Tag Archives: In Our Time

Omnibus (week of May 28, 2018)

Greetings from exhaustion. I was on a road trip up to the Yukon and Alaska this week, which is a lot of driving (of which I did none) and it involved a certain amount of sleeping in uncomfortable circumstances. Also a lot of breathtaking scenery. I came back to immediately do two morning shifts this weekend starting at 5:00 am. I’m not complaining. My job is pretty cool. But oh my god do I ever need to sleep.

10 reviews.

Zzzzzzz.

Movies

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World — It is not as good as the comics, but it’s still one of the best adaptations ever made. It could have been so bad. It could have been a generic action comedy. Instead, it’s a weird fun house of a movie where rooms expand and contract, minor villains do Bollywood dance numbers, and the whole thing can momentarily turn into Seinfeld with nobody remarking on it. Michael Cera as Scott is a slightly counterintuitive casting choice, considering that Scott in the comics is, well, a cartoon. Not that he lacks depth, but he’s drawn to be very over-the-top expressive, which Cera is emphatically not. But he never forces a joke, and it’s that tendency that bridges the gap between Scott Pilgrim’s manifest cartooniness and its humanity. I like the ending of the comics better, particularly because this ending hinges on Scott learning self-respect, which is clearly not the issue. Scott needs to learn not to be shitty to everybody who isn’t him. Evidently the comics’ perfect ending had not been written yet when the film was in production. So these two endings are independent and both viable. It comes down to preference. Love this. Pick of the week. 

Solo: A Star Wars Story — Admittedly, I was very tired when I watched this and fell asleep at some crucial moments. But I mostly thought this was really dumb. The tone is set early on, when we have to sit through an explanation of why Han’s last name is Solo. It reaches an apex at a point where two characters urgently discuss whether Han is a “good guy” or not. There is altogether too much of this sort of scene setting in Solo. But fanservice is to be expected in these movies. What disappoints me most is that I didn’t even enjoy the minor elements I had hopes for, like Donald Glover as Lando and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3. Glover’s performance is charming enough, but he’s channelling Billy Dee Williams so hard that he can’t put his own stamp on the performance. And Waller-Bridge’s role is just too short to make an impact. (Or maybe I was asleep.) I think I’m done with these intermission featurettes between the main films. I just don’t like Star Wars enough. I do love that weird, green singing alien head though.

Podcasts

In Our Time: “Margaret of Anjou” — All I knew about Margaret I had gleaned from bits of chatter about Shakespeare plays that I have neither read nor seen. And even that turned out to be wrong! This is great. It’s a fun alternate way into the story of the Wars of the Roses.

Love and Radio: “Choir Boy” — I heard this guy’s story on 99% Invisible first, but I think I prefer this version, which is classic Love and Radio. A man starts robbing banks for fun, and things deteriorate from there. Tell me you don’t want to hear that story.

This American Life: “Heretics” & “LaDonna” — Nothing beats This American Life for a road trip. These are two episodes that each feature a single story based around a single character, both of whom suffer infuriating indignities in very different ways. “Heretics” is about a different kind of radical preacher — one who doesn’t believe in Hell. Turns out, that’s a belief with consequences. And “LaDonna” is about a woman who finds it much harder than she expected to change the toxic work culture of Allied Universal. It’s a bravura piece of journalism by Chana Joffe-Walt, who is brilliant at accountability interviews. Hear these.

Ear Hustle: “The Row” — It’s been a while since I listened to this, but I clearly need to catch up. This episode features interviews with three inmates who are on death row, a part of San Quentin that the other inmates have essentially no contact with at all. It’s a really interesting look into the cultures and routines of a place where nobody wants to be, and also a penetrating exploration of what gives people’s lives meaning when they’re running out the clock.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Prince and the Technician” — Damn, I love the Kitchen Sisters. This is about Susan Rogers, one of the few women engineers to become prominent in the 80s. Specifically, it’s about her work with Prince. This is the behind-the-curtain look at Prince’s process that you’ve always wanted. His work ethic was off the chain, and so is Rogers’. Pick of the week.

The Allusionist: “Survival part 1: Second Home” — The story of how Welsh came to flourish in a small region of Argentina. It’s super interesting but I kind of wish there’d been more jokes. In any other context that would be an incredibly weird thing to say about an episode like this. But there you are.

Hardcore History: “The Wrath of Khans” parts 1-3 — I don’t subscribe to this show, but I was on a long, long road trip recently with a friend who does. That is the only context in which I’ve heard it before, and I am never quite as attentive to it as I think you need to be. But I really enjoyed this, in spite of it being a completely crazy thing that adheres to none of the podcasting  conventions I hold dear. The host, Dan Carlin, just talks into a microphone for up to five hours at a time (less, in this case) about a very specific period in history. There are no production elements save for the opening theme and the sting that ends each episode. It’s bonkers, and it shouldn’t work. But Carlin is compelling to listen to, and he’s really good at structuring his episodes in a way that balances the story itself with analysis. For instance, he begins this series on Genghis Khan and the Mongols by asking us to consider what it would be like to read a book about the net benefits of Nazi Germany on technology and global geopolitics. Sometimes one wishes he’d be a bit more sensitive — this would likely be different if it were made in 2018 rather than 2012. But he’s not being provocative for the sake of it. As he explains, this very practice of revisionist history has been going on with respect to Genghis Khan for generations. And the story he goes on to tell makes no bones about the fact that he was an absolute monster. Anyway, there are two more parts of this that I almost want to listen to, but I just can’t see this fitting into my life in any context other than long drives, which is not a thing I do.

