Robert Caro has written arguably the most magnificent biography of all time, though when I say “written,” he’s produced four volumes of his “Year of Lyndon Johnson Series,” and we’re eagerly awaiting the next one set during LBJ’s presidency. He also claims to want to write a full autobiography but, aged 83, has in the meantime produced a spellbinding collection of memoir-type essays called “Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing.” Perhaps you need to be interested in how history can be written to appreciate this. I like to think anyone will sink into it like I did and simply marvel at his tales of an obsessive, perfectionist craftsman. He describes breakthrough interviews with LBJ’s irascible brother, his secret backer, his vote fraud bagman, his driver, his widow. He mesmerises by describing how he learned about the two places LBJ inhabited most, the original Texan Hill Country, and the Capitol. If Caro seems to imply LBJ was a villain, just read the chapter on how he fooled the southern politicians to bring in the most far-reaching civil rights legislation ever achieved in the United States, i.e. he was also a hero. Caro’s modest discourse on the hardships he endured over nearly half a century of bio writing is also wonderful. Reading “Working” is inspiring and revelatory.
I’ve never been to a psychotherapist (to use a loose term) nor do I know anyone who has (though perhaps I haven’t asked my friends?). And yet I support the notion that some form of therapist or counsellor could well be enormously helpful. On the positive side of this knowledge balance sheet, I have read tons of novels featuring therapy sessions, which has accorded me the illusion of “understanding” how the process works. To prick the bubble of that illusion, I’ve now turned to a book much talked about, Lori Gottlieb’s “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed.” I now count myself privileged, for Gottlieb not only seems like an ideal, passionately humane therapist, but her tell-all shows an adept, deep-thinking storyteller. Boldly, she alternates stories of her clients – fascinating, all of them – with a tale of her own plunge into despair after a relationship breakdown and her own subsequent sessions with, it turns out, an equally devoted therapist. This narrative decision grants Gottlieb licence to really delve into how therapy might occur, what it can do, and the painstaking way it unfolds. “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone” is an intoxicating read from the very first page. I was especially taken with her excruciatingly patient journey with patient John, who Gottlieb at an early point in the book categorizes as “an asshole with exceptional teeth”; what begins as a description of an ordeal gradually morphs into muted success (or is it?). In turns funny, disturbing, and enlightening, this is a rare book indeed, an illumination of modern humanity.
This second season of “Killing Eve” has been a bit of a seesaw. The first episode almost stops me in my tracks); fortunately the next three episodes plunge deliciously onwards. What then of the season’s second split, the final four episodes, which could be the show’s finale (though I gather Season 3 is promised)? In Episode 5 the plot twitches laterally, with Villanelle co-opted as an ally, a relationship fraught with murky double-cross possibilities. By Episode 6, she and Eve are enmeshed in a terrifying joint operation that delights Villanelle, who seems to be reeling Eve into her world, and simultaneously thrills and terrifies Eve, who no longer knows quite what she is. Sandra Oh remains flawless in her portrayal of Eve but it’s Jodie Comer who shines in what is perhaps the performance of the year, at once whip smart and always on the edge of capricious violence. The dialogue throughout these episodes never misses a beat, the support actors are terrific (special mention to Henry Lloyd-Hughes as super creepy nerdy tycoon Aaron Peel), and the direction and cinematography are tight without showiness. By the start of the final episode, we know all will upend, and it does, in a wonderful aslant way that leads naturally into yet another sequel. Pleasingly, the climax heralds yet another twist in the duality of the Eve-Villanelle quasi love affair. Summing up, Season 2 rivals Season 1, both triumphing as compelling, kinetic modern cinema.
In their day, Orange Juice passed me by; my knowledge comes from Robert Forster’s amazing memoir. “Badbea” is frontman Edwyn Collins’s ninth, and his first in a half decade or so. The front cover portrays him hamming it up with a walking stick and a couple of songs work that seam, but this release is no “gentle into the night” strum-along. The sound throughout has a swaggering fatness, every tune is constructed with skill, and Collins’s voice remains a baritone force, able to croon or punk-holler. Buttressed with simple yet poetic lyrics, every song has lodged in my head, replaying while working or jogging. Favorites – and they’re hard to choose – are literate earworm “It’s All About You,” driving “Outside,” and sweet “Beauty.” Grab this – Edwyn Collins is on fire.
The first three books in the post-apocalyptic sci-fi series of The Long Night, by Kevin Partner and Mike Kraus, won me over. The next two, “Reapers” and “Betrayed” continue the intelligent, pacy thrills and ideas. In the post-apocalyptic rubble of the United States, the various survivors we encountered in the first three volumes – Solly, his wife, and a small-town policewoman, plus other emerging characters – slowly move towards each other, every step of the way fraught. The stakes have been upped: civil wars erupt across the continent. And the shadowy Lee Corporation, at the heart of the catastrophe releases a new terrifying weapon in its quest for control. A heady brew and a most satisfying read.
