Tag Archives: Thomas Ligotti

Omnibus (week of Aug. 6, 2017)

Greetings from Clarenville, NFLD! I was on a red eye flight last night and I am delirious and I don’t know what time it is. Anyway, I anticipate next week’s instalment being substantially less well populated to this one.

23 reviews.

Movies

Big Trouble in Little China — Good lord, what a thing. I wrote last week in my Dunkirk review about my favourite experiences in a movie theatre, and how that list is distinct from my favourite movies. I think this now joins the ranks of Mad Max: Fury Road and Avatar in the former category. I saw it at the Rio with a friend who is, I would imagine, a bit more inclined toward schlocky action than I am — and definitely more inclined towards John Carpenter. And the crowd that gathered for this was thoroughly in the tank for this movie — I daresay it was impossible not to have fun in that theatre. I doubt it would have struck me as anywhere near as entertaining if I’d watched it at home, because its value is a sort of value that I don’t see by default — I need other people to help bolster my enthusiasm. I don’t mean to suggest here that the movie itself is anything other that brilliant. It’s just not brilliant in a way I would have noticed on my own. The basic premise of the movie is “cast one white dude as the supposed hero, then have him be a hilariously useless dolt throughout.” This is a wonderful thing to watch, because Kurt Russell’s performance is completely committed: he’s John Wayne, loudly blundering through somebody else’s movie. He trips over his own dick in deeply white American fashion at the very beginning of the climactic battle scene and never regains his poise, while the movie’s huge ensemble of Asian martial artists flies through the air all around him. That’s the juxtaposition that makes the movie so satisfying: the fights are genuinely fantastic and a ton of fun to watch, but the story, characters and dialogue feel no need to live up to the seriousness of the choreography. I loved the shit out of this, and will be liberally repurposing the line “Hey, I’m a reasonable guy, but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things” to my own ends.

Music

Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-1972 — I’ve really enjoyed hearing legendary BBC DJ John Peel as a beloved supporting character in this box set’s story. The fifth volume features his best moment yet, where his announcement to a live audience that “This is Radio One” is met with a huge cheer, his continuation “on medium wave” is met with an even bigger cheer, and his tossed off self-introduction, “And this is John Peel…” is met with a positive torrent of appreciation. “Ah, you blew it,” he tells them. “You did it all wrong.” This guy was everything good about public broadcasting. This single disc collection from around the time of Meddle, arguably the first great Pink Floyd album (though I’m not arguing that) is dominated by the 1971 Peel session in front of a live crowd. It contains a surpassingly good “Fat Old Sun,” which has been extended to include not just the classic guitar solo, but also an uncharacteristically blazing feature for Rick Wright on organ. “One of These Days” is preceded by Peel reporting to the audience that Roger Waters considers this instrumental to be a “poignant appraisal of the current social situation,” which is exactly the sort of thing his detractors would think he means sincerely. But Peel clearly recognizes the game Waters is playing which is “let’s see if I can make John Peel say something dumb and look like a knob on his own show.” Peel doesn’t fall for it. “Make what you will of that,” he says, with a nearly audible roll of his eyes. He also announces that Pink Floyd were evidently dissatisfied with their label’s release of “Embryo” on the Picnic sampler, because it was basically a demo. But he doesn’t explain why they continue to make it a major part of their live set. It’s not a good song, in any version. The session culminates in a complete live “Echoes,” which pales in comparison to the earthshaking Pompei recording (I understand that’s included on the following volume) but it’s still a lot of fun to hear the track through the ears of an audience who likely hasn’t heard it before. (Meddle wasn’t released until a month later.) That’s what I’ve enjoyed about listening to this set, and I imagine that’s part of what more casual fans might not understand about why a huge set of outtakes and curios like this appeals to me: listening to The Early Years isn’t like listening to an album, or even a live album. It’s like listening to an enormous, comprehensive, narration-free documentary about the creative development of Pink Floyd, and the relationship they had with their audience prior to their enormous celebrity. That’s a really compelling story to me, and it’s part of why the Peel sessions are such consistent highlights of the set. The only track on the disc not to come from the Peel session is a segment from the jams that led to the composition of “Echoes,” titled “Nothing, Pt. 14.” It’s an amusing listen primarily because it finds the band toying with the section of the song that would eventually be the leadup to its climax, but they clearly haven’t devised that climax yet. So, in retrospect it’s almost hilariously dissatisfying. But it really emphasizes what’s so impressive about “Echoes,” which is that it clearly is a collection of several initially unrelated ideas that have been massaged together in a way that works as a singular journey. It’s the moment when the fact that three quarters of the band are former architecture students is most clear. The sixth volume (the final one to be available on Apple Music) is both the most musically satisfying and least narratively interesting of the set. These effects both arise for the same reason, which is that all of the music included has been officially released in some fashion before. It’s unclear to me why the compilers of this set decided to include Obscured by Clouds in its entirety, since surely the vast majority of people interested in buying this would have it already. But it has been newly remixed, and has never sounded better. The thing that feels like it’s missing from this set more than anything is live performances of the Obscured by Clouds material. At this point, we’ve gotten to hear music from all of their other albums as performance pieces, but we don’t get a picture of what this stuff sounded like in concert. Presumably, including that would have taken the compilers over their cutoff line of January 1, 1973, and at that point the absence of Dark Side of the Moon material would seem unnatural. So, I get it, mostly. It’s just another one of those things that makes me hope we get another box set like this for the years from 1973-2014 — a far vaster span of time, but with only one more album than this box’s span. There’s no better way that this set could have ended than with the first digital audio release of Live at Pompeii. Aside from being a magnificent performance, and one of the best things in the Pink Floyd catalogue, the documentary film that the audio comes from is the defining document of the tail end of Pink Floyd’s relative obscurity. It finds them performing material from the whole of the transitional period this set documents: from “A Saucerful of Secrets” to “Echoes.” And it also finds them in the process of recording The Dark Side of the Moon, which would make them one of the biggest bands in rock history. This is narratively rich territory, and it’s a damn good live record, too. It’s beyond me why it was apparently included in the box set as an afterthought, because it might be the best thing in it. The Early Years 1967-1972 has been a joy to listen to. Even with all of the repeated performances of the same track, the ephemeral nature of many of the recordings, and early Pink Floyd’s tendency towards obscurantism, I never once found it tedious. (Okay, maybe once: on the Atom Heart Mother-focussed disc.) It is maybe the most vital collection of rock curios ever released.

Olivia Chaney: The Longest River — In preparation for the Decemberists concert (which as I’m writing this will be happening tonight) I thought I’d check out their opener’s solo material. To recap: Chaney is the lead singer of the Decemberists’ side project Offa Rex, whose first album was released earlier this year, is brilliant, and is an explicit tribute to the British folk revival. I love that album, but it does what it says on the tin. Going into this one, I didn’t quite know what to expect. And that worked out to my advantage, because The Longest River consistently surprised me in all the best ways. It’s a mix of original songs, traditional songs, covers, and an anomalous Purcell aria. Chaney performs all of them with real attention paid to the detail in the arrangements, which are mostly just guitar and piano (and the occasional Kronos Quartet cameo) but they are all thoughtful and complex. And the songs themselves are complex, too. I’ve listened to the gorgeous “Loose Change” more than a half-dozen times at this point and I still can’t anticipate where the phrases start and stop. But it’s a good kind of disorientation, and in the end you find yourself deposited back in the part of the song with the gorgeous riff. I’m reminded of Gabriel Kahane, though none of Chaney’s lyrics make me gag. The more obvious point of comparison would be Joni Mitchell, a singer with a similar range, precision, and virtuosity in her arrangements. But there’s something paradoxically more modern about Chaney’s inclusion of traditional songs and covers. The Longest River is a curio cabinet as much as a personal opus. And I mean that in a good way. I’ll be living with this for a while. It’s less immediate than The Queen of Hearts but I can see it having more legs.

Live events

The Decemberists, with Olivia Chaney: Live at the Orpheum — Occasionally, you travel in time. I went to this concert with the very friend who introduced me to the Decemberists in the first place. They were the most important band among my high school’s contingent of weird theatre kids, and therefore one of the first relatively current bands to join Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and their ilk in my regular rotation. I remember the first time I heard “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” It wasn’t the studio recording — it was at an impromptu sing-along in the swimming pool at a summer improv camp, with one of the instructors playing guitar on the poolside. There were probably fifty people in that swimming pool, and I was the only one who didn’t know the Decemberists. This was rectified by my present-day concertmate, posthaste. Listening to them now, I can’t help but see in them the same quality I see in most of my passionate obsessions from those days (and now, in a more muted way): a sort of effusive muchness that’s bound to alienate aesthetes with carefully cultivated tastes, while enthralling anoraks like me and my weird teenage friends. (“Drama kids in three-button vests,” Pitchfork called us. I rather like that.) Many of Colin Meloy’s song titles contain exclamation points (“July, July!” “O Valencia!” “Revenge!” “All Arise!”), and there’s a sense in which his entire career is an exclamation, namely: “let’s put on a show!” In the Decemberists, we saw our own self-indulgence reflected back at us, and they offered confirmation that unabashed pretension was a perfectly valid way to find joy in the world. So, this concert with this friend brought us full circle. Honestly I’d say it might have been my ideal Decemberists setlist if I’d already seen them before, which I hadn’t. This was a show that was really light on iconic classics. We got none of Picaresque, and only one track from the either of the first two albums. There was no “Mariner’s Revenge Song,” no “Sixteen Military Wives,” no “I Was Born for the Stage.” We did get “Crane Wife 3” and “O Valencia!” But for the most part, this was a set devoted to the stranger corners of the Decemberists’ catalogue — and the proggier corners. We got “The Island,” in all its Tull-aping glory. We got “The Queen’s Rebuke,” which was by no means the part of The Hazards of Love that I expected to hear. And most remarkably of all, we got The Tain in its entirety: all 18-and-a-half prog-fed minutes of it. That was the highlight of the show, and I’ve been struggling since the concert to think of an analogue for the weirdness and excitement of that moment in some other artist’s discography. Maybe if Paul McCartney announced he was going to do all of Ram. We also got a bunch of new stuff, which was nice. I could have done with fewer tracks from Beautiful/Terrible, which is the only Decemberists album I don’t especially care for. But their new “State of the Union” song, “Everything is Awful” is a scorcher, and a cathartic one at that. Its lyrical simplicity is new territory for Colin Meloy. If even he is lost for words, we must be in a rough spot, indeed. There was also a set from the Offa Rex album, which I adore, and more on which below. So basically it was a super weird set, and if this band weren’t tied up with so much nostalgia for me, it might have been my ideal Decemberists experience. But I really wanted to hear the stuff I loved when I was 16. Can you blame me? So, I feel as though I need to see them again, and next time I want the other two parts of “The Crane Wife,” “Leslie Anne Levine” and at least half of Picaresque. Finally, a word on Olivia Chaney. We wandered in about one minute into her opening set. I’ve been listening to The Longest River semi-obsessively over the past week, so I was basically just as excited for her as for the Decemberists. And she did not disappoint. She drifted between the harmonium, the keyboard and a hollow-body electric guitar, performing a set with the same far-flung variety as her album in the space of 30 minutes. Highlights included her gorgeous original “Loose Change,” which is a perfect song, and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” which she is one of only a handful of people I would trust to sing. I was delighted to find that she’s also performing alongside the Decemberists during their set, doing a few tracks from The Queen of Hearts, which is one of the best albums of the year so far. Evidently this was the first show not to be explicitly billed as Offa Rex to include a set like this. I feel very privileged. I feel like I need to see the Decemberists again because we have unfinished business. I feel like I need to see Olivia Chaney again because she is a staggering musician and I think she’s on the verge of something. Occasionally, you travel in time. But it isn’t always easy to tell which direction you went in.