Caliphate: “Mosul” — And with that, we’re abruptly following another story. This is good. The thing that was always going to make this series work was audio collected from within ISIS’s sphere of influence. That’s where the story happens, it’s where Rukmini Callimachi reports from, and it’s what we get here. This feels like it’s doing groundwork for the next episode, establishing the historical context of Mosul and explaining what life was like there under ISIS. But it’s revealing in its own way.

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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 April 8, 2018)

Oh, hey! Thanks for dropping by. May I recommend a podcast that is not in the long list of reviews posted below? That podcast is the North by Northwest podcast from CBC Radio. It is the show that I work on for actual money, and we are trying some new stuff on there. For example, this week I made an alternate version of a radio story I did about a guy who designs yachts, which is more than twice the length of the radio version. In addition to things like that, you will get a whole raft of Sheryl MacKay’s interviews with interesting people in the B.C. arts world, many of whom you won’t have heard of. That’s the fun of it. And occasionally you’ll get me, just talking nonsense about pop culture and spinning weird theories. If any of this sounds interesting to you, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you’re accustomed to listening.

We return you now to your regularly scheduled tedious blather, complete with no fewer than ten podcast episodes pertaining to the Mark Zuckerberg hearings. Brace yourself.

20 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Oliver Byrne: The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid — I’ve never been a math person. I have traumatic high school memories of standardized tests and interminable homework assignments that haunt me to this day. Now that I’m out of school and making a living, I find myself interested in learning about all sorts of things I wasn’t previously interested in, but mathematics has never been one of them. Nonetheless, I was browsing through a bookstore earlier this week and I found myself unexpectedly transfixed by this volume. It is a facsimile of a 19th-century illustrated publication of Euclid’s Elements: the foundational text of geometry. The printer, Oliver Byrne, has rendered Euclid’s proofs and problems in a remarkable, easy-to-grasp illustrated format made up of blue, yellow, red and black lines and shapes. (The publisher’s jacket blurb points out that Byrne’s colour choices inadvertently prefigure Mondrian’s famous geometric paintings, and thus a great deal of Northern European and Scandinavian design. Accordingly, I’ve shelved Byrne alongside my Mondrian-inspired yellow-red-blue boxed set of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books.) With everything laid out visually, I found myself able to follow along with Euclid’s reasoning — and to see the elegance of his methods. Everything he does in the Elements can be proven with nothing more than a straight-edge and a compass for drawing lines and circles. No protractor. You can’t measure angles. Think about that for a second: say you want to draw an equilateral triangle, but you don’t have a protractor. You draw a line that’s 10cm long. You draw another line connected to it that’s also 10cm long. All that’s left is to draw a third 10cm line that connects the two — but since you couldn’t measure the angle between your first two lines, how likely do you think it is that your third line actually will turn out to be 10cm? Not very. Never fear: Euclid found a way. And that’s his first proof. It’s simple, elegant, and it makes you go “huh,” and maybe turn the page. I did turn the page. And then I bought the book. I’ve been reading it in bed, a few proofs a night before I go to sleep. I cannot tell you how calming it has been. If you, like me, associate math with stress and pressure, that is likely because you have never encountered it in a zero-stakes situation. When you read Euclid — and especially when you read Byrne’s illustrated Euclid — you don’t have to solve anything. You’re not expected to come up with an answer to a question. You’re really just watching somebody else do math. Euclid’s got it all laid out for you, and all you have to do is follow along. And if you don’t understand a step, who cares? There’s no exam. This has been a revelation for me. Its complete lack of what we normally think of as narrative or thematic content makes Euclid the best bedtime reading I’ve ever encountered. It is math as self-care. And I feel like I can’t be the only person who would experience this: surely in these times, the most therapeutic thing you can experience is a person saying to you “here are some things that are definitely true, and here is why.” Pick of the week.

