Tag Archives: The Memory Palace

Omnibus (week of June 10, 2018)

And he slides in under his self-imposed, flexible deadline with seven minutes to spare.

14 reviews.

Movies

Drowning by Numbers — The first movie I watched this week was Green Lantern. (I’m not going to review it; it was part of a live show I’ve covered before.) This was the second. Consider my palate cleansed. Peter Greenaway is a filmmaker I connected to from the first frame of the first movie I saw of his (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & her Lover). So it’s odd that it’s taken this long for me to watch a second. Drowning by Numbers has instantly become one of my favourite movies. It has everything I love in a movie: pitch dark comedy, scrupulous attention to detail, complete sensory overload, and hysterically British restraint in the performances. It’s a story about three women from three different generations of the same family, all named Cissie, all of whom drown their husbands, and all of whom manipulate the local coroner into covering for them. I haven’t processed what I’m meant to take away from this story yet, because I’m still marvelling at the crazy garb Greenaway clothed it in. The movie’s primary gimmick (in the most complimentary sense of the word) is the appearance of the numbers 1 through 100 in sequence throughout the movie. Some of these appearances are rational, like the numbers that appear on runners’ jerseys. Others are not, like the ones painted onto cows. But the gradual progression from 1 to 100 provides the movie with an unexpected secondary source of narrative thrust. The closest thing we get to an explanation of why this is happening comes right at the beginning of the movie, when a girl jumping rope explains that once you count to 100 once, all the other hundreds are the same. She’s not wrong. But how that connects with anything is the sort of question that’s bound to result in hacky, unsatisfying readings of a work of art that isn’t meant to be pinned down. Here’s one detail that I think demonstrates something about Greenaway’s approach: when a huge number 50 is seen in yellow cardboard numerals from one angle, and then from the opposite one, the ‘5’ is switched around so that it won’t appear backwards. From the other side it reads ‘05.’ This is, paradoxically, an intentional continuity error. Greenaway wants us to be aware that we’re seeing the number 50 from the other side, but doesn’t want a backwards 5 in his movie because, ugh. He switches the 5 around for the same reason that the disciples are all on the same side of the table in The Last Supper: because we’re looking at a flat image. That’s how Greenaway thinks about cinema. His camera doesn’t represent a single point of view in a three-dimensional space; it reduces everything in front of it to a single, two-dimensional plane. Greenaway is the opposite of Jean Renoir in The Rules of the Game, in which Renoir moves the camera around specifically to call your attention to the things that aren’t onscreen at the moment. But in a Greenaway film, does anything even exist behind the camera? Who knows? Greenaway’s ninja move is a thing he does where he moves the camera laterally through a long take, and every time it stops, the picture has the framing and composition of a Rubens painting. That’s as many as three Rubens paintings in one take. (Rubens is the reference point of choice, because his work appears in the movie. Greenaway loves painters.) All of the performances are fantastic, particularly Joan Plowright as the matriarch of the three drowneresses and Bernard Hill (a.k.a. Theoden from Lord of the Rings) as Madgett, the hapless coroner who turns scary when he doesn’t get what he wants. The restraint of the performances is one of the many, many elements of this film that seems to anticipate the entire aesthetic of Wes Anderson. Others include the immaculate, flat compositions shot with a laterally moving camera (much like the opening of Fantastic Mr. Fox), the voiceover by Madgett’s precocious son Smut (a tragic figure who presages the child protagonists of Moonrise Kingdom), explanations of incredibly convoluted processes (think of the heists in Bottle Rocket)  and a general sense of airlessness. Greenaway lacks the pathos and fundamental optimism of Wes Anderson, but so many of the ingredients are here that it almost makes Anderson seem like less of an original. A final remark: Greenaway’s musical collaborator (and perfect aesthetic analogue) Michael Nyman is at his absolute best here. The score is based entirely on the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, from which Nyman wrestles an impressive diversity of themes (one of which will appear to even greater effect in The Cook, the Thief His Wife & Her Lover). I’m used to hearing this music on accordions, so it was nice to hear it in its original context. Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough. I’ve got nothing to say to sum up this review, because this is a baffling movie that I have only a cursory understanding of. But it is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen in my life. Pick of the week.

Ocean’s 8 — It’s better than Green Lantern, but not as good as Drowning by Numbers. (God help you if you’re reading this on Tumblr, devoid of any context.) My memories of having seen Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve (did I see Ocean’s Twelve???) are hazy, which probably works in this movie’s favour. I love a good caper movie. The thing that I love about them, whether they’re made by Steven Soderbergh or Wes Anderson, is their elegance: the sense that the often glamourous cast of characters is just waltzing merrily through a byzantine storyline full of snake traps. Ocean’s 8 ups the ante on that elegance by presenting a heist that depends not only on criminal knowhow, but impeccable taste. This is partially a function of its all-female headlining cast. The idea is that this heist relies partially on traditionally ‘feminine’ knowledge, like fashion, gossip and party planning. This is… bad? I’m not sure. The fact that there’s an Ocean’s movie with a bunch of the best actresses around in it is straightforwardly good. But whether or not the execution is a little problemsy is a thing I’ll have to think about more. Still, the extent to which this caper is ripped from the society pages makes it a very different feeling and fresh story. Everybody in it is great, but mostly Cate Blanchett is great. No wait — also Anne Hathaway. I was also very happy to see some brilliant actresses of an older generation make cameos. There’s a reading of Ocean’s 8 that sees it as first and foremost a celebration of women in movies. I’m there for that.

Literature, etc.

Pamela Colloff: “Blood Will Tell” — I started this month trying to read “The Tower” by Andrew O’Hagan. For those unfamiliar, that is a recent 60,000-word investigative piece about the Grenfell Tower fire in the London Review of Books. It is the first story in that weird-ass publication’s history to take up an entire issue. Truly, it is the Thick as a Brick of investigative journalism about horrible tragedies. I couldn’t get through it. It is too meandering even for me. I will stick to news coverage on that particular infuriating story, I think. I bring it up as a point of contrast with this incredible, immersive story about a possible miscarriage of justice in a small town — a man was convicted of murdering his own wife based largely on the questionable practice of blood spatter analysis. Colloff is intensely concerned with the social implications of her reporting — she emphasizes how widespread blood spatter analysis has become. And she’s also careful not to leap to the conclusion that her subject is innocent. But in addition to those concerns, she is also deeply concerned with telling a story by putting one sentence in front of another. It’s masterful and you should read it. Both parts. Also, as a side note, I heard a concert performance of Peter Grimes this week (one of those things I don’t review) and was struck by that opera’s continuing relevance in a world where we still read stories like this.

Television

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 4, episodes 1-6 — Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is extremely silly and extremely good. The standout episode of this is a mockumentary in which a vacuous DJ is converted to the cause of “men’s rights activism” by learning a fun-house mirror version of this show’s whole backstory. That means Jon Hamm gets to play the buffoonish abuser Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne as a would-be martyr. And that is a delight to behold. That episode aside, Carol Kane runs away with this half-season, relishing the role of “that distasteful person who apparently used to sleep with my dad.” I wish it were a whole season, but that’s my only complaint.

Comedy

Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted — The lede here is that Tig Notaro does the last third of this set shirtless, post-mastectomy. But that’s just one element of what is a very, very good special for many reasons. Notaro’s best bits are extended stories. Here, I’m particularly fond of her story about bombing 14 shows in Vegas. But I’m also a fan of the story of her accidentally meeting Santa. (It wasn’t Santa.) She’s also brilliant, as always, at responding to and manipulating the audience. I think she’s in my top three comics right now.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — HAVE WATCHED: Ocean’s 8. WILL WATCH: The Incredibles 2. DIDN’T WATCH: the Tonys. WON’T WATCH: Cobra Kai; Law & Order. UNDECIDED: Paddington…?

The Memory Palace: “No Summer” & “A White Horse” — I recall having heard podcasts about the year without a summer before, particularly as it relates to the origins of Frankenstein. But this is the best telling of that story I’ve encountered. And, I’ll listen to “A White Horse” every time Nate puts it in the feed. It is one of the most beautiful, most heartbreaking pieces of radio ever made.