Television

Game of Thrones: “The Spoils of War” — Sure helps to clarify your loyalties, doesn’t it? I would have been entirely content to see Jaime and Bronn both perish in the flames of Daenerys’s new world order. Wonder how that’ll shake up. Anyway, this is more consequential than last week’s talky episode, and it’s definitely great to see some dragons roast some Lannisters. I’ll always prefer the talky episodes, but it wouldn’t be GoT without scenes like that. It strikes me that Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks are the perfect series to be watching in tandem right now, since GoT is offering satisfaction in such heavy doses, where Twin Peaks maintains its steadfast perversity. One or the other of them might drive me over the edge if not for the other. Maisie Williams is this week’s performance highlight. Arya has this wonderful way of saying something incredibly grave and then conjuring her most childlike side whenever somebody finds that amusing. It’s incredibly unsettling. The look of absolute glee when she uses her dagger to best Brienne in combat training is basically what I like about this show. “Who taught you to do that?” “No one.” Marvellous. I’m liking the way that the Daenerys/Jon partnership is shaping up. This episode finds Jon Snow offering the sort of advice to Daenarys that indicates how he and she need each other. That’s the plotline I’m most excited about right now. Also, just want to point out that last week I branded Littlefinger a chaos theorist, only to have Bran reiterate his prior thesis that “chaos is a ladder” this week. It’s the little things that make us feel like geniuses, isn’t it?

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 13 — Another frustrating instalment that I enjoyed in spite of myself. I love the music in the opening scene: it’s just alienating enough. The clear highlight here is Mr. C’s armwrestling match, but it is cold comfort given the fact that those detectives have completely failed to acknowledge the connection between Dougie Jones and Dale Cooper. He’s not waking up is he.

QI: “Next” — Well, Sandi Toksvig is delightful. I haven’t watched this since Stephen Fry left, only because I haven’t been in the mood, but it’s lovely to see it in good hands. And having both Ross Noble and Frankie Boyle is frankly a surfeit of wit.

Literature, etc.

Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth — This is one of the most emotionally exhausting works of fiction I have ever experienced. It’s a cathartic kind of exhaustion, but Chris Ware drives his protagonist (and his protagonist’s forebears in the long flashback sequences) to psychological places where not every reader will want to follow. There’s something extra effective about personal, heartfelt stories like this when they’re told in an aggressively formalist way. Christopher Nolan, to pick the other example who’s come up recently, has always made movies I like because he shows you human experience through the prism of complex story structures. This isn’t just cleverness: it changes the way you watch his movies by adding a layer of distance between you and the content of the story. You’re expected to fill that distance with your own ability to identify with the characters, and that makes a movie like Dunkirk especially devastating. Chris Ware takes that distancing technique to a level unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. His art is detailed in the way that a blueprint is detailed: everything you’d see if you were looking at a building or person in real life is accounted for in his drawing, but left cartoonish in its realization. And he’s not one to amplify the emotional impact of key moments with dynamic page layouts. His visual language is solidly rectangular. That in itself contributes a sort of austerity to the storytelling. Even splash pages are a bit of a indulgence for Ware, and he uses them very sparingly — including once at the book’s most shattering moment, when something truly awful happens to Jimmy’s grandfather as a child. There’s also a moment where a major plot twist near the end is communicated wordlessly through, basically, a flow chart. You get the point. Ware is extremely restrained and fussy. At first, the book’s general aesthetic of “Sunday funnies meets 19th-century carnival advertisements” just seems like a symptom of this formalism. But when the shattering moment I mentioned above happened, you realize that in fact, the event that precipitated the Corrigan family’s trend of worthless fathers (and thus Jimmy’s bad state throughout the story) took place at the Chicago World’s Fair. So, the fact that the story plays out in the garb of that event’s promotional materials takes on a new resonance. This is simultaneously one of the most affecting and most ingenious comics I’ve ever read. It’s a masterpiece. Now I’m gonna go lie down for a while. Pick of the week.

Franklin Foer: “When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism” — Possibly the single most concise and effective expression of the devil’s bargain that the journalism industry made when they went to Facebook for an audience. Evidently Foer has a book coming out on this. Can’t wait. Do you know an editor with a Chartbeat addiction? Make them read this, then lock them in the basement.

John Lanchester: “You Are The Product” — Foer’s piece may be the most concise one about the perils of Facebook for the media, but this review of three recent books on the subject in the London Review of Books is the most complete feature-length discussion of how Facebook’s lack of a moral compass is affecting its users. I plan to read all of these books.

Thomas Ligotti: “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” — This magnificent essay-that-is-not-an-essay reveals Thomas Ligotti to be several things I knew he was, as well as a few things I didn’t know he was. It reveals him to be a very good horror writer, which I knew he was. It reveals him to be completely crazy, which I suspected he was. But it also reveals him to have a sense of humour, which I didn’t know he had, and to have a facility for metafiction, which hasn’t been part of the stories I’ve read by him. That last observation makes this story scarier than many of his others for me, simply because there is nothing scarier to me than a story that transgresses its own boundaries. As for the essayistic element of this, there is much to learn from Ligotti’s straightforward discussion of the types of horror stories. As a producer of an occasionally horror-adjacent podcast, I have found myself in positions where I’ve butted up against my own insistence on what Ligotti calls the “realistic” model of horror writing, where an uncanny thing is found to exist in contrast to a fundamentally “real” and “normal” world. Having read this, I now understand why this doesn’t always work for me — because in stories like Ligotti’s the world is fundamentally skewed and unreal. And those are the kinds of stories that I like. Also, it’s hilarious to me that Ligotti has to literally reimagine himself as a passionate Italian from a bygone century to contemplate writing Gothically. This is very, very good.

Stephen King: The Gunslinger — As I’m writing this, I just got off a plane. On that plane, I read nearly this whole book. That is not something I normally do — my general ponderousness and tendency to get distracted makes me an abnormally slow reader. But now I think I know why people like Stephen King, at least in part: the pages fly by. This is the first thing I’ve read by King. I feel like I’ve always been just about to get into him, but I’ve always backed off before pulling the trigger, so to speak. I decided to dive right into the Dark Tower series because I’ve been reading reviews of the movie, which almost uniformly make the movie sound like hackneyed drivel, while also emphasizing that the books are as wonderfully strange as the movie fails to be. Fine, I’m in. This first instalment manages to simultaneously be incredibly thrilling and also feel like it’s mere setup. The book’s story is basically summed up by its first sentence: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” And then when the gunslinger catches up with the man in black, they talk, and more questions are raised than answered. The basic idea of this is a lot of fun: put Clint Eastwood in a fantasy story. What I’m most looking forward to in this series is the opportunity for genre fusions. Already we’ve got Jake, who is a secondary character from an entirely different kind of story — and I suspect we haven’t seen the last of him. Good fun.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Atomic Blonde,” “Insecure,” “Detroit,” & “A Guide to Stephen King” — Two weeks worth of this! Honestly, the Stephen King episode is the only one that I’m finding of practical value, but it’s just nice to listen to them talk.

Love and Radio: “Suitcase of Love and Shame” — Another absurdly intimate episode of Love and Radio. We get to listen in on an affair in real time. It’s a beautiful thing in which nobody comes out looking very good.

The Turnaround: “Katie Couric,” “Ray Suarez,” “Werner Herzog” & “Terry Gross” — The last four episodes of this show have all been interesting, although the climactic (what a concept) Terry Gross interview has a lot of overlap with the more comprehensive Longform interview. This has been a thoroughly enjoyable series, though I’ve cooled on it over time. I wouldn’t stand by my initial impression that it’s among the best radio of the year.

Planet Money: “Google is Big. Is That Bad?” — Yes.

A Piece of Work: “Samantha Gets High on Light” — I’m really impressed by how well the host and guests on this show manage to describe the experience of visual art in an invisible medium. This is a great new show; I’ve been totally enjoying it. Makes me want more podcasts about visual art. Pick of the week.

The Daily: Wednesday, August 9 — Nice to hear Carl Zimmer on this! Love that guy. And also it’s always a good way to get the latest Trump horrors put into context.

On the Media: “Shmashmortion” — A history of the politics of abortion from Brooke Gladstone. How can you go wrong? This is great stuff, and really emphasizes how artificial a debate it is.

Imaginary Worlds: “Evil Plans” & “Scott Snyder” — Been awhile since I’ve heard this. The Scott Snyder interview is fun, even though I had no idea who he was. It’s about how his own anxieties factor into the Batman stories he’s written.

Code Switch: “The U.S. Census And Our Sense Of Us” & “Who’s Your Great-Great-Great-Great Granddaddy?” — Two episodes that explore notions of identity and the labels we put on them. The one about genealogy is especially interesting.

Theory of Everything: “Illicit Objects” — A marvellous compendium of bite-sized stories about objects that people aren’t supposed to have. For having been produced by people who aren’t Benjamen Walker, it feels very ToE.

Mogul: “Cameo: Russell Simmons and Sophia Chang” — It’s a bit awkward to hear Russell Simmons proclaiming that he doesn’t think Chris Lighty committed suicide after the final full episode of this basically concluded that he did, and that the only reason people don’t want to believe that is the stigma against mental illness in the hip hop community. But at least Simmons seems to think that taboo is harmful.

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Omnireviewer (week of Sept. 11, 2016)

Every so often I write a review on here that I’m actually pretty proud of. The Captain America: Civil War review comes to mind. I’ll just flag right here that I’m very happy with my brief assessment of the final story in Thomas Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco. It is a very good story and I nearly gave it pick of the week, but not quite, because apparently I like indie games better than anything else these days.

26 reviews.

Movies

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — Really really fun. Just, concentrated fun in every scene. Naturally, since this is the classic, beloved Shane Black movie that The Nice Guys isn’t, I’m obligated to stack them up against each other. I’ll say this: it’s not as clear a victory as some would have it. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has a better story and sharper dialogue, but I find Robert Downey Jr.’s overtly ironic narration a bit dated. Maybe it’s just that over the course of the decade since this movie, the tropes that he’s lampshading have begun to parody themselves. You know: a straightforward iteration of the “clearly-dead-man-survives-wait-WTF” trope might be funnier than having it highlighted in the voiceover. But it’s a quibble. The real area where The Nice Guys outshines this is the performances. Robert Downey Jr. is great here in the Robert Downey Jr. role. But if we’re comparing apples with apples, Ryan Gosling ekes out a narrow victory in the Hapless N’er Do Well category, Russell Crowe far outdoes Val Kilmer in the Goon In Over His Head category, and as wonderful as Michelle Monaghan is in this movie she is handily outclassed in the Smarter Than She’s Given Credit For Sidelined Female Role category by the 14-year-old Angourie Rice. Nice Guys has more ingenious action set pieces, too. What I’m saying is not that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang isn’t as good as its reputation. I think it’s almost exactly as good as its reputation. It’s just that The Nice Guys is fantastic and deserved way better than its lukewarm reception.

