Tag Archives: Alison Bechdel

The Final Omnibus

“As we all know, there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.” — Jorge Luis Borges

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having no steady job, and nothing particular to interest me in empirical reality, I thought I would begin writing reviews of everything I watched, read and listened to. It is a decision I have lived by relentlessly ever since.

Now it’s time to stop.

To the dozen or so of you who constitute my core audience, thank you. And don’t fret — there will be plenty more nonsense for you to read here on matthewjrparsons.com in the future. But the exhaustive reviewing project that’s currently called Omnibus (still known to its friends primarily as Omnireviewer) is over, as of this post.

But as longtime readers will attest, if Omnibus is to vanish it is only appropriate that it should vanish up its own ass. And so, I present the last missive of the Omnireviewer. Strap in. In all my years of blogging I have never been as self-indulgent as this.

One review.

Literature, etc.

Matthew Parsons: Omnireviewer/Omnibus — Some things are so self-explanatory that you can review them just by describing what they are. “A prog rock album with only one 44-minute long song,” for example. Or, “a graphic novel that intertwines a gay coming-of-age memoir with a character study of the author’s father by way of the literature that fascinates them both.” Some readers will look at these descriptions and say “yes, please,” and others are philistines. Regardless, the point is that these particular works are so obviously the thing that they are, which nothing else is, that to say more would be almost superfluous. Surely there has never been a clearer example of this than the present one: “A blogger writes reviews of everything he watches, reads, and listens to for nearly three years.” You’re no philistine if that premise makes you run for the hills. But even if it doesn’t, if you’ve spent any amount of time at all on the internet — better still, any amount of time at all around me — you know precisely what you are getting into. To say more would be pointless. STILL, I PERSIST.

Before we go any further, let’s dispense with the no-paragraph-breaks schtick. That’s a policy I instituted early on to prevent myself from writing too much. It never really worked.

So. Was Omnireviewer any good? No, not really. I believe it’s the home of some of my worst writing, in terms of the actual quality and readability of the prose. But assessing the quality of things was never quite the point of the enterprise, nor should it necessarily be the point of reviewing in general — except in cases so superlatively brilliant or awful that there’s little else to say. Generally, I prefer a more rhapsodic approach — drawing connections, parsing out meaning, converting subtext to text. And if in my explorations I should happen to touch on the success of a given thing, fine. Quality vs. success is a subtle but useful distinction. To me, the former implies that there’s an objective standard to which everything can be held. And while I do half-heartedly believe that, I don’t trust myself to be the arbiter of such things. Neither does anybody else.

But success is different. Success, to paraphrase the great British avant-gardist Cornelius Cardew, exists in relation to goals. To determine the success of a venture, you need to know something of the intention of the venturer.

So, if we’re going to establish whether Omnireviewer has been a success, we need to explore why I started writing it in the first place.

***

Of all the various magical accoutrements in the Harry Potter books, my favourite one as a kid was the Pensieve — Albus Dumbledore’s magical basin full of thoughts. “One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure,” Dumbledore explains in my nostalgic fave, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.” I have often described Omnireviewer as my Pensieve: the technique I use to evacuate my brain of all the swirling observations and analyses of trifling pop culture matters that threaten to crowd out what’s actually important. It’s an easily avoidable place where those observations and analyses can live permanently, so I don’t feel compelled to annoy my friends with them in bars. At least, not when they don’t ask me to.

