The visual arts elude this reviewer, so I’m normally unlikely to read Sebastian Smee, prominent Washington Post art critic, but his topic “Net loss: The inner life in the digital age” (the cornerstone piece in Quarterly Essay 72) is right up my alley. What an inspired impulse to read this nuanced, undogmatic, sharp look at the modern world of Facebook, Twitter and their kin! Smee tentatively labels himself a materialist like me but, as I do, he uses the language of spirituality and creativity as he proceeds to explore “the inner life with its own history of metamorphosis – rich, complex and often mysterious, even to ourselves.” His method isn’t didactic or technically philosophical. Instead he meanders through and around the short stories of Anton Chekhov, the films of Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, a portrait by Paul Cezanne, a Rachel Cusk novel, Gillian Wearing’s paintings, and so on. How is social media altering the slippery “inner life,” he asks, and chips away at familiar charges of social media’s adverse impacts. Never more than hesitant, his explorations intoxicated me. In the end, he sees our modern response to mortality and aloneness is “to disperse ourselves, by being as widely visible as possible,” facilitated and urged on by the internet. Are we “excavating too much…?” Can “we find ways to pay attention again to our solitude…?” I cannot recommend too highly this exhilarating, wise reflection.
John Le Carre’s mantle is a tough one to don. Every few years a new pretender is crowned by critics and mostly I’ve admired them without spotting more than occasional glimpses of greatness. In the last decade, I’ve become less and less inclined to dwell in the spy thriller genre, just for that reason. Well, more fool me, because Mick Herron, lauded by Val McDermid as “the John le Carré of our generation,” is the real deal that has somehow snuck past my gaze. Over a decade and a half, he has produced four novels in the Zoe Boehm series and now five in the highly acclaimed, award-winning Slough House series (with one on the way next year). A friend recommended I tackle the first Slough House book, Slow Horses, in audiobook form, and I’m currently rivetted by that, but in the meantime Herron has released his second Slough House novella, The Drop, so I grabbed that and devoured its 112 pages in a single sitting. Whilst the full pricing of The Drop means I can’t recommend it as an entrée into Herron’s catalogue, if you’re a Herron fan, by all means read it, for it contains what I’m realizes are his trademark attributes: a serpentine plot cunningly divulged; larger-than-life, all-too-humanly-cynical characters, stunning set-piece scenes; a coruscating wit; and, amazingly enough, a humane sense of outrage and compassion underneath the theatrics. It’s that last achievement, an almost miraculous undertone of morality, that imparts the greatness of Le Carre onto the shoulders of Mick Herron.
An opening scene of death and abandonment in the rain, rain, rain of 1993 Galway . . . the same ordinary-guy detective, Cormac Reilly (very much in the mold of Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk), embroiled in a cold case twenty years later in Galway . . . a stink of police corruption and Catholic misdeeds in the “dark heart of Ireland,” as the blurb for The Ruin puts it . . . all of this filled me with pre-reading dread. I’m not against convention, even cliché, in crime fiction, for the genre is one of reassuring tropes, but debut author Dervla McTiernan’s much hyped novel seemed destined to be a yawn. Instead The Ruin is a sparkling, assured surprise package: fulsome characters, a complex and clever plot that drags one onward, deftly styled prose, and locales one can see and smell. The familiar themes of justice and evil across the decades nonetheless impacted me; I found myself quite moved. So . . . start on the first page and I guarantee you’ll be grabbed and transported.
The first in a dystopian trilogy, Prometheus Rising begins in a Britain of sealed cities and barbaric Outer Areas. Adama, a doctor, finds himself outside London and soon embarks on a quest to find his old love through bloody battle. The concept, whilst not fully fresh, is a beguiling mix of futurism and archaism, and the many battle scenes are vigorously and effectively drawn. The settings, in classic rural British sites, are evocative. The author’s pacing is so assured that it took me half the book to realize why it failed to fully engage, and I think there are two reasons. Firstly, clunky prose glitches occur often enough to annoy, and secondly, the overall earnest, portentous voice never rings quite true. Overall, I’d recommend this for dystopian fiction fans, with caveats.
Mancunian band James’s fifteenth album, “Living in Extraordinary Times,” came out a while ago and I ordinarily would not go back so far, but the city of Melbourne was recently graced with their presence. Their show was one of the most stunning in my recent memory and I’m compelled to bring your attention to this release, exploding with every emotion from rage to lust/love to compassion. James straddle anthemic rock, gorgeous pop melodies, chugging distortion, and strident choruses. Singer Tim Booth is a brilliant lyricist and here he is at his sublime best. Every track is a winner but let me single out the closer from their concert, which had the entire audience swooning and swaying to a lovely paean to human diversity, singing along to “There’s only one human race / Many faces / Everybody belongs here.” You only live once: experience James here at their best.