Television

Chef’s Table: Season 1, episodes 1 & 2 — First off, if you’re going to use the Richter Four Seasons in your show, why on earth would you pick that dumb 7/8 movement? It’s literally the only bad part of that piece, and they picked it as the theme song. As for the actual content of the show, it’s amazing to get a look inside the kitchens of these really interesting chefs, but I can’t help but feel like the director’s camera is a tool for worship. These portraits are hagiographies, which I don’t necessarily mind. But there are only so many slow-motion shots of a man talking with his hands that you can see before you start to wish they wouldn’t manipulate you quite so obviously. It gets to the point where these episodes start to feel like they were made by marketing professionals, helping these chefs leverage their personal brands. It’s chefs presented as Silicon Valley magnates. They seem really cognisant of the camera. (“Let’s go do some good,” one chef says to his crew after a pep talk. Fuck you, chef.) In the second episode, there are long stretches of people spouting platitudes. There’s a promising hint of tension at one point, when the chef in question cops to having a temper. You suspect that maybe it was prompted by something that a sous-chef said in an interview, or some tape they got of him blowing up in the kitchen that he felt he needed to address, but you never see it. So, instead of being a guy with a temper, he gets to be a guy who’s “working on his temper.” It only contributes to the sense that these documentaries are worshipful above all else. Also, it may just be because I’ve been editing audio for hours a day for weeks on end, but I’ve been hearing every single edit in the interview tape. I know it’s less important to be seamless in video than in radio, but come on. It’s distracting. I’ll probably watch more of this, because good god this is some interesting food, but as a show it has some serious problems.

Literature, etc.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: “How Breitbart Conquered the Media” — Hillary Clinton needed this. Ta-Nehisi Coates does a brilliant job defending Clinton for her recent statement (containing the only memorable turn of phrase in this brutal election cycle) that half of Trump’s supporters were in the “basket of deplorables.” If anything, he suggests, that figure is too low. No shit.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: “What O.J. Simpson Means to Me” — It’s basically a re-hash of the themes in O.J.: Made in America (still the best thing that’s been made this year, for those keeping score), but it’s in Coates’s prose and it contains a really wonderful extended metaphor involving Houdini, as characterized in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Shadow, The Darkness” — The last short story in a collection doesn’t really need to be a summation of everything that came before it, but this is a really fantastic way to finish Teatro Grotesco. (I am aware of an alternate edition that contains three more stories past this, and I regret not having access to them, but none could be a more fitting conclusion.) Like the other stories in the book’s third chunk, subtitled “The Damaged and the Diseased,” this final story deals with the creation of art: specifically its futility. It’s a story that will resonate with any creative person who has ever found themselves in a situation where success seems contingent on the extent to which you can sacrifice your sense of self. Any number of characters, from the narrator to the failed artist Grossvogel (Big Bird?) to the man penning a pamphlet on “the conspiracy against the human race” (the title to a book that Ligotti himself would later publish) could serve as plausible authorial inserts. Given that I don’t know anything about the man — nor does anybody, seemingly — I’m at pains to decide what that could mean. But maybe it’s totally irrelevant. Without spoiling anything, because this is a story that definitely starts in one place and ends in another, “The Shadow, The Darkness” calls into question the very notion that meaning can be communicated through words. For Ligotti, the ultimate horror is that everything we can understand is fake (“nonsense and dreams,” he phrases it in this story, “nothing but show business,” he suggests in another) and everything that’s actually real is incomprehensible. The idea that the entire communicative infrastructure that he’s been using throughout all of these stories that seek to pull back the veil on the world’s horrors is itself false and fruitless is the biggest, most all-encompassing horror of all.

Games

Oxenfree — Looks like creepy 80s throwbacks are just on the air these days. But in spite of being a mysterious, Stephen King-esque horror story with teen movie tropes and a synth score, Oxenfree feels like much more than Stranger Things: the game. While Stranger Things wore its tropes on its sleeve, it does not necessarily allow those tropes to control the narrative in the way that, say, Doctor Who or Mulholland Drive do. Oxenfree, on the other hand, is a game whose horrors live in media-within-media, like Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels, or Mulholland Drive’s entire first two acts (ask me to explain this at your peril). And delightfully, the media in which they live is radio broadcasts. I did not mean to play two brief indie games involving radios in as many weekends, but somehow I have. Thank you 2016, for this at least. I feel like I will definitely have more to say about this after I’ve played it once or twice more, which I hopefully will by the end of the year. I’m sure there are some staggering alternate endings. I have ideas on the tip of my brain about how this game distinguishes between the possibilities for horror in live radio broadcasts versus the possibility for horror in reel-to-reel tape. But I’m not going to be able to articulate them until things have percolated a bit. I’ve only played two new games this year, but both have been corkers. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “HGTV and Cooking Shows” — Pop Culture Happy Hour is to me what HGTV is to the panel on Pop Culture Happy Hour. It just makes me feel comfortable. This was all the way at the bottom of my feed and I listened to it anyway this past Sunday, because I just wanted my comfort food podcast. This is great.

A Point of View: “The Ring of the Nibelung” — Note: this positive review is about to be almost totally negated by the one below it. But let’s start where we must start. This essay, which comes from a BBC essay program I only just discovered, is the sort of thing I’d like to hear on the radio about the arts all of the time. Roger Scruton, the writer and reader of this treatise on Wagner’s Ring, is an influential philosopher of music whose work I’ve read in small bits. Like Harold Bloom, he is absolutely fascinating when he is talking about art he loves. And he clearly loves the Ring. His reading of it as a story of gods for a modern people with no gods left to believe in is absolutely compelling and made me want to go listen to the Ring again. It also made me slightly regret what I wrote in last week’s Sweeney Todd review about no operas being great works of literature. Beautiful, smart radio from a beautiful, smart public broadcaster.

A Point of View: “Roger Scruton: The Tyranny of Pop” — So, I went on to check out Scruton’s most seemingly notorious contribution to this program, which is an act of witless intellectual cowardice the like of which any broadcaster should be embarrassed to host on their airwaves. Scruton argues against a few key phenomena associated with pop music. Firstly, that it is foisted upon us in public places. He believes that music should be exclusively for the purpose of active listening and that humans have lost something through the proliferation of recorded music. (RECORDED MUSIC. He’s questioning the value of recorded music in 2015. This man is a walking sweater vest.) Needless to say, this argument would have drastically displeased Erik Satie. And it would have robbed the greatest composers of the Baroque of their livelihoods, given that many of them wrote ceremonial music that was explicitly intended as ornamentation. He suggests at one point that pop music may have something to do with modern young people’s inability to speak properly, by which he clearly means our inability to speak like him. I know this is what he means, because he goes on a lengthy tear about how to solve this grievous problem in which wise, classical music-loving teachers must play their students the music they love, and then tell them all that other music is bad. That’ll show ‘em. Nothing changes a teenager’s mind like the opinion of an authority figure. But beyond the impracticality of his strategy, what kind of person even thinks like this? That the solution to the world’s problems is to indoctrinate the young with the most reactionary value system possible, while stomping out all traces of the modern? I’ll tell you what kind of person thinks like that: the sort of person whose views fit so squarely into the intellectual hegemony of the Eurocentric consensus that they’ve never ONCE in their life had to interrogate their own prejudices. That is where my charge of intellectual cowardice comes from. When I first heard this, I was most bothered by what I saw as Scruton’s cardinal sin of refusing to engage with art on its own terms. But that’s not even quite it. Anybody can feel free to engage with art on whatever terms they like, as far as I’m concerned. But, Scruton only possesses one set of terms with which to deal with art, and they are the terms that have been set by the generations of straight, white, male academics who have determined what constitutes great art. He has not even established his own set of terms, and that is why his brain falls out when he hears Lady Gaga. He is obviously a fine thinker when he is dealing with art in his ultra-limited wheelhouse, but this essay is far more intellectually lazy than the pop gobbling youths he so disrespects. Ah, well. ‘Twas ever thus.

Fresh Air: “Actress Pamela Adlon On ‘Better Things’” — My my, Terry Gross is in a good mood! Obviously, Adlon is great conversation, and that must help. This was a fun discussion that really helps to shed some light on how Adlon’s sensibility has helped inform Louis C.K.’s various TV projects. Now that they’re collaborating in the other direction, I’m really excited to see where it goes. I’ll be checking out the first episode of Better Things sometime in the coming weeks. We’ll see if it grabs me.

On The Media: “Brooke Gladstone is a Trekker” — Obviously, she is. This is a decent whistle-stop tour of Star Trek’s cultural impact, and it’s got clips of some great lines from the various iterations of the franchise. Hearing stuff like this always makes me think I should redouble my efforts to get into Star Trek, but I just find it so bland. Maybe someday.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Hobbits and the Hippies” — Now this is some serious SF/F history. The story of J.R.R. Tolkien writing The Lord of the Rings is familiar, but the story of its widespread adoption in America by the hippie counterculture is not. And the discussion of how, oh how, it could be possible for so retrograde a text to have countercultural importance is truly fascinating. I’m enormously looking forward to this new season of Imaginary Worlds. Pick of the week.

The Heart: “No Way Out” — This isn’t one of The Heart’s more unconventional stories. It’s basically just a window into an unpleasant adolescence. Certainly, it’s a more unpleasant adolescence than most, given that it involves physical violence by an alcoholic stepfather, but altogether this is a fairly conventional story that’s made interesting by sheer emotional honesty. I’m liking this season a lot.

Code Switch: “The Dangers Of Life As An American ‘Nobody’” — Marc Lamont Hill is an extremely persuasive speaker, to the point where his view that we should abolish prisons doesn’t seem completely outrageous by the end of this episode. The guy’s thought this through.

The Allusionist: “The Key part I: Rosetta” — I should have seen the Long Now Foundation’s fingerprints on this from just reading the episode description. This is a wonderful, and typically funny, discussion of how a language might be transmitted to humans thousands of years into our future. Fascinating.

All Songs Considered: “Peter Gabriel, Nick Cave, King Creosote, L.A. Salami, More” — I was always going to hear the new Peter Gabriel track. May as well hear it on this show. Wow, he’s really abandoned subtlety, hasn’t he. I’m willing to be surprised, but I really feel like when he eventually releases his first proper album in 15 years, it’s going to be pretty damp. “The Veil” doesn’t so much have lyrics as a straightforward recitation of the Edward Snowden story. Compare with “Down to Earth,” another song he did for a movie, which succeeds in capturing the mood and sentiment of WALL-E without reference to the story at all. “The Veil” doesn’t stand alone. On the other hand, the new Nick Cave song they play on here is amazing, and L.A. Salami is one of the best discoveries this show has led me to.

The Gist: “Hillary’s Campaign Manager on Pneumonia, Swing Voters, and Strategy” — He goes a bit easy on the Clinton campaign manager. But to be fair, all of the major criticisms being levelled against that campaign, strategy-wise, have been bullshit. “Basket of deplorables” is the best thing anybody’s said in this election so far, and honest to god why does anybody care about the pneumonia.

