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Notes on Moby-Dick (still not finished): Part 4

LET US SET SAIL ONCE AGAIN UPON THESE LITERARY OCEANS. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t read any more of this book until I kept up with my note taking. I’ve caught up with myself now, so we should be able to speed onwards from here. Okay. *deep breath*

Chapter 33: The Specksynder

Having just finished his digression regarding the taxonomy of whales, Ishmael now moves on to… another digression. This one is about the role of the specksynder (or more properly, as Dr. Parker informs me, the “speksnijder”): the chief harpooneer of certain whaling cultures that stood in equal esteem to the captain of the ship. From here, Ishmael transitions into a musing on the ways that people acquire power, and how they wield it. Specifically, how Ahab wields it: without any unnecessary display of majesty or pomp, but with the occasional lapse into tyranny. (Just ask poor, abused Stubb, who just before all of these digressions was recovering from being kicked.)

But the really interesting thing, at least for somebody with my particular obsessions, lives in this chapter’s short final paragraph:

“But Ahab, my Captain, still moves before me in all his Nantucket grimness and shagginess; and in this episode touching Emperors and Kings, I must not conceal that I have only to do with a poor old whale-hunter like him; and, therefore, all outward majestical trappings and housings are denied me. Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!”

Here we have the closest thing we’ve had so far to Ishmael admitting he’s a bullshitter. In his many digressions, he touches on royalty. One might think he’d rather be writing a great royal drama in the vein of Shakespeare’s Henriad. But he (Ishmael, though possibly also Melville) is compelled to draw his story from his own experience, which doesn’t touch on emperors and kings. And so, to tell the story that he needs to tell, he must pluck Ahab’s grandness from the skies — from his own fathomless imagination.

How many of us have done the same? Surely, we all have a friend who comes alive in the stories we tell more vividly than they do in person? Just because a person doesn’t have the outward appearance of literary greatness doesn’t mean they can’t attain it when paired with an energetic storyteller.

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One of Melville’s biggest fans.

It never ceases to amaze me how concerned Melville is with whether or not his fictional narrator is telling a true story. Obviously, it’s not a true story. But the fact that it might not even be fully true for Ishmael is a huge part of what makes this such a rich book. I’m quite certain it’s what made Jorge Luis Borges so enamoured of it.

As a quick aside, the poem I’ve just linked there is a big part of why I decided to read Moby-Dick in the first place. Any book revered by Borges is likely to appeal to me as well. Having cracked into it, I must say I wish Borges hadn’t included his line about “the pleasure… of spying Ithaca.” He’s referring to Odysseus’s home, of course, and thus to the concept of home in general, especially the home you return to after a sea voyage. But as we’ve discussed previously: in Moby-Dick, home is death for the soul. I think Borges knew this perfectly well and just couldn’t resist a classical reference. Still, he redeems himself and then some when he describes Moby-Dick as “azul Proteo” — “blue Proteus.” Another Odyssey reference, this time to the ever-transforming water god. Quite so. If Proteus were a book, he’d be this one.

Chapter 34: The Cabin-Table

There’s a reason I’ve leapt right back into the question of Ishmael’s authenticity. And that’s because the perspective from which this book is told is about to shatter completely. That process begins here, with a chapter where Ishmael tells us in great detail about things that happened in a room where he wasn’t present. (Unless he’s a truly excellent spy, but I feel like he would have told us.)

I think I’ve heard somebody say at some point that Ishmael has a tendency to “disappear” — as if he narrates only some of the book and the bits of it that he couldn’t possibly know are written in a different authorial voice altogether. I don’t buy that for a second. This chapter is manifestly still told in Ishmael’s voice. Who else would make reference to Belshazzar and the German emperor’s seven imperial electors during a description of a simple dinner scene? Who else would remark, after Flask lacks the courage to help himself to butter at the silent, tense table: “Flask, alas! was a butterless man!” If he’s telling us about things he couldn’t possibly know, well fine. I guess he’s making them up. This, after all, is the same guy who won’t straightforwardly tell us what his name is. But it’s him, and make no mistake.