Lend Me Your Ears: “Richard II” — I adore this podcast, and I adore Richard II. I’m toying with the idea that this is the most underrated Shakespeare play. This episode teases out a political theme that’s quite obvious in the text, but not something I’d especially thought about, which is the notion of legitimacy. In a sense, the story of Richard II is the story of two leaders whose legitimacy is called into question. Richard has the divine right of kings on his side, but that can only take him so far in a country with a government. Henry Bolingbroke is a boldfaced usurper, but he jumps through hoops to try and ensure the legitimacy of his own reign. Famously, he fails. In an age when a sitting president lost the popular vote and is thus despised by a substantial portion of the citizenry he governs, this is a deeply relevant play. I might not have noticed the extent to which it is relevant if not for this show. Highly recommended.

In The Dark: “The D.A.” — This is an episode that gradually builds up to a climactic interview with the D.A. who’s been the focus of so much of this season so far. It is an interview that is cut from 11 minutes of raw tape. 11 measly minutes. That’s all they could get out of him. That in itself speaks volumes. The rest of the episode comprises a capsule biography of this person, which also serves as a short-term social history of the region where the story takes place. This is a good illustration of why I’m enjoying this season of In the Dark more than the previous one: it is equally rigorous in its journalistic integrity and nearly as insistent on the broader implications of its story. But its storytelling is subtler and cleverer. Much is accomplished by implication. This is one of the best podcasts of the year so far.

Reply All: “The QAnon Code” — Here is a big long episode about an insane internet conspiracy and a sports thing involving Gene Demby. It is very good. I wonder what the story was with that incredibly long wait time for Demby to answer the phone.

Code Switch catch-up — A lot of Code Switch at once is a dangerous thing. Highlights: stories about the origins of a particular prison tattoo aesthetic, and a story about intergenerational trauma in an Alaskan community.

Theory of Everything: “Real Costs Extra” — Here we have a crossover episode between Theory of Everything, at its most tangential to reality, and 99% Invisible, which does not do fiction. It’s like Roman Mars’ presence in the episode is a marker of the line between reality and the murky zone that Benjamen Walker lives in. And, true to expectation, as soon as he departs from the episode, things take a turn for the fake. Also notable: this contains the closest thing we’ve gotten to Starlee Kine talking openly about what her experience at Gimlet was like. It was bad. She doesn’t name Gimlet. But that’s pretty clearly what this is about.

Song by Song catch-up — We continue through Frank’s Wild Years, which the hosts of this show continue to underrate, IMO. The highlight is an appearance by Ivor Cutler as a point of comparison. I love Ivor Cutler. I should listen to him more.

Caliphate: “Prisoners” — This two-part episode of Caliphate is one of the most devastating pieces of audio storytelling I’ve ever heard. It is hard to praise, and harder to recommend, simply because the events it depicts are so dreadful. The first part tells the story of Rukmini Callimachi’s excursion to an Iraqi prison, where she meets a condemned ISIS member who claims to have bought a sex slave for the purpose of saving her — and Callimachi’s discovery that this was far from the case. The second part builds on a story, and a memorable episode of The Daily, about young women being rescued from slavery and returning to their communities in catatonic states. There is light at the end of the story, but it is a draining and horrible listen. It is also incredibly important, compassionate, brave reporting. It cements Caliphate as one of the tentpole achievements of serialized podcasting. Pick of the week.

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Omnibus (week of May 13, 2018)

Let’s see, what have we got here. We’ve got a movie I should have seen a long time ago, a great season of TV, a couple albums, and a broad assortment of journalism in written, audible and even visual form. There’s some stuff I’ve got on the go right now that’s not accounted for here that you will hear about next week. This particular omnibus may lead you to wonder about my seemingly arbitrary use of links. I link the things I review when they are both linkable and urgently worth your time. Other that that, links are for reference. That is all.

Oh, also, I had a review column on NXNW for the first time in a while this morning. But to hold you over until it’s online, here is a thing I made about how I don’t like Gilbert and Sullivan so I went to find some people who really really do in the hope that they can make me see what I’m missing. (They didn’t. But they were lovely.)

20 reviews.

Movies, etc.

This is Spinal Tap — Possibly the most frequently referenced movie that I had not actually seen until yesterday, This is Spinal Tap is also a remarkably durable parody that has aged pretty much impeccably. As an avid fan of quite a lot of music that sounds a bit like “Stonehenge” and quite a lot more music that sounds like “Jazz Odyssey,” I can attest to the calibre of the style parodies themselves. But this movie’s greatest success is the fact that its jokes don’t rely specifically on recognition to succeed. Certainly, if you’ve heard your share of Led Zeppelin, Queen, Scorpion, Motley Crüe, the Zombies, Yes, King Crimson, Lonnie Donegan, and any number of other artists of variable consequence throughout the history of rock and roll, you will get something out of this that those without that context will not. But fundamentally, This is Spinal Tap is character-based comedy, with the jokes coming from the same place that the stakes of the story do, which is relationships. Michael McKean and Christopher Guest do the heavy lifting here, but there’s comedy even in the occasional shot of actual prog rocker David Kaff playing keyboards, at an almost complete remove from the story at large. Parody is hard. This is the benchmark.

Lindsay Ellis: The Hobbit: A Long-Expected Autopsy, etc. — Lindsay Ellis’s justifiably three-part video essay on the un-justifiably three-part Hobbit trilogy is some of the best media criticism I’ve seen in a while. The first and second parts tackle the low-hanging fruit: namely the myriad ways in which the movies themselves are narrative failures driven more by studio fiat than creative control. But the third part is a work of honest-to-god journalism, telling the story of the labour disputes that nearly sundered the production of The Hobbit and the laws that were passed to exploit the New Zealand-based actors who took part. It’s worth a watch as much to learn about all of that as to remind yourself why the original Lord of the Rings trilogy is a masterpiece worth revisiting.

Television

Atlanta: Season 2 — Donald Glover is the pre-eminent creative person right now. Atlanta is farther out than anything else on TV, and its experiments didn’t let it down all season. In “Teddy Perkins” we got a horror movie with a monster as simultaneously ghastly and tragic as Frankenstein’s. In “FUBU” we got a coming-of-age story that takes place over barely more than a single day. In “Champagne Papi” we got Waiting for Godot with(out) Drake. In “North of the Border” we get a road movie that isn’t insufferable. And those are only the best episodes. I always have trouble finding things to say about shows I watch quickly, and this one contains such multitudes that I feel this review was doomed from the start. Watch Atlanta. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc,

Tad Friend: “Donald Glover Can’t Save You” — The profile is not a genre I am always fond of. Too often, they are excuses for a writer to show off their own character in relation to their subject’s rather than simply focussing on the ostensible task at hand. But this one’s really good. Friend focuses on simply recounting what Glover did and, more to the point, said while they spent time together. Witness this paragraph: “Do you look up to anyone? ‘I don’t see anyone out there who’s better,’ he said. ‘Maybe Elon Musk. But I don’t know yet if he’s a supervillain. Elon is working on ways for storytelling not to be the best way of spreading information.’ Musk’s new company, Neuralink, intends to merge human consciousness with computers, allowing us to download others’ thoughts. ‘It will turn us into a connected macroorganism, but it will make our individual desires seem trivial,’ Glover went on. ‘Sometimes I get mad at him—”You think people are insignificant!” But we probably are at the end of the storytelling age. It’s my job to compress the last bits of information for people before it passes.’ He sighed. ‘The thing I imagine myself being in the future doesn’t exist yet. I wish it was just “Oh, I’ll be Oprah,” or “I’ll be Dave Chappelle.” But it’s not that. It’s something different and more, something involving fairness and restoring a sense of honor. Sometimes I dream of it, but how do you explain a dream where you never see your father, but you know that that’s him over your shoulder?’ It was very quiet. ‘It’d be nice to feel less lonely.’” Go read.

Robert Silverman: “My dad painted the iconic cover for Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung,’ and it’s haunted him ever since” — Not to be confused with the Canadian pianist of the same name who is celebrating his 80th birthday this week, Robert Silverman is a writer whose father is the painter Burton Silverman. This feature tells the story of how Silverman Sr. painted the cover of one of my least favourite albums by one of my favourite bands, and how he received no royalties for it. Robert Silverman does a great job of emphasizing how shitty this is. It’s not clear that he was actually stiffed out of any money — nobody did anything illegal, it seems. Burton Silverman simply had no way of predicting that the album he was working on would turn out to be iconic and that his cover would become Jethro Tull’s most merchandisable image. He had no reason to think that he should request royalties, or the continuing ownership of his intellectual property. He caught a bad break, and he’s mad about it. Who can blame him? But what’s to be done? All the same, Ian Anderson comes off as a complete shit in this, even refusing to be interviewed at the last minute. I always knew that Ian Anderson didn’t like the cover. But it now seems even shittier for him to have said that so freely when the artist was so poorly compensated. Insult to injury. Also, given Anderson’s own efforts to maintain copyright over his work, there’s irony here.