All of this is true, and it is a large reason why I’ve continued to write Omnireviewer for nearly three years. But it isn’t the whole story. And the Pensieve isn’t the only valid pop culture analogue for this weird project. For a more honest one, we’ll have to look back a whole generation to another totemic childhood text:

Lucy_Blanket

Omnireviewer entered the world on November 1, 2015, but the context for it dates back more than a year prior to that. The circumstances that enabled this blog emerged in the summer of 2014. That summer, two extremely ordinary things happened. Firstly, I finished grad school, marking the end of twenty consecutive cycles of school/summer/school/summer etc. Suddenly, I was all too aware that my life was now FREE JAZZ — structure be damned. Exacerbating this anxiety was the small matter that I had graduated with a masters degree in journalism, and the universe was laughing at me. ONE SINGLE DAY after I turned in my thesis — in the form of a radio documentary — the Canadian Broadcasting Company cut 600 jobs. “Screw you, Parsons,” said the universe, “and everybody who shares your ludicrous ideas about how to make a living.” Just as all this was going on, a relationship I’d been in for seven years came to an end as well. Like every breakup, it seems inevitable in retrospect. But at the time it seemed impossible.

Unemployment; breakup. I bring up these two extremely ordinary things only because they are the first two misfortunes in my life that I couldn’t just smile my way through. I’m not sure why. Unemployment and a breakup are empirically no worse than things I’d been through previously. Maybe there just comes a time in a person’s life when the emotional warp drive has to give out and you’ve got to rely on just a regular engine. I dunno. But prior to 2014, I always prided myself on my ability to be happy in spite of things. Losing that was like falling out of the sky.

What helped me was work. In the uncomfortable grey zone between graduation and the start of my first contract, some friends of mine tried to start a magazine. They brought me into the fold as a writer, and even though it wasn’t really my project, I contributed as much writing to its embryonic form as anybody. What else was I going to do with my time? The magazine never properly launched. But if nothing else, it kept me from going off the deep end during the worst few weeks of my life.

And since the experience of writing for that vapourizing magazine was such a lifesaver, I proceeded to try that method ONE HUNDRED MORE TIMES. Even when my work situation started to pick up, I had to be constantly doing things to distract myself from the swirly void. A friend proposed an epistolary project where we assigned each other albums to listen to. I eagerly accepted. I took up cooking with the vigor of Hannibal Lecter. I started running. At work, I built a huge interactive story about dead composers, cheerfully spending twice as many hours on it as I got paid for. (It has since vanished into the digital wastes, mourned by no one, least of all me.)

Over the next three years, I would start, and swiftly abandon, a history of progressive rock. I would write 20,000 words about Jethro Tull in a single week. I would put together, and never submit, a book proposal. I would take a class about writing for comics. I would begin and struggle to complete a set of annotations for Moby-Dick. I would make two comedy podcasts with one of the guys who started the vapourizing magazine. I would make podcasts on my own, which reside on my hard drive to this day, waiting for their moment.

Yeah, I’ve been busy.

But as of November, 2015, I was not busy enough. So I filled my time the way we all do. I watched TV. I went to movies. And since I’m me, I also read voraciously, listened attentively to my favourite records dozens of times in a row, and listened to 30 or 40 podcast episodes per week. And the more time I spent on that, the more aware I had to become of how little time I was spending in gainful employment or meaningful social exchange. So I made up a game to put it out of my mind. The game was Omnireviewer. Every Sunday since then, I have released a report on the game, with the week’s score tallied up at the top of the post. 17 reviews. 23 reviews. 35 reviews. Here was a game I could win.

linus

***

Since keeping score was always such a big part of what this blog has been about, let’s look at some final statistics:

Total instalments of Omnireviewer/Omnibus: 143

Total reviews: 2,822
Average reviews per week: 20
Largest number of reviews in a single week: 38

Total words: 441,637
Average words per week: 3,088
Highest word count in a single week: 8,493

A few notes on these numbers:

  • Bear in mind that I sometimes clumped together whole seasons of television in one review. A large number of the reviews I have written on this blog have been for more than one episode of a show or podcast. So, as impressive as the number 2,822 may look, it is still deflated somewhat.
  • A cursory Google indicated that novels tend to range from 60,000 to 100,000 words, on average. If we split the difference and go with 80,000, my reviewing habit has stretched to the length of five-and-a-half novels in less than three years’ time.
  • In spite of everything I’ve written here so far, I am intensely proud of both of these stats.

Speaking of pride, shall we move on to the set of statistics that make me the proudest of all?

