Category Archives: Books

Omnibus (week of March 18, 2018)

Can I just say for a second how good it is to be busy? Honest to god, it is so much easier to get up in the morning when you have a million things on the go. Consequently, I am happy to say this was yet another week during which I consumed not much more media than I produced. HOWEVER, I have also started running again, after a too-long hiatus. So that probably means the podcast count will go up again in coming weeks. We’ll see.

Seven reviews.

Television

Broadchurch: Season 1, episode 1 — Not for me, I’m afraid. Given all its ties to Doctor Who both previous and forthcoming, I was hoping to enjoy it. But nothing in this really lept out and convinced me it’s significantly different from any other cop show — save for its beautiful cinematography. But in the absence of an unconventional story or characters more defined than “brooding cop with a troubled, mysterious past,” I think I’ll leave it at this.

Movies

Best of Enemies — Anybody with any interest in the media at all should watch this deeply engaging documentary about ABC’s televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley in 1968. But even if you don’t have any particular interest in that, you should watch it anyway because these two are among the most interesting characters of their milieu, and this is ultimately a character-driven film. The debates, it must be said, were character-driven debates. It probably speaks to the film’s quality that I changed my mind halfway through as to whether the debates were actually a good idea. At first, I marvelled at the notion that there was a time when a major network would devote a significant amount of time to lofty discussions of the issues by people with a decidedly academic grasp of language. How our discourse has been degraded since then, I thought! But then I realized that these debates weren’t about the issues at all — they were two-way character assassinations motivated more by mutual loathing than by any principles at all. By the time Buckley delivers his famous rejoinder in which he threatens to punch Vidal in the face, you realize that you’re watching the invention of modern political discourse on tape. Also, this film contains footage of Buckley playing Bach on the harpsichord, badly. As if we needed more reasons to find him noxious. (The filmmakers get bonus points for pairing that footage with Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach, which came out in the year of the debates.)

What We Do In The Shadows — Taika Waititi is one of the funniest people alive. This isn’t entirely his movie, of course. He co-stars and co-directs with Jemaine Clement. But he steals every scene he’s in, right from the sublime opening, in which he floats out of a coffin and immediately grins goofily. You understand his character before he says a word. What We Do In The Shadows is consistently funny from start to finish. Every joke is contingent on the character speaking it, and the characters are all brilliant, so there are very few jokes that don’t land. (“Werewolves, not swearwolves” is a personal favourite that would not be funny in another context.) And there’s even a bit of heart. There are few things sadder than a vampire watching a video of a sunrise on YouTube.