Jennifer Egan: “Children of the Opioid Epidemic” — Jennifer Egan’s portrait of several different mothers and their struggles to do right by their children while suffering from addictions is a thing that not only exhibits empathy, but manages also to explain the lack of empathy these women receive in a way that makes it seem ludicrous. It is heartrending journalism without the barest hint of voyeurism. Read it.

John Luther Adams: “Becoming Desert” — I was shocked to learn that my favourite living composer, John Luther Adams, had left Alaska. It’s a place he’s identified with as much as Prince is identified with Minnesota. But at least he lives in a desert now. I don’t need to reconsider my image of him as a man of extremes. I haven’t heard his new piece Become Desert yet, because it hasn’t been recorded. But I’m told it’s spectacular and worthy of the legacy of its predecessor, Become Ocean, which is my favourite orchestral work of the past decade. Can’t wait.

Music

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats: Tearing at the Seams — My experience with prior Night Sweats albums has been primarily in cars paying little attention, save for their amazing single “S.O.B.” So, Tearing at the Seams is in a sense my introduction to them as an albums band. And it’s great! It’s a lot of fun. It’s primarily made up of soul and R&B music with a full horn section and plenty of Hammond B-3. But every so often, as with “I’ll Be Damned” and “You Worry Me,” it sticks a toe into piano pop territory. Nice to know they’re not purists. “Intro” is the track I can’t stop listening to, though if it has ever been an intro to something, that context is lost on this album. All the same, whenever somebody asks me about a thing I am proud of, I shall henceforth reply “Ahhh-aaaahhh-HEEEY-Yeah!”

The Flaming Lips: Zaireeka — The first Flaming Lips album I haven’t entirely enjoyed. These days, the 0.0 Pitchfork review of this is arguably more famous than the album itself. It’s an interesting read if you haven’t seen it — not because it’s good criticism, because it isn’t. But it does probably read more sympathetically today than it did at the time. If you’re unfamiliar, Zaireeka is a bonkers piece of concept art that consists of four CDs to be played simultaneously in four separate CD players. This concept was born of some genuinely interesting live experiments that Wayne Coyne and co. had done where they put their audience in control of car stereos and boomboxes and made genuinely participatory performance pieces. But as a commercial product for home consumption, Zaireeka made itself inaccessible to the vast majority of its potential audience, who likely wouldn’t have four CD players just lying around. This is the crux of the Pitchfork reviewer’s complaint. In a post-Occupy world, this seems entirely reasonable. In 1997, I imagine it was scandalous. But lest I seem like I’m needlessly extolling a piece of writing that was merely ahead of its time, let me clarify that Jason Josephes, who wrote the review, appears not to have bothered with any sort of aesthetic appraisal of the record. And while I can get on board with the notion that mere aesthetics may be secondary to the basic fact of accessibility for audiences of all income brackets, if you are being paid to assess a work of art, you have to clear a higher bar than just being pissed off about how you can’t listen to this record because you’re broke. Call me old-fashioned. It’s just how I feel. The irony of all this is that the way I chose to hear Zaireeka was through a YouTube video that mixes down the four CDs into a single stereo signal that I can listen to through a single pair of headphones. And what makes this doubly ironic is the fact that the four CDs taken together actually sound like four separate things happening simultaneously, having little to do with each other. It’s entirely possible that Josephes, listening to the record in piecemeal fashion, had a more aesthetically pleasing experience than I did. Pity he couldn’t be bothered to say anything about it.

Podcasts

In the Dark: “The Confessions” — It continues to be a convincing argument for the prosecution’s shoddiness in the case of Curtis Flowers, and it continues to introduce compelling voices that will ring in my head long after the season’s over. In The Dark has officially proven itself to be a more durable investigative operation than its blockbuster big sibling Serial.

The World According to Sound: “Sound Audio: Edward R. Murrow” — Stunning. Those of us who only listen to podcasts, and are too young to remember a world where terrestrial radio was king would do well to pay attention to this series, which highlights recent and long-past audio alike. This time around, the wartime bulletins of Edward R. Murrow, complete with an explanation of how he strung together mic cables to reach the roof of the BBC, so he could report on a proper aerial view of the London blitz. It’s tempting to say they don’t make them like this anymore, though of course they do. (Witness Caliphate.) But Murrow was an original, and I’ll be seeking out more of his work, out of professional interest.

Out of the Blocks: “200 W Read St.” parts 2 and 3 — Any show whose mandate is simply to tell “everybody’s story” is going to get saccharine at some point. And I do bristle a bit at the forced pathos of some of the stories here. But ultimately that’s secondary to my appetite for simply hearing people talk about their lives. I don’t care what the stakes are; ultimately I’m fine with just listening to people — mostly, people don’t talk about themselves, so it’s fun to hear how they respond when they’re asked to. This is a great show. You should hear it.

Caliphate: “The Heart” — The most disturbing episode so far details an incredibly garish murder, perpetrated by the main interview subject of the series thus far. It is a hard listen, but a worthwhile reality check. I am confident that what’s coming up in this series will problematize the content of this interview to no end. If it doesn’t, that would be a problem.

Judge John Hodgman: “Wedding Clashers” — It’s been a while since I listened to this, and I had nearly forgotten how satisfying it is. The premise here is that Hodgman must decide whether a couple will have a traditional wedding, like the dude wants to, or go off and elope, like the lady wants to. His decision is not straightforward, which is in itself a demonstration of how seriously Hodgman takes the ludicrous task he’s set out for himself within the context of a comedy podcast. I love that he’s never dismissive of the decisions that people have to make in their lives. It takes a show that could so easily be mean spirited and makes it the opposite.

Theory of Everything: “S-Coin” — Benjamen Walker’s continuing exploration of fakery forays into cryptocurrency. It’s everything you ever wanted from Benjamen Walker. This mini-season has been a lot to process so far, but I’m finding it rewarding — even just to puzzle out what’s real and what isn’t.

On the Media: “Africatown” — This episode, focussing on a town formed by the last slaves to be brought to America from Africa (illegally) on the Clothilde, gets into so much more than just the story of that town. I won’t go into it, just listen to it. It’s a Brooke Gladstone solo episode (in the sense that there’s no Bob Garfield; Alana Casanova-Burgess is here in full force), which means it’s going to be complicated and it’s going to take the long view. Listen.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — I did not watch the royal wedding. I will likely not watch Deadpool 2. And while Vida sounds great, if I’m being honest with myself I will not get to that either. My ability/willingness to keep up with pop culture has waned enormously over the past year, and listening to this show has made it clear just to what extent that is the case. I am okay with that, and I’ve still got this podcast to at least let me know what I’m missing.

The Memory Palace: “Snakes!” & “The 8th Story” — Two episodes of The Memory Palace that reinvigorated my love for the show — a love that never goes away entirely. “Snakes!” is an outright laugh riot, which is a rarity for Nate DiMeo. And even though it gets all of its milage out of the absurdity of cobras being released in a Missouri town, it does contain one genuinely affecting line: “In the absence of laws, and in the absence of shame, you can just lie and lie and lie.” The next episode, “The 8th Story,” features a formal trick I’ve never heard before on this show, namely DiMeo’s narration being interrupted by SFX. Given how much of an anomaly it is, it works really well. It’s also a great story, but it doesn’t involve cobras being loose in Missouri. Pick of the week.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Melissa McCarthy” — She’s funny. No surprises there. It’s a fun conversation, but nothing earthshaking.

All Songs Considered: “New Music Friday: May 18” — Some nice stuff here. Many albums I should check out but likely won’t, due to my general sense that I’d rather fill gaps in my existing knowledge than keep up on what’s new — thereby forming new gaps in my knowledge. But I may actually listen to the Remember Sports and Courtney Barnett records.

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 March 25, 2018)

If you’re one of my six regular readers, you will likely already know that I got a job recently. This has resulted in a general sense of stability, clear headedness, and purposefulness that I haven’t had for a while. So, what does one do with one’s suddenly guilt-free spare time on an occasion such as this? One plays computer games.

