Tag Archives: Long Now

Omnibus (week of Aug. 19, 2017)

A normal week once again. A bit smaller than usual, I guess. But I honestly quite enjoyed the media detox I went through in Newfoundland. Might try to cut back a bit. We’ll see if that sticks. 14 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Stephen King: The Drawing of the Three — You know, I didn’t realize how much I missed reading page-turners. I’ve been reading mostly nonfiction and “literature” (or at least ambitious genre fiction) for so long that I nearly forgot the pleasure of reading something where the prose and story structure is custom made so that the pages fly by. Two books in, it’s pretty clear to me why Stephen King is such a phenomenon, because I’ve read two books in two weeks, and I can’t remember the last time that happened. Which isn’t to say that there’s no ambition in King’s writing: The Dark Tower is, after all, an eight-volume epic genre mashup inspired by Robert Browning. But King manages this while also asking relatively little of the reader. Your mileage may vary, but you can get plenty out of this without really pondering things like structure or, heaven forfend, “themes.” This is refreshing. That said, let me tell you the weird thing I find most remarkable about The Dark Tower thus far. In both The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three, our protagonist Roland is moving through a series of unforeseen obstacles towards a goal, the Tower, that he doesn’t know why he’s seeking. Moreover, we as readers don’t even really know what prompted Roland to begin his quest in the first place. Contrast this with The Lord of the Rings, a confessed inspiration for The Dark Tower, in which copious exposition is employed to inform the reader of why Frodo and company are heading to Mordor. There’s no missing the whole Sauron/Mount Doom/one-ring-to-rule-them-all thing. This blank space where the exposition should be gives The Dark Tower a dreamlike quality: oftentimes Roland will find himself somewhere, and a thing will happen, and he’s faced with the consequences of that thing without really understanding any of the logic that underpins the story he’s in. I imagine this is partially the result of King’s somewhat improvisational approach to writing fiction — evidently, he didn’t know how it would all turn out either. (Fun fact: Damon Lindelof is a fan of The Dark Tower. Does Lost make more sense now?) But that’s turning out to be the real joy of this series. Much like the death of Laura Palmer was supposed to be in the original Twin Peaks, the Tower is just an excuse to take some characters and have weird shit happen to them while they’re searching for something. I expect the Tower itself will take on more of an active role in later books, but for now it’s a distant McGuffin exerting an uncertain influence over the more proximate narrative. In this book, the weird thing that happens to an unsuspecting Roland is that three doors open up into other people’s minds, all of whom are living at various points in time in New York City. (Why these people? Why New York City? By what mechanism do the doors appear? We don’t know, and our protagonist doesn’t care so we don’t either.) So basically, the story is split into three parts, involving Roland’s interactions with three different characters (well, four really, but I’d spoil it if I explained why). These three parts are not created equal, i.e. the first is far and away the most compelling. (Also, as a personal aside: I read the first few pages of the book in an airport. The plane started boarding just as I got to the moment where Roland steps through the first magic door, so I closed the book there. Moments later, I got on the plane and started reading again, only to realize that Roland, too had found himself on an airplane. I love these moments of synchronicity.) This part of the book works best because, added to the book’s usual aesthetics of fantasy and Western is a crime story, and a marvellously tense one at that. The second part is weighed down by a central character who is a deliberate, and perhaps not completely irredeemable racist caricature (or perhaps so), and that becomes tiring. Things pick up again towards the end, but in general the first half of thereabouts of The Drawing of the Three is much stronger than the second. This book also makes it clear why the relatively slight first volume, The Gunslinger, was necessary. That book has little in the way of plot, but it allows us to spend time with Roland and it establishes him as the centre of this narrative. The structure of The Drawing of the Three requires us to spend substantial amounts of time inside other characters’ heads (sometimes quite literally). Without The Gunslinger, Roland’s centrality wouldn’t be as clear. A final random note: it’s awfully amusing to see King referring to the camera work in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for a descriptive passage, given how much he famously hates that movie. Always one for the Easter eggs. I enjoyed this enormously. I figure I should finish one or two of the dozen or so other books I’m reading before I move on to volume three, but I may not be able to resist. Pick of the week.

Robert Browning: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” — This is of primarily academic interest to me at this time: mostly I wanted to read it for the sake of seeing how it inspired Stephen King. Still, it’s an awfully compelling yarn, especially when you hear it read aloud. Interestingly, the nature of the Tower and the route towards it is even more uncertain and dreamlike here than it is in King. I’ll read this again when I’m done King’s series, to appreciate it a bit more on its own merits.

Comedy

Hannibal Buress: Animal Furnace — This is by far my favourite Hannibal Buress special, and certainly one of the most densely-packed hours of standup I’ve seen. With the exception of a few bits that are a tad too “bitches be crazy” for my liking (including a bit about rape statistics that almost makes his later Bill Cosby bit seem like an apology), this is unimaginably original stuff. Buress’s ninja move is trying to rationalize inexplicable experiences with absurd hypotheticals: an airport security officer inexplicably swabs his hand with a cloth, and he speculates: “Good thing I didn’t have bomb juice on my hands. Was that the bomb juice test?” But what if he did have bomb juice on his hands? What if his friend offered him the rare opportunity to hold a bomb just before he went to the airport? (“I’m open to new experiences!”) Hannibal Buress’s mind is a place where extremely strange things happen on a very casual basis. And that is why he is one of the best comics working today. Plus, this has the classic Young Jeezy bit. Can’t go wrong.

Mitch Hedberg: Mitch All Together — Mitch Hedberg is comedy’s most brilliantly counterintuitive thinker. His jokes are like zen koans. I particularly love his bit about do not disturb signs. It should be “don’t disturb,” he argues. “‘Do not’ psyches you out. ‘Do!’ Alright, I get to disturb this guy. ‘Not!’ Shit! I need to read faster!” Marvellous.