Reply All: “Lost in a Cab” — First off, it’s interesting to hear Reply All finally bouncing up against the possibility of a conflict of interest with their advertiser, Google. I remember back in an old episode of StartUp, when Alex Goldman (maybe it was P.J. Vogt? but I don’t think so) expressed extreme anxiety over the prospect of tech companies advertising on their show, given that they cover tech. It’s taken a long time to rear its head, but here it is. They’re handling it well, though. Still, I feel like they’d really love to tear into Google Adwords, because who doesn’t. And they can’t, because not only is Google a Gimlet sponsor, Adwords is the specific product they were advertising on Reply All. Juicy. Also, this story is a good listen, even if it does have a shaggy dog ending. Plus… there’s some increasingly elaborate mixing on this show, including new renditions of the theme song. It’s almost like Breakmaster Cylinder is on their staff, or something. OR SOMETHING…

The Sporkful: “The Woman With A Keg In Her Coat Closet” — A fun, but not super immersive romp through the world of women drinking beer. Women drink beer. Also they make it! If there’s one really interesting thing in here, it’s the various women interviewed telling tales of horrible bros assuming they don’t know anything about beer. This is, of course, something that we already knew was happening, even if we’d never specifically thought about it.

The Gist: “‘Mrs. Robinson,’ ‘Hey Jude,’ and Some Utter Schlock” — I love when Chris Molanphy is on this show. I had never thought of 1968 the way that it’s portrayed here, because not all music that proves popular in the short term goes down in history. “Mrs. Robinson,” “Hey Jude” and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” do. But it’s the very strange other stuff that’s played here that’s most interesting. Nice.

99% Invisible: “Making Up Ground” — Something you don’t think about: much of the earth we stand on is manmade. Virtually all of the Netherlands. Imagine.

Radiolab: “Update: Eye in the Sky” — The episode itself is not one of my favourites, and the update is consequential, but fairly short. I dunno. Fine.

Code Switch: “Why Do We Still Care About Tupac?” — One of the best episodes of this show yet. I know nothing about Tupac, and this was a great introduction. The presence of one skeptic, Gene Demby, only enhanced it.  

On the Media: “After 9/11, Nothing Was Funny” — It’s most interesting to hear an interview with Marc Maron from five years ago, complete with a clip from Maron’s act fifteen years ago. When you’re used to only hearing him on his own turf, where little is left off the table, it’s easy to forget that he is the kind of thoughtful guy who sounds really authoritative in interviews. A little editing goes a long way.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Documentary Now! & A Documentary Roundup” — I really hope Sam Sanders is back on this show sometime. I can listen to him talk about anything. I’ll probably check out Documentary Now!, or at least a few of the episodes that this panel recommended. And, I will swallow my distaste for Chef’s Table for long enough to watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

On the Media: “Damned If You Do…” — More Ta-Nahisi Coates in here, which is just fine. But the best thing on here is the segment on why Facebook’s inability to find a middle ground between too much human editorial intervention and a dumb, dumb algorithm will not ultimately keep it from rolling on regardless. *Shudder.*

Omnireviewer (week of Sept. 4, 2016)

First off, a few things from the category of “things I don’t review” that I would like to recommend regardless. Firstly, the A.V. Club has a food section now, called Supper Club, which already has a bunch of good reads up. It promises to be as fearlessly catholic in its purview as The Sporkful, but with the A.V. Club’s brand of casually obsessive geekiness. This will soon become my entire internet, I imagine. Also, Jesse Brown’s Canadaland podcast put out an episode this week where he talks with Michael Enright, Robyn Doolittle and Jeet Heer about movies that deal with journalism. It is quite excellent. I’ve also been listening to and enjoying Love Me, which is a CBC podcast, and thus doesn’t get its own reviews, but it is produced by two of the key producers of the late, lamented Wiretap. Speaking of, that show’s host announced his new Gimlet show this week, which I am very excited for, but will not be reviewing on account of an upcoming episode of the Syrup Trap Pod Cast.

Now. On to our 15 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Ian Parker: “Pete Wells Has His Knives Out” — This New Yorker profile of the New York Times’s restaurant critic is one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read this year. It is perhaps most interesting for its small observations into the details of this job, like the strange unwritten code that dictates that critics must not be acknowledged by restaurant staff, nor acknowledge themselves in restaurants. Everybody must simply act as if everything is normal, even when the head chef shows up halfway through the evening to ensure a full-capacity performance. Parker illustrates this with an anecdote about Wells and Jimmy Fallon coincidentally sitting next to each other at a sushi bar. Both were recognized, but only Fallon was acknowledged, and Wells was served more fussily prepared food. Or, there’s this: Wells sometimes shies away from restaurants before he hits the Times’s three-dinner minimum because he can’t think up a review that will be interesting to read. Declining to review for “literary reasons,” as Parker puts it, rather than anything to do with the food. Restaurant reviews are for reading, after all. (Speaking as a person who has forced himself to review every episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour since last October, I sympathize.) But Parker’s piece is also a fascinating portrait of a person who is carefully considering how best to wield a very specific kind of power. Wells can break fine dining establishments with a single snide remark in an otherwise positive review. The costs and benefits of that must be weighed attentively. Jobs are on the line, and not just those of people who’ve made fortunes in reality TV. Parker portrays Wells as intensely cognizant of how needless a pan can seem, even as David Chang derides him as old-fashioned and a bully. Also, in the “things I have to mention because I am me” category, apparently Wells uses Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies to combat writer’s block.

Thomas Ligotti: “Severini” — It’s in pieces like this where you can most clearly see Ligotti’s influence on China Miéville. Both of them are obsessed with horrors conjured by the act of human creation. They’re obsessed with art, but morbidly. Miéville is the more dazzling writer, and the more interesting accidental art critic. But Ligotti’s comparative directness and obsessive paranoia conjures a mood of dread more consistently.

Television

Stranger Things: Season one, episodes 4-8 — This show finally captured me in the opening moments of its fifth episode, where the children figure out what’s going on because of their awareness of the tropes of the kind of story they’re in. It’s not the first time this has been done, certainly. Parts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and nearly the whole of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who use the same trick. But it signalled a moment where the show ceased to be a genre homage and started to become a genuine postmodern pastiche. By the end of the episode, Stranger Things is invoking Under the Skin and courting our modern paranoia about surveillance. How brilliant to have the villains of a piece be people who listen. Villains are usually acting; scheming; talking; monologuing. But our key villain in this show says very little — his power is in what he hears. How contemporary. But it also fits perfectly into the show’s Cold War setting. Then, in the next episode, another character figures out the monster (there’s a monster; that’s not a spoiler) with knowledge of predators that she gleaned from her nerdy childhood obsession with animals. This is a show where power comes from knowing things. I love that. I can’t say I was totally satisfied with the ending, but the second season renewal was announced just after I started watching, so I don’t have to be. Well-made television that scratches an itch.

Music

Björk: Debut & Post — You know how sometimes you listen to an early album by an artist you admire, mostly out of curiosity, thinking that it’ll at least shed some light into their later masterpieces? That’s not what listening to Debut is like at all. This album completely stands up on its own merits even today. Honestly, I’m inclined to say that however much Björk’s songwriting had matured by the time of Homogenic, this album has actually aged better, sonically. “Human Behaviour” is a totally nutty single on which Björk undercuts a great pop hook by singing in what first seems to be a different key. And the album starts as it means to go on. Every track on this is surprising, and never in the ostentatious way that art pop people can sometimes be on their debuts. This can stand alongside Björk’s best work, and thus alongside the best music of the ‘90s. Post starts off even stronger, with “Army of Me” and “Hyper-Ballad,” two of her best songs. But it meanders a bit from there. It seems like the sort of album that will be a grower in the same way that Vespertine is, and that Debut and Homogenic are not. Will revisit frequently.

Brian Eno: Ambient 1/Music for Airports — No need to review this a second time, but I feel I should at least express gratitude for it. It’s been a frazzling week. But when I put this on, I could feel my heart rate slowing practically from the first second. This isn’t just good music, it’s good-spirited music — an applicable boon to all humanity.

Brian Eno: Ambient 4/On Land — I have adopted the two outer portions of Eno’s Ambient quadrilogy as true ambient music this week. But where Music for Airports soothes, On Land maintains an air of slight discomfort. It is the lesser album, but when fed through overworked iPhone speakers and placed on the dresser, it makes a grand soundtrack for reading Ligotti.

Stephen Sondheim: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Original Broadway Cast Recording) — There are no operas, not even Wagner’s, that can be considered great works of literature as well as great pieces of music. There are few musicals that this can be said of, but this is self-evidently one of them. For all of its typical unlikely plot elements (Todd’s seafaring companion just happens to fall in love with his daughter by sheer coincidence?) and less than plausible romances (Mrs. Lovett, what were you thinking?), Sweeney contains a dozen sublime verses ranging from the devastatingly simple (“You are young. Life has been kind to you. You will learn.”) to the magnificently virtuosic (“There’s a whole in the world like a great black pit” etc.). And even if their would-be love story is a tad undercooked, Todd and Lovett are two of musical theatre’s most fully-realized characters. This piece feels strangely ahead of its time, given how inundated we currently are with antihero narratives. But the highest compliment that can be paid to such a story is that its protagonist’s actions are genuinely sympathetic, even as they are unconscionable. And Todd’s actions are certainly unconscionable. The fact that this story exists at the emotionally heightened level of reality where musicals live means that Sondheim can throw a philosophy directly into Todd’s mouth and not have it feel hackneyed: “They all deserve to die. Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why: because the lives of the wicked should be made brief. For the rest of us, death would be a relief.” Todd is not merely an avenger for his ruined family. He is avenging the entire world for having been ruined by itself. This is a kind of person that exists. Sweeney Todd is every disillusioned nihilist who’s ever shot up a public place. He is also every religious fundamentalist who has committed atrocities. He is everybody who has ever ended a life in the name of a philosophy. And yet. It is difficult to despise Todd completely. This has less to do with his tragic history (angry-man-avenges-wronged-woman plotlines are a dime a dozen and they are sexist and bad) than it does with the fact that, like his fellow bloodstained musical theatre villain Aaron Burr (and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s model for Burr, the far less effective Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar), Todd has a legitimate grievance. “The history of the world, my love, is those below serving those up above.” Todd is an elegant enough thinker to see the poetry in baking unsuspecting Londoners into pies. For Todd, mass murder is the only true social equalizer. Todd is unforgivable. He is damned, even within the confines of his own play. But anybody who is aware of our civilization’s various systemic inequities may find it hard not to lick their lips as Sweeney slits throats.

Jon Anderson: Olias of Sunhillow — Parts of it feel like something that might be played in a spa. But all in all, I absolutely adore this and have since I first heard it. This is essentially Anderson doing what he always does, but without the rest of Yes to help him realize his vision. Working within those constraints, he makes something that is entirely unlike Yes music, but which is maybe the most fully realized iteration of his mystical vision that we have on record. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it is an exceptionally good solo album that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend even to people who hate Yes.

Games

Lethophobia — I’ve barely begun, but I’m quite enjoying this. It’s a free browser game made with Failbetter Games’ StoryNexus tool. So, basically, the mechanics are the same as Fallen London and the text-based portions of my beloved Sunless Sea. This is the first game I’ve played on this platform that isn’t actually developed by Failbetter, though I have had a bash at making one. (Didn’t get far.) Lethophobia starts in a familiar adventure game place: amnesia. Also, you’re by a house in a clearing. Rings a bell. But so far, it’s distinguishing itself with excellent, funny writing and by making interesting use of StoryNexus’s quality-based story progression. The real test of this is whether I return to it after my initial session. Never a guarantee with games I didn’t spend money on.