Games

Stories Untold — My feelings on this game are complicated by two kinds of negative responses: technical concerns and story concerns. I’d rather not even write about the technical concerns because they’re boring, but they also defined my experience of this game, so I have to. I’ll save them for last, though. Let’s start with the story. Spoilers, ahoy. Evidently “The House Abandon,” the first of the four episodes that comprise Stories Untold, was released in some form as a standalone entity previously to this. Taken as a thing in itself, “The House Abandon” is a marvel. It presents the player with a game within a game — specifically a text game within a graphical game — and then reveals that the two layers of reality it depicts are linked. The moment when the penny drops is masterful horror: essentially, there’s a point where you realize that what you are typing into the text game is actually happening in another part of the house you’re in. The power goes out at your computer desk; you make your character in the text game turn on the generator; the power comes back on. You make your character open a door; you hear a door open. It’s immediately obvious that the episode will end when you encounter yourself. And far from curtailing the suspense, that grim certitude only makes the game more agonizing as it draws relentlessly to the chapter’s conclusion. “The House Abandon” gave me gooseflesh in the middle of a sunny Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. But here’s the thing. None of what is good about it has anything to do with the actual content of the story your character lives through. It’s a story that’s mysterious and vague, and that in no way calls out for clarification. The horror and fascination arise purely from the central conceit: that there’s somebody else in the house, and they’re doing everything you type into your computer. I don’t really care about what happened to this character’s sister or why that door is boarded up. It seems largely beside the point, and anyway I’m content to wonder. So, imagine my disappointment when the final episode of Stories Untold explains away all that ambiguity with the most banal reason imaginable: the entire game up to that point has been a series of psychotic episodes in the mind of a guilt-ridden man who killed his sister and an off-duty cop while driving drunk. This reveal causes a number of things from episodes previous to make sense in a way that completely robs them of their strange imaginativeness. It reduces a fascinating formal experiment to a Very Special Episode. It treats its own narrative as a puzzle to be solved and shelved tidily away, taking for granted that the most important element of storytelling is THE ANSWER. It seems custom-made for people whose brains fell out at the end of Night in the Woods. To sum up: the first episode of Stories Untold is a self-contained near-masterpiece, the middle two are fine, and the final one is a huge disappointment that will appeal only to those with no appreciation for ambiguity or nuance. Which, to be fair, is a large group of people. Let’s move on to my boring technical concerns. Firstly and most my fault-ly, I tried to run Stories Untold well below the minimum graphics card specs (it’s a text game, I thought, how much graphics power could I possibly need?) and by the final episode the main source of tension was not the story but whether or not the game would crash. THREE TIMES I had to restart the chapter because of freezing or crashing. And while I realize it’s petulant to complain about a game’s performance when you’re trying to run it on an old MacBook, a simple autosave feature could have saved me the trouble of having to play through the entire episode from the beginning four times. Stories Untold has no saving mechanism at all, presumably in an attempt to make you play each of its episodes in one sitting. I get that. It’s definitely best that way. But should anything go wrong, tech-wise, you can be set back by as much as an hour’s worth of progress. That sucked. And crap graphics card or no, it needn’t have sucked so bad. Secondly, there are some seriously annoying design choices throughout. At one point you are obliged to read text on a microfilm reader (making this the third game I’ve played this year to feature microfilm, after Night in the Woods and Virginia) and you have to meticulously zoom and focus in on it. This is needless. Also, at a few points you are made to turn a dial until a display shows the correct number. In some cases, the only way (obvious to me) to manipulate this dial is to click and drag for minutes at a time until you hit the correct number. A simple numerical entry would suffice, thanks. No need to make it feel that analogue. Finally, in the first episode, the game insists on teletyping large amounts of text one character at a time. This is valuable for suspense in many cases, but sometimes you have to revisit text you’ve seen before, and surely there’s no suspense in teletyping that. These details make the game actively annoying to play. It’s almost too bad that “The House Abandon” is so brilliant. Because that’s the only thing that could make me waver while advising my fellow horror game enthusiasts to pass this one by.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Zuck Everlasting,” “It’s Regulation Time,” “Tax Cut Conundrum” & “I Never Said That” — Mark Zuckerberg is appearing before congress. That’ll be fun. This chat between Mike Pesca and April Glaser is a good primer on what to expect. If you’re reading/listening after the fact, one expects this will be less relevant for you. Greetings, readers, it’s me: Matthew from a day later than the previous sentence. It has now become clear that Mike Pesca is doing a “Zuck trilogy” this week, the second part of which is an interview with Brooke Gladstone about the history of us blaming media for things. All the same, she’s under no illusions about the fact that social media works differently. It’s good and it’s less time-hooked than the previous instalment. Greetings once again, from yet a third point in time. In the third and presumably final instalment of Pesca’s Zuckerberg hearings coverage, he strings together a bunch of dumb questions from senators. Fun. OH SHIT, here’s number four, because we’ve got to have the coverage of the COVERAGE of the Zuckerberg hearings. Anyway, this has been good. The Gist doesn’t get enough credit for presaging the emergence of daily news podcasts. That’s not what it is, but it’s closer than any other show of its vintage.

The Daily: “Wednesday, Apr. 11, 2018” “Thursday, Apr. 12, 2018” — Here’s what you listen to if you want to know what happened at the Zuckerberg hearings. Michael Barbaro breaks it down with tech reporter Kevin Roose, one day at a time. Key takeaways: I know more about how Facebook works than most senators, and the House smarter than the Senate.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Zuckerberg Faces Congress And FBI Raids Properties of Trump Lawyer” & “More On Mueller, Zuckerberg And Landscape for 2018 Elections” — I came for Zuckerberg, but they couldn’t compete with The Daily on that count. The breakdown of the Mueller investigation developments is great, though. I should listen to this more. This always makes me feel like I know what’s going on. Something about listening to people talk about current events conversationally gives that effect more than a news reporting tone does.

On the Media: “Who’s In Charge Here?” — It’s a decent week for a Bob Garfield solo episode. Lots going on. The Zuckerberg-centric segment goes in a different direction from other more straightforward news and current events shows, focussing on anti-trust legislation and how that may or may not factor into regulation of Facebook. But the best segment is about how corporations have been gaining civil rights since long before Citizens United. Good stuff.

The Media Show: “The Age of Zuckerberg” — And now for some Brits. I haven’t listened to The Media Show enough to have a handle on the format, but this is less a discussion of Mark Zuckerberg as it is a discussion of the various projects that the guest panelists have on the go. I was interested to hear from the new editor of Cosmopolitan about her new strategy, though that’s not necessarily what I came for. I should listen to this more.