I’ve been avoiding games for a while because they stretch out to fill the time. And when there’s too much time for them to stretch out into, they can take a toll on your self-worth. But I have plenty of that at the moment, so I played no fewer than three games this week. They’re all very short, to be fair. But it feels good to be back to this medium for at least a while, because all three of them were extremely interesting, and it was hard to pick just one to recommend. Read on to find out if I managed — and to find out which of the gaming podcasts I tried out was the best. When I get in a mood, I commit. 

Also, I had three pieces on the radio this weekend. Readers here will likely be most interested in this one

17 reviews.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: “Un Pueblo De Nada” (and assorted miscellany) — Kentucky Route Zero’s final intermission minisode is an elegiac trip behind the scenes of a declining small-town public access station. I could have identified that as a KRZ premise even if you hadn’t told me it’s a video game. The minisode itself has less to offer than its two immediate predecessors: “The Entertainment,” which opens up the possibility that the entire game is a stage play being written by one of its supporting characters, and “Here and There Along the Echo,” which makes trawling through a touch-tone telephone menu fun. But when you take into account the fact that “Un Pueblo De Nada” has a slew of online videos associated with it, all of which are live-action renderings of broadcasts from the public access station we explore in the minisode, it rises to the level of prime KRZ. I watched the videos first (save for a couple of hour-long, out-of-universe media art pieces that may be edifying but don’t seem crucial), then played the actual game. I think I recommend doing the opposite. Or at least save the final, longest video until after you’ve played the game. I’ll say no more, except that if you intend to play KRZ at any point, you can’t skip the intermission features, because in spite of their brevity they are as enthralling as the actual chapters of the game. (A final note for obsessives: it looks like the airstrip from the first chapter, which initially seemed like little more than a haunting non-sequitur, is actually going to take on more significance. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I really liked it as an inexplicable, beautiful moment that’s basically unmoored from the rest of the story. But then, if there’s any developer we can trust not to make anything too tidy, it’s Cardboard Computer. So I still feel like the ambiguity won’t be explained away to the point where the airstrip vignette becomes banal.)

Subsurface Circular — This is a miniature, dialogue-driven story game that takes place on a single, continuous train ride. It observes the Aristotelian unities more aggressively than maybe any other game I’ve played: it takes place in real time, as far as I can tell, and your character does not (and cannot) move from their seat in the subway carriage. It is written by Mike Bithell, of Thomas Was Alone fame, and like that game it is about artificial intelligences. However, in Thomas Was Alone, that fact was basically only relevant to the plot: the character drama proceeds as if the characters are odd humans. Subsurface Circular has a little bit more fun with the fact that its characters are robots, encumbering some of them with really strange traits, like having their mood entirely determined by the mood of a separate robot. The story is a straightforward mystery that you investigate the only way you can: by talking to people on the train. The dialogue is choice-based, in the vein of Telltale, except that your choices don’t seem to have a great deal of impact on the actual story — or even the relationships between the characters. That’s not a flaw. It still presents a compelling story and offers you the opportunity to role-play within it. Still, to progress through the story you must hit on certain crucial bits of dialogue. Getting to them is less a matter of cleverness and more a matter of simply exhausting all of your options. Given my own propensity to try and see as much of the text as I can in one sitting, this can get a bit tedious. And it’s partially my fault. But the writing and the story are really, really fun. I highly recommend this to people who loved the writing in Thomas Was Alone, and to people who like text-based games in general.  

Virginia — I love this game. I can imagine what the key critiques of it are, even without reading anything about it. I can hear people’s objections about the lack of even the illusion of player choice, and the way in which you are driven through its spaces on tracks without any real opportunity to explore. (In that way, it is fundamentally different to some of the games it will inevitably be compared to, i.e. Gone Home, Tacoma.) But the way that Virginia tells its story is completely ingenious and wouldn’t be possible in another medium. The story itself is fairly simple to describe, at least until near the end. You’re an FBI agent, assigned to investigate a missing person with another FBI agent — and while you’re at it, you’re expected to carry out an internal investigation of your partner. Virginia’s FBI is a paranoid body where duplicity is par-for-the-course. It even invokes J. Edgar Hoover: a figure whose time would have been up long before this game takes place, but who looms large in the FBI’s institutional memory. You experience the story from a first person perspective, in which you walk down corridors, search for things in rooms, and frequently find yourself jump cutting to another location altogether. Those cuts are the game’s masterstroke — they convey a sensation of the unreliability of memory, perception and reality. The cuts are simple at first: you’re walking down a corridor, only to find yourself walking down a different corridor. The message is simple: we’ve elided part of the story, because it’s not important. But soon, you find yourself cutting from the present-day to a memory, from a dream to reality, and maybe even into the perspective of another character altogether. All of these are bog-standard techniques in film editing, but they make you disoriented and paranoid in this context. Also notable: nobody speaks in Virginia. It proceeds with visual storytelling akin to a Méliès film or a Pingu short, minus the grunting. That only adds to the vagueness. In fact, Virginia avoids words almost entirely, only deigning to put them on screen when there are especially crucial plot details that you can’t afford to miss. (After an hour of wordless gameplay, a key revelation is delivered via microfiche.) The point is this: Virginia is deliberately obscure because of its central themes. Virginia is a game about transgressing the boundaries of what’s true. It is about the levels of artifice that exist in relationships between people, the disconnect between what we perceive as real and what is empirically real outside of us, and how truth can be deliberately distorted for one’s own means. It is strange, unique, powerful, probably unknowable, and it has an original score performed by an honest-to-god symphony orchestra. I love it. I can’t wait to play it again. Pick of the week.

Movies

Isle of Dogs — Hmm. Look, it would be an excellent movie if it weren’t so culturally insensitive. I want to like it, believe me. Wes Anderson is one of my favourite directors, with The Grand Budapest Hotel standing particularly tall among my all-time favourites. And there’s much to love in this film. It contains some of the most objectively gorgeous stop-motion animation I’ve ever seen. And all of the stuff involving the dogs themselves is gold. Bryan Cranston gives a fabulous performance as the hardened stray that the other dogs both look up to and resent. Jeff Goldblum is hilarious as the town gossip. And Harvey Keitel puts in a curiously heartbreaking turn as a dog for whom desperate times called for desperate measures. But much of the remainder of the movie takes place in a Western fantasy of Japan: a Japan with only its aesthetics intact. A key element of the film is that the audience is not supposed to understand the human dialogue throughout much of it. But… presumably those members of the audience who speak Japanese will not get the benefit of that choice. Like Pop Culture Happy Hour’s Linda Holmes pointed out, Japan isn’t Narnia. It’s a real place that exists in the world. Much of Isle of Dogs constitutes textbook cultural appropriation. Shame, too: if this had been made to take place in an actual fantasy world, I think it might be a near masterpiece. As it is, I spent much of the movie’s duration squirming uncomfortably.

Literature, etc.

Brian Vickers: “Too too solid: On the Norton Shakespeare and the New Oxford Shakespeare” — I have been meaning to buy a proper complete Shakespeare for a while now. Reading Moby-Dick in the Norton Critical Edition has opened my eyes to the advantages of a solid critical edition, even for recreational reading. This opinionated, not to say catty, review of the two most recent editions of Shakespeare from perpetual rivals Oxford and Norton highlights the latter as a pretty clear winner. Even if you’re not in the market for one of these, this is worth a read simply to watch Vickers excoriate the Oxford for its misbegotten attempts at trendiness: referencing Hamilton, referring to Shakespeare as “the ghost with the most,” and eschewing critical introductions to the plays (probably the whole point of a critical edition for most readers) in favour of something they call “Shakespeare tapas,” in which they sample one or two lines from essays and interviews with notable Shakespeareans out of context. Norton it is.  

Music

The New Pornographers: Mass Romantic — Somebody mentioned them in conversation recently and I was reminded that I’d never heard a full album. I’m not sure I’d even listened to a song with any real intention. I began where one begins: with “Letter From an Occupant.” That song is a miracle. Neko Case’s voice is a laser, and it contains the lines “I cried five rivers on the way here, which one will you skate away on?” That’s a Joni Mitchell riff that improves on the original. There’s something you don’t see every day. Nothing on the rest of the album quite compares, except maybe the title track. After one full listen, my sense is that I’ll be compelled to revisit the Neko Case songs (I’ve listened to “Letter” probably a couple dozen times this week) immediately, and the A.C. Newman songs may yet grow on me. Good album.