Ttotal page views: 2,146
Average page views per week: 15
Highest page views for a single post: 117
Lowest page views for a single post: 3

They say that if you do any one thing on the internet for long enough, you’ll eventually find an audience. I am just pleased as punch to have disproved that rule. The post that got 117 views — still paltry, by any reasonable standard — accidentally demonstrated the real way to find an audience on the internet. It only received such a substantially above average number of readers because I got retweeted by one of the post’s subjects, the food scientist and cookbook author J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.

By the way, the post that got only three views was 3,000 words long. That’s one reader per thousand words.

“Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.” — Jethro Tull

When I started this project, I started it for myself. I made it public only for the sake of accountability. The thing that makes me proudest of all is that I kept writing Omnireviewer for as long as I did in spite of the fact that nobody read it. The human mind is a cobweb ball of rationalizations and suppressed motives. I’ve never felt like I can be entirely sure when I’m just looking for attention. But surely, here is numerical proof that this project stayed true to its roots.

One final note on the statistics, that only slightly undercuts what I’ve said above: these numbers don’t account for the people who saw my reviews on the associated Tumblr account. In some cases, this was substantially more, but mostly it was not. The numbers also don’t account for the homepage, which got a significant bump on weeks when my site’s URL was read on the radio. In the interest of transparency, my homepage has been visited 7,163 times since I started Omnireviewer. What a pathetic number. I love it.

***

On the topic of the radio: the best thing to come out of this blog was a column that I’ve been doing on CBC Radio 1’s North by Northwest since June of last year. I pitched it as a recurring summer feature on the show, and it just never stopped. Since the beginning, that column has distilled the best of this blog into purposeful nuggets of meaning and connection. It is Omnireviewer at its most Pensieve-like.

In the written edition of Omnireviewer, anything might prompt a veiled exegesis on the disappointments and regrets of my life. The Beatles’ Help. Olivia Liang’s deeply relatable work of memoir-through-art-criticism The Lonely City. The death of Anthony Bourdain. Chris Gethard. Maria Bamford. In the written edition, the music of Brian Eno is not only ingenious, but kind and restorative. In the written edition, Alison Bechdel is a saint, because she confirms the value in reading your own life as literature, like I do — drawing connections, parsing out meaning, converting subtext to text.

But on the radio, it isn’t about me. It can’t be. A public radio audience requires you to put aside your self-indulgence in a way that a blog with 15 readers just doesn’t. And that made for a far superior version of this project. Many paragraphs ago, I asserted that Omnireviewer wasn’t very good. That’s true, at least of its original form. But its radio form is one of the things I’m proudest of in my entire career so far.

In my last radio column of 2017, I flirted more dangerously than usual with the masked confessional approach of the blog. But I’m glad I did. I finished it with a segment on Margo Price’s “Learning to Lose,” a heartbreaking duet with Willie Nelson that struck a chord with me immediately. I closed out my year in radio with the sentiment: “Maybe next year we’ll learn to win.” Three months later I got a job as the associate producer of North by Northwest. I ran around, waving my arms in the air and laughing like a maniac. The context for this blog collapsed in a heap.

***

To me, Charlie Brown is not the hero of the Peanuts comics. It’s Linus — the would-be philosopher who stays positive in spite of his insecurities, which are made manifest in the blanket he cannot be parted from. Omnireviewer was a security blanket I wove to shield myself from the emptiness of my life. But unlike Linus, I’m not stuck in time. I can outgrow my compulsions. I don’t need my blanket anymore. Life is good. More to the point — life is good in spite of the fact that lots of specific things about it are not. At last, we’re back to where we started.