The West Wing Weekly: “Hamilton Special (with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail)” — My white-hot Hamilton obsession is long since past, but listening to Miranda and Kail talk about The West Wing brought a fraction of it back. This is a great chat, and it’s fun to hear about what a foundational text The West Wing was for Hamilton’s creators. It’s also fun to hear about their actual encounters with West Wingers both real and fictional. Kail’s story of the original cast’s performance at the White House is worth the listen in itself.

Constellations: “bonnie jones – and if i live a thousand lives i hope to remember one” — Last week’s commentary on this show’s preciousness stands. But Jones’ piece is far more intuitively likeable than some of the other sound art on the show — it’s musical. It’s fun. You should check it out.

This American Life: “The Impossible Dream” — I listened to this as soon as it hit my feed. I knew it was coming, thanks to Zoe Chace’s interview on Longform, but it evidently had a troubled gestation. The episode begins with Chace and Ira Glass talking about why it almost stopped being a story: namely that its protagonist, senator Jeff Flake, resigned before the story reached its logical conclusion. And it’s true that this doesn’t have a conventionally satisfying ending, but that didn’t stop me from listening past the caveat-laden intro, nor did it stop me from enjoying the hell out of this. I realized at some point during this episode that The Story Of Jeff Flake was not actually what I wanted from this, nor was the broader story of Why Congress Is So Ineffective. What I wanted was the Zoe Chace Capitol Hill Story. We’ve heard her on the campaign trail and it was brilliant. It was different from everybody else’s reporting on the Trump campaign. This is the logical next thing. And it is accordingly different from everybody else’s palace intrigue stories about the madness that has taken hold of Congress during the Trump administration. It is well worth hearing.

In Our Time: “Euclid’s Elements” & “Four Quartets” — I recently purchased a rather handsome volume of Oliver Byrne’s 19th-century illustrated edition of Euclid’s Elements. It isn’t normally the sort of thing I would read, but I found myself captivated by it in the bookstore and I’ve been looking through its various, completely understandable proofs before bed at night. In this day and age, it can be therapeutic to sit down with a book that tells you “here are some things that are definitely true and here is why.” Immediately after buying it I realized that this was a thing there was probably an In Our Time episode about, and I wasn’t wrong. The episode is outright fantastic, with all members of the panel expositing enthusiastically on not only the relevance but the joy of reading Euclid. Having heard it will make my reading experience better, and that is all you can ask of a show like this. T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is a thing I have not read in its entirety, though I’ve read the bit of “The Dry Salvages” that talks about “music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all/but you are the music while the music lasts” more times than I can count. (It’s a beautiful line, albeit one that he undercuts immediately. That doesn’t make it less beautiful or perceptive, though.) The conversation on it is good, but there’s a pervading sense throughout that Melvyn Bragg’s enthusiasm for the poems is such that he barely needs his panel of experts. Fortunately for all of us, he doesn’t bother resisting the urge to speak his mind.

StartUp: Re-runs for Alex, Inc. — I contend that Alex, Inc.’s promotional materials are so awful that I cannot be blamed for assuming it is terrible without watching it. Still, it’s a big moment for Gimlet and for Alex Blumberg, and it makes sense that they’re taking advantage of the potential audience crossover from the terrible sitcom they accidentally begat. For the rest of us, this is an opportunity to revisit the early days of StartUp: a groundbreaking podcast that felt at the time like lightning in a bottle, and that now feels a bit quaint in light of the (relative) behemoth that Gimlet has become. I remember listening to StartUp when it first come out. I remember waiting on bated breath for new episodes in a way I’d never done for a podcast — or any non-fiction narrative — before. That was in 2014: podcasting’s watershed year — the year that also brought us season one of Serial, which I loved, but not as much as StartUp. (I joked in my first-ever year-end wrap that Serial “wasn’t even my favourite serialized podcast, created by a This American Life producer, that starts with the letter ‘S.’”) Since that time, podcasting and my taste in podcasts have both become enormously more diverse. And the early StartUp episodes that hit the feed once again this week seem accordingly less gutsy and revolutionary than they once did. But it’s still incredible to look back to four short years ago and see a version of Gimlet where Matt Lieber expressed transparent disappointment in the equity he was offered, whereas now he’s a beloved trope in Reply All’s end credits and a figure who Jonathan Goldstein is openly scared of. It’s fun to look back at a Gimlet where four stressed out producers were gathered around a computer trying to figure out how to upload the first Reply All episode to what was then still called the iTunes store, whereas now that show is an institution that justifies two full episodes of the Longform podcast being dedicated to it. It’s edifying to think back to the fact that when I first encountered StartUp there was no such thing as Gimlet Media, whereas now I associate the word Gimlet with podcasts far more than I do with alcoholic beverages. Crap sitcom or not, the story of Gimlet is the story of the rise of a medium. And it’s all on tape.

The World According to Sound: “Sound Audio: Year in Food” — Here we have a man listing everything he ate in a year, in alphabetical order, sped up. “Beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich. Beetroot salad, beetroot salad, beetroot salad… *deep breath* Bun! Bun! Bun! Bun! Bun! …” This is something else.  

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Barry” & “Antiques Roadshow and What’s Making Us Happy” — Barry is an aspirational watch, should I ever find the time. Antiques Roadshow is an ambient pleasure at best — however, the PCHH episode on that topic is a minor classic of the catalogue, due to the contributions of the very antique proprietor of the Maximum Fun network, Jesse Thorn. He is funny and insightful here, just like everywhere else.