Also, I can’t say whether or not this description of what mealtimes are like among the officers of a whaling vessel is accurate. But I can attest to the notion that there’s a delicious authority that comes from hosting others at your dinner table. “Who has but once dined his friends, has tasted what it is to be Caesar.” I do love cooking.

Chapter 35: The Mast-Head

And now, A BRIEF HISTORY OF PEOPLE STANDING ON TALL THINGS. I’m not joking. At the start of this chapter, Ishmael is summoned for his first lookout shift on the masthead. And before telling us anything about what that experience was like for him, he decides to let us in on his research about WHO WERE THE FIRST PEOPLE TO STAND ON VERY TALL THINGS. It’s not the builders of the Tower of Babel, clearly, since that got blown over by God before it was finished. So it must be the Egyptian astrologers with their pyramids (again with the pyramids). Ishmael enumerates the various historical personages looking out over great modern cities from atop towers: Napoleon, Washington, Nelson.

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my primary asset as a critic is the breadth of my reference points

And just when you think that this indulgence is even more of Ishmael’s (or Melville’s) customary perversity — weaponizing the reader’s exasperation for comic effect — he brings it back around to the whaling vessel. According to Ishmael, the masthead aboard a ship is an evolution of mastheads that were once posted onshore at Nantucket and New Zealand, where a lookout would call to the manned boats in the harbour when a whale came near the shore. And these onshore mastheads surely are just evolutions of the same principle that led the Egyptians to build the pyramids. It all comes back to the pyramids.

This fucking book, sometimes, I swear to God.

Later, as he explains what it’s actually like on the masthead (uncomfortable), Ishmael makes a metaphor where a coat is your house, but then makes sure that we all know it’s just a metaphor and that a coat isn’t literally a house. “You cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.” So: you can, in a sense, bring your house with you to the masthead in the form of a coat — except that a coat is not a house, so you cannot actually bring your house with you to the masthead. Great, good to know.

It comes as no surprise at all when Ishmael reveals that he was a terrible lookout. He’s got far too much to think about to worry himself with something so mundane as doing his job.

I think this is one of my favourite chapters of Moby-Dick.

Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck

In a lesser, saner novel, this would be chapter one. Our knights and squires are all assembled and at sea. The one-legged captain paces the deck, his brow as heavy as his gait. And at long last, he calls the crew around him to tell them why they are aboard this ship — to tell us why we are reading this novel. It took Ishmael sixteen chapters to invoke the name of Ahab. Here we are in chapter thirty-six, and only now does Ishmael allow a character to speak the dreaded name: Moby Dick.

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From Christophe Chabouté’s comic adaptation, which I’ll read someday. In English.

As it turns out, the aim of the Pequod, the particular whaling vessel that Ishmael was fated to be aboard by Queequeg’s god Yojo, is not in fact to harvest as much sperm whale oil as it can, but to secure a more abstract commodity: vengeance. As we already know, Ahab lost his leg to a whale on a previous voyage. We now learn that the whale responsible for his disfigurement was itself a disfigured brute: a gigantic albino sperm whale “with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw.”

Aside from finally telling us what every contemporary person who will ever read Moby-Dick already knows, this amazingly non-diversionary chapter also provides us with the first substantial bit of verbiage from Captain Ahab. His language reminds me of two vastly different literary figures. The more obvious (in fact, intentional) of these is Shakespeare. Like the great characters of Shakespearean tragedy — Hamlet, the Macbeths, Othello, Iago, Lear, etc. — Ahab is capable of expressing complex, abstract thought through inventive language. Ishmael’s even good enough to signal this particular reference point to us by including one of his increasingly frequent stage directions at the start of the chapter, and by allowing Ahab an (aside) direct to the reader in the middle of his speech to Starbuck, more on which momentarily.