Fantasy is a genre oft corrupted by its successes, any bestseller being invoked again and again by ardent writers. Foundryside has restored my broken faith in the genre, a faith shattered by too many remakes. I’ve not read any of Robert Jackson Bennett before but his stellar reputation is deserved, for Foundryside fills an imaginative, vividly drawn world with an expanding cast of vibrant characters fighting to survive. In a world bursting with scrivings – manufactured inscriptions of magic that turn objects into sentient beings – Sancia, an escaped slave, lowest of the lowest, possesses a scriving-like talent that makes her a super thief. A dream burglary assignment goes wrong and the plot spirals in complexity and significance as it becomes clear her booty is waking up magical forces far beyond the reckonings of her hellish surroundings. Bennett writes deceptively simply, his artistry only making itself known after a few chapters – stick with it, as I did, and you fall under its immersive spell. Sancia is a wonderful, determined protagonist, and a gradually introduced cast of allies and villains splendidly portrayed. The richness of description of the city of Tevanne reminds me of Dune and Bennett’s dialogue, both spoken and telepathized, is captivating. As is evident, I’m now a fan and will both go back through the catalogue and wait, tongue lolling, for the sequel, Hierophant, in the second half of next year.
Dean Wareham is cult to the extreme. Those who came to his most cult band, Luna, have followed him since, as eccentric singer-songwriter, as half of a male-female pop crooner duo . . . and now here he is, pairing with Ralph Porpora (dressed up as Cheval Sombre) to evoke ten prairie western remakes. It’s twangy and echoing and high-voiced and . . . well, it’s weird as all heck. Saving the day is the pair’s intrinsic melodic sense and the loping musicality of the arrangements. Too much of a curio to end up on anyone’s 2018 Best Of list, I nonetheless enjoyed the gorgeous sound, familiar yet transgressive. Check out the weird, stately opener, a version of Marty Robbins’ “The Bend in the River,” then the sepulchral piano-and-acoustic-guitar pleas of The Magnetic Fields’ “Grand Canyon,” and then, if that hasn’t put you off, head for the strangest, part-whistled arrangement of “Wand’rin’ Star” (I still remember seeing Lee Marvin singing it!) you’ve ever heard. Somehow slightly more than the sum of its odd parts, this album is worth examining.
Kelley Stoltz is one of those hardworking studio-bound singer-songwriters in the field of DIY melodic pop rock who operate in obscurity, occasionally experiencing rays of light when discovered afresh. Listening to “Natural Causes,” one can almost imagine him noodling in the studio, constructing in all manner of polished but low-key styles, from the soft jangling chug a la Real Estate (the title track) to the Buggles-reminiscent “Static Electricity.” Stoltz’s previous release, “Antique Glow,” hit the mark, but this release, though listenable enough, contains too many tracks with poor melodies and patchwork lyrics. One for the completist only.
How wonderful the world of movies! Released last year, Lean on Pete only made it to Australian cinemas now. I’ve been hanging out for it. I don’t know author Willy Vlautin well, having only read one of his novels (and not Lean on Pete), nor was I a rabid fan of his prolific band, Richmond Fontaine, but his stature has grown and this American adaptation to the screen had a solid reputation. The wait has been more than worthwhile: this is a pitch-perfect low-key stunner. Charlie Plummer transcends the role of Charley Thompson, a slender, likeable fifteen-year-old living with his struggling dad in Portland, Oregon. Charley picks up a stable roustabout job working for an irascible trainer (a great role for Steve Buscemi) and falls under the spell of Lean on Pete, a fifteen-year-old quarterhorse racer in decline. Nothing is over dramatized and it takes the viewer some minutes to appreciate how dire young Charley’s situation is, and then, of course, the bottom falls out. Simple, raw scenes of the rural and city fringes of the United States, carefully centered around the plucky figure of Charley, are filmed with crystalline intensity. Vlautin is famed as a chronicler of the American down-and-out, and the relentless assault, in growing crescendos, on Charley’s humanity and pride are almost unbearable to watch. I found the final third a ratification of film’s grandeur and I’m sure you will too. Watch Lean on Pete, would you?
I rated the first episode of this stellar TV series as 9/10, then watched the first half of the season to accord 8/10. Well, the final five episodes of “Maniac” ratchet up the weirdness and atmosphere even more. Jonah Hill in particular amps up the theatrics as he plays characters inside Owen Milgrim’s head and Emma Stone, as Annie Landsberg, remains flawless. The pharmaceutical trial spirals out of control as strange and wonderful fantasies seem to draw Owen and Annie together even inside their heads, while Dr. Fujita, Dr. Mantleray, and the latter’s mother play out another drama altogether. Sumptuously filmed and precisely choreographed, the series finishes on a high. Oh, and I roared with laughter during one scene with Owen as a high-pitched Icelandic spy.