“God keep me from ever completing anything.” — Herman Melville

In the months to come, I’ll work on other things in my spare time. But not because I need to for my sanity — because there are things I want to make that I think people might enjoy. I’ll keep posting fun nonsense to this blog. Notes on Moby-Dick will return. I’m thinking about writing more short fiction. Maybe I’ll rank all the tracks on ABBA Gold. And I’m going to make some tweaks to those podcasts I alluded to earlier, and hopefully get them out in the world before too long. That’s what I’m going to do with the time I would have spent on Omnibus. I’m not convinced I could bring myself to do any of it if not for this blog. I’ve learned so much from doing this. I’ve made connections I never would have made. I’ve learned about the conditions under which I do my best and worst work. I got a job that I probably wouldn’t have gotten if not for this blog and the radio spots it inspired. And I have kept my head above water. I have nothing but warm feelings for this weird-ass thing I’ve been doing these past few years.

And so it comes to this. Omnireviewer has fulfilled its purpose, and fulfilled it better than I could ever have foreseen. Time now to set it adrift in the obscure internet sea where it has always resided and always will.

Pick of the week.

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Omnibus (week of May 20, 2018)

A number of people at my workplace and otherwise have occasionally identified a phenomenon they call “peak Parsons.” I have become adept at recognizing this phenomenon myself, and I daresay my review of Julie Taymor’s film of The Tempest is a prime example. So is my most recent NXNW column, in which I recommend geometry as a form of self-care. Enjoy.

19 reviews.

Movies

The Tempest — When this came out in 2010, I was bonkers excited. I watched the trailer over and over. Opening weekend was a scheduling no-go, but one week later I was there. Alas, the movie no longer was. This actually happened. I went to the movie theatre to see Julie Taymor’s The Tempest — starring Helen Mirren as the now-genderswapped Prospera and a bizarre assemblage of personalities from Alan Cumming to Russell Brand in supporting roles — and the movie theatre was no longer showing it. None of them were. Not in Edmonton. Guess I’m waiting for the DVD I said to myself, in those shockingly recent, pre-Netflix times. Eight years later, I still hadn’t seen it. But now I have, and all is right in the world. Except for the fact that the movie itself is… uneven. Much of it is bad; still more is baffling. Elliot Goldenthal’s score is deeply ostentatious. Ferdinand sings a song from Twelfth Night for no reason. Russell Brand is kind of a lot. The CG, and overreliance thereupon, is very 2010. (Though, I do think this is a valid and intentional choice, though not necessarily a fruitful one. I’ll get to it.) And even the one universally acclaimed aspect of the film, Helen Mirren’s performance, is undercut by some deeply bizarre editing, including her introduction with a very Ken Russell quick push into her screaming face. What keeps The Tempest from being a complete trainwreck is the sense that Taymor’s decisions, however crazy, are all deliberate and pointing in the same direction. There are little choices here and there that make you go, ah yes, here we have a good filmmaker. Take Ben Whishaw’s air spirit Ariel. He spends most of the movie morphing proteanly through various computer-generated forms. (This is not the good choice; some of these bits are a little embarrassing.) But his most important scene with Prospera works differently. I’m talking about the scene where Prospera ponders what to do with her prisoners, and Ariel suggests mercy. In one of the play’s biggest gut punches, Ariel reminds Prospera that he is not human, and therefore implicitly that she is. And thus, she must act humanely. Done right, it’s one of the best parts of The Tempest. Ariel doesn’t earn his freedom by doing Prospera’s bidding, like she says he will. He earns his freedom here by giving unexpectedly good, unexpectedly human, counsel. This is the turning point in their relationship. If this scene works, the moment Prospera frees him from their contract later on will work too. In Taymor’s rendition, this scene is the only one where Ben Whishaw appears opaque. He’s right there, in frame with Helen Mirren, which has almost never happened before in the film. It’s marvellous. But even if every single decision Taymor made throughout the film was as pitch-perfect as this one, it still might not work. Making a film out of The Tempest is a bit of a mug’s game to begin with. (I am about to get perverse. Be warned.) The Tempest is ostentatiously theatrical. More than any other Shakespeare play save possibly Hamlet, it is explicitly about the act of performance. The fourth wall is paper-thin in this play, with Prospero/Prospera threatening to break it several times during the “such stuff as dreams are made on” speech, and ripping through it completely in the final monologue, when they explicitly solicit the audience’s applause. That last speech is impossible in film, and Taymor wisely cuts it. Penetrating though her gaze may be, Helen Mirren cannot literally see us through the screen. But the broader challenge is simply that film is a more naturalistic medium than theatre. Its grammar (editing, camera motion, etc.) is usually intended to be invisible. On the other hand, I dare say that the word “theatricality” can almost be defined as the opposite of that: benign yet obvious artificiality. And indeed, Taymor almost manages to conjure the spirit of a staged Tempest in her film by making much of it appear deliberately fake. But our relationship to theatrical fakeness is different from our relationship to CGI fakeness, in that we can intuitively understand how the fakery is done on stage. In some cases, we can literally see the strings. CGI, on the other hand is inexplicable to most of us. It might as well be actual magic — magic that is well beyond our grasp. And this is where any film adaptation of The Tempest is bound to relate to its audience differently than a stage production: when we watch The Tempest on stage, we all become sorcerers. We marvel at the magic we see, but we also understand how it has come into being. This makes us coextensive with Prospero/Prospera for the play’s duration. And once they’ve broken their staff and drowned their book, relinquishing their powers, they demand release from a spell of their own making from us. By applauding their final speech, we magically free them from our plane to go off and be the Duke/Duchess in another, fictional one. They are to us as Ariel is to them. This is what Taymor cannot accomplish. And her replacement of the final speech with a visual image — the shattering of Prospera’s staff — reads as a tacit acknowledgement of that. (But the fact that the speech remains in place as the end credits song feels like a half measure. Do it or don’t. By the final lines of the song, the demand for applause, most of the crowd will have filed out of the theatre. Why bother?) So basically, this movie is not successful, and this was inevitable from the start. But in spite of that, I enjoyed a lot of it for its sheer weirdness and willingness to take one big swing after another. Really, the best and worst qualities of this movie are both defined by the fact that it has Russell Brand in it. You don’t cast that guy in Shakespeare if you don’t have a really specific vision. I almost recommend this. As for me, I think I’ll watch Titus again.