Music

The Decemberists: I’ll Be Your Girl — Let’s start with the single. “Severed” was the first track I heard from I’ll Be Your Girl. That was before I knew it was produced by John Congleton, so it didn’t make a lick of sense. Once you know that, everything slides into place. Suddenly it’s hard not to hear it as a John Congleton song feat. Colin Meloy. You can even imagine Congleton singing it: lyrics like “I alone am the answer/I alone will make wrongs right/But in order to root out the cancer/It’s got to be kept from the sunlight” wouldn’t be out of place on Until the Horror Goes. Realizing this made something click into place for me that might otherwise have caused me to hate this album: for three albums now, the Decemberists’ goal has been to push the limits of what it means to be the Decemberists. (The Hazards of Love was pushing something, but it’s still resolutely in their Anglophilic comfort zone. So is The Queen of Hearts, for that matter.) I have had mixed opinions of how well this has worked. I adore The King is Dead and listen to it as often as the period classics from my high school days. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World didn’t do much for me because I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly it was trying to be. So far, I’ll Be Your Girl sits somewhere between those two poles, but an awful lot closer to the good end. Like The King is Dead, it has a clear premise. The King is Dead was a migration of the band’s folk influences from England back home to America. It was a revitalizing switch-up. I’ll Be Your Girl is an earnest attempt to merge Colin Meloy’s archaisms and affectations with John Congleton’s deranged postmodernism. Part of that attempt involves paring back Meloy’s trademark long-windedness to an uncompromising opposite extreme: several of these songs revolve around one or two key lines repeated at length. This too is revitalizing. Like The King is Dead, this album is a reminder not to only expect one thing from a band. I’ll remark on a few key tracks. “Severed” isn’t the only song that could belong on a Congleton solo record: “We All Die Young” is even more deranged, with Congleton’s signature rough drum sound and a children’s chorus shout-singing the title line as a call-and-response in the chorus. That’s a Congletonian touch if ever I’ve heard one — and a particularly disturbing one in light of the recent school shootings and protests against gun violence. It steps right up to the line of being tasteless, but manages to land on haunting instead. Also: when I said that “Severed” was the first track from the album I heard, that’s not strictly true. It was the first recording from the album I heard. But I heard the Decemberists do “Everything is Awful” and “Sucker’s Prayer” in concert last year. Coming off the disappointment of Terrible/Beautiful, they were a ray of hope for the future. The former is an instant classic. Calling it plainspoken would be an understatement: it consists almost entirely of its title and a wordless singalong outro. Set to a chipper acoustic accompaniment that morphs into stadium rock over the course of three minutes, it is a perfect evocation of what it’s like to hate everything while trying to maintain your sense of humour. On that note: I’ll Be Your Girl is Colin Meloy’s most openly depressive album to date, and also the one where his debt to Morrissey is most pronounced. “For Once In My Life” is nearly a rewrite of “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.” And like Morrissey, when Meloy writes about depression, he does so with the self-awareness of an elderly man and the overwrought drama of a teenager. “I wanna love somebody, but I don’t know how,” he sings on “Sucker’s Prayer,” before throwing all that self-knowledge away with the line “I wanna throw my body in the river and drown.” None of this is what you’d expect from the Colin Meloy of “The Infanta” or “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” And that’s fine. But there is one thing here for the Picaresque and Crane Wife crowd. “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes” is a prog folk epic in the vein of “The Bagman’s Gambit” or “The Island.” It’s nice that it’s there, but it’s frankly not one of the best tracks on the album. And that’s maybe the most encouraging thing: where Terrible/Beautiful made me long for the Decemberists of old (ye olde Decemberists), I’ll Be Your Girl makes me confident that while they can still do what they used to do, they’re now actually better at doing something else entirely. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Notes on Germany and the War” — Not everything in this collection of Borges’ writings against the Nazis has aged perfectly, but it’s worth reading for the general thrust of his arguments about the people who support fascism implicitly without realizing it. It also contains this peal of slightly petulant but sympathetic wisdom: “the true intellectual refuses to take part in contemporary debates: reality is always anachronous.”

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: SXSW Late Night Dispatches, recap, and New Music Friday: March 16 — I’m always a fan of All Songs’ SXSW coverage. Points out a bunch of stuff I need to check out. But frankly, there are too many recent and upcoming releases from artists I’m already invested in that I doubt I’ll get to any of it soon. The recap episode is the most useful for actually finding new music. But even without actual music, the late night dispatches are great radio featuring a group of people who are as overstimulated as it is possible to get while also being sober. Plus, this was the first New Music Friday episode I’ve heard, which is a fun feature. I’m glad I put this show back in my regular rotation. It is as useful as it is fun. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible catch-up — The most recent five episodes of 99pi is a pretty strong run — as is appropriate, given that they’re coming up to their 300th episode. Imagine. Specifically, the two-parter on the Bijlmer is outstanding. The Bijlmer was a neighborhood built by modernists that fell into disrepair almost immediately. It’s a great story. It was also nice to revisit episode 200, “Miss Manhattan.” I don’t remember it being a favourite the first time around, but maybe I was distracted. It’s lovely. Next week, the big three-oh-oh, and an appraisal of how the show’s been since the epoch-defining Kickstarter that allowed it to expand its team to the extent that it now has.

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Omnibus (week of March 11, 2018)

Another busy week, another paltry instalment of Omnibus. Still, some good stuff here.

Eight reviews.