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Worse things happen at sea…

The other literary figure I’m reminded of is H.P. Lovecraft. Stay with me here. Lovecraft wrote “The Call of Cthulhu,” his classic tale of pure evil manifesting as a sea monster, in 1926. Ahab’s got him beat by 73 years. But the similarity between Ahab’s description of Moby Dick and the entire milieu that’s come to be known as “Lovecraftian horror” is undeniable. In the previous chapter, Ishmael self-identified as a Platonist — a person primarily occupied with the world of ideas, rather than the physical realm. Here, Ahab joins the ranks of those who see past the world of the senses, but Platonist he is not. He is something more akin to a Gnostic.

For Ahab, the physical world around us is nothing more than a “pasteboard mask,” obscuring the true nature of the forces that lurk just beyond our perception. “Hark ye yet again the little lower layer,” he tells Starbuck. The white whale is no mere animal upon which Ahab desires revenge. It is his portal out of the Matrix. It is his red pill. (Let’s for a moment pretend that very useful phrase hasn’t been appropriated by shitheads.) It is the serpent of Eden, which some of the ancient Gnostics worshipped.

And it is also a vast and incomprehensible manifestation of the unknowable evil power that governs the universe. It is Cthulhu, three quarters of a century ahead of schedule.

This chapter also shows us the moment of Starbuck’s foretold “fall of valor.” He is the only person onboard who’s so level headed that his soul isn’t completely taken in by Ahab’s extraordinary rhetoric. And yet, when it comes to the moment he could express a counterpoint — perhaps establishing a quiet resistance among the crew — he demures. It’s Starbuck’s religion that leads him to condemn Ahab’s thirst for vengeance. But religion leads him all the same to the only rational conclusion voiced in this whole chapter: that the white whale is a dumb brute upon whom vengeance would be wasted.

But we’re in Ahab’s story now. He’s the only character aside from Ishmael who manifests as an intelligence in himself — clearly Ahab has taken up residence in Ishmael’s mind. And even if he’s making nearly all of this up, which he clearly is, this Ahab is as real to Ishmael as he is to himself, because this Ahab is a part of him. We are witnessing a story where the only tenable view of the white whale is that it is a manifestation of pure evil that must be wiped from the earth.

Starbuck never stood a chance.

Chapter 37: Sunset

The next three chapters are soliloquies by three characters who aren’t Ishmael. Some may suggest that this lends credence to the theory that Ishmael just vanishes from the novel sometimes, but we’ve already been through my thoughts on that bit of rubbish.

On the topic of Ahab having taken up residence in Ishmael’s mind, I think there’s a reading to be had of Moby-Dick that the whole thing is Ishmael’s attempt to exorcise the demon Ahab that haunts him. We’ve talked from the very start about the idea that Ishmael’s tendency to get distracted from the story for long periods of time exists because the story is traumatic. These are events that have been rattling about in his brain for who knows how many years (“never mind how long precisely”), perhaps having become sensational in the process. Certainly, he’s changed all the names, or we surely wouldn’t have had a prophet named Elijah. And Ishmael has acknowledged openly that Ahab is at least partially a construction.

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This is not Moby-Dick.

But I want to guard against a banal reading of Moby-Dick where the central question becomes simply whether anything that happens is real. Moby-Dick is not Life of Pi. For one thing, Ishmael’s Ahab is as grand and beguiling as he is terrible. And he’s clearly relishing the opportunity to put words in his mouth. (“I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it.”) And for another, some version of this story clearly happened to Ishmael. He wouldn’t be telling it to us in such astonishing detail if it hadn’t. So I’m going to put the question of what’s real and what’s fake aside for a while now, and just start looking at what’s actually happening in the words on the page. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Regarding this monologue by Ahab, I will only say that it’s well worth reading aloud. I’ve read most of Moby-Dick aloud at this point, and I can’t recommend it enough. As more characters begin to enter the narrative, reading aloud helps to note the extraordinary variety in their modes of expression. Where Ahab is concerned, it puts an even finer point on his debt to Shakespeare’s greatest characters. And it makes clear that Moby-Dick is one of the most theatrical novels ever written.