Literature, etc.

Alison Bechdel: Are You My Mother? — Bechdel’s second family-related memoir is consciously designed as a companion piece to Fun Home. Where Fun Home was a book about Bechdel’s relationship with her father, Are You My Mother? is (ostensibly) a book about her relationship with her mother. Where Fun Home was drawn in black, white and teal, Are You My Mother? is drawn in black, white and… I want to say magenta? (I’m not great at colours.) Where Fun Home was a book about reading, Are You My Mother? is much more a book about writing. And where Fun Home is a book about the impact of literature on Bechdel’s thinking about her own life, Are You My Mother? is about the impact that therapy and psychology texts had on her. If that makes it sound a bit abstruse, well yes. Bechdel’s graphic novels are essentially essays told in prose accompanied by narratives told in pictures. The essayistic portion of Are You My Mother? requires the reader to keep track of an armful of psychoanalytic concepts that build on each other and intertwine with the story such that you’ll get lost if you lose focus. This is by no means a problem, lest anybody misunderstand. Artists of Alison Bechdel’s calibre have every right to demand our full attention. But with all the focus on these psychoanalytic concepts, the story gets short shrift. I’ve mentioned a lot of differences between Fun Home and Are You My Mother? But perhaps the main one is that Fun Home’s main subject was deceased, whereas this book’s was very much alive at the time of writing. It’s very clear that Bechdel felt a certain awkwardness about mining her mother’s life for literature that she did not feel about her father, who would never see the end result. As a result, we get a far less fulsome picture of Helen Fontana Bechdel than we did of Bruce Bechdel: less biographical detail, less insight into her relationships with those around her — in short, less story. What we get instead is a great deal of friction and outright conflict between Bechdel and her mother about the writing of the book itself. While writing the book, Bechdel meticulously transcribed her phone calls with her mother. Much of the characterization we get comes from those conversations, which are wonderful but limited to a certain time frame and set of circumstances. Still, this is worth a read for many of the same reasons that Fun Home is remarkable. It weaves together Bechdel’s thoughts on not just psychoanalysis (and particularly Donald Winnicott) but also Virginia Woolf, Winnie the Pooh and Dr. Seuss. Even in this somewhat lesser masterpiece, Bechdel is still very best artist out there at building a sophisticated understanding of human behaviour through living, reading, and linking those two practices together.

