The final half of the blindingly excellent “Russian Doll” takes off into the stratosphere after a great first half (I rated Episode 1 at 8/10 and ditto for Episodes 2 to 4) . Natasha Lyonne continues her star turn as Nadia, now working with Alan (Charlie Barnett gets better and better) to tease out how their lives intersected to put them in eternal limbo. The unfurling of the sci-fi-many-worlds clues is splendidly invigorating for the viewer, and not a moment of screen time is wasted. No clues here, but rest assured that the climactic resolution, after a number of detours, is wonderfully satisfying without being in the slightest cloying. Quite the best series I’ve watched this year and well deserving of a superlative rating.
Where does “The Nocturnal Brain: Tales of Nightmares and Neuroscience,” by British neurologist Guy Leschziner fit within the flurry of recent popularizing books about sleep? I’ve read four such, two of them venturing into self-help territory and one being a memoir about insomnia, but “The Nocturnal Brain” is none of those. Instead, it’s a wise journey through sleep pathologies and problems, and reflections on the nature of sleep itself. He covers delayed sleep phase syndrome (the day/night boundary shifting every day!), sleepwalking (including motorbike driving while asleep!), REM sleep behavior disorder (including sleep-bound violence), “tired all the time,” false accusations of sleep-talking, narcolepsy (falling asleep willy-nilly), restless legs syndrome (I’ve had this, a teeny bit), hallucinations, sexsomnia (guess) . . . I list these because they fascinating array. Leschziner also covers in detail general insomnia, including what is apparently commonplace, people reporting poor sleep but actually sleeping enough hours (I suspect this is me). The author writes extremely smoothly, with great compassion towards his case studies, and the book is a treat to read. Amongst all these observations, Leschziner also muses about the nature of dreaming (which may well underpin the purpose of sleep), and although he does come down in favor of one hypothesis, in the end he concludes that “we have only just scratched the surface.” Highly recommended.
The rural American equivalent of a police procedural involves much more driving than the British standard book, plus a far more free-wheeling set of processes. I enjoyed joining Chief Detective David Wolf on his thirteenth outing. “Divided Sky” plonks Wolf into a baffling murder involving a former sheriff and his estranged nephew, and soon a busy cast of suspects, relatives, and cops is entangled. The pace is fast, the writing is smooth, and the western mountain locales are evocative, but Wolf remains a trifle bland and the endless repartee can wear. Nonetheless, a sprightly one-sitting read that will entertain many readers.
“The Wisdom Line” is uncommonly suffused with beauty, even for a musician as brilliant David Bridie. Bridie’s groups, first Not Drowning Waving, then My Friend the Chocolate Cake, have tended to overshadow his eclectic solo work, but the best of his own releases are the ones I keep coming back to. Here he foregoes some of the experimentation he can get up to, and has put together eleven exquisitely filigreed tracks. Gentle rhythms, piano leads, sparse instrumentation, an echoing ambience, all leave space for his soft, amazingly expressive voice. Spoken voice additions on three songs meld perfectly. The lyrics address places and moods and modern politics. Highlights are the sublime piano and electric guitar, just a minute-plus granted to us with the title track; the plodding Nietzsche-quoting “The Abyss”; and the heartbreaking chorus of “She Upped and Gone.” Unforgettably lovely and profound.
“Checking Out; Clockwise” is eclectic British author T.W.M. Ashford’s second in a whimsical time travel series that posits hotel Le Petite Monde as a junction point for time and space travel. The multiverse the reader is lured into is full of strange creatures and different human ages, and in this outing, concierge Pierre (a marvellous hero), teamed up with ex-gangster Viola and barman Wesker, need to chase a mysterious inspector through various worlds. It’s a light-hearted concoction laced with wit and nifty plot twists involving time-shift quandaries, a combination that, weirdly enough, reminds me of Doctor Who. Such fun and games, and intelligent at that.