Movies

Thor: Ragnarok — I don’t normally watch Marvel movies unless I’m seeing them in a theatre with friends. That’s what they’re for. They’re an outing. But I’d heard enough good things about this one that I made a point of actually sitting down and watching it myself. It is without a doubt one of the very top-tier Marvel movies. Black Panther, this, Civil War, and maybe the first Avengers. Those are the ones that really make the MCU concept worthwhile. In this particular case we have a movie directed by somebody with a distinctive comedic sensibility, Taika Waititi, packed with a cast of outstanding comic performers — some of whom haven’t gotten to do as much straight comedy in their Marvel roles as you’d like. Partially I’m thinking of Chris Hemsworth. But it applies even more to Mark Ruffalo, who is hysterically funny in this, as both Bruce Banner and a slightly more verbal incarnation of Hulk. But the scene stealers are all newcomers. Tessa Thompson is brilliant in the hitherto unconceived-of role of “drunk Valkyrie.” Waititi himself absolutely kills as the universe’s most ineffectual revolutionary. (My favourite line in the whole movie is “Piss off, ghost! … He’s freakin’ gone.”) Best of all, Jeff Goldblum is here, and he Jeffs as Goldblum as he’s ever Jeffed, all over this whole damn movie. (“Wow, I didn’t hear any thunder, but out of your fingers — was that, like, sp-sparkles?”) Also, let’s talk aesthetics. Firstly, the Marvel Symphonic Universe problem is solved at last by none other than Mark Mothersbaugh, who delivers an electronic score that kicks ass when it needs to, and is just as content to camp it up in the comic scenes. Also, this is the first Thor movie to really take advantage of the fact that a key element of Norse mythology is the RAINBOW BRIDGE. We have some colours going on. Thank god. Also — and I don’t want to overemphasize this, because ultimately Thor: Ragnarok is just a well-made, silly fantasy comedy — we have a sly anti-colonial narrative on our hands, here. We learn that Odin took the nine realms by force with Hela as his executioner, then covered the whole thing up because of, I dunno, public image troubles? The need to suppress revolution? This is how colonialism works. This movie isn’t Black Panther — it is not explicitly political. But for every couple dozen good gags, there’s one halfway decent insight. I’ll take it. Pick of the week.

Annihilation — I liked it, but I wanted to love it. It’s possible I was overhyped for it. I was told it was bonkers. I’d heard comparisons to 2001, which is always going to be hyperbole. But I was hoping at least for something with a layer of abstraction to it — something that would cause me to leave the theatre wondering what actually happened. This isn’t that kind of movie. It isn’t especially open to interpretation. It isn’t The Tree of Life. It isn’t The Fountain. It’s a movie I will inevitably like better on a second viewing, because I will be able to approach it on its own terms, rather than on the terms of the movie I hoped it would be. That said, there is much to love about it on a first viewing: the casting is good, with Natalie Portman giving a creditable lead performance bolstered by outstanding supporting performances from Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson. And it really is a visual feast. Even its mundane shots are elegant. (It envisions the savage wilderness with more atmosphere than The Lost City of Z did, and that movie’s visuals were the one thing that lived up the the hype.) And when the monsters, mutant plants, and hallucinatory cosmic phenomena begin to crop up, it truly becomes a wonder. Annihilation is a good movie. Chalk it up to unreasonable expectations.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “When Fiction Lives in Fiction,” “A Defense of the Kabbalah” & the prologue to Bartleby the Scrivener — I waltzed into the Paper Hound the other day, a rather excellent small bookshop on Pender Street. “Just browse a little,” I said to myself. “Maybe pick up something light,” I said to myself. Six pounds of books later, I find myself leafing through the selected non-fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, whose essays read much like his fiction does — because so many of his stories are formatted as essays on books that simply don’t exist. My first casual flip through these characteristically miniature pieces includes three essays on topics I find particularly interesting these days: metafiction, the Kabbalah, and Herman Melville. The Bartleby prologue is primarily about Moby-Dick. It is the piece in which he refers to it as “the infinite novel,” an appraisal that many editions of Moby-Dick still trumpet on their back covers today. He should have said “the fathomless novel,” but this is a translation and I shouldn’t quibble. In any case, I should also probably actually read Bartleby the Scrivener, because I sort of have no idea what this is all about. “When Fiction Lives in Fiction” contains a suggestion that I find intensely seductive. Borges suggests that we find metafiction creepy because we look at a story within a story and feel as though we ourselves may only be part of an endless chain of fictions, subject to the wills of the storytellers beyond the veil. (I brought this up in my comics writing class today, and our instructor compared the idea to the distressingly popular Silicon Valley notion that we are all in a simulation, because simulations would exist within simulations, ergo there must be a long chain of simulations and it’s infinitesimally unlikely that we’re at the top of the chain. I thought that was quite clever. My instructor’s comparison, mind you — not the actual idea. The idea is nonsense.) I feel as though I’ve read Borges saying this in a more direct way, but it’s hinted at here. Maybe I’m just connecting the dots myself. Who can say. This essay also contains some favourable remarks on Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, one of my favourite novels, and a deeply Borgesian book — by design or not. The Kabbalah essay contains a contention that I find rather interesting: “every object whose end is unknown to us is provisionally monstrous.” He’s talking about God, whose endlessness isn’t necessarily something to be worshipped in Borges’s view, but rather something to be put off by. That idea that the things that extend beyond our field of vision — things we can only see in part, if at all — connects this essay with the metafiction essay. Borges is distressed by the notion of God for the same reason he’s distressed by stories within stories: both make him feel like he’s not in control of the strings. I sympathize. Again and again, reading Borges feels like talking to a really smart friend.

