band’s catalogue. My other highlights are “No Quarter” and “The Song Remains the Same,” which is the best thing in the world when you need a sudden jolt of energy. I’d forgotten how much I like this.

Kate Bush: 50 Words for Snow — This album came out when I lived in Edmonton and it immediately became a winter tradition. It’s an album I can only bear to listen to when there’s snow on the ground. I’ve been living in Vancouver for a few years now, and the opportunity to get a good, full listen to this in the proper surroundings hasn’t really surfaced. And Christmases at home in Fort McMurray don’t lend themselves to a lot of deep listening in general. I seem to listen to it most frequently on the train to the airport, weirdly. But I can’t make it through the whole thing on that ride. Even if the train were travelling very slow indeed, this is quite simply not the city for it. But this year — hark! — we have snow in Vancouver! Not much of it, mind, but enough to make this album feel at least vaguely à propos. It is certainly Kate Bush’s most underrated album, though I can understand why it wouldn’t hit home for some listeners. No other music in her catalogue is this spare and spacious. Songs stretch on two or three times longer than her average — more, in the case of the 13-minute “Misty.” But if you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll find that 50 Words for Snow’s slow pace is never without purpose. Take “Wild Man.” It’s probably the most accessible track on the album, with something resembling a rousing chorus. Still, it clocks in at over seven minutes and it stretches on for more than two minutes past its climax. But those final two minutes give Bush’s protagonist — a mountain explorer who has just helped the Yeti avoid detection by the locals — time to process what she’s just been through. A rare thing in pop music. That ability to use musical structure to express meaning is one of the biggest reasons why Kate Bush is my favourite songwriter. The album’s crown jewel, of course, is “Misty.” The basic idea of the song is so simple and so perfect that it seems truly strange that it hadn’t been done before. Maybe it had. But the premise “a woman has sex with a snowman then wakes up to find he’s gone, leaving only a puddle on the bed” was a new one for me. But the beauty of the song is that Bush makes the whole thing feel like a normal, slightly melancholy human interaction (“so cold next to me”). That, and the fact that it contains some of the most beautiful music she’s ever written. I’m thinking specifically of the piano line that first appears at 2:26, and only once more (with strings) in the song’s whole 13-minute duration. That’s nearly as perversely withholding as the Sibelius violin concerto, which uses its gorgeous melody only twice in about 17 minutes, give or take a couple depending on the performance. In both cases, the restrained use of such beautiful material gives the same effect of fleeting euphoria giving way to melancholy. It’s a glorious construction. There are less effective tracks here. “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” never quite makes me believe in the supposed eternal love of its two protagonists, even though both Bush and her esteemed duet partner Elton John both give deeply committed performances. And I’ve never really gotten “Among Angels,” which is a fairly austere way to end the album. Clearly Bush sees something in the song that I don’t, because she also used it as an encore at her Before the Dawn shows. I hope to get it eventually. But this album’s high points (“Misty,” “Wild Man,” “Snowflake”) are some of the best in Bush’s catalogue, and therefore quite simply among my very favourite music.

Podcasts

On the Media: “Power Trip” — Worth hearing for Brooke Gladstone’s forthright take on WNYC’s own struggle to deal with revelations of sexual abuse in its workplace culture and Bob Garfield’s attempt to have a frank conversation with a far-right lunatic without having said far-right lunatic hang up on him. (He fails.)

All Songs Considered: “The Year In Music 2017,” “What Makes A Great Album Last” & “Poll Results: Listeners Pick The Best Albums Of 2017” — I haven’t been following this show all year, which means I haven’t really been following new music. There’s lots here that’s new to me, and I doubt I’ll actually check out very much of it. As great as the albums by SZA and Lorde sound, I just can’t keep on top of everything. Still, it’s nice to hear Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton and their associates summing up the year. It wasn’t a year full of stuff I connect with especially. It is what it is. Also, nice to be reminded of Reflection a year later. I should check out the seasonal editions as well.