Movies

Wind River — So I hated this when I walked out of the theatre, but the people I saw it with were smarter about it and talked me off the cliff. What I saw was a movie by a white, male writer/director, headlined by white actors, about the murder of a teenage girl on a Native American reservation. Moreover, it is a tense thriller in the vein of Sicario (written by the same guy), the thrills of which are motivated by the death of a native woman. This seemed exploitative to me, and the elongated depiction of the brutal crime itself did nothing to endear me to the film. But I am a white man, and my barometer isn’t always well calibrated in these situations. I’ve been partially brought around to the idea that this film is directed specifically at people like me, who have none of the life experience depicted in the film, and it is supposed to make me squirm. I’m one of the people who won’t be triggered by this, just disturbed. And I suspect that’s what Taylor Sheridan is up to: lure in the audiences who need to see this story the most with posters featuring two Avengers, and shake us out of our complacency with a ceaselessly fucking brutal depiction of a reality we don’t know. If we take this charitable view of the film, it still has a big problem in that the story is told through substantially through the perspective of Elizabeth Olsen’s outsider FBI agent. Realistically enough, one expects, this character shits the bed constantly, both in her social interactions with locals on the reservation and in her police work. This would be more effective, however, if the movie didn’t centralize the perspective of an outsider: if the movie were as concerned with the trauma of the community as it is with the personal growth of this interloper. Jeremy Renner’s character is more complex, given that he has family on the reservation and he works there. Still, it’s easy to regret the scenes in which he delivers hackneyed monologues about coping with grief while Gil Birmingham quietly gives a better performance, out of focus. I didn’t like this movie. I don’t know whether or not I admire it. I would be very careful about recommending it. I am open to being swayed further in either direction.

Television

Game of Thrones: Season 7, episodes 5 & 6 — Man was it ever nice to have two episodes stacked up to watch. I am still incredulous about how much I like this season. “Eastwatch” seems uneventful in retrospect, but only because of what comes after and I still enjoyed it a lot. As for “Beyond The Wall,” say what you like about the stupidity of the characters’ plan in this episode, which is profound, this is still an episode where a group of characters including Jorah Mormont, Tormund, and the Hound go questing through majestic Icelandic wastes. I love it, and if you don’t you’re missing the point. The speed with which GoT is currently introducing hitherto unintroduced characters to each other is extremely satisfying this season. Also ice zombie dragon. Oh shit. Also this making-of featurette is incredible.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 14 & 15 — Okay, so Lynch and Frost do know that the Dougie Jones thing is frustrating. The “look how many Douglas Joneses there are in the phonebook” thing is definitely trolling. If this show moved as fast as Game of Thrones, for instance, we’d learn that Janie E is Diane’s half-sister in one scene, and Dougie and Gordon would be face-to-face in the next. But this is Twin Peaks, so no such luck. Still, these are two incredible episodes: the most consequential since the two-part premiere, though the eighth part is still the clear standout. The sequence with Dark Cooper and Phillip Jeffries (voiced by somebody doing a good impression of David Bowie’s bad southern accent) is a satisfying descent into this show’s weird supernatural depths. But the following episode one-ups it with the sequence of the sheriff and deputies in the woods. I love how every consequential step towards this point was the result of Hawk and Bobby’s efforts, and it’s still Deputy Andy who gets to receive the epiphany. If you’d asked me to list the characters least likely to visit one of the lodges in the new Twin Peaks, Andy would have been close to the top of that list. That character in that place is a marvellous juxtaposition in itself. I love how he instantly loses his bewildered aspect upon arrival, just like Cooper loses his effusiveness. There is only listlessness and manic terror in the lodges. And jazz dancing. Also, I guess maybe that’s a wrap on Big Ed and Norma? This story has been intensely simple in a way that the rest of the show is not. I sure didn’t expect the primary function of the Nadine/Dr. Jacoby plot to be bringing Big Ed and Norma back together, but I’ll take it. I’ll take what gratification I can get. Still, there are weeks when this show is easy to love. These have been two of them.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women” — A lovely and warm conversation about NPR’s super awesome list of great albums by women. I’d quibble with some of the album placements, and with some of the ones chosen for discussion here, but it’s not really my place. Point is, this is a ton of awesome music, much of which I haven’t heard, and I will make the effort to do so now.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: Episodes 7-9 — The tail end of this first batch of Trump Con Law episodes is as informative as everything else, though I can’t claim to be preoccupyingly taken with any of it. I know more about American con law now, though.

The Daily: “Special Edition: The Fall of Steve Bannon” — I listened to this super late, and after having read the Timeslengthy article on Bannon’s departure the next morning, but it still helps somehow to get a sense of things to hear a reporter talking about them conversationally. That’s the genius of The Daily, and why it’s one of the most essential developments in podcasting.

This American Life: “Our Friend David” — I’d heard most of these stories from the late lamented David Rakoff before, but they bear repeating. He was one of the funniest and most articulate presences on the radio, and one of those defining This American Life figures, like David Sedaris, Sarah Koenig, and Starlee Kine. The tape of Rakoff reading from Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish while dying of cancer just kills me. The writing isn’t even his best: it’s clearly rushed because he was racing to the final deadline. But it’s shattering when he reads it, especially considering how sick he sounds. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Truth Warriors” & “Truth Trolls” — God is Radiolab out of touch. The second of this pair of episodes is one that they’ve now removed from their feed, but I could still listen to it after the fact because I downloaded it immediately. But let’s start with the first. The tape of Robert Krulwich’s conversation with Neil DeGrasse Tyson about how a conversation with his barista reflects the process of attaining scientific consensus is a good start. But the rest of the episode is a rerun of a story from 2012, which I would like to have been warned about. My time is too valuable to listen to Radiolab stories twice. (Though when I first heard this story, I wouldn’t have felt that way.) Interestingly, this rerun story, featuring documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, is from the same episode as the story that provoked Radiolab’s harshest backlash: the “yellow rain” story, in which the hosts insensitively accused a guest of trying to “monopolize” a story in which said guest’s family had suffered severe trauma. Appropriate, then, that the following episode, “Truth Trolls,” should find Radiolab once again lacking in judgement. Without any context, it might be easy to see how this story of a bunch of 4channers trolling Shia LaBeouf would read as a fun romp. But there is literally nobody in North America who does not have the context to realize that the people this episode treats basically as harmless scamps are hateful bigots. The context is everywhere. How did they miss this? Anyway, Radiolab’s not trying to answer the big questions anymore. They’re just throwing shit at the wall. It sticks just often enough to keep me listening. And that is the most enraging thing of all.  