Robert McKee has written that the strength of theatre is in showing the ways that people communicate with each other, whereas the strength of novels is in painting intimate pictures of the lives people lead within their own minds. In that sense, Moby-Dick is almost a piece of theatre, because Ishmael is always talking to you — not himself. Moby-Dick is the world’s longest TED talk.

Ironically, it’s in these next few ostentatiously theatrical chapters that the book veers closest to that portrait of a mind’s interior that novels are supposedly so great at providing. But the theatrical tradition Ishmael/Melville’s riffing on is the Shakespearean soliloquy, which exists specifically to show what’s going on in a character’s head. So I suppose this isn’t anything particularly unexpected and I’ve basically just been spinning my wheels for two paragraphs. Moving on.

Chapter 38: Dusk

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This is Moby-Dick.

Oh, Starbuck. Your death is going to hurt the most.

Every character in this book is fun to spend time with, but Starbuck, severe old Quaker that he is, is possibly the only truly admirable person aboard the Pequod. And in his first appearance since his “fall of valor” at the quarter-deck, he is already berating himself for allowing Ahab to overwhelm him and put the crew’s lives and livelihoods in danger.

And, on the curiously recurring topic of “Moby-Dick making accidental forward reference to major horror franchises,” Starbuck also refers to the white whale as a “demogorgon.”

Chapter 39: First Night-Watch

We’ve had soliloquies from Ahab and Starbuck now, so let’s continue down the line and hear from Stubb. Always good to get inside Stubb’s head. He’s really smart in a very dumb way, like the drunk porter in Macbeth, except we get to hang out with him for more than one scene.

And like a great many Shakespearean fools, Stubb enjoys commenting on the fine line between comedy and tragedy. “Wise Stubb,” he calls himself, and while he isn’t exactly right about that, he’s not wrong about as much as you’d think. Certainly he has a sense that this entire enterprise will lead the whole crew to madness.

Interestingly, Dr. Parker’s notes inform me that the rhyme Stubb recites in this chapter was written by a friend of Melville’s, Charles Fenno Hoffman, who was interned in a madhouse when Melville was writing this. *shivers*

Chapter 40: Midnight, Forecastle

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Daggoo, as imagined by Rockwell Kent.

Now, because Flask isn’t worthy of a soliloquy, we get a chapter of dialogue from the harpooners and sailors. Maybe the most remarkable thing about this chapter, which is basically just drunken cavorting, is how plainly Melville is trying to portray the multiculturalism of the crew. The sailors who speak in this chapter come from scores of places both general and specific. We’ve got two black characters in Daggoo and Pip, a young boy who sweeps up. We’ve got Tashtego of the Wampanoag. We’ve got the expected handful of Nantucketers. But we’ve also got sailors from Denmark, France, Iceland, Malta, Sicily, Long Island, the Azores, China, the Isle of Man, India, Tahiti, Portugal, England, Spain, São Tiago and Belfast. This, perhaps, is the best argument we’ve seen thus far for Moby-Dick as “the great American novel.” There’s even a drunk racist dude to put the finest possible point on it.

Chapter 41: Moby Dick

One thing that will continue to drive me nuts throughout this book is the maddeningly inconsistent hyphenation of Moby Dick. In the title, it’s hyphenated. Throughout the book, it isn’t. EXCEPT for one time in chapter 133. (Thank you, Command-F.) It’s making me crazy. Anyway.

If anybody still has doubts about how utterly bonkers this book is, there is a moment in this chapter where Ishmael suggests that sperm whales can teleport. He’s not entirely convinced by this, but he won’t dismiss the possibility out of hand. And since Moby Dick himself is such a storied and borderline supernatural beast, Ishmael is more willing to ascribe him with special powers, like the ability to be in two places at once.

(Also, among Moby Dick’s deformities is a “pyramidical hump.” Pyramids everywhere.)

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Art from Mastodon’s Leviathan. Trust a metal band to nail the tone of this book.