Jack White: Boarding House Reach — It’s not all excellent, but it is so crazily heterogenous and energetic that it doesn’t matter. This is the album where Jack White finally embraces the digital, and it turns out not to actually affect his aesthetic all that much. This is as messy, weird and disjointed as any White Stripes album and also toes the same line between knowing ludicrousness and total sincerity. It’s a succinct demonstration that an artist is not defined by their chosen tools, but by their approach to them. Highlights include “Corporation,” which injects an unexpected dose of P-Funk into the record, “Ice Station Zebra,” which contains the much-complained-about rapping (as if we’ve forgotten that he did it on “Lazaretto” too and nobody minded), “Over and Over and Over,” which is the closest we come to a classic garage rock track, and “Respect Commander,” which does some intensely fun stuff with tempo adjustment, and “Get In the Mind Shaft,” which is probably the closest Jack White will ever get to making a Daft Punk song. His best work since Icky Thump. Freaky good fun.

J.S. Bach/John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists et al: St. John Passion — It’s Easter. On Easter we listen to Bach. I’ve always preferred the St. John Passion to the St. Matthew, which I can never get all the way through. Where Matthew is mutedly passionate, John is explosive. The opening chorus is a particular favourite — one of the most openly dramatic things in Bach’s entire oeuvre. There’s nothing quite like a big, awesome choir making their first entrance with “HERR!! HERR!! HERR!!” Speaking of, the Monteverdi Choir are the true stars of this fantastic recording with Gardiner. Neither he nor they are afraid of “letting it rip,” as the kids are saying. The English Baroque Soloists play with a sense of individuality that befits their name. And the vocal soloists put in lovely performances, particularly Anthony Rolfe-Johnson in the often thankless role of the Evangelist. Have a listen. At least check out the choruses.

Podcasts

Retronauts: “Zork,” “EarthBound” & “Broderbund” — In my recently rediscovered enthusiasm for video games, I felt compelled to check out a couple things from the doubtless well-populated gaming podcast space. True to its name, Retronauts is a roundtable chat podcast that focuses on retrogaming. In general, I am a modern gaming person, but I played just enough games in my childhood that I can occasionally conjure some nostalgia for eras of gaming gone by. How surprised was I, then, to find that the most recent episode of Retronauts focussed on Broderbund, a company whose edutainment titles made up a big chunk of my early exposure to computers. This episode reminded me of the existence of Living Books, which I’d forgotten entirely, as well as The Print Shop and the Carmen Sandiego games, of which Where in Time is permanently imprinted on my DNA. The Zork episode is a fun exploration of that game, which I’ve put many hours into and never even really come close to beating. I do feel that the panel may have a limited experience of post-Infocom parser-based interactive fiction, in light of which Zork’s puzzles look counterintuitive and inexpert. The EarthBound episode is the one with the most difficult task, namely to say interesting things about a game about which there is little left to say. It’s probably the Super Nintendo equivalent of Bowie’s Low. Alas, much of the discussion focuses on the game’s music, which is deeply beside the point. Still, I’ll listen to more of this. They’ve got a rich back-catalogue with at least one thing I care about for every dozen that I don’t.

No Cartridge: “Desert of the Real Fictions” — The second gaming podcast I checked out this week is this loose conversation show hosted by a professor. A conversation between that professor, Trevor Strunk, and the developer of Night in the Woods, Scott Benson, is bound to be fun. This particularly focuses on the question raised by gamers who demand better endings from game developers — as if a game is something other than a thing made by a person, but rather a thing that exists whole in some other universe and has been dragged imperfectly into this one by a flawed human vessel. It shines a light on the ways in which a large swathe of the gaming hordes are substantially lacking in critical facility. A fun listen if you’re into that sort of thing.

On the Media: “Big, if True” — One of the best things about OTM is that it’s always there on the stories you need it for. The Cambridge Analytica story was one of those. This is as good an exploration of that as you could hope for.

Song by Song: “Bride of Rain Dog” & “Anywhere I Lay My Head” — I’ve enormously enjoyed this podcast’s breakdown of Rain Dogs. These final two episodes are the general summation you’d hope for. It’s all well that they chose to do that, since I’m really not sure there’s much to say about “Anywhere I Lay My Head” that it doesn’t say for itself. It is one of Tom Waits’s most poignant creations. I’ll be returning to this show for Frank’s Wild Years — my idiosyncratic favourite Tom Waits album, an opinion I know the panel does not share.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — It came to pass that I agreed with Linda Holmes (and not Chris Klimek) on Isle of Dogs, a very problemsy movie. In other news, High Maintenance sounds not for me, Ready Player One sounds intensely not for me, and the SXSW wrap was sort of repetitive after hearing All Songs Considered’s coverage in its entirety.

Theory of Everything: “Utopia” parts iv and v — This hasn’t been my favourite mini-season in ToE’s history. But there’s much to enjoy here, in particular Andrew Calloway’s trip to a pagan utopia in part iv.

Imaginary Worlds: “Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin” & “Stuck in the Uncanny Valley” — The Le Guin episode is a good primer that I’ll look back to when I am in search of an SF novel to read. The uncanny valley is one of the better Imaginary Worlds episodes in a while, in no small part because it draws on Eric Molinsky’s expertise as a former animator.

The Memory Palace: “Outliers” & “A quick update and a bonus episode” — “Outliers” is a brief thing about the reasons why a person might decide to take part in a freak show in the 19th century. It is as compassionate and broad minded as you expect this show to be. Oddly, though, the bonus episode that follows it is almost better. It transitions seamlessly from being a bland housekeeping episode to being a really lovely tribute to Lavinia Dock, whose suffrage slogan, “the young are at the gates” is now being repurposed movingly as a slogan for the Never Again movement. This show is an ongoing miracle. Pick of the week.  

The Nod: “Peak Reality” & “Sister, Sister” — It’s been awhile since I listened to this. I heard a preview for “Sister, Sister” on another Gimlet show and figured I had to hear it. But first I listened to a completely different episode by mistake that turned out to be even better. “Peak Reality” finds Eric Eddings arguing to Brittany Luse that 2016 was the best year for reality television. There’s nothing like smart people talking about dumb things. As for “Sister, Sister,” it’s an interesting bit of family drama in which a producer finds out her sister doesn’t identify as black and is upset by this. Alas, the actual conversations with the sister in question make it plain immediately that this sister’s issue is simply that she is in college, with all of the attendant confusion. It’s less compelling than it might be.

Omnibus (weeks of Feb. 18 & 25, 2018)

If you are one of my seven regular readers, you’ll have noticed that last weekend was the first one since the beginning of this blog when I did not post an Omnibus, save for that time I was in the mountains. My apologies. Things have been busy. In any case, here are two weeks of reviews, with only one week’s worth of picks of the week, because honestly there’s not enough here to justify doubling it.

Also, I don’t want to talk about the Oscars.

19 reviews.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: Live at the Vogue — I love Maria Bamford. She is flat-out my favourite comedian right now. I love how convincing her characters are, and how quickly she can switch between them. I love how she interrupts herself and barely whispers some of her punchlines. I love how she interprets her own inner monologue as conversation. There’s nobody like her. Seeing her live was fantastic, but also a reminder that we are used to seeing our favourite comics in a highly edited and curated fashion. This was a selection of familiar material from Old Baby and unfamiliar stuff that ranges from instantly classic to bits I think could do with some paring back. In the first category: a bit about sexual roleplay involving intractable social problems (gentrification, living wage, human trafficking). In the second, a long bit where Bamford pits herself against her mother to see who is better at living by the Bible’s teachings. (Though I must say that Bamford’s account of the closest thing she had to a religious revelation is intensely satisfying: it is Nick Nolte coming out of the brush with a comically oversized submarine sandwich.) A great show, but also a reminder that live comedy is live comedy — even when it’s the best comedian in the world.

John Mulaney: New in Town — Mulaney does this thing I love where he establishes the details of a premise, then immediately takes it in a direction you didn’t think of. I guess that’s just what comedy is, but it’s really exposed here. There’s a bit about Mulaney encountering a wheelchair on its side on the street, with nobody in it. “That’s not a good thing to see,” he says. “Something happened there.” Pause. “You hope it’s a miracle.” Marvellous. I’ve watched this a couple times before. There’s a joke here and there that hasn’t aged well, but on the whole this is one of my favourite stand-up specials.