The Memory Palace: “A Scavenger Hunt” — This is the least self-sufficient of Nate DiMeo’s episodes for the Metropolitan Museum, but in being that, it also made me really want to go to the Metropolitan Museum. That’s a pricey plane ticket, though.

Long Now: Seminars About Long-Term Thinking — “Nicky Case: Seeing Whole Systems” — I always love these talks. They’re satisfyingly complex, and Stewart Brand always asks great questions afterwards. But this one relies too much on visual aids to be a satisfying podcast. It sort of feels like an ad for the video cut that’s available to paying members of the Long Now Foundation, which is something I’ll certainly be when I’ve got the money for frivolous expenditures such as that. But there’s still a lot to be gained from just listening to Case, who is a clever game designer with a deep knowledge of game theory and feedback loops. I’m not sure about his sweeping applications of these concepts — sounds a bit like the sort of thinking that leads Mark Zuckerberg to try and treat hate as an engineering problem. Still, I’m compelled if not convinced.

Advertisements

Omnibus (week of June 25, 2017)

Greetings! A normal week. 18 reviews.

Television

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 8 — I’m willing to entertain the notion that this is the strangest, most obscure thing ever to be seen on television by an audience that exceeds the low dozens. This is the hour of television in which David Lynch reveals himself as the Black Lodge doppelganger of Terrence Malick. It is the second story I’ve seen this year that frames the origins of an iconic, totemic evil from a beloved old franchise as a consequence of human technological progress. But unlike Alien: Covenant, Lynch’s account of BOB’s birth in the crucible of the Manhattan Project is expressed through lyrical, abstract, largely wordless filmmaking. This helps to mitigate the potentially prosaic quality of the plot point that goes: “BOB is an evil spirit summoned by a nuclear bomb.” In practice, it doesn’t seem prosaic at all. Instead of focussing on the narrative, the cause and effect, Lynch tells us the story with reference to its abstract emotional quality. This type of filmmaking talks past our rational brains and communicates a sort of meaning to us that is ineffable. It works in a similar way to instrumental music in that way, and indeed, it gets a significant assist from Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. That piece of music is connected to nuclear weapons by its title, but the music itself wasn’t written with any such thing in mind. It was meant to be an abstract, academic piece of music. Regardless, it seemed from the first to elicit a muted version of our universal human response to inconceivable horror. So, title or none, it is music with the same goal as Lynch’s Stan Brakhage-like terror painting in this episode. So, instead of simply expressing a new piece of continuity in the usual way, Lynch’s approach offers a sense of the horror and disorientation of a world that’s recently been made aware of a new outer limit in human ruthlessness. Given that, it seems totally natural that BOB should arise from this. Pretty much any other approach would have seemed dumb and overwrought. Like Alien: Covenant. But in bypassing rationality entirely and speaking to something more primal in us, Lynch has deepened the world of Twin Peaks more here than in any other single episode of the show — possibly including the one that introduces the Red Room in the first place. Pick of the week.

Doctor Who: “The Doctor Falls” — A more than serviceable finale, though one that I feel works better on a scene-by-scene basis than it does all-in-all. I’ve said before that I like Moffat best in “big idea” mode, and he got most of that stuff out of the way last week with the time differential stuff. But what’s left to do is the emotional labour of a season ending, and this manages that just fine. Still, two characters overshadow the Doctor’s story here. The first, obviously, is Bill. Her arc from Cyberman conversion through her departure from the series (I think?) is the highlight here. I’m particularly fond of the mirror scene, which Pearl Mackie plays brilliantly. Also, this is the second companion departure in a row that feels like a spinoff waiting to happen — and a pretty killer crossover that would be! Bill and Heather the water creatures meet Clara and Ashildr the immortals in a diner-shaped TARDIS. Somebody write that. The other highlight is the two Masters, and who knows how that’s going to turn out. These are self-evidently the best (Michelle Gomez) and second-best (John Simm) renditions of this character the series has ever managed, and I’m delighted to have seen them together. I do hope Gomez isn’t finished with the role yet, but it would be a good way to go out. Also interesting how pigheaded misogyny is the Simm Master’s new calling card. Perhaps when he was last on this show, the possibility of such a blatant sexist being elected to public office seemed a bit of a hard sell. Oh, what a world. And as for the Doctor, this is to some extent a less impactful retread of Eleven’s last stand on Trenzalore, but we’ve still got a proper regeneration story to go. And what a corker it promises to be. I’ve been saying since the beginning of Peter Capaldi’s tenure that this is a Doctor who somebody needs to pair with the First Doctor. I always assumed that if it were to happen, it would be in a comic or a novel. But David Bradley has a history with playing William Hartnell, so why not playing his character as well? Part of me thinks it feels like a bit of a slight to Hartnell that he’s the only Doctor whose character has been played by not just one but two other actors. But the promise of what these two characters can do together is too much to pass up — especially since Moffat and his writers spent so much of the early part of this season focussing on the legacy of Doctor Who, right from 1963 on. This looks like it’ll be an opportunity for Moffat to say goodbye to the series with one more rumination on what it is at its core and why it’s great. This is now the primary reason I am looking forward to Christmas.