Elaine M. Will: Look Straight Ahead — A webcomic assigned in the comics writing class I’m taking. I was uncertain about it at first, because if anything it is a too accurate portrayal of the overwrought inner monologue of a high school student. But once the main thrust of the story gets underway, which deals with a psychotic break that goes far beyond standard adolescent alienation, it picks up steam. The visual presentation of the protagonist’s psychosis is deeply immersive and makes up for some lingering weaknesses in the dialogue and captioning. Fine.

Music

Gustav Mahler/Leonard Bernstein, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra & Helmut Wittek: Symphony No. 4 — Oftentimes when I’m writing these reviews, I’ll throw on a symphony. Usually it’s something I’ve reviewed before, or else I don’t get through the whole thing and it’s not worth remarking on, so I don’t. I’m not sure why I love symphonic music particularly for this kind of writing, but it’s increasingly what I fall back on. As I type this, I am listening to this particular recording over a glass of rather good Australian petite sirah. One must have these little rituals — even at the risk of becoming a caricature of one’s self. *sip* As for the recording, it’s one of two Mahler fours I return to, the other being the CanCon preference, Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s recording with Orchestre Métropolitain. I believe that was the second Mahler recording I ever bought, after a deeply dodgy Naxos recording of the eighth, which remains one of my least favourite Mahler symphonies, even in a good recording. (Chailly’s recording wins, BTW, and not only because it’s got Ben Heppner at his best. That does help, though.) Still, as much as I find nostalgic value in the YNS recording, I’m always going to go for Bernstein in a pinch. He’s a legendary Mahler conductor for a reason: he brings out all the music’s extremity and drama. There’s nobody who imbues this music with more energy than Bernstein, and energy is what’s called for. Mahler is not Bach. He is not one of those composers whose music seems to unveil natural laws. He is a composer who writes his own rules — his music is intensely human and requires a human interpretation. I’ll always prefer hearing an adult soprano (i.e. Karina Gauvin in YNS’s recording) to a boy soprano. But that aside, Bernstein’s rendition of this most light and pleasant Mahler symphonies is a treasure.