Movies

Call Me By Your Name — Of this year’s Best Picture nominees, this was the only one that I neither actively wanted to see nor actively wished to avoid. I can’t believe how much I loved it. You’ve likely heard people talk about the story of this film: a gay love story with a big age gap. And you might have heard comment on Timothée Chalamet’s brilliant, understated performance that will inevitably fail to win him an Oscar against Gary Oldman’s prosthetic jowls. But what makes the movie great is its ambiance. It is shot largely outdoors, entirely on-location in the Italian countryside, on glorious 35mm. Its exteriors are set in bright, verdant groves and by lakesides in the light of the romantic summer moon. Its interiors are set in airy country homes with studies lined by shelves of leather-bound books. It is soundtracked by the sublimely elegant music of John Adams, Bach, Ravel, Satie, and Sufjan Stevens. Magnificent food is seldom far from the centre of the frame. It is a movie about people with good taste — a movie that isn’t ashamed of its own aspiration to present things as straightforwardly beautiful. There’s nothing arch or cynical in Call Me By Your Name. It is a warm and glamourous sensory experience with a genuine emotional core and a brain. Also, the supporting actor category is a sham without Michael Stuhlbarg. Pick of the week.

Black Panther — We all expected it to be in the top tier of Marvel movies, and it is. There are quibbles to be had, i.e. it’s nice to see Andy Serkis’s actual face for once, but did we really need to see so much of it when Michael B. Jordan is the main villain? Almost everything else is glorious. Specifically, Wakanda is the most well-illustrated setting in the MCU thus far. The architecture, the clothes, the ceremony, the technology — every element makes Wakanda feel more real than the renditions of actual cities that other Marvel movies take place in. The cast is uniformly outstanding. Much has already been made of Jordan’s performance, and Chadwick Boseman is all kinds of regal. But my favourite performance in this movie by a million yards comes from Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s quippy little sister and science consultant. I loved Wright in Russell T. Davies’ Cucumber as well, so I hope we see her in many more gigantic productions in the coming years. Also, I am 100% there for more superhero movies in which different ideas of how to behave in the world are pitted against each other. This is an action movie that actually has time to discuss the relative merits of isolationism and interventionism — and to do so in the context of life for black people in modern America. Let’s have more of that, please. I have perhaps said this about too many movies for it to be meaningful anymore, but this time I mean it: if we must sit through this endless cavalcade of superhero blockbusters, I want more of them to have this kind of singular vision.

It — Being an adaptation of only half of a gigantic and famously discursive novel, this is about as good as it can be. Fundamentally, what is good about King’s novel makes it virtually unfit for adaptation: it is good not in spite of its various blind alleys and rabbit holes, but because of them. A big Hollywood movie has no choice but to pare the story down to its basics. So we get a tale of seven children, with variously well-established backstories, waging war against an evil shape-shifting clown. It’s a fine story, but it is a sliver of the rich tapestry King offers in the book. It is also deeply concerned with its familiar iconography: there is a much, much higher concentration of Pennywise here than there is in the book, and he appears in his famous clown form a far greater percentage of the time. Fine. There’s still got another whole movie to go, and since that one will focus on these seven characters’ adult selves, there’s still time for this franchise to hone in on the most fascinating element of the book: the fact that the real enemy is memory.

Music

Rued Langgaard/Berit Johansen Tange: Piano Works Vol. 3 — My coworkers and I have been obsessed with the criminally overlooked Danish composer Rued Langgaard since the new music director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra name-dropped him in an interview I did. Honest to god, this composer is the very best of all the forgotten composers I’ve come across in my classical music writing career. Every single piece of his I’ve heard is brimming with personality and excitement. None of it sounds even remotely like anybody else’s music. Ten years from now Langgaard will be the new Mahler. So, I was shocked to hear that one of my colleagues was deeply disappointed in this recording of some of his shorter works for solo piano. I have never heard a disappointing Langgaard piece. But here we are: most of this is only okay. Some of it is beautiful: particularly the chorale-like Shadow Life and the frenetic As a Thief in the Night. But much of it is a bit academic — not a trait I had previously associated with Rued Langgaard. I think this marks the end of my honeymoon with this composer. I still love him — but not unconditionally. It had to happen. Also, Berit Johansen Tange plays all of this with maximum conviction. She’s not afraid to get deranged when necessary. Props.

Literature, etc.

Greg Rucka & J.H. Williams III: Batwoman Elegy — The second full comic we’ve had to read in the comics writing class I’m taking. Lovely stuff. Superhero comics are not normally my speed, and there were indeed some stumbling blocks for me here: I am really not that interested in action scenes, even when they are as characterful and motivated as they are in this. And I’m definitely not interested in reading about any more grotesque, Lewis Carroll-inspired villains. (When will people be done with grotesque Lewis Carroll? Just let him be whimsical.) But Kate Kane is a brilliant character whose out-of-costume storyline is really compelling. In superhero stories, there’s always a central question of why this person feels compelled to operate outside the conventional justice and security apparatus of the state. Kane’s answer to that question is simple and possibly the most sympathetic of all: don’t ask, don’t tell. That in itself is a masterstroke. And Williams’ art is a wonder to behold. My one other encounter with him, in Sandman: Overture, found him in maximum psychedelic mode. He’s less over-the-top here, but still deeply artful and inventive — sometimes, it must be said, at the cost of clarity. But when it’s so pretty to look it, who cares. I’m surprised at how happy I am to have read this.

Kris Straub: Broodhollow, Book I — More required reading for comics class. This is a good fun webcomic with elements of comedy, horror and character drama all thrown together without jostling in the slightest. I am on the fence about it in general because I find the story so completely reliant on tropes (exposition on a therapist’s couch, outsider finds his way into a creepy little town, secret society with weird robes, things happening that might be all in the protagonist’s head, menacing businessperson, people forgetting the bad things that happen to them — Stephen King’s had the last word on that one) that there’s not much that’s memorable in it. But the execution is outstanding to the extent that I almost think that critiquing the story is beside the point. Straub is willing to just show our main character silently walking home after a supernatural encounter in a state of complete shock, and have that be a whole page of the comic. He’s a master of serialized comic storytelling, where each miniature strip (because it is very nearly a comic strip) is a complete unit in itself, aside from being an integral part of a larger whole. It’s good comics. It’s a pedestrian story told so well that it doesn’t matter. Almost. It kind of matters. This is mostly good.

Podcasts

Theory of Everything: “Time Travellin’ Trump” — Theory of Everything is surely the only podcast where you could ever get a story about Donald Trump inheriting a time travel ring invented by Nikola Tesla and using it to affect football outcomes.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Secrets” episodes 4-6 — I can’t help but feel like I committed to this mini-series for the sake of committing. But I’m happy I stuck it out for the last episode, which is the story of two whistleblowers who went on the run from MI5. This has been mixed. Showcase in general has been mixed. I guess that’s the point.

Song by Song: “Downtown Train” — I’m happy they like this one. “Downtown Train” is one of Tom’s best, and the music video, which I’d never seen before, is gold.

Imaginary Worlds: “Travelling in the TARDIS” & “Behind the Daleks” — I’d listen to more of this mini-series on Doctor Who, but alas it is over. Focussing the three episodes on the Doctor, the companions and the Daleks respectively was a good idea, but there are so many specific avenues this could have taken. Hopefully Eric Molinsky revisits this in the future.

On the Media: “Blame it on the Alcohol” & “Back to the Future” — Brooke Gladstone’s special on alcohol in the media is a good time, and the episode on youth movements in politics is really great context for the Never Again movement. Listen to On the Media. Do it regularly.

Constellations: “karen werner – swimming through butterflies” & “jeff emtman – dream tapes” — “Swimming Through Butterflies” might be my favourite thing I’ve heard on this show so far. It’s the story of a scientist walking through a forest full of butterflies — that’s all that happens — but it’s accompanied by elegant cello playing that puts you inside the experience in a way that nat sound couldn’t. “Dream Tapes” is inscrutable and not for me.

The Memory Palace: “Hercules” & “Big Block of Cheese” — Two brilliant and utterly contrasting episodes of this magnificent show. “Hercules” tells the story of one of George Washington’s slaves. Nate DiMeo tells the story in a way that sheds the largest possible amount of light on Hercules’ humanity and the inhumanity of Washington’s slave ownership. It’s deeply moving and brilliantly written. “Big Block of Cheese” is a hysterical story about a man who wanted to become a notable American and did, for the stupidest reason. Pick of the week.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law — “The Tenth Amendment” & “The Poisonous Tree” — “The Poisonous Tree” is the highlight among these two. I confess that I always enjoy this show but my retention of its stories is limited. I blame myself.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “Sober Mathematician” — This guy is a bit too much of a Chris Gethard fanboy for it to be an entirely authentic interaction. I did enjoy hearing about his sobriety story, though. Gethard is a very good sounding board for people to tell those stories.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “The Mardi Gras Indians — Stories from New Orleans” — A selection of stories about one of the most fascinating musical traditions in America. I really enjoyed this, and I can’t wait for this new series by the Kitchen Sisters about archivists to get underway.