The Heart: Five-episode catch up — Little did I know when I started this run of five episodes backed up in my feed that they’d be the last five episodes of this wonderful show as we know it. And they’re five episodes that demonstrate many facets of the show that make it great. “Signature Research” is a brief, gutting childhood story from a producer who hadn’t made a radio story prior to this one. The Heart has always been great about giving new voices a platform. “God + The Gays” is a deeply personal story from one of The Heart’s staffers about how her sexuality and her religious upbringing bounced off each other. The Heart has always been, quite simply, the best show about the intersection of sexuality and everything else in life. “Man Choubam (I Am Good)” is an expression of a very specific conflict in a very specific person’s life. The Heart has always known that the very personal and very specific are interesting and worthwhile, whether they intersect with broader concerns or not. “An Announcement” is a functional rather than complete episode, existing to inform us of the show’s coming hiatus. But it’s still full of personality and life. The Heart always is. And finally, “Dream” is the most adventurous and sonically beautiful thing I’ve heard in months. The Heart has always been the best sounding, subtlest and most technically masterful podcast in production. I’ve learned a lot from this show, about life, and other people’s experiences of the world, and also about how radio can sound when it’s made by someone with an open mind. Its whole catalogue, taken together, is one of the crown jewels of the medium. It’s a sad loss, but I’m looking forward to hearing what Kaitlin Prest, Mitra Kaboli and company will be up to in the next year. Pick of the week.

Omnibus (week of Nov. 26, 2017)

You know, I think this is actually a pretty strong instalment. Usually this blog just sort of is what it is. God knows nobody reads it. At least, not on days when I’m not on the radio. And obviously I don’t care, or I wouldn’t have been doing it every week for two years. But sometimes I think maybe it’s pretty good. This is one of those. For what it’s worth.

Three picks of the week, since I only did one last time. 15 reviews.

Music

Margo Price: All American Made — I think I speak for every single human on the planet when I say that 2017 suuuuuuuuuucked. Like, on a universal level, and also seemingly on a personal level for a whole bunch of people I know. I mean, lots of great things happened this year. But big chunks of it were confusing and disappointing, and perhaps some of us have been wishing we’d made different choices. It is what it is. We all end up there sometimes. Never fear. Margo Price has a new album, and it’s even better than the first one. All American Made isn’t a Sad, Dark, Personal Album in the vein of Blood on the Tracks, Tonight’s the Night or Blue. Hell, Price wrote these songs after breaking a 15-year losing streak in the music industry. And she co-wrote a bunch of them with her husband, who she seems rather fond of. This isn’t an exorcism. Musically, it’s even pretty peppy, aside from the ballads. But Price realizes the same thing that all of the greatest country songwriters have realized, which is that there is no catharsis in the world like a straightforward description of a bad thing happening. Or, a straightforward description of a shitty state of mind you’ve found yourself in — see the outstanding heartstring tugger “Learning to Lose,” featuring a very 84-year-old-sounding Willie Nelson. I believe (here begins the hot take segment of the review) that bleak, doleful country music is more relevant today than ever. The social role of songs like “Learning to Lose” is to reassure you that disappointment, rejection, loneliness and failure are normal facets of the human experience that everybody goes through. That they aren’t specific to you. This is crucial now that we live in a world where everybody can so easily airbrush the worst bits of their lives out of their public identities on Facebook and Instagram. These platforms have caused us to perceive life as a game that can be won or lost on an ongoing basis. And they have also made it really easy — and socially necessary — to lie and cheat at that game. We must always be winning, even when we are not. So, where do you turn for a quick hit of catharsis when it seems like everybody else is busy following their bliss? You turn to lonesome, dejected country music, soaked in whiskey and regret. On the day before the day before the new year, many of us will be looking back on a dubious 363 days. Margo gets it. She’s the most honest songwriter to emerge in the last couple years, and she’s exactly the one we need. Pick of the week.

Margo Price: Weakness (EP) — Since the title track is also on All American Made, this is mostly worth it for “Paper Cowboy,” the rare Margo Price recording where the focus is squarely on the band, which is amazing. Seriously, Luke Schneider’s pedal steel playing is next-level.