A police procedural with tons of panache, a beguiling hero, and writing chops to spare, “The Dying Light” is the third Detective Inspector Jake Sawyer mystery set in the evocative Peak District. Kicking off at full speed, we find Sawyer under arrest as a result of seeking his mother’s killer in the previous series volume, and at the same time beset by the accelerating disappearance of local children. Surrounded by or butting heads against a range of exuberant, well-drawn ancillary characters, the action rockets along. It’s not easy for a mystery’s main character to stand out from the crowded field, but Jake Sawyer does so easily: laconic, relentless, fit, and driven by his demons, he is begging to be turned into a TV series. Crackling dialogue and elegant prose render the read a pleasure, and the plotting is snappy and startling. This is a welcome surprise and one of my favorite mystery reads so far in 2019.
A Canadian fitness trainer espousing “fitness feels good,” Oonagh Duncan has commandeered the “F*ck” title provocation in the service of her training philosophy, principles, and methods. And in keeping with such provocation, “Healthy as F*ck: The Habits You Need to Get Lean, Stay Healthy, and Kick Ass at Life” is saturated with plain-spoke language, including a heap of swearing. If that is a turn-off, so be it, but I’m here to tell you that she is a genuine force and treasure. In the panoply of How-To books, no area is potentially more lucrative than wellness and no area is harder to deliver the goods in. In my half century of exercising and fussing about diet, I’ve sampled many instructional books and only a handful have stuck with me and made a difference. “Healthy as F*ck” is one such. One of her key strengths is a take-no-prisoners attitude that adds the necessary intrinsic motivation to her core idea, namely that health and fitness are not a function of willpower but of habits. Duncan offers seven core habits, which I won’t spoil here other than to say they’re not quite what you might expect but are, in my humble opinion, a marvellous, well-rounded blueprint for modern life. She explores how to render those habits easier to achieve, how to recruit support, what bad thoughts (aka “bullshit”) get in the way, how to “half-ass” the habits (i.e. how to flex within something less than 100% adherence), and then finally, how to deal with the dreaded “fuckit,” that surrendering-in-the-moment impulse that can derail any dietary/exercise regime. None of this is completely new but as a whole, it sparkles, and reading this book challenges one to become healthier in all the right ways. Overall, an apt, cohesive lifesaver.
For his follow-up to the 2015 doco hit “That Sugar Film,” Damon Gameau tackles the most open, most challenging topic of all: climate change. “2040” is his unabashedly positive global search for technologies and solutions which he claims are readily available right now. Using a quirky lens of zooming forward to 2040, when his daughter will be 25, he travels the world to find positive messages, expound their virtues, and then cinematically imagine them into life in 2040. The big picture ideas he exhumes include electricity microgrids, driverless electric vehicles, soil regeneration, Raworth’s “doughnut economics,” seaweed permaculture, carbon sequestration, education/empowerment of women (to reduce population growth), and the use of energy dashboards. The movie is artfully constructed and none of the tech stuff drags. Gameau himself is an engaging tour guide and his cast of do-gooders and smart folks is terrific. Viewers can argue about the achievability of any or all of these ideas, but the overall vibe of the film – that plenty of positive possibilities can be harnessed – is infectious. We all know the Doctor Doom scenarios. What we need is motivation, and Gameau’s film is a cool blast of human hope.
A private eye series set in steamy, unforgettable New Orleans, featuring jaded, hard-drinking ex-policeman David Melancon and his inexperienced youngster partner, Felix Herbert, is always welcome, and “Roots of Misfortune,” the second instalment, rattles along from a funky start to a blood-soaked climax. Young girls are going missing and the reek of voodoo is in the air. The plotting is tight, if a touch predictable, and the evolving cast of characters works well. The occult flavor of the tale is atmospherically unfolded. Author Seth Pevey writes in a slightly self-conscious style that suits the story. All up, an enjoyable read.
For creatives and more so for those yearning to create, Austin Kleon is special. A visual artist whose niche of “blackout art” – newspaper/magazine pages blacked out except for nifty phrases or sentences – was a hit, Kleon nailed the essence of creative craft in “Steal Like an Artist,” nailed the need to get your stuff out there in “Show Your Work,” and now has “Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad” out for that same audience. It’s as good as the first two corkers. Ten beguiling chapters, presented in attractive textual or visual formats, help to maintain the commitment of both seasoned creators and aspirants. On top of standard advice like “every day is groundhog day,” consider motes such as “build a bliss station” and “slay the art monsters.” It’s standout brilliant and I’ll be buying copies to give away, just like I did with the other two.