Podcasts

This American Life: “20 Acts in 60 Minutes” — A classic of the genre. Ira Glass once told Chris Gethard that his favourite episodes of This American Life are the ones where they break the format. This episode from 15 years ago is one of the most explicit of those. It features no fewer than 20 stories, many of them from producers who have gone on to become icons. Jonathan Goldstein tells the story of the time the Penguin (the Batman villain) meets Mary Poppins, and they find they have little in common save for airborne umbrella travel. Starlee Kine talks to an actor about the most mortifying moment his quasi-celebrity has ever brought him. Scott Carrier falls in love. Davids Sedaris and Rakoff do their respective things. Chuck Klosterman compares things to other things. But the best stories come from incarcerated youths. A pair of newly-minted investigative reporters in a juvenile delinquency centre look into the possibility that the kitchen staff has been urinating in the pudding. And a troupe of teenage girls in another facility apologize to their families — in song. Outstanding. The sort of thing that makes people want to become radio producers. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Courtney Barnett, Exitmusic, Okkervil River, More,” “Margaret Glaspy Writes A Bookend to ‘Emotions And Math,’” “Guest DJ: Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats Hop Across An Eclectic Playlist” & “SXSW 2018 Preview” — I have decided that All Songs needs to be a bigger part of my life this year, because it is a legitimately excellent way to get turned on to music that might be part of the critical conversation — but also weird stuff that’s going to get overlooked. In these episodes, I heard music I loved by Courtney Barnett (whose debut I still need to hear in full), Margaret Glaspy, Les McCann (thank you, Guest D.J. Nathaniel Rateliff), Chloe Foy & Skyway Man. Who’s to say if I’ll ever dig in further, but their names are now on my blog, and I’ll know if I ever look back here that these are musicians I once enjoyed, and should maybe have a listen again. I intend to listen to their complete SXSW coverage this coming week. Should be enlightening.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Atlanta” & “Talk Show Talk” — I have to watch Atlanta. I’ve been told by many many people, and by one person many many times, that I have to watch Atlanta. Soon. But this week’s standout PCHH is the talk show episode, featuring Guy Branum, host of Pop Rocket, a ruder and less insightful PCHH on which he is the bright light. They even momentarily made me understand Jimmy Fallon. Also, there’s a particularly nice moment here where Linda Holmes rediscovers why she’s friends with Glen Weldon by way of Cole Porter. This show almost never gets my pick of the week, nor will it this week. And it doesn’t show up on my year-end lists, because it’s a really weird thing to stack up against, I dunno, The Heart. Or even Code Switch, which does get out of the studio from time to time to make something a bit more ambitious than your standard panel chat. But I routinely enjoy Pop Culture Happy Hour more than anything else on my subscription list, and I love when I’ve got a backlog of episodes to listen to, because it’s so much fun.

Omnibus (week of Mar. 4, 2018)

Sometimes on weeks when you feel like three different people are pulling your hair in six different directions, you’ve got to spend as much time as possible in a movie theatre for the sake of your own sanity. I’ve seen six movies in theatres in the past two weeks, plus the Rio’s live broadcast of the Oscars. It is the ultimate refuge. Netflix will never be able to compare, because Netflix does not force you to forego the rest of your life during the duration of the movie. That, more than the big screen or even the crowd of like-minded strangers, is the best thing about seeing movies in a theatre. You are at the mercy of the projectionist. Surrender or leave.

Here are this week’s 21 reviews, four of which are of things that took place in movie theatres.

Live events

Gentlemen Hecklers present: Twilight — The only way to watch Twilight is to watch it with three comics heckling it from the sidelines. I know two of the Gentlemen Hecklers from their role as ubiquitous Vancouver trivia hosts. They are funny people. But more than that, Twilight is really bad movie. The Hecklers’ best bit by far was also possibly their easiest: a drinking game where you drink whenever Edward Cullen does or says something that is a relationship red flag. It is perhaps apropos that Robert Pattinson has recently become such an interesting character actor, given that his breakout role was an abject failure to be anything resembling a leading man. Between him and Kristen Stewart, the human face is contorted into more inexplicable formations during the course of this movie than in Jack Nicholson’s entire career. This was a good time. Twilight is awful.