Queen: Sheer Heart Attack — I rewatched Baby Driver last week (conveniently forgetting at the start that it’s got Kevin Spacey in it) and I was plunged into a world of “Brighton Rock” on repeat. Seldom has a song that only has one repetition of its chorus been more addictive. (Is it really a chorus if it only happens once? Yes it is. Because it sounds like one. “Oh rock of ages, do not crumble” are not words you just throw into a verse or a bridge.) The clear next phase in this obsession was to revisit this album, which remains my most neglected classic Queen album, mostly as a consequence of how I experienced Queen at first. As a prog-obsessed teenager, Queen II was my go-to, with A Night at the Opera getting the secondary nod almost by default, just because it’s “the classic.” But with a few more years behind me, I’m willing to entertain the notion that Sheer Heart Attack is stronger than either. Sure, it’s got an uneven second half. The run of “Misfire,” “Bring Back That Leroy Brown” and “She Makes Me (Stormtroopers in Stilettos)” is markedly less magnificent than the rest of the disc, with the second of those being virtually the only Freddie Mercury novelty song that fails to amuse me. But I’m not sure Queen ever made an album that didn’t have a couple dogs on it. In retrospect, Queen II has more lacklustre tracks than that. And for all that album’s musical intricacy and wonderment, it is couched in a high-fantasy aesthetic that I find less compelling at 27 than I did at 15. Sheer Heart Attack’s greatest improvement over its predecessor is its adoption of surrealism and introspection in place of Queen II’s ogres and fairy fellers. I still love those songs, but Sheer Heart Attack keeps you at arm’s length just a little bit less. Aside from “Brighton Rock,” which belongs in everybody’s top five Queen songs, my highlight is the three-parter formed by “Tenement Funster,” “Flick of the Wrist” and “Lily of the Valley.” The middle part of the trilogy is what really holds it up: “Flick of the Wrist” is Queen’s entire ethos in three minutes. The way Mercury’s piano (absent throughout “Tenement Funster”) arrives suddenly, elegantly tossing off a bit of filigree before the vocal begins, is a masterstroke. And the moment when the Queen choir kicks on on “Don’t look back! Don’t look back!” is as dramatic and satisfying as they get. But the other two bits should get their due as well: “Tenement Funster” may be my favourite Roger Taylor track, simply because it is the most Roger Taylor track. And “Lily of the Valley” is a sort of refinement of “Nevermore” from Queen II, which has a lovely melody but very overwrought lyrics. To my ears this still leaves three classics in “Killer Queen,” “Now I’m Here” and “Stone Cold Crazy,” the latter of which sounds about four years ahead of its time. Bottom line, Queen is everything that’s good about rock music from the ‘70s, and this is maybe their best album.

Morton Feldman/Marc-André Hamelin: For Bunita Marcus — One of my favourite “classical” (terrible word) releases of the year. Every time Hamelin records something that isn’t stupidly technical — like his amazing Haydn recordings — the classical music chattersphere makes that the lede. And, fair enough. But in the case of this beautiful late piece by Morton Feldman, the set of demands placed on the performer are no less extraordinary than those of Alkan or Godowsky, though the piece is technically simple even by ordinary standards. The performer of For Bunita Marcus must play extremely sparsely populated music, very quietly, for well over an hour. I can hardly conceive of the presence of mind it must take to maintain the atmosphere. Hamelin is both an artist and a stuntman, and this is as much a stunt as anything he’s ever played. It’s also as much of an artistic accomplishment as he’s ever put to record. Also: in his liner notes, which I ignored the first time I heard this and only just read this week, Hamelin compares this music to Borges’s story “The Library of Babel,” which is an irresistible germ of a thought, given that I coincidentally finished the Ficciones last week. I’m not entirely sure what he’s on about, but certainly both Borges and Feldman are offering two attempts to visualize and quantify the infinite — or, in Borges’ case the finite but inconceivably vast. Maybe in Feldman’s case as well. This is great music for when you need to leave the small things behind.