Author of the landmark history of Darwin’s Cyclone Tracy, Sophie Cunningham is a must read and “City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest” could well be my standout book of 2019. A mix of investigative travel reporting, naturalist discoursing, and personal memoir essays, it explores nature within the human-dominated Earth using a lens of writing about ten trees in various cities around the world. Cunningham rejoices in (or sometimes bewails the fate of ) Mountain Ash, Coolibah, and Moreton Bay fig in Australia; olive groves in Puglia; and Giant Sequoia, Yellowwood, and coast live oak in America. Evocative author sketches accompany poignant descriptions and historical musings within these tree-related essays. And interposed are personal essays on the swirling politics and life in her life, including the deaths of her two fathers. She is a lovely writer, economical yet lyrical, never a wasted word. Unlike many such books, the underlying mood is gentle and contemplative, laced with an undercurrent of rage: “But not just weeping. We should also be fighting for their [in this case elephants] survival.” This is a book to savor and then to lament with and finally to use as stimulus for action, action to leave a legacy for future generations.
A prolific author of thrillers, poetry, writer how-tos, William Bernhardt has returned to legal thrillers, and as my first foray into this sub-genre, my reaction was one of “read it in two sittings” delight. “The Last Chance Lawyer” has a nifty conceit at its core: after bouncy, smart trial lawyer Daniel Pike loses his job, he gets picked up by a small outfit, run by a mysterious Mr. K, a team that tackles pro bono cases for those left well behind by the law. In this first outing (thankfully there will be more), Pike and allies defend a female Florida gang member against an open-and-shut murder charge, the backdrop being that they need to save her in order to save a young girl from ill-fated deportation. I enjoyed the intricate legal system details (after all, that’s one of the joys of this sub-genre, the world you’re dropped into), the byzantine plot (more twists than Perry Mason), and Bernhard’s breezy style.
As an ex-actuary, I’m partial to the idea, ridiculous though it must be, that you can somehow create a formula for living life, a calculus if you like. So I’ve read a number of those How-To books that attempt to ascribe probabilities and rationality towards life’s decisions. “The Algebra of Happiness: The Pursuit of Success, Love and What It All Means,” by an ex-entrepreneur and hedge fund principal, now professor at a business school, Scott Galloway, called out to me. And at the front of the book is a fancy page of graphical equations of the type “smiley face = …” I began impressed but quickly floundered, for Galloway hasn’t come up with anything new, rather, this book is his “tips for life” for business students, couched in investment-speak. For example, “invest in experiences over things” becomes “car < lion.” There’s plenty of meat (or sensible advice) here, and if you’re youngish and aligned with well-paying professions and partial to robust jargon, “The Algebra of Happiness” might well spark something deep. As for me, I got little out of it, though some of his pithy homilies, such as “serendipity is a function of courage,” made me chuckle with recognition. In other words, come to this book if you need it, otherwise don’t expect profundity.
In the second mystery/thriller by British author Heidi James, “So the Doves,” a hotshot journalist returns to his Kent hometown to confront anew the disappearance of his enigmatic teenage female friend twenty years earlier, only to see his life unravel. This is a classic mystery story and the author rattles the pace along for the first three quarters of the book, with some lovely time period descriptions and a sense of capturing the teenage years. But over-lengthy dialogue muddies the otherwise fine prose, and I felt the denouement was quite ho-hum. All in all, an enjoyable read but lacking some flair.
“How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” is a call to action from American artist and writer Jenny Odell. Dealing with the ubiquitous right-now phenomenon of social media and big-data advertising, aka Facebook and Google (but many others as well), Odell exhorts us to move beyond “turning off” or quitting, to finding new ways (which are just old ways rebadged) to be present in the world while attempting, best as one can, to bend social media and the rest to our ends. Odell doesn’t come at this most fascinating and vital issue with the eyes of an academic but as an artist and activist, and the book isn’t easy going for a generalist and novelist like me. As she herself admits, her eagle eye skates all over the place, referencing all manner of art and politics, and her arguments can be dense to the point of loss of meaning, again when looked at from the perspective of an ordinary person like me. But in my reading, I forgave her all of that, because she offered exactly what I sought: intellectually fresh and lateral ways to view the issues. And she delivered in spades. I have tons of quotes from her pages to help me tease out my own views on this strange world I now inhabit. If, in the end, Odell’s climax cum conclusions offered me little, the journey was more than worth it. Highly recommended for its careening intellect and visions.