Movies

Lost in La Mancha — A bit of pop culture news you might have missed if you’re not me is that Terry Gilliam finally finished shooting The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a movie he’s tried and failed to make eight times over the course of twenty years. I am super happy about this, especially since it will reunite Gilliam with his Brazil leading man Jonathan Pryce, who is only now the right age to play Quixote. I’m prepared to completely love this movie, but the truth is that I’m not sure it’ll surpass the story of Gilliam’s struggle to make it. (Many would say the same about Brazil, though I’m sure as hell not one of them.) Lost in La Mancha tells the story of Gilliam’s first attempt to film the movie in 2000, which was a complete disaster. The frequent reference points for what went wrong are big, obvious problems like unexpected noise from a nearby NATO base (F-16 target practise turns out to be very loud), a lead actor with a herniated disc, and a flash flood that nearly carried the crew’s equipment away. But the film documents a thousand tiny hurdles as well. The narrative doesn’t just play out in setpieces of acute misfortune — it plays out in the looks on the crew’s faces. If you like watching people’s expressions grow from contented to concerned to worried to frantic, then this is the film for you. There’s a costume designer who is particularly wonderful in this respect. You will know her when you see her. But in the middle of it all is Terry Gilliam. “How are we doing for time?” he asks his first assistant director. “Badly,” the first AD replies. “Good,” says Gilliam without missing a beat. It’s hard to judge the extent to which he’s deluding himself throughout this process. Certainly, he’s always aware that things aren’t working. But it’s Gilliam’s occasional sense of total imperiousness in the face of harsh realities that makes Lost in La Mancha so captivating to watch, if possibly through your fingers. And it’s that quality that may yet make this documentary an even better modern adaptation of Don Quixote than Gilliam’s own film will turn out to be.

Live events

Much Ado About Nothing (Bard on the Beach) — I always look forward to Bard on the Beach, because I am from a small town and I think it’s a damn miracle that it’s possible to see several productions of Shakespeare mounted by professionals every year. So, all snark must be weighed against a sense of perspective. However, I’ve seen theatre at Bard over the past four seasons that has run the gamut from extraordinary (Kim Collier’s multimedia saturated Hamlet, Anita Rochon’s refreshingly minimal Cymbeline) to garbage (an appalling massacre of Love’s Labour’s Lost with showtunes). More than that, though, they’ve been fine. They’ve been the sorts of productions that can run for a whole summer in a city of Vancouver’s size. This Much Ado is basically that. Set, completely arbitrarily, in an Italian movie studio in the 1950s, it evokes the glamour of black and white cinema in a way that mostly made me wish I were watching Joss Whedon’s wonderful film version from a few years back. The performances here are mostly good, but suffer from the expectation that the actors will deliver Shakespeare’s fiery repartée while also performing hackneyed physical comedy. The impulse to over-choreograph pays dividends in only one scene: the masked ball where Beatrice and Benedick pair their verbal fencing with dancing. That’s really the one scene where I got the sense that this production understood the point of this play, which is listening to two world-class wits spar with each other. There are other good scenes, but I mostly found this a pretty dull production of a comedy that I actually really like.

Literature, etc.

George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo (audiobook) — The last time I reviewed a full-cast audiobook, I basically reviewed it in two layers: the basic text of the book, and the performance layer on top of that. I don’t think I can do that with this one. The audiobook production of Lincoln in the Bardo feels like its own thing. The book isn’t written in the standard third-person or first-person voice, so its audiobook edition is going to work a bit differently. (The 166 narrators advertized on the cover art might have tipped you off.) This is a very stripped-down radio play, basically. And the performances feel like an integral part of the text — not an additional layer that you’ll endeavour to see past to the basic elements. The Nick Offerman/David Sedaris double act is reason enough to choose the audiobook over the paper book. The former gives as good a performance here as he does in film and television roles, and it’s fun to hear the latter reading somebody else’s work. I’ll leave discussion of the story for next week, by which time I’ll have heard all of it.

Geoff Edgers: “Why My Guitar Gently Weeps” — There are a few points of interest in this story, namely the numbers. It’s kind of amazing to read about the economic troubles of Guitar Centre, Gibson, and other businesses who rely on the fashionability of the guitar. But I actually think it’s mostly a pretty bad piece of journalism. Speaking as somebody who deals a lot with classical music, a musical tradition that is in a long-standing and seemingly permanent economic/identity tailspin, I have seen all of this before. The story that Edgers is telling is the story of the culture changing in a way that displeases the people who thrived in the previous version of the culture. And nothing that Edgers writes in this piece really indicates that he understands the extent to which the phenomenon whose demise he is mourning lines up with white supremacy and patriarchy. This is as true of the particular species of baby boomer/Gen X rock music that he’s discussing as it is of Western Art Music. (Say it like “WEST-un AHT mew-zik.”) That’s not to say that either kind of music is bad, or even badly intentioned! But things change, and they should. Insofar as the much vaunted “death of the guitar” is a real thing, it’s not by definition a bad thing. (And the best thing about this piece is the extent to which it uses sales figures to demonstrate that the guitar is materially less enticing to potential musicians today than it has been.) This is the same feeling I’ve had when I’ve read stories about how symphony orchestras are struggling to stay in business, opera companies are folding, and classical music audiences are aging. Of course they are. You can’t expect a generation’s music to outlive that generation and maintain the same popularity. Everything becomes a niche at some point. (Granted, the classical canon has managed to hang on an awfully long time. I’d say that has a lot to do with how it brands itself as “timeless.” Say what you will about the ineptitude of classical music’s modern-day branding professionals. Their late-19th century counterparts did their job so well that it stuck for a hundred years.) It’s almost surreal to read in Edgers’ piece about guitar classes where kids find a sense of community while learning about the great classics of the rock and roll repertory. (I find it intensely gratifying that “The Spirit of Radio” is among the lessons on offer.) This is the same sense of guardianship of a dying tradition that exists in the classical space. And frankly, more power to them for doing that. Classical and rock music are both traditions that deserve defending — but not with the end goal of retaining their cultural dominance. That ship has sailed, and good riddance to it. On the other hand, it’s worth checking out the Cut’s riposte to Edgers, which is simply a playlist of kickass recent guitar music being made by women. This is an altogether better argument than the one I’ve just made. Basically, “Brittany Howard, St. Vincent. Your argument is invalid.” Yes, fine. I’ll round out my metaphor by recommending you go listen to Caroline Shaw, Nicole Lizée and Jennifer Higdon.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” — Solidly middle-of-the-pack by the standards of Borges’s Fictions collection, but that’s only to say it’s really great. This is the most straightforward iteration of Borges’ strategy of writing a critical essay about a fictional book that I’ve seen. It’s clever, but it doesn’t have the imperious ambition of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” or “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”