Ishmael’s got two main orders of business in this chapter. One is similar to what he was up to way back in the chapter about the chapel, where he called attention to how many people die at sea. Similarly to that, this chapter is about the dangers of the sperm whale, and of Moby Dick in particular. Many thought it suicide to give chase to even an ordinary sperm whale, let alone a fantastical giant brute of one. Discursive as he is, Ishmael does know how to keep you reading.

His other order of business is to give us a more detailed rendering than we’ve seen before of the story of how Ahab lost his leg. This is at best second-hand storytelling, but it’s a rollicking good bit. After the white whale had “reaped away Ahab’s leg as a mower a blade of grass in the field,” Ahab was confined to his bed for weeks, laced into a strait-jacket to prevent him from lashing out with all the remarkable strength that was left in him. His madness came on thick and fast, and then apparently subsided. But, as Ishmael says in one of the book’s best lines so far: “Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form.”

Thusly maddened, Ahab sets to sea with the three mates most likely to see him to his purpose: the mediocre Flask, the reckless Stubb, and poor Starbuck, who almost but didn’t quite manage to conjure up the strength of character needed to protest.

More than ever, it feels as though the story’s about to get underway. Naturally, it isn’t.

To be continued.  

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Omnibus (weeks of Dec. 10 & 17, 2017)

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

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

10 reviews.

Literature, etc.

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

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

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

Movies

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

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

Music

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

Omnibus (week of Nov. 26, 2017)

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

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

Music

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

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

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

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

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

Movies

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

Literature, etc.

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnibus (week of Nov. 12)

The long-awaited North by Northwest segment on ISCM World New Music Days is here, and can be found at 1:21:50 of this podcast. Back to business as usual in the December instalment. Meanwhile, here are this week’s 14 reviews.

Movies

Lantouri — I saw this with a friend at the Cinémathèque, which is doing a series on contemporary Iranian cinema. Since, like many people, I know only one Iranian filmmaker, I figured why not. Should be a lovely afternoon out. Holy shit was this ever something. It’s the third feature film of Reza Dormishian, who is apparently one of the bright lights of his generation in Iranian cinema. If Lantouri is any indication, he’s also one of the most skilled directors in the world, in the idiom of EXTREMELY INTENSE FILMS. It’s the story of a Tehran street gang (sort of), and their leader’s increasingly creepy infatuation with a steely journalist. It opens as a talking heads-heavy fake documentary, but becomes increasingly cinematic as the story ramps up. That’s a clever device, because Dormishian can get his themes and social critiques on the table at the start, and then proceed to just tell a story, having established a framework of ideas at the outset. And that latter part of the movie, when the documentary element begins to wane, tells a story that’s so unrelentingly tense that you may stop breathing. Dormishian charts the course of his protagonist Pasha’s non-relationship with the reporter Maryam in a sort of fractured, alinear way where you see key moments taking place from multiple perspectives. It’s a tricky dance, but as information gradually accretes, we start to understand Pasha as a monster. The film’s turning point comes in a scene where you know exactly what is going to happen, because you’ve already seen it from a distance. But you don’t know when. The suspense comes from certainty rather than uncertainty. And it is almost unbearable. The same can be said for nearly the whole final act of the movie. Definitely watch this, but only when you’re in the mood for something sort of grim, and totally unrelenting. Pick of the week.

Logan — Wow, this is a very sad X-Men movie. And maybe the best X-Men movie. I never expected to say that about a movie that doesn’t have Magneto in it, but here we are. Wolverine has never been the most interesting part of this universe to me. I’m far more interested in the conflict of values between Charles Xavier and Magneto. But the Wolverine we see in this film is different from the one we see in the other films. Not entirely different, mind: Hugh Jackman is clearly playing the same man as he is in every other sardonic appearance in the X-franchise. But this movie’s iteration of Logan/Wolverine sits on a far-out promontory of the island that is that character. There’s always been a hint of the Man With No Name about Wolverine, and more than a hint of Dirty Harry. But in this movie, Hugh Jackman melts the brooding asshole from the previous films down and pours him into a patently Clint Eastwood-shaped mould. The same goes for Xavier, who is finally a character worthy of Patrick Stewart’s talents. Logan’s degenerating Professor X is its most tragic element. All of this could only work in the film that’s designed to retire Wolverine forever. Or, at least the Hugh Jackman version of him. The reality of contemporary blockbuster cinema is that you cannot put characters in situations that risk breaking the universe, and therefore the prospects for further profit from endless sequels. Logan has no qualms about pushing continuity to its breaking point, and in doing so it gives us a glimpse of what genre cinema has sacrificed in the era of the cinematic universe. There’s a lot of power in seeing a familiar character in an unfamiliar setting. Writers of fanfic and tie-in novels have known that for decades. Logan is what that concept looks like when you pour a hundred million dollars into it. I’d be immensely more enthusiastic about superhero movies if more of them were like this.