Radiolab: “Smarty Plants” & “The Curious Case of the Russian Flash Mob at the West Palm Beach Cheesecake Factory” — I’m always down for a Radiolab story where Robert Krulwich takes the lead. Thus, “Smarty Plants” is fun. I am almost never down for a quick turnaround political story on Radiolab. Thus, “The Curious Case” is exactly the reason why this is no longer one of my top tier podcasts.

Omnibus (week of Jan. 21, 2018)

A big week for podcasts, a small week for everything else. Also, if you’d like to hear me try and make a connection between a prototypical sound recording from 1860 and a Bruce Springsteen song, you are cordially invited to scrub to 2:00:57 in this podcast.

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Herman Melville: Moby-Dick — This is happening. I’m putting my whole reading list on hold for this, and I have no regrets so far. For now, I will only signpost that I’ve started it. I guarantee I will have lots to say about it at some point, but who knows when and in what form that will come. In any case: I have started reading Moby-Dick. Pick of the week.

Adam Gopnik: “The Corrections” — This is a long essay I found thanks to a link in a shorter essay I found thanks to the fact that I’m reading Moby-Dick. (By the way, I’m reading Moby-Dick.) Gopnik wrote it in 2007, which was actually a fairly long time ago, and it contains some blasé sexism that I suspect Gopnik would regret nowadays. Or, maybe I should say — it contains some blasé acceptance of the sexism in James Bond movies, but it adds up to the same. Also, it hails from a time when DVDs were dominant and people watched movies with director’s commentaries. (I do miss director’s commentaries.) Still, it’s a good piece of criticism. The subject is essentially alterations being made to established texts — like the abridged version of Moby-Dick, or Apocalypse Now: Redux. The Moby-Dick bit is the best. I’ll quote his conclusion here and leave you to read the rest should you see fit: “…when you come to the end of the compact ‘Moby-Dick’ you don’t think, What a betrayal; you think, Nice job — what were the missing bits again? And when you go back to find them you remember why the book isn’t just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby.”

Music

Barbara Hannigan: Tiny Desk Concert — What a perfect choice for the tiny desk. Hannigan is maybe the most exciting artist in classical music, full stop. And in this miniature set, she sings four weird German art songs by Alexander Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler, Hugo Wolf, and Arnold Schoenberg, which are all captivating. I would say I’d like to hear more art songs at the tiny desk, but frankly most art songs bore me to tears. It takes an expert curator with sublime musicianship to bring this off. It’s great.

Movies

Don’t Think Twice — I’ve been meaning to watch this since it came out, and was reminded of it on Chris Gethard’s last podcast. I confess, I have a personal stake in this because I feel as though it outlines an alternate timeline version of my life. It’s about a troupe of 20/30-something improv comedians on the precipice of either breakout fame or the need to give up entirely. I was an improv kid in high school, and I can attest to the accuracy of this movie’s portrayal of adult improvisers. When you spend so much of your time on an art form that demands constantly saying yes to everything and essentially ignoring your god-given impulse control, it can cause you to act really strangely in social situations. I gave improv up after high school, studied classical trumpet, and was never spontaneous again, thank Jesus. But I know people who kept going with it, and they were increasingly difficult to associate with because improv makes your brain work in a weird way, like you’re constantly on a mild stimulant. Mike Birbiglia (who directed this and wrote the bits that aren’t actually improvised) understands this, and in that sense, Don’t Think Twice is a fascinating movie to watch. The casting is flawless, with Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs standing out in particular as two very different kinds of people that improv attracts. Key is the hyper-performative show-off whose sense of self depends on the attention of others. (I was this.) Jacobs is the team player who believes in the art, and the slightly mystical notion of “group mind” that it’s based on. Birbiglia’s best decision as a writer was to take these two archetypes and put them in a relationship. The personal drama in the film springs from the same personality differences that make its two central characters such different presences onstage. Birbiglia and Gethard flesh out other important elements in the troupe’s collective psyche. Birbiglia plays the flipside of Key’s character: the one whose hunger for attention goes unsatisfied and makes him an insecure man-child. And Gethard plays, seemingly, his younger self: a person who can’t find purchase in the world around him, and takes solace in an increasingly untenable dream. (If you don’t like movies about sad creatives, give this one a miss.) The problems I have with the movie are the same problems I have with Birbiglia’s stand-up. He’s a fantastic storyteller, but he always has a theme in mind and he’s completely unwilling to let it arise naturally. His impulse is always to use the most obvious metaphor. For example: he establishes at the beginning of the movie that the first rule of improv is to say yes. When you negate something a teammate says onstage, it’s called “blocking” and it’s the most basic error in the improv book. Near the end of the movie, Birbiglia has a relationship come to an end during an improv scene — in which the breaker-up blocks the break-upee. It’s too much, and in a movie about spontaneity, it really exposes the strings in a way that takes you out of the experience. This sort of thing happens a lot: an audience member will shout something to the troupe for the purpose of showing the movie audience how the characters are feeling, or an improv scene will ham-fistedly reflect on the goings-on offstage. But the contrivances in the story can be mostly forgiven because of how real the characters feel. I suspect this is a movie that plays a lot better for people who have some experience with improv. Watch it if that describes you, or if you like any of the actors in it, because it’s worthwhile for the performances alone.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Romans” — I enjoyed this more than I expected to, given my lack of enthusiasm for a) historically-focussed episodes of Doctor Who, and b) the William Hartnell era in general. But for all its manifold flaws, there are some charming things in this. First off, Hartnell himself is finally playing the Doctor as a character that’s identifiably the same as his future, more famous incarnations. You need only look at his gleeful expression when he realizes his role in the burning of Rome to recognize that Hartnell, for all his manifold flaws, invented this character in a way he’s not always given credit for. He’s flubbing his lines as much as ever, but he’s so charming in this. This version of the Doctor, the gleefully Rome-burning one, comes back in many a future “geronimo,” “would you like a jelly baby,” and “oh, brilliant!” It’s also marvellous to have Vicky around instead of Susan, because she was always a problematic character to say the least. Maureen O’Brien plays Vicky as intelligent, curious and brave — three things that Susan was manifestly not, in spite of the characters’ assertions that she was. I’m quite a fan of Nero being portrayed as a bumbling idiot whose key purpose is to get fucked with by the Doctor, who is in a particularly playful mood this time around. I am less fond of Nero’s tendency to chase Barbara — the show’s longest-standing female character — around his palace in a clear attempt to commit some form of sexual violence. That last bit aside, I have basically just enumerated all of the redeeming qualities in this story, which very much remains television from the 60s that is mostly of historical interest.

The Good Place: “The Burrito” — I’m still waiting for this show to repeat itself. This takes place almost entirely in settings we haven’t seen before, and introduces another whole mechanic into the show’s cosmology: an ageless judge played by Maya Rudolph — my second-favourite guest appearance in this show so far, after Maribeth Monroe as Mindy St. Clair. She can spin a line like nobody else. Still, I find myself much more interested in the twists and turns of the story itself than I do in the show’s larger thematic concerns or, crucially, the jokes. To a certain extent I think The Good Place is the first sitcom I’ve watched where the jokes aren’t always funny but it doesn’t matter. There’s a perfect example in this episode. Near the beginning, Jason comes up with the loony idea that perhaps the burrito sitting before the group is in fact the judge they’ve been looking for. Tahani replies: “Don’t be so bloody ridiculous. Judges aren’t food, judges are serious people who wear long silk nightgowns and big white powdered wigs.” In a Tina Fey show, that would not pass muster. It’s a moment where, according to the rhythms of a single camera, non-laugh track sitcom, there should be a joke, and that line fills the space — not especially well. But you don’t really need to laugh during this scene, because, crazy as it sounds, you’re actually caught up in the question of what is actually going on with that burrito. And Eleanor refocusses the conversation on that pretty much immediately afterwards. It’s a very distinctive comedy that can make you care about the identity of a burrito more than you care about the jokes.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Viking’s Choice: The Year In Cathartic Screams And Meditative Drones,” “New Year, New Mix: Typhoon, Lucy Dacus, Anna Burch, More” & “New Mix: David Byrne, Sylvan Esso, Nils Frahm, More” — I always love the year-end Viking’s Choice episode with Lars Gotrich, but the MVP of these three episodes of All Songs is definitely the most recent of them. It features a David Byrne track, co-written with Brian Eno (I’m already salivating), an appearance from Tom Huizenga to talk about Nils Frahm (whose new album sounds more promising than his last, which I did like), and a beautiful track by Darlingside, who I hadn’t heard of but whose album I will 100% check out. Likewise for Typhoon. Mostly I’m writing this to remind myself what to listen to later.