Music

Felix Mendelssohn/Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, RIAS Kammerchor: Symphonies 1-5 — I honestly rarely listen to new classical discs in their entirety, at least when they’re recordings of familiar rep like this. But it occurred to me that I might not actually have heard all of the Mendelssohn symphonies (the fact that I’m not sure ought to demonstrate what I think of a few of them), and I am in general favourably disposed towards YNS. So, why not binge them along with a few of my coworkers. The best thing that can be said about Nézet-Séguin is that he’s a clean windowpane: he gives you a clear picture of the music. And while I’ll always fall on the side of classical artists who offer personal, idiosyncratic interpretations, there’s value in the sort of artist who is a superb technician with a firm grasp of any given score, but who will defer to tradition when it comes to interpretation. (I’m not saying that’s what he’s doing here, because I don’t know most of this music well enough to judge. But I’ve heard a lot of his other recordings, and I think it’s a valid general characterization.) This is especially valuable when there’s a great orchestra involved, and up-to-the-minute recording techniques. Judging by YNS’s readings of the two symphonies I do know quite well (numbers three and four), this is a Mendelssohn set that could easily serve as a new standard for anybody wanting to familiarize themselves with these works. (I’d then send any such person straight to Leonard Bernstein’s “Scottish” with the Israel Philharmonic, to hear what it sounds like with a lot of energy.) All that said, the truth is that I’m unlikely to revisit any of these recordings aside from the two symphonies I know and love. Because my milage with Mendelssohn varies, and ultimately I only connect with him when he’s at his most joyful. Mendelssohn is that rare composer who can express actual joy, and not just contentedness, in a way that makes it contagious. And for that you should turn to the third and fourth symphonies, because the others are a bit serious and Beethovenesque. I’ll take actual Beethoven instead, thanks. In any case, this is a marvellous set that you should hear if you want to hear some good Mendelssohn. And you should check out the first movement of the “Italian” regardless of what you want.  

Podcasts

WTF with Marc Maron: “Jenji Kohan” — This is a lot more fun than the interview I heard with Kohan on Fresh Air a few years back. Maron gets her in anecdote mode, so we get to hear about her enthusiasm for dominoes and how her dad wrote David Bowie’s countermelody in the Bing Crosby Christmas special. It’s a fun chat, and she’s a genius.

Long Now: Seminars About Long-term Thinking: “James Gleick: Time Travel” — Thus returns one of the strangest things in my podcast subscriptions to make its 2017 debut on this blog. I have, in my limited experience, found the Long Now Foundation’s podcast seminars to be totally engrossing listening, bland title be damned. This talk by the author of the brilliantly titled book Time Travel: A History is no exception. Particularly wonderful is the idea that before the technological maelstrom of the early 20th century, the idea of time travel didn’t really exist. It’s fun hearing James Gleick explain the pains that H.G. Wells took to explain the basic idea of time travel, which was totally anathema to basically every writer who came before him (except Mark Twain, and even he didn’t quite commit). But as is to be expected from these, the question and answer segment with Stewart Brand after the actual talk is the highlight. Brand is a loveable eccentric whose questions never adhere to a standard interview formula. He’s just a smart person who really listens to the talks from beforehand. Pick of the week. 

Arts and Ideas: “Canada 150: Robert Lepage, Katherine Ryan” — I had to hear this because I haven’t actually heard an interview with Lepage about 887, the incredible performance of his that I saw early last year. It seriously is one of the best experiences I have ever had in a theatre. But I didn’t enjoy this program very much at all, because the host, Philip Dodd, is an idiot. He handles Lepage reasonably well, although he spends altogether too much time huffing disapprovingly about Lepage’s identity as a “multidisciplinary artist.” I don’t see the issue there. (The one amazing upside to that part of the conversation is a bit where Lepage turns the tables on Dodd by referring to Wagner as a multidisciplinary artist.) But Dodd really shits the bed in his interview with Katherine Ryan. He is five to ten years out of date in the discourse about comedy. Ryan outlines the pretty standard rule for modern comedy that you punch up and not down, and Dodd seems to take this (or something else Ryan said, who knows what) to mean that comedy isn’t supposed to offend anymore. Sure it is! It’s just supposed to offend the relatively privileged or powerful! “You’re starting to sound like a Guardian reader,” he tells her. Who exactly does he assume his audience is? I’ve enjoyed the programs that come through BBC’s Arts and Ideas feed before, but I think I’ll avoid Dodd like the plague from here on out.

All Songs Considered: “Listeners Picks For 2017’s Best New Artists (So Far)” — Most of this didn’t catch fire for me, but it picked up at the very end of the countdown. Gracie and Rachel, Charly Bliss, and especially Overcoats are all now on my must-check-out list. The listeners’ number one pick, Diet Cig, worked for me too, but not like those other three. I’ve got to say, last year’s equivalent episode of this was better. This one has a lot of generic guitar rock.

It’s Been A Minute: “Lena Waithe from ‘Master of None’” — The first episode of this left me cold, partially because of its ostentatious format. But if these Tuesday episodes are going to all be like this, I’m in. Presumably the whole reason Sam Sanders has his own show now is that he’s a preternaturally gifted conversationalist. So, giving him the chance to just talk to people in a not toooo structured way (i.e. this is an interview, but it doesn’t feel like one) is probably the best way to leverage his talent. But even if only one of every two episodes works for me, this is still a really good thing to have in the world. Also, Lena Waithe is amazing and I’m going to have to resign myself to putting some time into Master of None.