Firewatch — Yeah, this is what I want games to be like. I mean, not the only thing I want games to be like, but if this could be the default that would be fine by me. Firewatch is a walking sim with a branching narrative stacked on top of it. It gives you the freedom to explore a compelling place that Gone Home offered, but with the addition of the sort of choice-based dialogue that Telltale’s Walking Dead games are known for. Mechanically, this is a perfect union. It fixes potential problems with both of those pre-existing models for gaming (loathe as I am to entertain the notion of problems with Gone Home). It adds choices and agency to the Gone Home model, which really just basically throws you into a space and says “walk around!” And, it combats the ruthless constraints of the Telltale model, which allows for choice but confines you to exploring one small area of space at a time. I could see this exact set of mechanics working brilliantly for just about any story, and I imagine we will see that happen in the coming years. But the story we have here is pretty magnificent in itself. The premise of a video game where you’re a fire lookout may seem to hold a whiff of Papers Please-esque perversity, but that’s not what’s happening here. There is no “look what I can make fun!” in this game. The fact that your character takes a job as a fire lookout in a huge, gorgeously-rendered national park is straightforwardly and obviously a setup for a proper adventure story. Of course, that story does turn out to be only about a quarter of the point, tops. The real beauty of playing Firewatch is in hearing the interactions of its two main characters: Harry, the player character (voiced brilliantly by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer), and Delilah, his boss in another lookout tower who is available only by radio (voiced equally brilliantly by Cissy Jones). These two both have some shit to work through. You don’t voluntarily isolate yourself in the brush if you don’t. And it’s the relationship that forms between them (which can presumably be very different depending on your choices) that forms the core of the game. Firewatch is a rare thing: a fun, unpretentious video game that nonetheless feels like it’s for grown-ups. I love it. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

WTF with Marc Maron: “Joseph Arthur/Peter Bebergal” — A great episode featuring two guests I’m interested in but whose work I’ve never gotten around to. Bebergal’s book about rock music and the occult, The Season of the Witch, has been on my list for ages. He’s not a great interview, but he seems like the sort of person who might write a good book. Also, Maron is curiously comfortable talking about magic without caveats and provisos. At no point did he say something like “but you know this is all bullshit, right?” Maybe he understands that magic is only ever a metaphor, which indicates that it has meaning, which means that it has power regardless of its ontological status. Or maybe he just remembers what it was like to be on coke. Either way. Also, the conversation with Joseph Arthur is interesting as a peek into the career of somebody who had votes of confidence from Peter Gabriel and Lou Reed but never quite made it. I’ve known who he is since Gabriel’s Big Blue Ball came out belatedly in 2008: a dubious, messy record made from three weeks of sessions at Real World Studios in the 90s. I liked Arthur’s contribution. But I never checked out his records. Perhaps I should. He sounds like what Marc Maron would be if he were a musician.

Love and Radio: Season 5 preview — Not the most exciting preview that came out this week (Again, I’m recusing myself from reviewing Heavyweight) but I’m definitely excited to hear stories about transgenic humans.

99% Invisible: “Public Works” — Roman Mars remarked on Twitter that this would be the nerdiest episode of 99pi ever. It kind of is, and it is also one of the best of recent times. It’s just a flat-out discussion (not a story, mind you) of the history of the notion of “infrastructure,” a word so new that the Washington Post put it in quotation marks like I just did as recently as the ‘80s.

The Gist: “A GOP Apostate Explains Her Vote for Hillary” — The best Gist I’ve heard since picking it up. Firstly, it contains a reasonable interview with a reasonable Republican, which is the unicorn of this election season’s press coverage. Secondly, it contains the most delightfully discursive and amusing spiel I’ve heard. It’s about the notion that sophistication does not necessarily equal excellence, but that’s an oversimplification. Pesca takes his time getting to his point, and he wheels through a whole bunch of implications without warning you it’ll happen. Radio doesn’t have to proceed in a straight line. Pesca’s success as a podcaster is proof that listeners are smart enough to follow along with a train of thought, even when the tracks have corners. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “New Sylvan Esso, Sharon Van Etten, R.E.M. Acoustic, More” — Stephen Thompson’s presence is always appreciated. I recognize the value of Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton and I’ve come to love both of them as inviting presences on this podcast. But Thompson is smarter than either of them. As for the music, the Kate Tempest track eclipses all of them handily. I’ll definitely be checking out that record.

Omnireviewer (week of Aug. 28, 2016)

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

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

Television

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

Music

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Aug. 21, 2016)

33 reviews! Holy smokes!

Television

Deadwood: Season three, episodes 10-12 — Okay, so Deadwood doesn’t get a series finale with the intentionality of The Wire and The Sopranos (whose finale was a piss-take anyway; a beautiful piss-take). But I’m not convinced that the lack of an ending actually compromises the show all that much. Deadwood’s a show about a continuing process: the formation of a community. It’s also a show about its own genre, and a critique of the classic western movie value of rugged individualism. It isn’t so much a show with tightly woven, neat narrative arcs. In that sense, it may be one of the most discursive shows ever on television. Even Orange is the New Black, discursive as it can be, walks a traceable line from the beginnings to the ends of its seasons. Deadwood doesn’t so much walk from one place to another as it, to borrow a word from a favourite character, perambulates. These final three episodes of the show are three more hours of time spent in an interesting place, populated by interesting people. The people have changed gradually, along with their community. Regardless of whether that’s the point where the show was meant to end up or not, it’s a fine place to leave off. Deadwood is one of the best series in the history of television. I’ll watch it again for sure.

Last Week Tonight: August 21, 2016 — The chartered schools segment is a bit joke-light, but segments about Ryan Lochte and getting Trump out of the race compensate, mostly.

Comedy

David Cross: Making America Great Again — Does it make me a really good person that I thought all of these jokes were very very obvious? I think it does. This is an okay special. But I really don’t think that most of the people who’ll be inclined to watch it on Netflix will come away with their views challenged, and they probably won’t laugh much either. Because, when you laugh at, for instance, a great bit by Louis C.K., you’re laughing because he’s helping you see a thing in a way you hadn’t been able to see it before, because it was counterintuitive until it was communicated in a certain way. (“People have to do their favourite thing!”) David Cross has a few of those moments. There’s a completely brutal, absolutely wonderful bit about guns in schools that is a real highlight. But depending on who you are, most of these jokes will either make you very angry, or make you feel validated. That’s what Facebook does, and I hate Facebook. Comedy for the age of the viral mill. 

Music

The Tragically Hip: Fully Completely — Definitely not as good as Day For Night. I understand that this is the album where the Hip “broke through,” but they still sound a bit like a very good pub band on this. A very good pub band with several obvious hits in their set and extremely high-calibre lyrics, but still. “Nautical Disaster” is in a different universe to this music. I’ll still probably listen to it a bunch, because it’s compelling nonetheless. And I do have this one very large caveat to my general indifference: “Wheat Kings” is glorious. It tells a bittersweet story by way of small images, and it ties that story inextricably to its setting. And it does all of this in three verses and a minimalistic chorus. The band always plays beautifully in these acoustic ballads, and Downie’s voice delivers pathos without ever stepping over the line into indulgence. “Wheat Kings” easily eclipses the rest of the album, but that’s not so much an indictment of Fully Completely as a demonstration of this particular song’s power.

The Knights: The Ground Beneath Our Feet — I like it when a classical disc is programmed around an idea. This live recording by a new music ensemble I hadn’t heard before is based around the concept of the concerto grosso — a form where a small group of instruments is pitted against a larger group. It’s a broad enough notion that it can encompass a huge range of musical styles. The record is divided into halves that can roughly be characterized as “old stalwarts” and “proper new music.” The oldest of the stalwarts is Bach, whose Concerto for Violin and Oboe is well played here. I wonder why they didn’t go for Corelli, given his importance to the concerto grosso as a genre. Nonetheless, in this setting, Bach shines. It may be simply the company he’s keeping on this record, but it occurs to me that he’s got a more modern sensibility than many composers who came after. It’s got to do with his working within rule structures rather than prioritizing a personal idiom. Compared to, say, Beethoven, he’s a glib hipster. Historically, the next figure on the program is Stravinsky, whose Dumbarton Oaks concerto is an absolute gem that I’d never heard before. I’ve always loved Stravinsky’s neo-classical works, for similar reasons to why I love Bach. There’s something unforced about both of those bodies of work, but still beautiful. The other stalwart is the ubiquitous new music god Steve Reich, whose Duet for Two Violins and Strings finds him in a meditative mood. It’s quite wonderful. As for the proper new music, we’ve got two collaborative compositions. The first, by Brooklyn Rider’s Colin Jacobsen (whose music I adored on A Walking Fire) and the santur virtuoso Siamak Aghaei, is a double concerto for their two instruments. It has its moments, but it’s the weak point of the disc by a long shot. The second, the disc’s title track, is collaboratively composed (semi-improvised?) by various members of the ensemble. It’s based on a ground bass by the obscure Italian Baroque composer Tarquino Merula (get it? Ground beneath our feet?) and when it picks up, it’s absolutely thrilling and often ridiculous and stupid, which are characteristics I like in new music. This is the kind of disc that I really love from classical-derived ensembles these days. It devotes half of its running time to traditional but not overplayed selections from the rep, and the other half to taking risks. Whether the risks pay off or not is almost beside the point, though I’d say that about half of the new material on this disc is really good. I don’t review all of the classical music I listen to on this blog, because I listen for work, and a lot of the time I don’t make it through the whole disc. But I have heard a bunch of classical recordings from this year, and this is one of the standouts.

Literature, etc.

Lois Tyson: Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide — You may have realized that there are never any books or stories in Omnireviewer these days. I mean, I’ve been busy. But I’ve also been catching up with a lot of my favourite bloggers (whose work I don’t review because of my rabbit-hole rule, see Omnireviewer no. 1). And I’ve been reading this. Tyson’s prose is engaging and she takes on the explicit role of a teacher throughout, and not just a scholar. It’s trivial to breeze through a chapter on a long bus commute. I’ve done so on three commutes, now: one each devoted to the chapters on psychoanalysis, Marxism and feminism. The really great thing about this is how the chapters are structured. Each one starts with a series of simple explanations of the given theory’s terms and premises (sign-exchange value, materialist feminism, etc.) with even-handed accounts of the debates within these scholarly communities, and concludes with a practical application of each theory to The Great Gatsby: a short, good book that everybody has read. I have no specific need for these theories in my own work at the moment, but I do hope to do some of the sort of writing where they could be useful in the near future. I’d recommend this to anybody who wants to sharpen their criticism chops.

Tom Scocca: “Gawker Was Murdered By Gaslight” — I find many defences of Gawker’s ethics a little dubious, but there’s no arguing with Scocca when he says that the publication’s practices don’t really have anything to do with why it is ceasing to exist. The fact that we’re living in a world where journalism outfits have no legal defence against powerful rich people with vendettas makes me very uncomfortable.