Max Richter: The Blue Notebooks — Richter is either a genius or a charlatan, except he’s definitely a genius. I don’t like everything he’s done, but his best music (this, the Vivaldi recompositions, parts of Sleep) are modern classics that deserve to stand alongside the music of William Basinski and Tim Hecker. Mind, he’s a lot less spiny than either of them. If you felt emotionally manipulated at the beginning or end of Arrival, it’s Richter’s fault. “On the Nature of Daylight” is one of his simplest, most direct and (dare I say) poppiest pieces of music, so it makes sense that it should find a home in the movies. That track is a highlight of The Blue Notebooks, but it isn’t the highlight: that’s “Shadow Journal,” a dark, slow-moving piece with trancey electronics and reverb-laden harp and strings. You can’t quite call it ambient; it’s too structured for that. But it is spectacular mood music. So is the rest of this. It’s definitely the place to start if you’re looking for an introduction.

Movies

Andy and Jim: The Great Beyond — This is a magnificent documentary about a terrible man who was massively acclaimed for doing a thing badly. Andy and Jim confirms my theory that Jim Carrey’s performance as Andy Kaufman is horseshit. It is 100% based on the front-of-camera Andy Kaufman, with no attention paid or insight sought out into Kaufman’s actual character. Regardless of how deeply Jim Carrey descended into method acting hell to play Kaufman, his interpretation of the character is fundamentally misguided and has a lot more to do with the neuroses and tics of Jim Carrey than those of Andy Kaufman. Carrey’s Kaufman, for instance, simply can’t accept that Jerry Lawler is a person worth befriending. Where the real Kaufman (as illustrated in one presumably difficult to film segment of Man on the Moon) was a firm friend of the wrestler in real life and only condescended to him for show, Carrey’s Kaufman is a dick to him even when the cameras aren’t on. This is borderline emotional abuse, given that Jerry Lawler played himself in Man on the Moon and was therefore subjected to ruthless taunting by a cheap facsimile of his deceased friend. It’s no wonder he punched Carrey for real. Who among us hasn’t wanted to do the same? The reason Andy and Jim is a great documentary is that it lays bare the extent to which Jim Carrey’s performance was a semi-conscious attempt to outrun his own pathologies. He expresses a need to be “absent” from himself. That’s what acting really is to him: an escape from being a person he doesn’t like. And Man on the Moon seemed to offer a unique opportunity to up the ante on this escape by playing a real person who famously didn’t break character (even though this is untrue and exaggerated in the film). I don’t know what Jim Carrey thinks of this documentary. I don’t know what the director of this documentary thinks of Jim Carrey. Regardless, it’s a fascinating portrait of a violently needy person letting his worst impulses lead him by the nose.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Subtle Knife — I vaguely recall liking this better than The Golden Compass as a kid. And I was right. Smart little fucker, I was. The Golden Compass is a sublime adventure story with one of the best protagonists in children’s literature. But The Subtle Knife is where Philip Pullman starts to tip his hand that what he’s really writing is an epic on a cosmic scale. This is where the elements of His Dark Materials that I really love start to come out: the multiple universes, the questions of free will and destiny, the rumblings of a great war to come. If there’s a weak point, it’s simply that Pullman has to introduce and develop the character of Will, which means we get less Lyra per page than in The Golden Compass. But Will is a more than acceptable secondary protagonist, and a great foil for Lyra. The early scenes of the two of them trying to cooperate in spite of their drastically different upbringing are fabulous. Also, The Subtle Knife turns up the horror by several degrees. The Golden Compass contained some truly horrifying scenes, particularly the reveal of the first severed child Lyra encounters. (Wonderful how Pullman normalizes the fact that people have daemons so successfully that when she finds something that would look to us like a normal child, it’s appalling.) But The Subtle Knife’s spectre attacks and the general atmosphere of Cittàgazze wouldn’t be out of place in The Dark Tower. Speaking of King, one thing Pullman doesn’t get enough credit for is the way he writes action. I’ve been reading King as well, so it sticks out to me that Pullman and King are equally adept at writing tense action sequences. The one where Lee Scoresby and Hester die is a) heartbreaking, but also b) a hell of a gunfight. Anyway, I’ve been finished this for a few days now and I just got The Amber Spyglass out of the library. I am as excited to crack it open as I was when I was 11 and finishing The Subtle Knife for the first time. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