Out of the Blocks: “200 W Read St, part 1: The Greenwich Village of Baltimore” — This is the best new podcast I’ve listened to in I don’t know how long. It’s made by an NPR affiliate station in Baltimore, and it’s based on a delightfully simple premise: each episode is devoted to a single city block in Baltimore. The host visits people who live and work on that block, and hears their stories of the past and present of the neighbourhood where they live. It’s all set to a marvellous original score, and it feels warm like you wouldn’t believe. Most of my favourite podcasts these days are rather thinky affairs: stuff about big ideas and abstract notions. But this is straightforward, out-in-the-world radio in the tradition of the Kitchen Sisters and Studs Terkel, and it’s absolutely marvellous. This episode on “the Greenwich Village of Baltimore” was a good starting point for me, so it likely will be for you too. Two more episodes to go on this block, apparently, and I can’t wait. Pick of the week. 

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Ólafur Arnalds, Khruangbin, Whyte Horses, Ari Roar, More” & “New Music Friday: April 13” — Nothing much appeals in this week’s New Music Friday, alas. But I really love that Ólafur Arnalds track in the main episode. I’m still waiting for this year’s Let’s Eat Grandma moment on this show. Nothing has bowled me over. I guess there’s a new Let’s Eat Grandma album on the way, though. There’s always that.

Arts and Ideas: “British New Wave Films of the ‘60s” — A fun discussion of British kitchen sink dramas, i.e. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, both of which I saw in a film studies class and never thought about again. Frankly it’s not my speed. But I recognize its importance as a movement. Also, we get a wonderful segment on the bizarre, bad literary contributions of infamous dictators. God save the BBC.

99% Invisible: “Lessons from Las Vegas” — A good, old-fashioned Avery Trufelman architecture episode. This show is on a hot streak right now, and I’m inclined to think it’s because of a return to first principles. This story is primarily about a well-known architecture textbook and the relationship that begat it. It takes twists and turns you wouldn’t expect, and it explicates some big ideas you may not ever have had to consider before. Lovely stuff.

Song by Song: “Straight to the Top (Rhumba)” — A brief and perfunctory episode on a song I like a lot more than this show’s hosts, who have been guestless for two episodes. Wonder what guests they’ve got lined up. I feel like guests would be nice.

Code Switch: “Location! Location! Location!” — Code Switch tackles housing segregation, and it’s as complicated as you would think. If you do not listen to this regularly, begin.

Omnibus (week of April 1, 2018)

“Get it together, Parsons,” I said to myself. “Clean your damn apartment and get your 5K back under a non-embarrassing time.” That is why I listened to 34 podcast episodes this week. (That’s a conservative number — there are a few shows I don’t review, and I frankly can’t remember which of those I listened to this week.) Below, you’ll find them nicely compressed into a manageable 21 reviews, plus an additional three for the things I got through this week that aren’t podcasts.

Also, if you would like to hear me blindside Sheryl MacKay with a whack-a-doo theory that even I don’t completely subscribe to, you’ll find that at 1:21:58.

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Scott McCloud: Making Comics — I just turned in my final assignment in that comics class I’ve been taking, and I figured I may as well finish the course reading. Better late than never. We weren’t obliged to read Making Comics in its entirety, but I did because why the hell not. Scott McCloud is not only a good teacher and a perceptive analyst of the medium in which he works. He’s also one of the funnest media critics out there. In case you’re unfamiliar: this is a guy who makes works of serious, penetrating comics criticism — that are themselves comics. His ability to demonstrate concepts by example is unmatched, and his books of comics criticism are themselves among the most formally innovative comics I’ve encountered. Understanding Comics remains his masterpiece, because its focus is broad enough that it doesn’t really age. Making Comics contains some stuff about webcomics that feels ancient now. But when he sticks to the basics of the comics form, regardless of medium, McCloud is a fountain of practical advice here. If you’ve ever wondered what fundamentals you should keep in mind when working simultaneously with words and pictures, this is the book for you. Pick of the week.

Music

John Luther Adams/JACK Quartet: Everything That Rises — John Luther Adams either captivates me or leaves me cold. (No Alaska pun intended.) This did the latter. It is one of his more high-concept works, based on just intonation. It is also one of his more dissonant pieces, which isn’t something I look to him for. Don’t get me wrong, he can do what he wants: but I’ve always enjoyed the side of JLA that puts you in a trance, then takes you somewhere. This piece definitely takes you somewhere — up, in keeping with the title. But it foregoes the trance in favour of a calculating raised eyebrow. Not for me, I’m afraid.

Kyle Craft: Full Circle Nightmare — I loved Dolls of Highland. I had some concerns about its consistent portrayal of women as evil magic temptresses, but there was enough self-effacing humour throughout that I could give him the benefit of a doubt. It also helps that Kyle Craft’s music scratches a huge itch for me: huge sounding rock with bombastic vocals and a turn of phrase you can sink your teeth into. And that itch is almost equally scratched on this new record. But at this point I’m thinking he needs to find something new to sing about. This whole “women: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em” thing is not sustainable. Still, when it’s good it’s good. I’m particularly fond of the new direction on the semi-psychedelic “Belmont (One Trick Pony).” This feels like one of those albums that may or may not be the second-last one by its artist that I ever hear. Stay tuned.