Movies

The Florida Project — I talk a big game about my propensity to cry during movies. I make myself out to be a right basket case: the champion of vulnerable masculinity. But the truth is that very few movies that are not directed by Wes Anderson have ever really opened the floodgates for me. But the final moments of The Florida Project put me in a right state. The tone of this movie is so nonchalant and whimsical in the face of truly bleak subject matter that its final dive into unalloyed tragedy is a knife to the heart. That’s as close to a spoiler as I’ll come. I love everything about The Florida Project. I love each and every glorious shot of a tacky Orlando novelty shop front. It is one of the five or six best new movies I’ve seen since I started writing this blog. A lot has been made of this movie’s nuanced portrayal of impoverished people, and with good reason. The film’s adult protagonist, Halley, faces impossible alternatives throughout. There’s no way to watch this movie without feeling the pressure she’s under — probably with a lot more sweat on your brow than she’s got. There’s a moment in a scene with Willem Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones, the two recognizable actors in the film, that I suspect is meant to serve as a Rosetta Stone: Jones’ character Jack finds bedbugs in his father Bobby’s motel. Jack berates Bobby for blowing a bunch of money on purple paint to add an air of whimsy to the motel’s exterior when what he really needs is an exterminator. But think of this from Bobby’s perspective: if that coat of purple paint pulls in a few families of tourists per week, he’s that much closer to keeping the motel in business. It’s a counterintuitive decision that might make it seem like Bobby doesn’t have his priorities straight. But when you’re scraping by, priorities look different. It’s the same with Halley. Stealing a meal from a hotel buffet might not seem like a good idea from where you’re sitting. But when you’ve got no money and a daughter to feed, maybe it’s worth the risk. The Florida Project is perfect. It is toe-to-toe with Get Out in the 2017 sweepstakes that are now long over. Pick of the week.

Wild Strawberries — The Cinémathèque is doing a whole series to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ingmar Bergman’s birth. As a programmer explained before this screening, they couldn’t bring themselves to start the series with The Seventh Seal. It’s just too overexposed. Wild Strawberries, then: the best-known Bergman film that hasn’t been subjected to ruthless parody. I hadn’t seen it before. I hadn’t seen anything by Bergmann except The Seventh Seal, which pleasantly shocked me with its balance between thinky darkness and complete siliness. But Wild Strawberries is an altogether more successful integration of heavy, existential themes into a compelling narrative. I think it’s probably the better of the two movies. It’s a story about an old doctor named Isak Borg, and the impact he’s made on the world and the people around him. The key connection that we as an audience have to that impact is Marianne, Isak’s daughter-in-law. Marianne has had to spend her life in love with Isak’s son Evald: a man who, like his father, is constantly on the verge of giving up on life altogether. I daresay that for all of the film’s brilliant ideas — and for all the brilliance of Victor Sjöström’s performance as Isak — Marianne is the movie’s masterstroke. It is Marianne that prevents Wild Strawberries from being a movie primarily about depressive, brilliant men and their problems. Because in the one or two heartbreaking scenes where we really come to know something about her relationship with Evald, the film’s focus shifts definitively towards the way that those men affect the world around them, rather than the way the world around them affects those men. It’s a beautiful meditation on family. For all its darkness and occasional cynicism, Wild Strawberries is deeply cathartic. I liked it a whole lot.

A Wrinkle in Time — It’s a mixed bag. On one hand, it takes a powder on Madeleine L’Engle’s most ambitious ideas: the explanation of how a tesseract works; the segment on a two-dimensional planet. On the other, it’s a family-friendly blockbuster with a distinctive aesthetic and some compositions worthy of Oscar winner Roger Deakins. (I’m going to call him that from now on, every time I mention him. I’m just so happy for him.) For every stroke of brilliance (i.e. the casting of Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and GIGANTIC SPACE OPRAH as the Mrs. Ws), there is a disappointment that feels like a betrayal of the source material (i.e. the casting of Levi Miller, The Most Boring Teen In The World, as Calvin). The movie’s primary theme is “love yourself,” which is a deeply valuable theme — especially considering that it is a film for children, starring a young black woman who comes to terms with herself over the course of the film. But what it gains over the book in heart, it loses in brains. L’Engle’s novel contains a borderline nonsensical but deeply compelling metaphysical matrix that is almost entirely glossed over here. That disappoints me. What it all comes down to is this: Ava DuVernay is a master of her craft, but she’s working from a flawed script on a project for a massive corporate juggernaut. It’s worth seeing, and I hope it makes a pile of money, because it’s great when taken on its own merits. But as an adaptation, it’s a bit wanting.

Moon — I don’t know why I wanted to watch this. Certainly it has nothing to do with Sam Rockwell’s recent Oscar win, which I am actually a bit miffed about. But it’s the kind of movie I wish we saw more of: a small, interesting science fiction movie, in the vein of Ex Machina, but six years before. Its actual story is less interesting than it might be: in a sense it reduces Blade Runner to a high concept story about human replication. But Rockwell’s performance as two different facets of the same person, and the excellent, understated screenplay lift it above its premise. I enjoyed this a lot. It’s on Canadian Netflix. Check it out.