In Our Time: “Picasso’s Guernica” & “The Picts” — These are two episodes that together illustrate why this weird, unvarnished, slightly stuffy talk radio show is one of my favourite podcasts. The Guernica episode is just a full-on, firing-on-all-cylinders episode of this show, where every professor on the panel has something different to offer and Melvyn Bragg organizes the discussion so you see the subject from multiple sides in only an hour. He gets into not only Picasso’s painting itself, but also the actual bombing of Guernica itself and the political situation that let Picasso to make the painting at all. He gets into the impact of reportage from Guernica on Picasso’s approach. He even manages to fit in a bit of the continuing story of Guernica in more recent times, i.e. its presence at the United Nations. The episode about the Picts is an entirely different sort of affair, because it is live in front of an audience, and it is a celebration of the show’s 20th anniversary. It is so demonstrative of this show’s sensibility that when faced with celebrating a milestone, they obviously just decided to do what they were going to do anyway, which was talk about the Picts. I love that. I also love how transparent Bragg gets in this episode, where he doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he’s attempting to lead his panelists into saying a specific thing. At one point Bragg explains about a general in a decisive battle: “Completely unexpectedly, after winning battles for 30 years, he was not only defeated but killed, and that changed everything.” And then he turns to a member of his panel: “Can you say that more elaborately than I did please. With more scholarship.” And his panelist proceeds to do so, brilliantly. Why mask the process, when forthrightness yields both results and punchlines?  

Fresh Air: “Margo Price” & “Comic Patton Oswalt” — Two fantastic interviews with people who make brilliant, vulnerable art. Also, Margo brought her guitar. So, listen to that one.

On the Media: “About that Nazi Next Door” — A good interview about a distressing reaction to a distressing New York Times story about a white nationalist. What this show is for.

More Perfect catchup — This is shaping up to be one of the best shows of the year, with a second season that eclipses the first by a fair margin. The fearless complexity that’s been missing lately in Radiolab is here in spades, and so is the musical sound design. And the stories themselves are the sort of thing that’ll make you stop doing the dishes from time to time and just stand in the middle of your kitchen. Of the three episodes I listened to this week, the one about Citizens United stands out. Go listen.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “Black Cloud of a Husband” — The best episode of this show that I’ve heard so far, and a truly enthralling story. This time, Chris Gethard’s anonymous caller is a newly single mother who has been through what sounds like a hellish marriage and lived to tell the tale. She’s in therapy and seems to be moving past her trauma, which makes this feel less exploitative than it otherwise could. (Though I’ve never actually felt this show is exploitative, really. The anonymity helps, but mostly I feel that Chris Gethard always keeps his callers’ best interest in mind, or tries to as best he can.) But the story of this woman’s relationship with her husband, which she now sees with 20-20 hindsight, is an incredible thing to listen to. Gethard hardly has to do anything. She just has a story to tell and wants to get it out. This is a good starting place for this show. If you don’t like this, you’ll never be won over. Pick of the week.

Constellations: “ellie gordon-moershel – anatomy of the road” & “janet rogers – broken english” — “Anatomy of the road” is a dull, predictable bit of drama in itself, but I can imagine it going somewhere interesting in its continuation. Apparently that will happen. “Broken english” is more fun, on account of its basically being music. I’m all for the line between music and talk radio being blurred.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Right to Dissent” & “Criminal Justice and the POTUS” — Two great, disquieting episodes of a forever disquieting show about how everything is changing for the worse because the most powerful man in the world is a baby with no understanding of the system he’s at the head of. The criminal justice episode is particularly good, because it references Trump’s response to the Central Park Five to help understand his current stance on criminal justice, which is deplorable.

StartUp: “The Race for a Driverless Future” — It’s been a long time since I listened to the first part of this two-parter, but I remember it was more fun than this. If this show were continuing with this episodic approach, it would be gone from my feed.