Podcasts

It’s Been A Minute: “Momofuku Chef David Chang’s ‘Ugly Delicious’ Food” & “Zach Braff and Alex Blumberg on ‘Alex, Inc.’” — I’m finding that I get a lot more out of this show’s Tuesday edition, where Sam Sanders talks with an interesting person, than I do out of its Friday wraps. Maybe it’s just that I don’t feel the need for any more “making sense of the news” in my life, because that is a thing that the entire media is trying to do now. But the Tuesday shows are really good, because Sanders is fun to listen to and seemingly fun to talk to as well. The David Chang interview is great fun, as they usually are. Sanders is good at talking about intersections of race and culture, and Chang is a thoughtful guy on that subject. The episode focussing on Alex, Inc. is really something — mostly because it’s great fun hearing Alex Blumberg pretend that he likes the milquetoast sitcom that ABC made out of his game-changing podcast. To Sanders’ credit, he manages to have an interesting conversation with Blumberg and Zach Braff that touches on both of their wheelhouses without the whole thing coming off the rails.  

Code Switch catch-up — Of the last four episodes, the two most recent are the most essential. “The Road to the Promised Land, 50 Years Later” is a bit jarring because it consists largely of news reports for actual NPR — like the radio. You don’t realize how different that tone is from NPR podcasts until you hear it on an NPR podcast. But the story of how Martin Luther King’s assassination reverberates half a century later is fascinating and well told here. For something a bit more podcast-native, the Amara La Negra interview is an energetic discussion of Afro-Latinx identity

Reply All: “A Pirate In Search of a Judge” — A lesser instalment of “Super Tech Support,” which nonetheless includes some amusing banter. Also: has anybody compiled the Breakmaster Cylinder bits into a supercut? Please somebody do that. I think there’s an argument to be made that whoever they are, they’re doing the most innovative audio storytelling in the podcast space — and they’re doing it in the last two minutes of somebody else’s show. (Unless, of course, P.J. Vogt is Breakmaster Cylinder, which I find quite plausible.)

In Our Time: “Augustine’s Confessions,” “Hildegard of Bingen” & Roman Slavery” — Melvyn Bragg is in his glory when he gets to talk about Christianity. The Augustine episode is accordingly excellent. The episode on Roman slavery is a good summation of a thing that you probably don’t think about very much. But it’s the repeat episode about Hildegard that’s the real standout in this run. Being a music person, I have always mostly thought of her as the composer of the most beautiful music from the Middle Ages. And I’ve always been passingly aware of her status as a great polymath, contributing to theology, literature, medical research and brewing techniques. (She penned the earliest surviving writings on the use of hops in beer. She didn’t like them. Fair enough.) But this episode focuses on her role in the church of her time: a woman who was respected not so much because she was a genius, though she clearly was, as because she claimed to receive visions from God. It’s tempting for us now to look at Hildegard as a woman who overcame the social stigmas of her time by being exceptional and working hard, but really even that wasn’t enough. She was allowed to give sermons not because she was a good sermonizer, but because the church saw her as a direct channel to God, so they made an exception. A sad thing. That’s a great episode. You should listen to it.

Fresh Air: “The Evolution of Artificial Intelligence” & “Madeleine Albright” — Two interviews about big important things, one of which features a big important person. Listen to the Madeleine Albright one. When she talks about the problems with Trump’s foreign policy, it’s probably worth considering what she has to say.

Radiolab: “Rippin’ the Rainbow an Even Newer One,” “Border Trilogy” parts 1 & 2 — The update to the mantis shrimp story is good for my sense of nostalgia about the old Radiolab, but the first two instalments of their series on the border are both challenging my general sense that this show’s best days are behind it. Every so often they pull out a classic, and so far this is one. Basically, it poses the question of how well-meaning policies can result in migrants dying in the desert, possibly by the thousands. It is the new Radiolab — the au current, political Radiolab — at its best.

The Gist: “Clinging to Guns Is Our Religion” — This is a gun control debate between a moderate liberal and a moderate conservative. It is as scintillating as that sounds.

Bullseye: “Andrew W.K. & Bill Hader” — Here are two people I’m not super interested in, having conversations I enormously enjoyed. Andrew W.K. in particular is a person who you just know will have a good chat with Jesse Thorn. And he did. Note that this is also the episode with Thorn’s review of It’s Too Late to Stop Now by Van Morrison, which led me to make one of the weirdest pieces of radio that I personally have ever made. (See top of page.)

Desert Island Discs: “David Byrne” — Wow, he’s in a good mood. Like, a suspiciously good mood. But as we all know, he’s got great taste in music and he’s an interesting guy. I really need to read his book. Good listening.

The Daily: “Wednesday, Apr. 4, 2018” & “Friday, Apr. 6, 2018” — Oddly, I find myself more inclined to listen to news shows when they are meta-stories about the media. These are two episodes of The Daily that examine TV news in different ways. One demonstrates how Fox News played a role in the revitalization of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, and the other examines how the takeover of local media by larger corporations leads to a lack of editorial freedom. Both are great, the latter is likely the one that will remain relevant by the time you read this. Damn, the world is cray.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Love, Simon” & “Roseanne and What’s Making Us Happy” — I will watch neither of these things, but I did enjoy the chats. Linda Holmes and Stephen Thompson had an interesting exchange about Roseanne. That is my review of this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour episodes; I hope you have enjoyed it.

