The first triumphant season of “Legion” amazed me and left me hankering for more. I’ve come to Season 2 later than I’d have liked and as always, the first question is: what does the first episode presage?
Well, the first quarter hour bewilders, plain bewilders (so here’s the advice plain and simple: watch Season 1 beforehand), but in the magical way the series’ gun writers (presumably overseen by brilliant Noah Hawley) have of forcing suspension of judgement. David Haller, the psychologically wrecked man who turned out to possess superpowers of amazing scope, emerges after a year of absence in yet another of those government labs/strongholds. What has he been doing? How will he help, willingly or unwillingly, to track down the Shadow King, the superpower horror at the heart of Season 1 and at the heart of Haller’s abilities and psychosis?
Dan Stevens is once more superb as Haller, Rachel Keller is even more coy yet steely than in the first season, and the number of wonderful supporting actors, scene by captivating scene, is too great to permit mention of any except Bill Irwin and David Selby. The cinematography and set design are visually intoxicating; I can’t forget a riveting scene of dancing in a disco!
At the end of Episode 1, I’m back in the Legion Earth-world, slightly less puzzled than at the start, and I cannot wait until I see Episode 2 tonight.
Ted Chiang is the thinking person’s sci-fi inventor, a writer of amazing short stories in the tradition, perhaps, of Phillip K. Dick. Chiang’s output is not prolific but a piercing intelligence illuminates his eclectic body of works. He might well drift in obscurity, except his most famous story was made into the stunning sci-fi movie “Arrival.” Now his second volume “Exhalation.” showcase seven short stories published over the last decade and a half, plus two new tales. All of the stories vary in subject matter, style, tone, and plotting. All of them make the reader think. A handful seem didactic but if these aren’t what you come to sci-fi for, rest assured. There are at least two long gems here. “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” posits a world in which commercially sold prisms let you interrogate your alternative realities a little apart from you own. And “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is glorious, a galloping tale of avatar-style software-bound “lives” tended by a zookeeper. Ted Chiang celebrates imagination at its most free and lyrical.
If you have any interest at all in expanding your attentiveness or in finding new ways to see the world or in unlocking your creative spark, I commend “The Art of Noticing: Rediscover What Really Matters to You.” Brilliant design journalist Rob Walker is a magpie, picking out how artists and thinkers of many different types cultivate a muscle of paying attention, of “noticing.” The book is a cornucopia of 131 different exercises, some almost puny, some major projects, all persuading you to no longer just coast through life. Walker is an engaging, lucid writer who really sweeps you up. Me, I’ve decided to have a go at five of his 131, and just by listing them, you can tell if this book is for you: “Spot something new every day”; “Don’t photograph, draw” (I’m such a bad artist that I can’t wait to do this without fear of failure); “Follow the quiet” (just walk in the direction of least noise); “Take a photo walk, with no camera”; and “Interview a friend, loved one, stranger – or even an ideological nemesis)”. Marvellous
A romantic comedy sprawled across eye candy tourist sites in the Northern Territory promises at the very least to refresh the eye, and Wayne Blair, the director of “Top End Wedding” delivers with some airy, delightful road trip scenes. A feature co-written by Joshua Tyler and Miranda Tapsell, who also stars as the prospective bride trying to track down her walkabout mother, this straightforward film mucks the viewer around a bit, confusing drama with comedy and vice versa, but in the end delivers a breezy feelgood tale. Gwilym Lee brings fresh-faced brio to his role as the quippy fiancé and the other supporting roles work fine. If the plot lags and can feel prosaic, I did enjoy the way the indigenous family and cultural aspects were treated with respect. And yes, I laughed in a couple of spot, and that’s ample for modern rom-com. Simple but not quite simplistic, “Top End Wedding” is perky froth.
Here’s one for the geeks, the real heroes of the universe. Forget the soldiers, the tycoons, the footballers, it’s the programmers, the ones who write the code that underpins our modern world, who rule. Clive Thompson, an assured chronicler and a deft stylist, does something remarkable with “Coders,” attempting to write the history of modern programming, and to a large degree, succeeds. Moving through the generations of hardware and software, and the generations of attending coders, Thompson interviews the super creators, the uber coders, the role models for all those filmic tropes we love, but also the regular folks who program for a living. He addresses meritocracy, gender biases, coding style, and our current discontents with the ubiquitous software we use. I’ve done some coding in my own life, of a very mixed quality, and I’ve written fictional characters from that world, so I found every chapter fascinating. If at the end one has the feeling that “Coders” does not quite delineate a coherent history, well, I think we’ll need the luxury of some more passing time before we have anything truly magisterial. In the meantime, this is a balm for the soul, a paean to those who shape the digital.