Nick Denton: “How Things Work” — Denton comes off as a bit compromising in Scocca’s piece, but here he gets to be an idealist. Not a kind of idealist I like, mind you. The idea that Gawker’s goal was to “reduce the friction between the thought and the page” troubles me. There should be things that keep you from saying exactly what you think in public forums. Lots of things. People’s unfiltered thoughts are dangerous garbage. But I understand Denton’s impulse towards radical freedom of information in principle, even if it was practiced poorly. Plus, the site’s ahead-of-the-curve realization that a form of intensely critical journalism was needed to cover the new powerbrokers in Silicon Valley is a major moment in the culture of the internet. Which, of course, only makes the source of its demise more ironic and troubling.

Joseph and Amanda Boyden: “For Gord Downie, Seven Love Songs” — I mean, it’s a bit gushy. It’s a bit like rock criticism of old, where the subject is to be idolized and venerated. But, come on. The Boydens are friends of the Hip. They deserve to wax grandly poetic in public for a few thousand words. I think I’m done reading about the Hip now.

Jorge Luis Borges: The Book of Imaginary Beings — I found this for six bucks at one of my favourite used bookstores (MacLaod’s on Pender; seriously, it’s the best shop wander in the city) and figured what the hell. Trust Borges to elevate the encyclopaedia to literary status. This is literally what it says on the cover: an alphabetical listing of fictional beasts from various cultures. Most are described in Borges’s own prose, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, working with Borges himself, but some are simply extracts from the prose of local experts. It’s not meant to be read from cover to cover, so I won’t. I’ll just keep it around and pick through it occasionally. A few highlights so far: the entry on the Squonk of Pennsylvania is excerpted from a guidebook by William T. Cox, which is the source for the Genesis song of the same name. Borges’s entry on the Golem focusses in a fascinating way on the idiosyncrasies of Kabbalistic magic. Also, there is apparently a fictional monkey in northern China that is only about four inches tall, jet black, and likes to drink India ink. It is described as waiting patiently with one forepaw resting on the other, until a person is finished writing, and then it drinks whatever ink is left in the inkwell, resting satisfiedly afterwards. Adorbs.  

Thomas Ligotti: “Teatro Grottesco” — It is good/terrible to be back in the world of Ligotti. The title story from the collection I’m reading proves not only to have the most demonstrative and catchy title, but also to be one of the highlights of the book. I’d place it alongside “The Red Tower” as the best I’ve read so far. It’s a story about weird art, written by one of the great weird artists. And, though it doesn’t obsess over its own structure as much as “The Red Tower” does, it is equally concerned with concepts and processes. Several pages are just the protagonist agonizing over what logical process could bring down the nebulous force called the Teatro, and it’s fascinating and horrifying. There’s not much to say about this without explaining the mystery away, so I’ll just encourage you to read it when it’s dark and shitty and you want to feel unsettled. Pick of the week.

Games

Pokémon Go — I don’t get it. I really don’t. It’s possible that I’m just doing it wrong, but I found so few Pokémon during the half-day I spent periodically doing this thing that I have very little inclination to continue. I have no prejudice against “casual games,” but I do tend to prefer when games are discrete units of experience with beginnings and endings, like movies. They fit into my life better that way, because I can decide that I’m going to devote X hours to them, and then be done forever. (Regular readers will know that I’m especially predisposed to games that only take a few hours to beat. I like my games to be as much like movies as possible.) Games with the potential to expand outward into the rest of my life are more inconvenient than anything. I don’t think I’m going to get into this.

Podcasts

Theory of Everything: “pass” — I’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating. It’s a not entirely comedic monologue about what happens when the self-driving cars become self-aware. Walker is a really good writer, and I’m just as happy for him to do stuff like this as I am to hear him do docs.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch” You’re Listening To Delilah” — This is worthwhile just to hear the rapport between Linda Holmes and David Greene, whose show I have never heard because I am neither American nor a morning person. I have also never heard Delilah’s radio program, which is one of those funny artefacts that’s just as much a part of a place as an old road or a gaudy neon sign. This interview is really great, though, because it demonstrates why she’s exactly the right person to be doing this job, and it also puts her opposite Greene, who gets to be a radio listener in the context of this piece, as well as a radio personality. Fun.

99% Invisible: “Photo Credit” — The best episode of 99pi in a while. Lucia Moholy took iconic photographs of Bauhaus architecture and Walter Gropius, like a shit, denied her any credit for years. This contains some basic context about the Bauhaus, a diversion into copyright law as applied to photographic images, and also Nazis. Fantastic.

The Heart: “The Big House” — The memoir of a dominatrix brought to life. This doesn’t even really need to have a narrative arc to be fascinating. It’s a glimpse inside a world most people will never see, for our own various reasons.

All Songs Considered: “Bon Iver, the White Stripes, Ed Harcourt, Lambchop, More” — I’ve always resisted Bon Iver, but I really liked this track, I’ve got to say. I may even listen to the album. I was also super into the tracks by LVL UP and Lambchop. I want to like the instrumental, percussion-heavy track from Thor and Friends but I actually thought it was pretty bland. Good episode altogether, though.

The Gist: “The ‘80s Really Were the Best” — Were they, though? Both host and interviewee are very nostalgic for the original Ghostbusters, and I cannot figure out why the hell anybody still gives that movie the time of day. But I can listen to Pesca talk about anything.

Planet Money: “Oil,” episodes 3-5 — My podcast feed is obsessed with fracking, these days. This series was a wonderful, wild venture, and the contextual stories about the invention of fracking (by accident, no less) and how oil got into all of our consumer products are just as interesting as the tale of two intrepid NPR producers trying (and failing) to make a profit off of 100 barrels of oil. The mini-series finale is a lovely speculative exploration of how history might have unfolded differently if there were no fossil fuels. It is in itself a really great podcast episode that I think everybody should hear.

On The Media: “Bob’s Grill” parts 1-4 — This is a brilliant concept for an ongoing series of mini-episodes: Bob Garfield grilling people in the media who’ve been shitty. It isn’t uniformly great listening, but it’ll scratch the itch. These four focus on Judith Miller, who misreported on the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Hunter Moore, a revenge porn enabler who is the honest to god scum of the earth, James O’Keefe, a gotcha videojournalist who habitually distorts quotes and manipulates footage, and ExxonMobil’s Richard Keil, who denies that Exxon funds climate change denial. Garfield is adequately hard on Miller and Keil, but he doesn’t corner O’Keefe as thoroughly as I’d like. The real disappointment is Hunter Moore, whose very existence seems to depress Garfield so thoroughly that he can’t tear into him adequately.  

Code Switch: “Struggling School, Or Sanctuary?” — This is a crossover with Embedded, a podcast I likely won’t listen to, because I hate “ostentatious journalism,” even when the reporting is solid. But this story of a low-performing school in a predominantly black suburb that got closed down is a real heartbreaker. I’m reminded of This American Life’s two-parter about Harper high school. It’s not quite that good, but worth a listen.

The Sporkful: “Beyond Pot Brownies” — Dan Pashman and Jad Abumrad getting high together was not something I knew I needed in my life. But, there you go. Pashman’s key point in this episode are that in order for weed edibles to provide a good eating experience, in tandem with the intoxication experience, you need to be able to eat a full serving of whatever the weed’s baked into and not go out of your mind. It makes you wonder if some point in the future, weed edibles will become something like beer or wine, as opposed to being like tequila shots: you consume them for both halves of the experience, the taste and the high. I’m not super sure what Abumrad and the other Radiolab staffers are doing here. There’s a great moment when Jad gets too high and the sound design goes all Jad, to the point where I halfway thought he must have done it. The credits proved me wrong, alas. Maybe the Radiolab folks are just infamous stoners in the WNYC building?

This American Life: “The Incredible Case of the P.I. Moms” — Holy moly. This is honest to god the most enthralling radio I’ve heard in weeks. I love a lot of shows for a lot of reasons, but I really understand why TAL maintains its radio dominance: it can string you along like nothing else. This is a twisting, turning, film noir of a story about a horrible person who tried to make a reality show by committing crimes and staging stings — with a troupe of “soccer moms” who doubled as P.I.s. It’s amazing. I heard Ira Glass speak one time and he said that storytelling is as simple as saying what happens, and then what happens next, and then what happens next. This story could serve as proof-of-concept for that idea. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Playing God” — A good week for the juggernauts. This is a deep dive into the ethical considerations involved with hospital triage. It’s a collaboration with the New York Times, and their reporter Sheri Fink, who wrote that book about the hospital in Hurricane Katrina that I’ve been meaning to read since it came out. This hour asks the impossible questions that Radiolab always does at its best, and tells engaging stories. It’s got some great original music. It also has an incredible line from Robert Krulwich at the very end. It’s their best of the year for sure, not counting every episode of More Perfect

Sampler: “Paul F. Tompkins, The Mayor of Podcastland” — I listened to this in the hopes that it would make Paul F. Tompkins’ massive offering in the medium of podcasts more approachable and comprehensible. It didn’t, but I did get a great interview with Paul F. Tompkins, and that’s not nothing.

The Gist: “The Year Nirvana Lost Out to Bryan Adams” — Mike Pesca should not sing Hamilton parodies. But he should definitely keep talking to this music critic, who I’ve heard on this show a couple of times now, and he’s always great. And at least Pesca’s a bit less religious about fucking Ghostbusters this time around.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Stranger Things Creators The Duffer Brothers” — I am beyond excited to finally watch this series. Next week.

99% Invisible: “On Average” — Man, I feel like it’s two years ago. This week, I’ve listened to two great new 99pi episodes, and the other best shows of the week are This American Life and Radiolab. This piece on why designing things for “the average person” is a bad idea should serve as a parable for anybody making anything ever. But, even as a straightforward piece of journalism, it’s a remarkable story about how a seemingly good idea got way out of hand.

Code Switch: “Nate Parker’s Past, His Present, And The Future of ‘The Birth of a Nation’” — A nuanced, complex discussion of whether or not Nate Parker’s very righteous movie about a slave rebellion ought to functionally expunge his past as an alleged rapist. And, nuanced and complex as it is, it mercifully comes to a conclusion nonetheless. The answer is no. No it shouldn’t.

All Songs Considered: “The Beatles are Live And Sounding Better Than Ever” — Giles Martin is as much a gentleman as his father. And he’s also doing God’s work by cleaning up old live Beatles records. I can’t wait to hear the new Hollywood Bowl reissue. Even considering that those years are not my favourite part of the Beatles’ career, it’s really exciting to have these recordings back, and sounding good.

Reply All: “Making Friends” — This is a lovely story of a person who is living on a fine line between mental illness and a healthy imagination. She has four imaginary friends who help her through her life. She belongs to a community of people who have these so-called “tulpas” (a great, great word), but she’s also trying to exist within the institutions of conventional human society (for example, marriage). One thing I love about Reply All is that, being focussed on the internet and the communities that form there, it covers a vast swathe of humanity. All of the strange, wondrous, troubling corners of modern human experience are fair game on this show.

Theory of Everything: “revolutionary slogans will be written by the winners” — The story of a definitely totally real drinking contest between Guy Debord and Mitt Romney. There’s only one podcast that could happen on.

Science Vs: “Organic Food” — Here’s another issue with this new show that I desperately want to love: when the science is inconclusive, it makes for frustrating radio. I’m going to keep listening to this, though, because its best moments are truly great.