Literature

Brooke Gladstone: The Trouble With Reality — This very brief book, which was written and published with furious speed after the election of Donald Trump, is an outstanding synthesis of thinkers from Hannah Arendt to Philip K. Dick about the way demagoguery distorts reality. But I wish I’d read it when it came out. Troublingly, I feel as though I’ve already apprehended much of what Gladstone writes here by osmosis as this weird bad year has rocketed along. I say troublingly because I also feel I’m becoming inured to the notion that the world is being controlled by people whose live in a different reality from me. The most useful thing in Gladstone’s book is a spirited ending in which she entreats us to actually fight against this: to arm yourself with information that will allow you to at least understand the reality of others. Still, it feels like a rallying cry from a previous version of the world — a version that didn’t know how baffling this new phase was going to be.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” — I’m finding the stories in the Artifices more varied, but also a bit less ambitious than the ones in The Garden of Forking Paths. This one is a fun examination of how a particular story (of Borges’s invention) might have come to be. But it’s a slight thing. None of the tiny little stories in this collection have quite managed to pack the wallop of equally brief stories like “The Library of Babel” or even something like “The Circular Ruins.” I’m not complaining; this is still brilliant, and Borges still comes off like a fantastically interesting dinner companion who has some thoughts to share with you in a collegial and friendly manner. I love that.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Secret Miracle” — Now we’re cooking. Aside from “Death and the Compass,” which was one of the first Borges stories I read, this is probably my favourite story in the Artifices so far. What I particularly love about it is that it’s a story about a man’s very personal inner experience: its resolution involves a thing happening that, by definition, only one person could possibly know about. But Borges still approaches the story like a literary critic writing a biographical sketch. There’s an element of satire here, I think: Borges’s narrator is a critic so penetrating that he is actually aware of his subject’s complete inner life. Surely there are critics out there who believe this of themselves sincerely. But it’s easy to miss the satire, if indeed it is satire, because Borges doesn’t focus on it. He just tells the story, largely from the third-person omniscient perspective of the protagonist. And that story is sufficiently affecting that the meta-narrative, for once in Borges’s career, seems beside the point. Marvellous.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Three Versions of Judas” — And here we have an account of a heretical theologian’s notion that God’s human incarnation wasn’t Jesus, but Judas. The thing I love most about Borges is that he comes up with incredible premises for sprawling books, but knows those premises are ultimately worthier than their execution would be. So he summarizes them in four or five pages. This is one of the most complex things he’s ever distilled, and it never seems undercooked.

Music

George Harrison: All Things Must Pass — I had to listen to this to make certain of my assertion last week that I prefer RAM. I do. But still. This is two-thirds a classic. The other third, the “Apple Jam” that makes up the final LP of this triple album (it’s almost like he had something to prove) is the sort of aimless blues jamming that’s probably the reason nobody listens to Eric Clapton anymore. But for the two LPs where Harrison focusses on songs, he barely puts a foot wrong. I’ve never been a huge fan of “My Sweet Lord,” but “What is Life” might well be the best single a Beatle ever put out as a solo artist. And of the eighteen tracks on those first two-thirds of the album, I daresay ten are classics. “Wah Wah” is impossible to only listen to once. “Isn’t It A Pity” is so good that it’s on the album twice. “The Ballad of Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll)” is a song awaiting its rightful place in a Wes Anderson movie. I could go on. The most notable thing about the overall feel of All Things Must Pass is how completely different it is in approach to the Beatles records. Where John assembled a small band to play his songs straightforwardly and Paul insisted on doing everything himself — both of which were approaches with precedent in the Beatles catalogue — George called up everybody he knew and jammed. And while this partially resulted in the album’s tedious third LP, it also made for a rollicking, spirited album that has more in common with Blonde on Blonde or (dare I say it) Exile on Main St. than with Sgt. Pepper. A classic.