Novelist and top-notch journalist Nathaniel Rich has opened my eyes, completely altering my understanding of the history of climate change. “Losing Earth: A Recent History” relates the barely believable tale of how scientists already understood in 1979 (hey, let’s be clear, we’re talking about four decades ago!) exactly what global warming is and what the eventual consequences must be. What’s more, in the United States, a bipartisan decade of hearings, legislative efforts, and general discussions took place through the reigns of Carter and Reagan. Only when the oil industry turned its beady eye on the issue did partisanship and disinformation swing into action, and in 1989 Bush senior started the tradition of resisting international and national corrective action. Originally published in the New York Times Magazine, Rich’s wonderfully written and meticulous history not only puts climate change into the correct historical framework, but he includes a stunning afterword, a call to action that exhorts: “But there is one thing that each of us can do ourselves … We can call the villains the villains, the heroes heroes, the victims victims, and ourselves complicit.” This book makes for essential reading.
“Court Me Kill Me,” the fifth in the series starring fashion photographer Anna Burgin, foregrounds Anna while her journalist friend, Danny Churchill, is mostly out of action. When murders around the globe implicate their ally-maybe-friend, the enigmatic, capable Clare, and Anna’s studio is trashed, she finds herself thrown into a fearful police mess that has her questioning Clare’s involvement. David Bradwell plots tightly, although I found the eventual denouement to have less impact than it should, but his main strengths are his “ordinary folk” heroes and the wonderfully sharp and humorous repartee between them. A most satisfying mystery.
I was one of legions who fell in love with James Ellroy’s clipped, frenetic prose over the course of his L.A. Quartet. set in the 50s and 60s. but by the time I devoured that series’ closer, “White Jazz,” it was apparent the stylistics were getting out of control. “American Tabloid,” the first in his Underworld trilogy, was brilliant, with a riveting storyline, but the remaining two of the trilogy tested my patience. Now “This Storm” succeeds “Perfidia,” kicking off on New Years Eve, 1941, a day after its predecessor, within a prequel series to the L.A. Quartet. A body in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, a puzzling address book … and evil Dudley Smith, dogged Sergeant Elmer Jackson, forensic cop Hideo Ashida, treacherous Joan Conville, together with dozens of other outlandish characters, embark on a seemingly endless plot of villainy, racism, and death. The novel’s pace is astonishing but not to good effect, for the tapestry of monstrosities and their ill-doings quickly becomes pointless. And the style! If Ellroy remains a brilliant painter of both seediness and glitz, his words and sentences have become amped up into an undisciplined, jerky mess. I enjoyed a handful of scenes and character immersions but the plot revelations, when they came, carried no emotional heft at all. Overall, “This Storm” is an unlikeable nightmare without a heart, and a lumpen pastiche of the literary dances of Ellroy’s older prose.
A man of style and wit and smarts, Robert Forster is. A real songwriter who makes the best of a fragile voice. Half of the legendary Go-Betweens. His newie, “Inferno,” is an odd fish that works in spite of itself. Quite a few of the songs have such simple plodding underpinnings that I almost recoiled, but the grace and verve of the lyrics carry even those ditties through. With varied instrumental backing and a clear sonic feel, the album readily graces a road trip. As ever with Forster, it’s the standout tracks that transform. “I’ll Look After You” is a touchingly naïve long song that comes straight from the heart. “Inferno (Brisbane in Summer)” surges, an urgent crunch paean to a city few sing about. And at the end, one of his best songs ever, “One Bird in the Sky,” his voice aching (“time to hit the ground, time to walk around”) for the simple pure life.
What I’ve heard this year, in terms of rock music, hasn’t thrilled me like my reading and watching have. Only four albums hit the 8/10 mark and they’re a varied bunch of records by mostly older musicians, so your tastes might not match. But do give them a shot.
“Iran Iraq Ikea” from grizzled Swedish veterans Big Bad Byrd is charmingly psychedelic.
Conor Oberst teams up with talented Phoebe Bridgers under the moniker of Better Oblivion Community Center. It’s splendid!
Uncommonly suffused with beauty, “The Wisdom Line” is the best in David Bridie’s inspired career.
Check out the literate earworm songs by English pop-punk maestro Edwyn Collins on “Badbea.”