Omnireviewer (week of Jul. 3, 2016)

22 reviews. I’m slipping! (Also busy.)

Television

O.J.: Made in America: Episodes 1-3 — I think this is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. I haven’t finished it yet, so I’ll save my final assessment for next week.

Music

Banco del Mutuo Soccorso: Io Sono Nato Libero — I’ve been aware of Banco since I was probably about 12. I heard a couple of their songs at that point, but in the absence of streaming services or the willingness to engage in piracy, that was as far as I got. This is the first time I’ve heard an album of theirs all the way through, and it is glorious. It is strange and ambitious and incredibly beautiful at times. Ugly at others, like all of the best prog rock. Francesco di Giacomo had some serious pipes, which is primarily what puts this above PFM for me — though I’m not sure there’s anything on this quite as flawless as “Impressioni di settembre.” I’d like to know what the lyrics are about. Next time through I’ll keep a translation close by.

Harmonium: L’Heptade — A classic. This is my favourite Harmonium album, edging out Si on avait by a tiny smidgen. What I love about this is that the folk and chanson elements are still very present, but they’ve broadened the palette into full-on prog. The addition of drums adds weight, and the fact that they’re used sparingly doesn’t take too much from the effervescence of prior albums. The concept of L’Heptade, a person passes through seven states of consciousness within a day, is certainly similar to the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, and the orchestral interludes amplify the comparison. But this is far more ambitious and far stranger. Serge Fiori deserves to be spoken of in the same sentences as Robert Fripp and Jon Anderson. Taken together, Harmonium’s three albums are an absolutely crucial body of work in ‘70s prog.

Lucy Dacus: No Burden — An All Songs recommendation. A few songs are great, and a few are a bit dull. I might listen again, or I might not.

Literature, etc.

Thomas Ligotti: “In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land” — All three stories in the second section of Teatro Grotesco (subtitled “Deformations,” as if it applies more to these specific stories than all his other ones) deal with a place across a mysterious border. The Quine Organization doesn’t appear in this one, and it isn’t labour-related. But it does confront the possibility of nearby societies behaving mysteriously. This clearly unsettles Ligotti, but not in a racist way like his weird fiction predecessor H.P. Lovecraft. It’s more a matter of a place that’s similar enough to home to be familiar but different enough to be, well, lethal. This story is actually four stories, all of which take place in the same town and presumably are told by the same narrator. What’s really interesting is the way that they paint a cohesive picture of a place when taken together. Not one of the better stories in Teatro Grottesco so far, but still good.

George Saunders: “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” — This has supplanted Bob Garfield’s On The Media Trump coverage as my favourite piece of writing about this campaign. Saunders hits all the right notes here, whether comparing Trump to Ralph Kramden (“He’s a man who has just dropped a can opener into his wife’s freshly baked pie. He’s not about to start grovelling about it, and yet he’s sorry — but, come on, it was an accident. He’s sorry, he’s sorry, O.K., but do you expect him to say it? He’s a good guy. Anyway, he didn’t do it.”), directly quoting a man muttering as he leaves a rally (“Hey, I’m not paying for your shit, I’m not paying for your college, so you go to Hell, go to work, go to Hell, suck a dick.”), or using inventive metaphors to express why the right and left in America cannot understand each other (“You and I approach a castle. One of us has watched only ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail,’ the other only ‘Game of Thrones.’ What is the meaning, to the collective ‘we,’ of yon castle? We have no common basis from which to discuss it.”) It becomes less silly and more sad as it goes on, and the final kicker is really something. Go read. Pick of the week.

John Herrman: The Content Wars — “Internet platforms inherently favor their own content; more subtly, they create the conditions for their users to do the same.” This, in a nutshell, is the problem. Facebook and Twitter are naturally self-interested, and also very powerful and popular (at least, Facebook is). So, their progress will tend toward a total monopoly on human attention. And, as that quote implies, they won’t necessarily do it by Machiavellian means — they inherently privilege content that works better on their feeds. This makes them no less twisted.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Game of Thrones” — A nice, but inconsequential discussion of the changing role of women in Game of Thrones. Still a ways to go, it would seem.

More Perfect: “The Imperfect Plaintiffs” — This is the first episode of the constantly fantastic More Perfect to feature more than one story. It’s a dyad of stories that elucidates the odd world of test case lawsuits filed by activists. First off, we learn how an LGBTQ leader had a sodomy law in Texas deemed unconstitutional based on the case of two men who might not have even had sex with each other. Then, we dart over to the loathsome side of the political spectrum to learn how one man is trying to roll back decades of civil rights legislation, including the affirmative action case that was decided a few weeks ago. Fascinating stuff.

99% Invisible: “Remembering Stonewall” — This is a great piece from 1989 featuring the voices of people who were at the Stonewall riots telling the story from their perspective. The narration is minimal, so the story feels like fragments strung together. It’s apparently the first documentary made about Stonewall, so it’s very much worth a listen.

Imaginary Worlds: “Undertale” — Molinsky doesn’t quite get to the heart of what makes Undertale a fascinating and revolutionary game, partially because he hadn’t finished it when he made this, and partially because any adequate discussion would involve spoiling the most shocking moment in any video game ever. And that moment must go unspoilt, even to the spoiler-unconcerned such as myself. What Molinsky does get into is the idea that Undertale deconstructs certain video game tropes. Which is true, of course, and Undertale is an effective metacritique even before its staggering, unspoilable conclusion. But it’s far from the first to deconstruct the idea of choice in video games (The Stanley Parable did it first and does it better), or even the idea of death in video games (Adam Cadre’s parser game Endless, Nameless did it first, though less compellingly). So, this has its weak points, but it did make me really want to go back and play Undertale again. After all, I’ve still got two whole endings to discover.

Code Switch: “I’m Not Black, I’m O.J.” — Ezra Edelstein is disappointingly uninteresting in conversation, but I could listen to Gene Demby talk about this documentary series for days.

All Songs Considered: “Your Favourite New Musicians of 2016 (So Far)” — Not a lot of this music jumped out at me, but this did prompt me to check out Lucy Dacus and Margaret Glaspy.

More Perfect: “Kittens Kick the Giggly Blue Robot All Summer” — Silly mnemonic title aside, this is as wonky as you’d hope a story about the establishment of the Supreme Court’s powers would be. God, was Thomas Jefferson awful.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The State of the Sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, and a Quiz — This broad discussion of sequels is a lot more interesting than a segment on Independence Day: Resurgence would have been. Quizzes, on the other hand, are not generally my favourite part of this show.

In Our Time: “Sovereignty” — If there is a weakness to In Our Time (and there are many, in spite of my undying affection), it’s that discussions focus almost entirely on European thought and history. It’s very old-guard academia — no critical theory here. So, in this discussion of the concept of sovereignty as extrapolated from Aristotle by Bodin and elaborated upon by Hobbes and Rousseau, I found myself wishing for a discussion of First Nations sovereignty as it relates (or doesn’t relate?) to those principles. Naturally, it never came, because In Our Time is only actually interested in our time in a rather limited way. That’s a serious liability for a radio program that purports to be about the discussions and debates that define our era. On the other hand, where else are you going to hear about this stuff in this much detail? Radiolab? No.

StartUp: “2680 Madison Road” — This starts with a needlessly long and falsely suspenseful trek through a semi-abandoned building. But after that, it gets going. It uses the brilliant premise of charting the rise and fall (or the rise and further rise, in some cases) of businesses that were started on the same lot: 2680 Madison Road, just down the street from Alex Blumberg’s childhood home in Cincinnati, to highlight the fickleness of business. The back half of this season of StartUp has been fantastic. I still hope they go back to serialized stories next season, though.

Invisibilia: “The Problem with the Solution” — Now I remember why I mostly liked the first season of Invisibilia — it occasionally brings stories that are so astonishing you can’t believe you’ve never heard them before. I constantly felt like the first season of this show was pulling my leg: that eventually it would reveal that all the stories had been made up as part of a social experiment to see how far they could stretch their audience’s credulity. This episode, about a Belgian town where families take in boarders with serious mental illnesses and care for them for an average of 28 years, is one of those stories that seems like it can’t be real. It’s great.

The Memory Palace: “Natural Habitat” — This is one of the good ones. Their all good, but this is a really top-shelf episode of The Memory Palace. It tells the story the first American woman to bring a live panda home from China. It manages to be a love story, an adventure story, and a tale of evolving notions about animal captivity at the same time. Plus, it throws some anti-imperialism in there. It’s long by this show’s standards, but completely sustains the length. Again, this is the best writing in radio. Pick of the week.

Invisibilia: “Mr. Kitt” — A fun character piece about a man who lives in the progressive housing development from the week’s full episode. This is a good week for Invisibilia.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Jeff Goldblum” — It turns out that Jeff Goldblum does the Jeff Goldblum thing when he’s not acting as well. He’s a lovely fellow, and less eccentric than you might think. Maron’s a real steamroller for the first third or so of the conversation, but he eases into a rhythm eventually and lets Goldblum talk. You might not expect this podcast to contain an elevated discussion of acting technique, but it does, and it is quite marvellous.

99% Invisible: “Unpleasant Design” — I’ve discovered that I like this show best when it dives into a concept and its implications more than when it tells a story. This is outstanding. Probably the second-best thing I heard this week.

Omnireviewer (week of Jun. 19, 2016)

23 reviews.

Movies

The Nice Guys — Seldom have I been so totally entertained. This is a big, rompy action comedy that just allows itself to be that thing. It’s trope aware, but most of the humour in this doesn’t come from undercutting the tropes: it comes from great, great iterations of those tropes. There are physical comedy setpieces in this that are so beautifully intuitive you wonder why you’ve never seen it done before. Both leads are good; Ryan Gosling is fabulous — and unexpectedly dextrous at physical comedy. We knew he could deliver a joke from The Big Short. But jokes aren’t the primary comedic currency of The Nice Guys. It says something about both Shane Black and Ryan Gosling that the move can get laughs from pratfalls in 2016. Also, this movie corrected a problem I’ve been seeing in a bunch of movies (mostly by the Coen Brothers): it’s got dumb comedy liberals in it, who stage vacuous protests about social ills they don’t adequately understand — but it also has comedy conservatives who monologue villainously about American exceptionalism. In a Coen Brothers movie, the monologuing villain would have been subbed out for some variant of the plainspoken cowboy, who espouses moderate views and good old-fashioned common sense — as if that’s what the liberals are fighting against. And yet it doesn’t feel like South Park-esque false equivalency. It’s nice to see a movie that calls out its comedy liberals for being dumb — because, in this movie, they really are very dumb — without actually siding against them or their cause. Go see this movie! The reviews are lukewarm, but they don’t take into account how much fun it is.

Finding Dory — I was an actual child, or something like it, when Finding Nemo came out. (Though old enough to be mighty annoyed by all of my friends constantly going “Mine! Mine!” like those damned seagulls.) My memories of its details are hazy, so this movie didn’t really have many nostalgia points going in. But it’s really cute (the frequent flashbacks featuring a saucer-eyed baby version of Dory, voiced by a seven-year-old, are almost too adorable) and it’s got some great sight gags. I imagine as soon as the words “camouflaging octopus” were spoken in a meeting, a hundred animators began seizing with joy. Ellen DeGeneres is fantastic, obviously. Also, there is a character in this — Gerald the sea lion — who is not identifiable as a Disney character. He comes straight from the dankest part of the internet. (Oh! And apparently Adrian Belew wrote the music for the opening short! It does not consist entirely of noisy guitar squalls. The man contains multitudes.)