Cat Stevens: Tea for the Tillerman — So I watched Rushmore again this week. You don’t need to hear any more of my opinions on Wes Anderson. Go back here. But there’s a Cat Stevens song in that movie that I love. I’ve had this experience before (i.e. in Extras), so I figured I’d finally decide once and for all if I’m a Cat Stevens person or not. I don’t think I am. This, which the internet tells me is his most acclaimed album, is nice. But there are only a few tracks that have melodies that can match the great ones that leapt out at me initially. The title track is beautiful enough that it’s short duration is almost painful. “Father and Son” is lovely. But I’m mostly left cold.

Cat Stevens: Matthew & Son — That song from Rushmore that I love so much is on here (“Here Comes My Baby”) so I figured I’d give it a shot to make absolutely sure I’m not a Cat Stevens fan. And I’m not. But I do also love “Matthew & Son.” The rest of this is reeeeeeeeeally dated. And I’m a person who actually likes 60s pop.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “Lou Reed: A Life” — A great interview about one of the pop music legends who most belongs on NPR. That might seem odd given that Lou Reed is all sex and drugs all the time, but he also had more explicit ties to the fine art world than just about any other rock star. Both sides are discussed here. Really nice.

The Sporkful: “The Last Sporkful Thanksgiving Special Ever” — What I love about Dan Pashman is that he’s thought about food as a cultural phenomenon so much that he can see past the trend stories that foodies are all about. In short, he doesn’t want to put horseradish in the mashed potatoes. A lesser food podcast would fall right into the trap that Pashman explicitly avoids here, which is failing to acknowledge that Thanksgiving is meant to be a tradition — not a showcase for avant-garde culinary showmanship. It isn’t even Thanksgiving in my country and I still really enjoyed this.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “The Polybius Conspiracy” Episodes 4-7 — So, I’ll confess something up front. I didn’t know that this was partially fictional until I read that it was. Which was after I’d finished the whole thing. I’m not mad about this. I hardly could be, as the co-creator of Mark’s Great American Road Trip (though I will say that mistaking that show for nonfiction is a whole level dumber than what I’ve done here). I actually really love stories and shows that sit on the precipice between fact and fiction (see also: Theory of Everything, the dearly departed WireTap). And I’m saddened by the prospect that this is increasingly frowned-upon territory in a world where people are actively trying to fuck with your sense of reality for their own political or financial betterment. So, I really don’t mind that I was misled. It’s a harmless misunderstanding. But I can’t help but think that the fictional component of this story — the bit about the character Bobby, and the people he associates with — was only compelling to me with the understanding that it’s something that actually happened. As an invented narrative, it strikes me as unimaginative. I’m beginning to feel as though the semi-factual nature of this podcast was intentionally downplayed to compensate for a half-cooked story. Ah, well. On to the next thing.

You Must Remember This: “Boris & Bela” Parts 3-6 — This is turning out to be a really fun little season of this show. Telling the stories of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in tandem is a great idea, since their trajectories were so completely different and therefore illustrate different tendencies in the same industry at the same time. I’m looking forward to the thrilling conclusion.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catchup — Comfort food, in audio form. I was talking with a friend about this recently. I’m not sure what it is about this that makes it so soothing, but I feel lighter when I listen to this — moreso even than when I’m listening to comedy shows like Judge John Hodgman or Stop Podcasting Yourself. It’s a beautiful thing.