99% Invisible: “Mexico 68” — This starts off like it’s going to be a sports story without an obvious design angle, but then it turns into a pretty awesome exploration of why it matters who is involved in a project and what happens when design is repurposed for political means. Also, the Mexico 68 Olympics are just really interesting. I’ve really reconnected with this show in recent weeks. I love 99pi.

Radiolab: “Revising the Fault Line” — Another revisit of an older episode, and a really great one, too. This is a story I remember well, about a guy who does something terrible, possibly because of a neurological condition he can’t entirely control. But it goes beyond that story — it gets to a point where Jad and Robert are actually debating with a guest whether free will is a thing that exists. Ye olde Radiolab.

Code Switch: “It’s Our Anniversary” — This episode revisits a few of the most contentious and noteworthy episodes from this podcast’s first year. Mostly, it’s just a really good reminder that Code Switch hit the ground running and is now one of the most valuable podcasts in the public radio space. Many happy returns.

Ear Hustle: “Misguided Loyalty” — There’s a moment here that really drives home a potential issue with this show, which is just that it’s absolutely crucial for the inmates who are telling their own stories be allowed to do so in a way that works for them. It’s possible that this means the show sacrifices a certain amount of emotional honesty. This features a man reading a script about the murder of his family in an almost shockingly affectless way. Better this than the alternative, though. I don’t want anybody’s emotions to be harnessed for the sake of radio art.

On the Media: “Newton Minnow Still Cares About the Media” — Newton Minnow is an interesting fellow. A former advisor to President Kennedy, he made the improvement of television his professional cause. I’m with him on this, though I do think there’s a place in the world for Gilligan’s Island.

Omnireviewer (week of Aug. 28, 2016)

27 reviews, featuring the point where I finally caught up with my podcast subscriptions. Always a moment of joy and satisfaction.

Literature, etc.

Thomas Ligotti: “Gas Station Carnivals” — Another corker. Ligotti likes to make his narrators into straightforward authorial inserts: in this, “Sideshow” and “Teatro Grottesco,” the authors are writers of grim prose. It isn’t self-aggrandizement; it lends a terrifying verisimilitude to the stories, because you start to feel like these things could have actually happened to Ligotti. Cleverly, this entire story proceeds nearly to the end without anything unsettling specifically happening, but rather, a series of unsettling things being described to our incredulous narrator by a third party. I’ve found time and again that Ligotti is as impressive for his structural cleverness as for the specific details of the horrors he conjures.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Bungalow House” — I don’t know if it’s just the effect of taking a bit of a break from this short, but extremely intense book. But, I’m finding this final run of stories especially fantastic. This story is sort of built around a twist, and it’s a twist you can see coming for a mile. But that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story at all. It’s about a person who finds a kindred spirit in a series of tape recordings. (Does this resonate with me? To a point.) That premise, and the prose descriptions of the recordings in question make this another of the best stories in Teatro Grottesco.

Steven Pearlstein: “Meet the parents who won’t let their children study literature” — Pearlstein’s a bit condescending to accountants, I’d suggest. But then, how can you not be? While the broad sweep of his (admittedly familiar) argument is intensely sympathetic, the real reason I’m reviewing this is that shitty headline. This is an opinion piece, and a somewhat re-cooked one. There are almost no actual quotes from the reluctant parents the headline promises to introduce. I wanted a hate-read and I got a bland editorial. Screw you, WashPo.

Television

Stranger Things: Episodes 1-3 — I see why this is striking a chord. There’s more to it than just the ‘80s homages, which are great in themselves, though none of these reference points are especially meaningful to me, I must say. It’s just so fun. It’s a great yarn, strewn across familiar character and plot beats, with some truly great performances by many people, some of whom are barely teenagers, and some of whom are Winona Ryder. I feel like this is the sort of show I’ll have gotten the gist of before the story actually ends, but let’s not pre-judge that.

Music

Paul Simon: Surprise — This past Wednesday, a colleague casually mentioned loving the album that Paul Simon and Brian Eno made together, and I was thinking “why have I not heard that?” The answer, naturally, is a general prejudice against late works by legacy artists. We all have that prejudice, don’t we? But Simon’s poetic gifts had not waned substantially by 2006 (if the track I’ve heard from his most recent album is any indication, they still haven’t), and Eno remains a restless innovator. There are a few needlessly on-the-nose couplets here and there (It’s outrageous, the food they try to serve in a public school/Outrageous, the way they talk to you like you’re some kind of clinical fool”), but by and large this is one of the better pop albums made by a person over 60. Faint praise? Maybe. Here’s this though: the best track on this record is as good as the best stuff on Graceland. “Another Galaxy” is a marvel. It tells a simple story with astonishing economy (two verses and a chorus), it matches the peaks and troughs of the melody with the emotional highs and lows of the lines, and it offers a glimpse inside of its central character’s head with really simple language. This, from a guy who’s known to pack 20 words into a line when he can. Simon’s voice slips beautifully between the notes, and Eno’s electronics are perfectly complementary to the acoustic ballad that this is at its core. If there’s one problem with it, it’s that the broad strokes of the lyrics recall “Life On Mars” a bit, which is a comparison that does no song any favours. Both are about young women in difficult situations, romanticizing outer space as a place to escape. But where Bowie offers a generalized sort of discontentment, Simon’s is ultra-specific. There are other songs on this album that are nearly as good, which ought to demonstrate that, though this isn’t a masterpiece, it’s a really great album. Pick of the week.