The World According to Sound: “Idea of North” — I intend to go back and hear this show’s full archives at some point, which shouldn’t be hard since the episodes are a minute and a half long. But for now I will follow their series on great radio they think I should hear. I have never heard Glenn Gould’s “The Idea of North,” which is a travesty because I work at CBC Radio and I am literally looking at a three-CD set of Gould’s radio work right now. It’s right there on my shelf. Maybe this is the week.

Song by Song: “Hang On St. Christopher” — I’m looking forward to hearing these two give their take on Frank’s Wild Years, because I know from previously that it isn’t either of their favourite. On the other hand, it has always been my favourite. I think it is a masterpiece that stands head and shoulders above its two immediate predecessors. It is simultaneously weirder and more polished than Rain Dogs, and it contains Waits’ most theatrical music. That’s the mode I like him best in. This episode gives a good summation of why it’s so theatrical and why it’s necessary nonetheless to consider it as an album rather than the soundtrack to a misbegotten live show.

Imaginary Worlds: “Visions of Philip K. Dick” — I actually didn’t know that Philip K. Dick spent his final years having either religious experiences or a form of paranoid psychosis. That is interesting. This is interesting. The audio of Dick talking in Paris during that time is captivating. Listen at least for that. It’s right at the start.

Constellations: “anna friz – air can break your heart” — Okay, time to get frank about this show. The thing that’s good about it is that it highlights audio makers who are working largely outside the confines of what’s considered “radio.” Much of what’s featured here falls more easily under the category of “sound art.” This is good. I want this sort of thing to find its way into my podcast feed, between all the NPR and roundtable chat shows. But the fact is that a lot of this material is fairly obscure and alienating, and in presenting it without comment at the start of the episode, and only offering a bare minimum of context from the artist afterwards (the audio equivalent of a brief “artist’s statement” on a website or brochure) doesn’t necessarily present it in its best light. As a listener, I want to hear work like this week’s piece — an abstract mix of ambient sound and muted speech — addressed in a way that’s slightly more playful. Because however much I enjoy it on its aesthetic merits, it still leaves me with questions like “what?” and “why?” And I’d like to hear those questions answered conversationally, with frankness and humour. I want to hear the hosts engage these artists on the level that their listeners are coming into this at: with respect and curiosity, but also occasional good-natured bewilderment. I want a proxy — somebody to step in and have a human conversation in this art world’s rarified air. The fact that this show doesn’t do this strikes me as a missed opportunity. TL;DR: Constellations is doing good work, but I wish it were less precious about the good work it’s doing.

99% Invisible: “Airships and the Future that Never Was” & “Making it Rain” — 99pi is 300 episodes old. (Well, 301, actually. But I’m only just getting to both of those episodes.) It seems appropriate to me that in spite of the show’s substantial growth in terms of both audience and staff, the 300th episode should be a return to the early days, when it was just Roman Mars making elegant, miniature stories about design. Even the subject matter, airships, is nostalgic. It’s a good episode. “Making it Rain” is good too, but less singular. While I have come to really enjoy all of the producers on this show, their presence has the effect of making 99pi sound more like public radio and less like the trailblazing independent podcast that it started off as. That’s how I’d summarize the trajectory of this show: as it’s gotten bigger, it has become less distinctive — even as its stories have become more ambitious. I’m not likely to stop listening anytime soon, not when this show pulls off stuff like the recent two-parter about the Bijlmer. But ultimately, I think Roman Mars’s greatest accomplishment hasn’t been 99pi itself, but leveraging its success into the formation of Radiotopia, which remains the most consistent, satisfying and surprising podcast collective out there. Quite a throne to maintain in these times. On that note, here are the rest of the Radiotopia shows I listened to this week. This next one is something I never would have heard if not for 99pi, which would be unconscionable.  

Theory of Everything: “This Is Not A Drill (False Alarm! part i)” — This new mini-season from Benjamen Walker is justly receiving heavy promotion across the Radiotopia stable of podcasts, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, you must. It begins with a straightforward account of what it was like to be in Hawaii during the cruise missile false alarm, then continues into a scrambled retelling of both “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Then it gets straight into the question at the heart of the series: how can Benjamen Walker continue making a show that’s neither fully fact nor fully fiction in the era of Fake News? I know people who have been vexed by this show’s blend of real and fake. I’ve never been one of them. I tend to think that the people who are the angriest about stuff like this, the Onion and so forth, are actually mostly angry at themselves for their own credulousness. For my part, I am delighted that podcasting’s most protean paranoiac is about to dive into the nature of reality itself in 2018. Hear this. Pick of the week.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Celebrating 99 Years” — This story about the great counterculture icon and champion of the Beat poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, seems like it’ll be a good warmup for the Kitchen Sisters’ “The Keepers” series about archivists. I’m really looking forward to that. This is nice, though I confess that Ferlinghetti’s own poetry doesn’t do much for me.

This is Love: “A Private Life” & “What Are We Going To Do” — This is Love is proving to be a lovely show, though rather cute. These have thus far been rather positive stories. Even when they flirt with heartbreak, each episode manages to spin the story into something uplifting. That’s fine, but I hope (he says, realizing what a sadist he sounds like) that this show finds its way to the darker side of its subject matter at some point as well.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Deadly Force” — This is a slighter but more direct exploration of a topic that Radiolab went in depth about a few months back. I think I prefer this version.