Television

Lady Dynamite: “Pilot” — Wow, this is weird. I love Maria Bamford, but this is so completely bonkers that I didn’t laugh much. I’m told I should stick it out. I may. We’ll see.

Literature, etc.

Kris Straub: Broodhollow, Book 2 — Immeasurably better than the first book. Where the first arc of Broodhollow deals with the question of whether or not everything crazy going in is happening in the protagonist’s head, this book dives into the much less travelled idea of a whole town forgetting its traumas. It’s something that Stephen King dealt with in It, but Broodhollow has another take. The masterstroke here is the introduction of a second town society. Where the first was an all-male Eyes Wide Shut riff with absolutely no idea what’s going on in Broodhollow, the second is a ladies auxiliary that, in spite of its innocuous trappings, knows more about Broodhollow’s threats than anybody else. I really enjoyed this, and I’m appalled at the cliffhanger it finished in. I hope Kris Straub is hard at work on book three.

Jorge Luis Borges: “German Literature in the Age of Bach” — I wandered into The Paper Hound this week, a Vancouver bookshop that I particularly like. Just go in and browse, I said to myself. Maybe pick up something light, I said to myself. Six pounds of books later, I have begun reading the collected nonfiction of Jorge Luis Borges in this completely arbitrary location. I’m not sure what exactly precipitated Borges’ lecture on this topic, but I like to think that somebody asked him to speak about this topic, and he discovered for himself as a result of this that there was virtually no interesting literature to speak of in Germany while Bach was composing his masterpieces. Still, being Borges, he does his due diligence and reflects on the reasons for this, and also muses on the virtues of some of the literature from this period that has perhaps not aged especially well. Also, he passingly mentions an idea of Paul Valéry’s that it might be interesting to write a literary history without proper names. I share a birthday with Valéry. Maybe one of these days I should do something like that. A music history podcast, perhaps.

Music

Yes: Tales from Topographic Oceans — This was my favourite album from the ages of about 12 to 20. It has always pained me slightly to demote something that was an all-time favourite to a lower rung on the ladder. But these days, the top of my list is populated by albums I discovered a little later (e.g. Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love), albums that grew on me over the course of many years (e.g. Brian Eno’s Another Green World) and one album that has lost none of its lustre since I first heard it as an impressionable teenager (Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick). Even among albums by Yes, my first favourite band, I’m not sure that Topographic would come out on top these days. For all its flaws, Fragile has the moments that most define what I continue to love about the band: the drama; the casual virtuosity; the personalities of five individuals all emerging from ensemble compositions. But listening through Topographic again for the first time in years did genuinely some strengths that are immutable. Its second side, “The Remembering” was always, and remains my favourite. With its delicate Mellotron and jangly acoustic moments, it is a cosmic folk song in memory of childhood. It isn’t even one of the most popular songs on this album, but I still think it’s one of the crowning glories of progressive rock. Likewise for “Ritual,” the one track from Topographic to become a regular live favourite. Having learned and grown since I last heard this, I now have a bit of trouble with the line “we love when we play.” Throughout this album, and to some extent his entire career, Jon Anderson comes off as a child prophet. If you can’t accept him on his own terms he’ll alienate you right out of the genre. But I also feel like anybody who can’t accept him must be harbouring a particularly toxic kind of cynicism, because the man just has so much love for the world. So much love. I’ve always had a soft spot for “The Ancient,” probably the most difficult of the album’s four tracks. The acoustic outro is a flat-out classic moment in the Yes corpus, but the Steve Howe freakout that leads up to it is no mere virtuoso display: it is a masterclass in how to generate tension with instruments. The one track that disappointed me upon returning to this album was the one that has perhaps become the fan favourite: “The Revealing Science of God.” It is structurally the closest thing on this album to the long tracks on the albums that bookend Topographic. Where “The Ancient” is a showcase for Howe, “Ritual” features lengthy solo spots for the rhythm section, and “The Remembering” (not quite the Rick Wakeman feature the liner notes make it out to be) channels an atmospheric side that the band does not generally foreground, “Revealing” is an attempt at an integrated full-band feature with internal symmetry and a dramatic arc unto itself. And in that respect, it doesn’t rise to the level of “Close to the Edge” or “The Gates of Delirium.” Still, this was like rediscovering an old friend. A final note: Apple Music does not have the Rhino remaster of the album that I grew up with, so I now understand why so many people complained about the sound quality. The unremastered digital files are abominable.