IQ: The Wake — I had an inexplicable urge to listen to Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood yesterday. It’s an album I loved in high school, but has since grown insufferable to me for its preening self-pity and overwrought, empty bombast. Still there are memories in it, and I managed to get about ten minutes in before I began shuddering so hard I had to turn it off. I remembered my recent survey of The Seventh House by IQ, Marillion’s erstwhile neo-prog rivals, and how much better I liked it than the bulk of the Marillion catalogue, which is completely inaccessible to me now, save occasionally for Clutching at Straws and Brave. I figured perhaps it was time to give their most relevant period piece a listen. This is almost exactly concurrent with Misplaced Childhood, so unlike some of IQ’s later, more beloved albums, it actually belongs to the neo-prog moment that they are perpetually and anachronistically attached to. It’s a conflicting listening experience. On one hand, there are occasionally moments where a melodic snippet or solo leaps out of the headphones in the way that the best classic prog does. On the other hand, this is very much of its time. It sounds more ‘80s than Marillion ever did, and the recording fidelity is pretty dodgy, even by that era’s standards. Musically, it sounds a bit like what it is: a younger generation attempting to revive a lost art. The members of IQ are ‘80s prog’s hipster woodworkers. It’s like they’ve got a list of things that the old masters did, and they check as many boxes as they can while still sounding like a band that isn’t Genesis. At least Marillion had a distinctive personality fronting them. Fish’s vocals and lyrics frequently grate, but there’s nothing like his intensely introspective, confessional style in prog prior to Script for a Jester’s Tear, with the very notable exception of The Wall. (I just learned that Script and The Final Cut came out within a week of each other. Who poured self-pity into England’s water supply?) On The Wake, singer Peter Nicholls is clearly trying, but his performances and lyrics remain fairly generic. He would improve drastically, along with the rest of the band, by the time of The Seventh House. The closest they come to something as distinctive as “The Wrong Side of Weird” here is “Headlong,” which is also the one track on this album I could see myself returning to. I came to this expecting an interesting period piece, and I found a slightly dull one. But it never made me shudder the way that “Lavender” does.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Pete’s Dragon & Kids and Their Monsters” — Wow, they’re rough on Pete’s Dragon. I was half-inclined to see that movie after reading the reviews. But… we’ll see. Also, Stephen Thompson mentioned the Hip! I love that, even though the Hip will never be a thing in the States, the story of their denouement is making the rounds down there.

On The Media: “Define ‘Normal’” — Lots of good stuff, here. The opening segment on therapists doubling as specious pundits (specious therapists doubling as pundits?) is of particular interest, but the discussion of sexism in the Olympics, as it relates to gendered physical/physiological traits is also worth sticking around for.

Criminal: “The Editor” — One of the best prison correspondence stories I’ve heard. A man who was never taught to read (shame on American public schools) teaches himself to read in prison, reads 600 books, and starts finding errors in the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia. So, he contacts the editor, and they become lifelong pals. Brilliant. And brilliantly told.

The Memory Palace: “Numbers” — One of the good ones. DiMeo cedes the spotlight to archival audio from newscasts in this episode. His writing and delivery are still first rate, but they’re bolstered by the incredibly matter-of-fact reading of the Vietnam draft lottery. The archival audio highlights the way that DiMeo is able to weave plausible fictions around his historical material. Probably in my top five episodes of this show. Profoundly moving. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “‘Southside’ and Black Love at the Movies” — Karen Grigsby Bates is a relatively recent introduction to this podcast, but I’m definitely a fan. It could just be that this is about movies, and I’m always all about the pop culture-focussed episodes of this show. But this conversation with Bob Mondello is good listening.

Love and Radio: “An Old Lion or a Lover’s Lute, Special Extended Cut” — I listened to the additional conversation tacked on the end of this, because I remember the original clearly enough. It’s a classic episode of Love and Radio in that it defines the show’s central ethos, which is the notion that it’s better to listen to people than not to. Jerome, the cat-calling man of dubious gender politics who is the subject of this episode, is too complicated to write off completely. So are most people. This show recognizes that. Hearing the producer Ana Adlerstein talk to Jerome once again about people’s responses to the episode only makes it explicit that this is what she and the show’s regular producers are trying for. It’s a profound approach that challenges listeners to engage empathetically, even as it realizes that many of its protagonists (I’m thinking especially of the sex offender in “A Red Dot”) will not win the audience’s sympathies.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: MTV’s Video Music Awards 2016” — Stephen Thompson wants fights at the VMAs. And who can blame him? Still, I’m yet to watch that 15-minute Beyoncé performance, so I likely shouldn’t judge.

On The Media: “Bob’s Grill #5: Former CNN President Jon Klein” — AKA “Brooke’s Grill.” This is a nice reminder that Gladstone can summon Garfieldesque umbrage when need be. If there’s one thing I hate in a smarmy interview subject, it’s that thing where they say to an established journalist, “if you were only listening to me…” Shut up. There’s no way that Brooke Gladstone’s not listening to you. If her questions don’t line up with what you’ve told her, it’s because you’re not making sense, or you’re bullshitting. In this case, the latter.

Radiolab: “The Girl Who Doesn’t Exist” — The story of how it’s possible to be born in the United States and not have a birth certificate — and of how some assholes think that this is okay. Honest to god, that sovereignty bullshit makes me go out of my mind. But this is mostly the story of a girl escaping from a family who has that ideology and finding herself, perhaps ironically but perhaps not, more free.

The Memory Palace: “O, How We Danced” — A small thing. A tiny word painting of a dancing marathon that got shut down by the police for obviously specious reasons. Nice, but I listened to it mostly because the below showed up in my feed.

The Memory Palace: “Remixx: (o how we danced with miley) — It’s just the above episode, with Miley thrown in. Not an especially clever remix, and you get the feeling that it’s something that the three people who work on this show thought was funny when somebody brought it up, and then somebody actually made it as a joke, and then they released it. Which is a thing that I like, when it happens. Fine.