The Memory Palace: “Junk Room” — This feels like a throwback to the episodes Nate DiMeo made for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I really enjoyed in spite of not having been to any of those exhibits. This episode is about one of the weirdest collections of art in Washington D.C.: a room where the states all sent statues of two of their greatest figures. That’s subject matter that allows DiMeo to do what he’s great at: writing beautifully about figures who have been left out of popular history, and asking why Confederate leaders keep getting included instead.

Omnibus (week of Feb. 11, 2018)

This is both late and somewhat halfhearted. I apologize. Things have been pleasingly busy. Only one pick of the week, since it’s a small one.

Nine reviews.

Music

Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band: Live 1975-85 — This live set is a perfect capper to Springsteen’s golden age. Its 40 songs (!) represent all seven studio albums he’d released up to this point, plus an assortment of oddities and covers, like his classic rendition of Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl,” a song that sounds genuinely strange in Waits’ voice, but which works perfectly for the more romantic Springsteen. The only downside is that the set starts too strong and never quite rises to the level of its opening. The acoustic rendition of “Thunder Road” from 1975 is one of the greatest live reinventions you’ll ever hear. I can’t say it better than I did in my column on North by Northwest from a few weeks ago, so just scrub to 2:00:57 in this podcast and kindly ignore the fact that I said pathetic fallacy when I meant dramatic irony. Other highlights include Bruce’s top-shelf storytelling on “Growing Up” and “The River.” He’d be great on The Moth. Also, the slightly amped-up renditions of songs from Nebraska are satisfyingly different from the album versions, and work better than you’d think in a huge arena. I think I actually prefer this version of “Johnny 99,” just for Springsteen’s more dramatic vocal delivery. It’s a fabulous live album. It’ll live on my phone for a while, I’m sure.

Kanye West: 808s & Heartbreak — Like many people, I strongly disliked The Life of Pablo when it first came out. But it’s possible that I just wasn’t ready for it and I’ll revisit it in two years and think it’s a masterpiece. Because that’s how the entire world seems to have responded to this album. These days, auto-tuned, performatively vulnerable rappers are a dime a dozen. But Kanye did it first, and now that we’ve all realized the extent of this album’s impact, we can basically all agree that he did it best, right? Before this week, I had never heard 808s from start to finish. (I think there are still a couple Kanye albums I haven’t listened to straight through, which I will likely rectify in the coming weeks.) I’m not sure it isn’t my second-favourite Kanye album after My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. For all his occasional lapses of lyrical taste, Kanye West is one of the greatest musicians in modern hip hop. And this album gives him an opportunity to show off his musicianship in a different light than any of his other albums — because it contains more self-imposed restrictions than any of his other albums. Most obviously, of course, he does not rap on it. But it also builds on a very specific musical aesthetic, based around the sound of the TR-808 drum machine. The economy of this album points ahead to Yeezus at times, and at others the cinematic sweep of it points to Fantasy. Those two future approaches come close to converging in a single piano line on “Welcome to Heartbreak,” an economical thing that over the course of a very long four bars, only uses five notes. It looped and looped in my head for a whole day, earlier this week. For me the other highlight is “RoboCop,” which contains some of the most florid, melodic musical material on any of Kanye’s records, and lyrics that approach Morrissey levels of hangdog irony. I love it. I love every song on it. Pick of the week.

Television

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 3, episodes 9-13 — Let me paraphrase a joke that made me laugh and laugh. “I took a career aptitude test once. It said I should be either an unlicensed barber or a police informant. And now look at me: I’m both.” I don’t know how anybody can write this stuff. Honest to god, I cannot remember anything about the story of this season, and I just finished watching it. But I laughed and laughed like a maniac. It is good television.

Podcasts

99% Invisible: “Border Wall” & “Making a Mark: Visual Identity with Tom Geismar” — The border wall episode is a nice collection of mini-stories dealing with that topic. And the Tom Geismar episode is a good example of a “Roman Mars does an interview” episode of 99pi, which I do generally enjoy.

Song by Song catch-up — I dunno, I like “Blind Love.” It’s amazing how much of this I’ve listened to given that I didn’t even like it at first.

Code Switch catch-up — The Valentine’s Day episode is properly contentious. Seek ye out that one. It is here.  

In Our Time: “Cephalopods” & “Fungi” — So I just learned that some cephalopods can change colour but can’t see colour. Thank you, BBC, for making me sad. Also, the thing that links these two episodes together, aside from being interesting discussions of the natural world, is that neither of their panels can agree on a single pronunciation of their subject. KEFF-ah-lo-pod? SEFF-ah-lo-pod? FUN-jie?

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Winter Olympics” & “Black Panther and What’s Making Us Happy” — I have no television, and therefore will likely pass the Olympics by entirely. But Black Panther, whoo boy, am I ever in.

Desert Island Discs: “Christopher Nolan” — He does not have interesting taste in music, it turns out. His picks are all film scores, save for one Radiohead song he tried and failed to get the rights for when he was making Memento (“Paranoid Android”) and the blandest, weirdest pick for a song by his late, lamented former supporting actor David Bowie (“Loving the Alien”). But the interview is good: I always like hearing from artists who value order and discipline over chaos.

Omnibus (week of Jan. 7, 2018)

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

13 reviews.

Literature, etc.

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

Music

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

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.