Television

Orange is the New Black: Season 4, episodes 1-4— This season is enormously hyped, but so far it seems to be playing its cards close to its chest. I will withhold judgement until things explode. (Speaking of withholding: going three full episodes without Sophia was a masterstroke. Makes her eventual return feel super momentous.) For now, it’s just great to have these characters around again.

Last Week Tonight: June 19, 2016 — A marvellous episode that breaks Brexit down probably exactly enough for most non-British people to understand. (Were it not for Slate’s Political Gabfest, I would have been clueless going in.) It also boasts an excellent shorter segment on the Dickey Amendment, which lends clarity to how the NRA can be so effective yet so small.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: June 20, 2016 — The thing that Full Frontal has that Last Week Tonight doesn’t are Bee’s remote pieces. John Oliver used to be great at those too, on The Daily Show — and I know he’s done a couple on LWT, the Snowden one being especially great — but he’s mostly put them away in favour of just sitting at his desk. He can do a lot from that desk, to be fair. But when Bee visits a Cherokee tribal court to learn about how white people can pretty much do whatever they want on native land and take no responsibility, you’re reminded of why it’s good for satirists to get out in the world a bit.

Game of Thrones: “Battle of the Bastards” — As hour-long episodes of nothing but brutal violence go, this is extremely well deployed. It is essentially a whole episode of wish fulfilment, in the sense that the worst people in the show (the masters, Ramsay) suffer gruesomely at the hands of the most noble (Daenerys, Jon, Sansa). And while my feelings about Ramsey’s demise are more relief than satisfaction, I will confess that his particular battle tactics in this episode were marvelously in keeping with his entire brutal character. As big ‘splody episode nines go, it isn’t “Baelor,” and it certainly isn’t “Blackwater.” But it isn’t bad.

Games

The Walking Dead: Michonne: “In Too Deep” — I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Telltale. To some extent, all of their games are the same, but only in the sense that they share all of their mechanics. Those mechanics can be used to tell dramatically different kinds of stories. In fact, within the Walking Dead universe alone, we’ve seen a bunch of different kinds of stories. I’m not familiar with Michonne’s character having never read the comics and not having made it that far into the show. But this game’s opening does a brilliant job characterizing her efficiently. In fact the fight that starts this episode might be the most ingenious one in the series so far, because of the way it invokes backstory as it proceeds. Looking forward to the two remaining episodes — and really looking forward to season three in the fall.

Literature, etc.

Thomas Ligotti: “My Case for Retributive Action” — Ligotti is really good at tying the stakes of his stories to specific traits of their narrators. He did it brilliantly in “Sideshow,” and here he does it in a more straightforward setting. Our narrator has a nervous condition. He is very clearly unwell. The story wouldn’t be very effective without that little bit of knowledge. But given that, it’s really disconcerting. Loved this.

Thomas Ligotti: “Our Temporary Supervisor” — This actually builds on ideas in the previous story, particularly the mysterious corporation/governing body called the Quine Organization. I tend not to be a fan of world-building and continuity in short-form narratives, but the Quine Organization, being a shadowy company with a stranglehold over the citizens of whatever fictional nation this is set in, offers a particularly interesting set of tropes with which to tell labour-related parables. I understand Ligotti went back to that well in his collection My Work is Not Yet Done, which would also have sufficed as a title for either of these stories. I wonder if Q. Org makes an appearance?

Peter Henderson: “Back to the Drawing Board” — This Maisonneuve feature (which I read because I was, and am, trying to convince myself to subscribe) tells two stories of artistic obsession. One is about the animator Richard Williams, best-known for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He spent years and years on his would-be masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler, only to have it taken away from him by a studio who couldn’t handle the blown deadlines any longer. The other is about Garrett Gilchrist, a struggling filmmaker who abandons all potentially lucrative work to try and piece together a complete version of Williams’ film from what scraps remain. It’s a fabulous pair of yarns that also encompasses much of animation history. I may subscribe to Maisonneuve yet.

Music

Yes: Close to the Edge — I don’t think I’ve ever gone longer between listens of this album than just prior to this time through. It really feels like an old friend. For a lot of years, I sort of wore myself out on this Yes album. Even my beloved Tales From Topographic Oceans got less play, because you just don’t have the time to listen to an 81-minute-long record quite so frequently as a 37-minute one. But now that it no longer feels overfamiliar, all of its original impact came roaring back. The title track is one of the most perfect album sides ever made — and not perfect in the meticulous sense that people wrongly associate with Yes. The best moments of “Close to the Edge” are organized chaos — five people making music together in a room, playing fast and loose within a predetermined structure. There are moments here that, in spite of having heard them hundreds of times, made me gasp aloud on the bus, or tear up a bit behind my sunglasses: the first entry of Jon Anderson’s voice, just for a beat, a cappella; the moment at the end of Steve Howe’s opening guitar solo where finishes on nine sixteenth-notes in unison with Bill Bruford’s snare drum; Anderson’s repeated refrain “I get up, I get down,” gradually ascending to a climax just before Rick Wakeman’s church organ solo; Chris Squire’s dissonant bass note, just before the final “seasons will pass you by.” It’s a masterpiece. If there’s anything wrong with this album, it’s just that the first side is so complete in itself that the second side seems superfluous. Which isn’t to say it’s not good — “And You And I” would have been the best track on a couple other great Yes albums. “Siberian Khatru” isn’t a personal favourite, but this lineup of Yes never rocked harder. Close to the Edge is one of the best records of the 70s, in any genre. If prog rock’s not your thing, then you obviously won’t be into this. But any outright malice you may hear expressed towards Close to the Edge can only be born of blind prejudice. Pick of the week.

Peter Gabriel: “I’m Amazing” — Peter Gabriel has never been known for the timeliness of his records. When Up was released in 2002, reviewers pointed out that it had been in development since the early days of industrial music and marked it down as DOA: Dated On Arrival. (Taken in retrospect as an album divorced from history, it works a lot better. It’s one of my favourite records ever, actually.) Yet here’s Gabriel releasing a new track about Muhammed Ali, shortly after his death. It’s decent. Neither a classic, nor an embarrassment. It’s got some African vocal samples near the end that demonstrate how Gabriel still hasn’t quite wrapped his head around the notion of cultural appropriation, in spite of his famously good intentions. But it’s fine. What’s really interesting is that “I’m Amazing” has apparently been in the vault for years, which is why Gabriel was able to get it out so comparatively quickly after Ali died. This suggests that Gabriel may not be the notorious procrastinator, or the anti-prolific elder statesman that some of us have pegged him as. We know that he records a lot more than he releases. This is the first glimpse behind the curtain, and it’s not that bad. What other interesting experiments are locked up in that vault?

Justice: Audio, Video, Disco — I’d say it’s self-evidently better than their debut, if that weren’t obviously untrue on account of how few people agree with it. But I was way more swept up in this than I was in Cross, which I also liked. It’s probably just on account of how proggy it is. But I also think that it has a greater wealth of melodic invention than their debut record, which is important to me in dance music.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Chuck Klosterman is Wrong! (He Says.)” — I had meant to check out The Gist since hearing Brooke Gladstone refer to Mike Pesca as one of the smartest people she’d ever worked with on the Longreads podcast. Now I see why. This is two acclaimed abstract thinkers talking abstractly, and neither one is obviously smarter than the other. Pesca is less insufferable, though.

The Memory Palace: “A White Horse” — A beautiful, timely, sentimental (in the absolutely most tolerable and completely earned way) tribute to gay clubs as safe spaces. DiMeo has the ability to harness the emotional power of language moreso than probably anybody outside of hip hop. This week, he used that power in service of a mourning community. I don’t want to paint him as saintly, or anything like that, because that would be crass. But this is beautiful, and you can definitely spare ten minutes to hear it.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “O.J.: Made in America and a Television Quiz” — Okay, that settles it. I’m watching O.J.: Made in America as soon as I’m done Orange is the New Black. Gene Demby has some really interesting context to offer about Simpson’s troubled relationship with his race. This is one of many times when this show has tipped me over the edge and encouraged me to check out something I was only halfway planning to.

Radio Diaries: “Majd’s Diary: Two Years in the Life of a Saudi Girl” — This is outstanding. It completely proves the value of first-person narratives as journalism. Majd is a fabulous narrator of her own life. It’s really wrenching to hear the conflict she feels between wanting to be a successful scientist and an independent woman and hoping her family (particularly its male members) can accept that decision. Great radio. Pick of the week.

On The Media: “Never Again, Again” — I’ve got to confess, this was kind of noise to me this week. We’ve reached the point in Orlando coverage where it’s just turned into the same depressing stew of narratives that surfaces after every similarly atrocious act of violence. And those narratives tend to be either self-evident or obviously bullshit to me. As for Brexit, that story has me totally lost at this point. Maybe another podcast about it will help…

Slate’s Political Gabfest: “The ‘Brexit Pursued by a Bear’ Edition” — I confess, the episode title had a lot to do with my decision to listen to this. I don’t tune in very often because Emily Bazelon is kind of the only member of the panel I enjoy listening to. And she’s not here this week. So, mm. The Orlando segment provoked a similar reaction from me as OTM’s. The Brexit segment, however, was invaluable. The Economist’s David Rennie is as level-headed a guide through the whole sordid affair as you could ask for. By the time this review is posted, the vote will be in, and you will be depressed. But if you’re still clueless about why it even happened, go back and check this out.

Invisibilia: “The New Norm” — I was mixed on the first season of Invisibilia. On one hand, the stories were really moving in a lot of cases. On the other hand, the show’s voice (not the hosts’ voices, mind you — I’m speaking abstractly, here) can be cloying. This episode displayed both sides, right from the top. The opening segment, about the first McDonald’s in Russia, is spectacularly forced in its attempt to introduce the episode’s theme. But the story of the southern oil rig where employees were encouraged to set aside their macho bullshit and open up to each other is totally compelling. I anticipate another mixed season.

StartUp: “From the Cell to the Sell” — The second part didn’t disappoint. This story of a drug dealer turned startup founder is the high-water mark of StartUp’s third season so far, and given my prior frustrations, I expect it to remain so.

This American Life: “Tell Me I’m Fat” — This is an astonishing and provocative hour of radio that brings up stuff I’ve never even thought about. Lindy West is at the centre of it, reading segments of her new book Shrill, which sounds fantastic. She puts forth the view that fat people (that is her preferred term) shouldn’t be obligated to lose weight, but rather should find a way to be happy as they are. The showstopper, though, is Elna Baker, who tells the story of successfully losing half her body weight, along with a good chunk of her identity. The way she talks about how her relationship to the world changed along with her weight is viscerally distressing, as is the way she talks about the surgery she had to remove her excess skin.

The Gist: “Brexit Stage Right” — I came for Pesca’s take on Team Leave (yeah, they’d already left, but I was still confused) and stayed for his interview with Big Freedia. Pesca is respectful without being deferential, and treats Freedia with engaging irreverence.