Tom Rogerson & Brian Eno: Finding Shore — Eno’s latest project is as a sideman to an improvisational pianist who is willing to allow Eno to twist his music about into an electrified finished product. That sounds like a role where Eno will thrive. And he does. This album begins with a collection of electronic plinks that do not identifiably come from a piano. But about a minute and a half into the album, the origins of the sound make themselves obvious as the piano crashes in. This entire album is an absolutely gorgeous collaboration, and one of Eno’s most worthwhile projects in some time. Much of the credit must clearly go to Rogerson, who is the actual composer of this music. Listen to this. Do.

Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois & Roger Eno: Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks — I needed something more to listen to while I was writing up this week’s reviews, so I revisited another old favourite. This is one of Eno’s finest ambient albums, perhaps only behind Music for Airports and On Land. It’s certainly best known for “An Ending (Ascent),” which is lovely. But the best moments are the ones that most clearly feature Daniel Lanois’ appalachian-tinged pedal steel. Lanois’ “Silver Morning” may be my favourite on the album. Essential Eno.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up —  Their Oscars coverage is always the most fun in the business. Audie Cornish doing the Regrettable Television Pop Quiz is a sure bet. Their Wrinkle in Time take turned out to be about right, when you take the average of the whole panel. Will watch: Annihilation. Won’t watch: Queer Eye.

On the Media: “Face the Racist Nation” & “Everything You Love Will Burn” — These two episodes on the alt-right in collaboration with The Guardian are worth hearing, though I feel like I’ve heard these arguments advanced in a less consolidated fashion on a combination of previous episodes of OTM.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Memories of an Invented City” — This old story about Cuba’s most influential author in a generation is a lovely thing. It has plenty of his personality, interspersed with vital readings from his work and enough context to make sense of it all.

The Hilarious World of Depression: “Highlights From A Hilarious Night of Depression” — This is great. Come for the comedy, stay for the genuine insights into mental illness that come from doing a whole season of interviews with people who suffer from it.

Reply All: “Trust the Process” & “The World’s Most Expensive Free Watch” — Two perfectly fine episodes of a great show. One has Alex Blumberg explaining sports to the hosts, which is a pleasant switcheroo. And we get Gene Demby as a bonus, so that’s fun. The other is about how even internet scamming is a scam. So that’s really distressing. Nice stuff.

This is Love: Episodes 1-4 — I love Criminal, but I might love that team’s new show even more. The first episode of this has everything you need to know about it. The guest is nobody of particular note, but he’s got a love story that’s worth hearing. Subsequent guests have more unusual tales to tell, i.e. reuniting a grey whale with its mother and founding one of the most acclaimed restaurants in America to pay tribute to one’s parents. But all of these episodes are completely compelling. A new favourite. Pick of the week.

Criminal: “The Manual” & “Willie Bosket” — “The Manual” is appalling in a good way: a story of how the first amendment is sometimes considered more important than human life. “Willie Bosket” is fine: a story of a particularly rough juvenile case. Both of these stories have far-reaching legal implications. Listen for that alone.

It’s Been a Minute: “‘Black Panther’ with Glen Weldon and Evan Narcisse” — I’ve heard and read enough about Black Panther now. But hearing noted comics expert Glen Weldon and actual comics writer Evan Narcisse bounce ideas off of each other is great fun.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Jennifer Lawrence” — This is an awkward interview. Lawrence has become self-conscious about her guilelessness with the media, and Maron’s show is the worst place to find yourself if that is what you’re currently self-conscious about. But they seem to like each other in spite of it. I dunno, it’s okay.

Code Switch catch-up — Definitely check out the immigration status episode. Three members of the same family, with three different immigration statuses. Complications ensue.

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.

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

carpetbag

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 without a country: a seafarer 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.