Matt Taibbi: “Can We Be Saved From Facebook?” — Seemingly, we cannot. Taibbi is a famously forceful writer, and this is a good summation of the case against Facebook. It doesn’t contain much that is new on the subject, nor is the solution Taibbi suggests (an antitrust action) a new one. But if you don’t read a lot on this subject, this is the second-best magazine feature on it, next to John Lanchester’s essay in the London Review of Books, which predates Zuck’s congressional hearings and the whole Cambridge Analytica thing and therefore doesn’t cover that.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Scott Pilgrim — I just read all six volumes of Scott Pilgrim in less than 48 hours. That in itself ought to tell you something about it. This is a deeply immersive comic that is far more relatable than I’m comfortable with. The relatability is in the broad strokes, i.e. our hero’s propensity to withdraw from all social contact in the aftermath of heartbreak. But much of the delight is in the details, such as: (1) We see Scott wearing a shirt of a (real) album called Mass Teen Fainting shortly before a mass teen fainting transpires. (2) Fully half of the band at Scott’s high school consists of Girls Who Play The Flute. (3) Knives Chau discovers heartbreak and immediately starts quoting Blood on the Tracks, possibly never having heard it. (4) A sequence in the last volume, where Scott descends to a basement and hence to his final confrontation is a mashup of Brazil and Daft Punk’s pyramid shows. There’s a satisfying experience to be had just reading Scott Pilgrim looking out for these sorts of details. But the real triumph of this series is the fact that as you progress through it you always sympathize with every member of its cast, even though they are frequently terrible people and many of them are consistently at odds with each other. Knives Chau, for instance, is extremely stupid for the bulk of the series’ duration. But, as we are constantly reminded, she is also 17 years old. Bearing that in mind, her bad decisions are just how everybody is at that age. And the moment when she ceases to be that way comes shortly after the book informs us that she’s turned 18. There’s nothing magical about that number; it’s just the book’s first indication that she’s growing up — and she immediately begins acting the part. There are complaints to be had, and there are rejoinders to those complaints. Firstly, Scott Pilgrim is a loser. He spends most of his time playing video games and sleeping in until noon, he is enormously reluctant to get a job, and the band he’s in is crap. One of the book’s more amusing heightenings of reality is the fact that this feckless bastard is also a staggeringly good fighter. But the other side of that coin is — why valorize a dude who never worked at anything? (Related: does the art rock band have to be evil?) Do we really need more illustrations of the fact that men don’t have to work that hard to succeed in the world? On that note: given that I’ve also been reading Alison Bechdel this week, we may as well observe that nearly every scene involving two women involves them talking about or literally fighting over boys. The women in Scott Pilgrim are mostly defined in relation to Scott. We have an object of obsession, a traumatizing ex, an obsessive hanger-on, the one that got away, and the taken-for-granted friend. None of these characters are particularly well defined outside of these relationships. However, I’m tempted to read this redemptively by looking at the entire series as a parody of a (specifically male) limited perspective on the world. Throughout the final chapters, we’re treated to various men’s “memory cams” of their past relationships, which are always hilariously inaccurate. We also see a recap of a previous fight scene that implies that the first iteration of that scene may have been sensationalized — opening up the possibility that most of what we’ve read may be unreliable. Basically, we spend the entire series tethered to Scott Pilgrim’s way of thinking about the world, which is as limited as any single person’s will inevitably be — and is limited further still by the fact that he possesses very little empathy. Naturally the book will fail the Bechdel test, because as far as its narrator is concerned, if a woman isn’t thinking or talking about him, what they’re saying can’t possibly be important. This is illustrated by a bit where two women are having a conversation about something Scott doesn’t perceive to be important, so it’s rendered in “blah blah blahs.” I believe that we’re meant to take careful note of all of this. Scott Pilgrim is acutely aware of the tropes it employs — even the sexist ones. That’s part of why it’s so satisfying when Scott defeats the comic’s “final boss” Gideon. It feels like he’s defeating the worst part of himself: the part that sees women solely as potential partners, devoid of potential in themselves. What you should take from all this is that Scott Pilgrim is complicated. But the fact remains that I cared more about this comic for a whole weekend than I did about anything else. The periodic reversals of fortune that it puts its characters through twisted me around for two days. I loved it. I’ll probably read it again. Pick of the week.