All Songs Considered: “Breaking Up With Your Favourite Bands” — It seems that Bob Boilen and I have some similar reference points. We are both baby boomers, see. However, when Boilen is discussing why he doesn’t listen to ELP anymore (something I definitely do not begrudge him for), he does not seem to have the facts at the tip of his tongue. Carl Palmer never played with the Nice; he was with Atomic Rooster and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown prior to ELP. Also, when Robin Hilton comments on the guitar sound, Boilen seems not to be aware that it’s a synth. Tut, tut. Also, he’s the only person in the room who’s heard of Cockney Rebel… but I have too! They’re so glammy that they even made the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack. All nitpicking aside, this is a really fun conversation. The notion of breaking up with bands you once loved doesn’t hit me quite so hard as many, I’d imagine, since most of my favourite bands did their best work 20 or more years before I was born. I never had a whole lot of interest in what Jethro Tull was up to in the ‘00s. We were preemptively broken up. I suppose there’s Opeth, though. Time was, I’d look forward to everything they put out. But then nostalgia took over, and even an openly nostalgic music fan such as myself couldn’t handle the constant reiterations of tired prog tropes. I haven’t cared since Heritage, and probably won’t listen to any of their new albums going forward.

Fresh Air: “Remembering Gene Wilder” — Amazing that this 2005 interview doesn’t even touch on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Still, Wilder was a gentleman, and a fabulous comic actor. This is a lovely remembrance, and Wilder’s story about how Richard Pryor fixed a racist scene in Silver Streak at a moment’s notice is fabulous.

Code Switch: “What’s So Funny About The Indian Accent?” — I’m curious about how many Indians and Indian-Americans will listen to this conversation, in which a panel of Indian and Indian-American people claim not to be that offended by stereotyped Indian accents à la Apu, and think, hey wait. Obviously, I haven’t the slightest clue about this, but it strikes me that people could pretty justifiably get upset about Apu’s accent, given that it’s actually spoken by a Greek American man with no ear towards accuracy. I’m surprised it didn’t come under more intense scrutiny, here.

Reply All: “Boy Wonder” — “Can you solve this?” “Yeah, you’re a Yeti.” I dunno, Reply All has done this story before. Down to the same online diagnosis community, the same New York Times columnist, and the same references to House. Like House, it is frustrating for its repetition of things past. But it does have a great central character. If you do tune in, stick around until he starts reading self-coined platitudes.

Millennial: episodes 1 & 2 — I caught up with my subscriptions! I can finally start listening to new shows! But at this point, I’m committed to listening to every episode of so many podcasts that I need to be judicious about which ones get added to the pile. This show has its merits. The host, Megan Tan is very self-aware about the fact that making a podcast about being a millennial is extremely #millennial of her. And she’s a good storyteller with an engaging presence. But… I’m not sure how badly I need to hear the story of a person graduating journalism school and then struggling in a tricky job market when… well, this story bears a certain resemblance to EVERYBODY’S LIFE WHO I KNOW. I imagine it’s more interesting to people who are in less similar situations to Tan than I am. Also, I don’t relish the part of this story where her podcast gets picked up by Radiotopia like, three months in. I mean, really. But the primary reason why I don’t think I’ll listen to more Millennial is just that I’m more than 20 episodes behind, and I am not super willing to commit to a serialized podcast of that length with everything else I’ve got to listen to. Especially since I’m hoping to get back to my beloved You Must Remember This, which does tend to come in large chunks. It’s a shame, though. This is a good show. If I could stop time, I’d definitely listen to this.

Science Vs: “The G-spot” — This is a departure for the show, in that it doesn’t do its standard bullet-point interrogations of the major questions regarding a topic. Instead, it tells the story of public awareness of the G-spot since the 80s, with much giggling. Wendy Zukerman also takes an interesting detour into the history of anatomists suppressing the knowledge that the clitoris exists. This is definitely becoming, if not one of my favourite Gimlet shows, at least one of the good ones.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “You’re The Worst & Mixing Comedy and Drama” — You’re The Worst doesn’t sound like my kind of thing, but Glen Weldon explaining how stories work always is. This reminded me that I really need to listen to the audiobook of his Batman book.

On The Media: “Kids These Days” — Some great segments here. The one on millennials in the media is mostly satisfying for correctly identifying that Strauss and Howe’s generational theory is completely loopy. The one on music in presidential campaigns is fantastic, and pointed me towards this crazy art film of an attack ad for Nixon’s 1968 campaign, of all things.

Seminars About Long-term Thinking: “Neil Gaiman: How Stories Last” — I’m more interested in commenting on the form of this than the content, which is a perfectly good bit of Neil Gaiman in Neil Gaiman mode. This is a podcast provided by the Long Now Foundation, a fascinating organization co-founded by this program’s host, Stewart Brand, and best known for the very large, very slow clock they are constructing as a symbol for how much more long-term humanity should be thinking. It is also well known for including Brian Eno among its board members. This is a particular kind of podcast offering that doesn’t get included in lists of recommended listening. It fits alongside BBC Radio 4’s annual podcast of the John Peel Lectures, and other such things. Seminars About Long-term Thinking is simply an audio series made from the foundation’s lecture series of the same name. It is unedited, as far as I can tell. Very much in keeping with the philosophy of the Long Now, Gaiman is allowed to stretch his talk out for a substantial time, repeating himself at will, and allowing for long, pregnant pauses. The full episode is 103 minutes long. Brand is an occasionally bungling host, without an ear for when Gaiman says something interesting and worth picking up on, but that’s not really the point. This is a way to immerse yourself in a new way of thinking. The lecture series has a broad enough focus — long-term thinking — that its individual episodes can be about anything. But it is always framed by the fascinating philosophy of the organization that produces it. I can’t say for sure whether I’ll listen to any more of this. But I do admire it.

Code Switch: “ Singer Juan Gabriel’s Sexuality Was ‘Open Secret’” — This is a nice 20-minute primer on why Mexico is going all Canada over Gabriel’s death. (The parallels between Juan Gabriel and Gord Downie are extremely few, it would seem. But we can sympathize with the feeling of losing, or being about to lose, an icon who was uniquely of your home country.) It occurs to me that this episode may not be of much value to people who already know who Gabriel was — which is to say, apparently every Spanish-speaking person living within a hemisphere of Mexico. But Code Switch shouldn’t be held to that standard. I’ve learned something from every episode I’ve heard.