Imaginary Worlds: “Brain Chemistry” & “Doctor Who?” — “Brain Chemistry” is a collaboration with The Truth that I liked well enough, though I never especially like The Truth. This is about a guy who gets cryogenically frozen and wakes up as nothing but a brain. Listen if that sounds like a fun premise. The real attraction, though, is the first episode of Eric Molinsky’s Doctor Who mini-series. It’s very 101, but for most people that’ll be necessary. Also Molinsky does something here that he’s done before, which I always love: he focuses in on the reception of a piece of fiction rather than its making, and he finds people whose reception of that fiction is unique in some way. The best part of this episode features an interview with a trans man and his wife about how the Doctor’s constant state of change gave them a language to use in reference to his transition. It’s lovely stuff, and I’m looking forward to seeing what more specific topics Molinsky dives into.

Constellations: “joan schuman – walking in bad circles” — Of all the podcasts I listened to while I was cooking this week, this is the one that probably got the rawest deal. Always listen to Constellations through headphones, folks. It’s the only way it works. All the same, I really like the phrase “walking in bad circles,” which makes up a significant part of this short piece.

Criminal: “The Choir” — A deeply affecting story about Lawrence Lessig, of internet law fame, and the way he dealt with a horrifying instance of childhood abuse by a predator. This is one of the heavy episodes of Criminal, which I can sometimes find hard to take. I like when this show does light subject matter, because it shows the flexibility of their premise, which is basically “crime!” But this one’s good.

The Memory Palace: “The Prairie Chicken in Wisconsin: Highlights of a Study of Counts, Behaviour, Turnover, Movement and Habitat” & “The Nickel Candy Bar” — The Memory Palace has a few kinds of stories that it does often. One of them is “driven, iconoclastic woman from a bygone time defies the norms of her era.” This is a good kind of story, and the first of these two episodes is a particularly good iteration of it. It also incorporates elements of another Memory Palace standby: the environmental parable. So, it is altogether one of the most Memory Palace episodes of The Memory Palace, and that is a good thing. “The Nickel Candy Bar” is a lovely thing with a bit more structural adventurousness than usual. It starts with one story, abruptly transitions to another, brings them together, then undercuts the whole thing. Marvellous.

Bullseye: “Rian Johnson & The Go! Team” — The Rian Johnson interview is what makes this worthwhile. He’s a charming and funny guy, and this conversation really drives home the thing I’ve been saying about The Last Jedi all this time: it’s just a Star Wars movie. A very good but totally ordinary and in no way groundbreaking or unusual Star Wars movie. The only exception to this that Johnson and Jesse Thorn get to is that the reveal about Rey’s parentage reverses the franchise’s reliance on bloodlines for narrative importance. Granted, that’s not a small thing. But it’s only one thing in a whole movie full of things that strongly resemble everything else about Star Wars.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: Four-episode catch-up — I’ll be seeing The Florida Project ASAP, but I believe I’ll give Mrs. Maisel a miss. This panel wasn’t hot on Phantom Thread, which doesn’t surprise me, but I’m quite certain I’ll like it more than them. I’m prepared for it not to be There Will Be Blood or The Master. But I’ll like it. I’m 90% sure. Will I watch The Good Doctor? No I will not.

Reply All: “Apocalypse Soon” & “The Bitcoin Hunter” — Okay, now I’m starting to want more bespoke stories and fewer segments on this show. “Apocalypse Soon” is a fine and deeply entertaining episode. Anything that finds Alex Blumberg giggling about a meme is okay by me. And “The Bitcoin Hunter” is a captivating Super Tech Support that does everything you want a Reply All story to do. But I want more Sruthi Pinnamaneni.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “House of Night – The Lost Creation Songs of the Mojave People” — This is the story of two men who recorded and archived hundreds of Mojave songs. Being a Kitchen Sisters piece, it’s full of amazing archival tape and sounds great. But the story is compelling in itself. I always love how the Kitchen Sisters foreground the way that recordings and archives don’t just document, but can actually affect the course of history. In this case, a recording of a mostly forgotten song helped to save the Ward Valley and Colorado River from development by proving the longstanding Mohave connection to that land.

Theory of Everything: “Utopia (part iii)” — Instead of reviewing this I will tell a story about something that happened to me as I was listening to it. I started it on my lunch break, at which point I went out for a salad. As I sat and ate, I had a realization of a kind that I frequently have: that somebody I know has been trying to get my attention. In this case, it was a co-worker, and she was about to give up completely and leave me to my lunch when I looked up and saw her. Little did I know, this was not the whole story. The next day, a different co-worker came up to me and told me that he’d been waving at me and calling my name in that same restaurant at that same time, to no avail. He was just about to walk up to me and tap me on the shoulder when I noticed my other co-worker standing in the line. Two separate people tried and failed, or nearly failed, to get my attention while I listened to this. I guess it must be good.

Radiolab: “The Voice in Your Head – A Tribute to Joe Frank” — Oh god, how I wish I could dive into this guy’s archive for free. Joe Frank is a radio innovator I had never heard of until a few weeks ago, and I can already see how his work informs so much of what I love in radio. This features Jad Abumrad, Brooke Gladstone and Ira Glass talking about him, but aside from those three I see a huge debt to Frank in Nate DiMeo’s work, and even more so in Jonathan Goldstein’s. I could even see Kaitlin Prest being an acolyte of his. The stories they play here are outstanding and I will definitely be buying some of his pieces from his website (this is how he operated, even in a post-podcast world). This made me want to go make radio immediately. Pick of the week.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “Boy Crazy” — This is a lighter episode of Beautiful/Anonymous, and also a lesser one. The caller is a 21-year-old artsy college student with some insecurities. The thing that makes the conversation work when it works is that Chris Gethard really relates to her, having been in much the same situation himself. But it’s awkward and meandering in a way that these conversations usually avoid being. I mostly enjoyed this. But the appeal of this format is that it isn’t always going to work. Really, the appeal of anything Chris Gethard does is that it isn’t always going to work.

Fresh Air: “Paul Thomas Anderson On ‘Phantom Thread’” — P.T.A. seems like a decent fellow. I’m prepared to basically enjoy Phantom Thread without being over the moon about it. But hearing the director talk about working once again with Daniel Day-Lewis and Jonny Greenwood makes me remember how much I love this guy’s work and everybody in his orbit.

99% Invisible: “Speech Bubbles: Understanding Comics with Scott McCloud” — Coincidentally, I just started a class on writing for comics. I read Understanding Comics a few years ago, and it blew my mind. McCloud is a very clever guy, and hearing him talk with Roman Mars is fun because they both get angry about bad design.

Song by Song: “Gun Street Girl, Rain Dogs, Tom Waits” — Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer are the only two guests so far in the Rain Dogs episodes who haven’t really worked. You need pop culture geeks for a show like this, and as much as I love Criminal, Phoebe Judge manifestly isn’t that. Lauren Spohrer may be slightly more so, but this isn’t a very enlightening conversation.

Code Switch: “The ‘R-Word’ In The Age Of Trump” — In which Kat Chow gets called out by a listener for not calling Trump racist. But… institutions like NPR are huge beasts that can sometimes force you to work against your better judgement. Fortunately, there’s such a thing as Code Switch, where conversations like this can happen publicly.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The 4th Amendment and the Border” — “The border” is not a line, legally speaking. It is a space of up to 100 miles wide. Who knew?

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Secrets #3 – Broken Dreams” — A man hides his unemployment from his father for months. A good story, but the weakest of this series so far. I am not very invested in this, I’ll confess. But I’m too far in now to quit.

Omnibus (week of Jan. 7, 2018)

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

13 reviews.

Literature, etc.

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

Music

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

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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