Music

Talking Heads: Remain in Light — One of these days I’ll move on to another Talking Heads album. Seriously, I think I may have heard Fear of Music once. I’ve seen/heard Stop Making Sense a bunch of times. And I’ve heard a smattering of stuff from their first couple of albums. But for the most part my interface with Talking Heads has been entirely through Remain in Light, which has oddly been one of my favourite albums for years, in spite of having failed to inspire me to dig into this catalogue any further. “Once in a Lifetime” is a rare case of the hit being my favourite track, because it is flawless. It is the perfect evocation of a familiar feeling: that your life is happening to you in spite of your own actions rather than because of them. I could listen to “The Great Curve” over and over. It’s the purest distillation of this album’s guiding principle of building everything from one-chord vamps. There is a huge amount of unique musical material on parade in “The Great Curve,” and nary a chord change to be found. This is Brian Eno’s doing, I suspect. In much the same way as he did with his early solo albums (especially Another Green World), Eno encouraged the band to come to the studio with as little prepared as possible. And nothing encourages spontaneity like a song with no chords to keep track of. It’s one of those limitations that Eno loves so much, and that always turn out to be so freeing in practice. “Crosseyed and Painless” is painfully relevant in the Trump era. Setlist.fm tells me he hasn’t been playing it on his current tour. Too on the nose? Anyway, this is a classic. I love it and I really regret missing Byrne at the Queen E the other night.

Podcasts

In Our Time: “The Almoravid Empire” & “The Mabinogion” — The second of these is the highlight, about a collection of 12th- and 13th-century British stories of women made of flowers and magicians with weird senses of humour. Some of the stories from The Mabinogion were familiar to me, but I did not know where they came from, so that was cool. The Almoravid Empire kind of evaporated upon contact, honestly. I was busy cooking.

Radiolab catch-up — This last batch of Radiolab episodes has some stuff I’d heard before and elected not to listen to again, some stuff I’d heard before and elected to hear it anyway, and some new stuff that left me a bit cold. I liked the conclusion to the border trilogy, but not as much as the first two parts. It’s just so brutal.

Sandra: “Hope is a Mistake” — Okay, time at last to check out the new offerings from Gimlet. First up, their latest fiction podcast, which is very dull and occasionally cringeworthy, i.e. the comedic in-universe ads. The first episode is almost pure setup, and while there’s a possibly interesting concept in here — an A.I. that’s actually driven by a bunch of humans in a building rather than machine learning or anything like that — this introduction fails to do the most crucial thing to do when you’re starting up a science fiction story, which is hint at the various directions that your cool premise might go. This only gets around to letting us in on the premise at the end. So, I’m out. Thanks for playing. I’ll always give a new Gimlet show one episode, but that’s all this one’s getting.

The Habitat: “This Is the Way Up” — Another of Gimlet’s new offerings, this is essentially Big Brother, but for actual science as well as for our entertainment. The characters in this show will be spending a year in isolation, with only each other for company. They’re doing this to emulate the psychological conditions of a hypothetical mission to Mars. But that doesn’t make the experience of listening in on it any more edifying or noble than standard issue reality television. Hard pass.

We Came To Win: “How the 1990 World Cup Saved English Soccer” — Shock; horror; the one podcast in the latest slate of Gimlet releases that I actually like is the sports one. The brilliance of this concept is in the limits it has set for itself: it’s just about the World Cup. By the standards of the sports podcasting world, that is by no means a narrow focus. But I feel like it would have been completely unsurprising if Gimlet’s first sports show had been about sports in the same way that 99% Invisible is about design. Instead, it is about the World Cup in the same way that 99% Invisible is about design, which is so much more promising. This particular episode is structured around the fall and rise of English soccer. We get a gut-churning retelling of the Hillsborough disaster, where 96 people died because too many people were packed into a section of a stadium. (The organizational stupidity it takes for this to happen boggles the mind. This episode tells the story in excruciating detail and I still don’t understand how a disaster like this could happen.) We hear about the culture of football fandom in the wake of that disaster. But that’s all context for the meat of the story, which is about the 1990 English World Cup team. The reason that story is fun is because the producers have really taken the time to establish the stakes with their retelling of the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath. Also it involves New Order. This is really good. I’ll probably listen to more of this.

In the Dark: “Privilege” — A whole episode on the story of the prosecution’s key witness in the Curtis Flowers case: Odell Hallmon. The long and the short of it is, he kept testifying that Flowers confessed to him in trial after trial, and also seems to constantly be able to evade prison time for horrible crimes. Being good journalists, the In the Dark team does not come right out and say what it sounds like. But if there is some connection between Hallmon’s propensity to get out of jail free and his role in the Flowers case, that complicates matters for the prosecution, because Hallmon ended up confessing to a triple murder himself in the years following the trials. This is troubling, captivating radio. Every week I look forward to hearing new evidence.

Lend Me Your Ears: “Reading Julius Caesar in Modern Context” — A minor extra, intended to plug Slate Plus. But I’m enjoying this show enough that I’ll listen to whatever comes through the feed.

The World According to Sound: “Sound Audio: Father Cares” — Here we have something I need to remember to listen to in its entirety. The host throws a bit of shade on contemporary NPR for not being as adventurous as the producers of this documentary, which is semi-fictional, though the tape it uses is all real. And he’s right to throw that shade: Benjamen Walker is the only person I know of who’s still doing that, and it’s an enormously effective way to explore the space of possibility that exists just outside of actual reality — things that didn’t happen but could have.

The Daily: “Putting ‘Fake News’ on Trial” — This is about the Alex Jones lawsuit. It’s crazy making, but you should hear it if you are unaware of how batshit the world has become.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Solo: A Star Wars Story and What’s Making Us Happy” — I will likely see Solo in spite of it probably being kind of bad. At least there is Donald Glover.

Caliphate: “Paper Trail” — The best episode so far. Turns out their source was unreliable (not a surprise). So this episode traces the process of verifying what is and isn’t true in the story we’ve already heard. Caliphate is becoming not just a disturbing look inside ISIS recruitment, but also a revealing look inside the process of doing journalism for the world’s best newspaper. Pick of the week.

On the Media: “Glenn Beck Reverses His Reversal” — This is mostly a rebroadcast of Bob Garfield’s interview with Glenn Beck from 2016. It’s worth hearing again in the wake of Beck’s recent pledge of support for Donald Trump — a thing which, let’s remember, he did not do in 2016, in spite of being completely horrible in every way.

The Media Show: “The Evolution of Radio” — An extremely weird conversation about podcasts that is clearly meant for people who heard this on the radio rather than as a podcast. I say that because it assumes almost no knowledge about podcasts. This is the first time I’ve experienced a podcast that assumes that. It is disorienting and made me lose faith in this show, which I have often enjoyed.

Reply All: “Pain Funnel” — A Sruthi Pinnamaneni-produced episode about fraudulent rehab centres. It’s not a laugh riot, but it’s worth your time.  

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.