Australia’s recycling ecosystem has been rocked by China’s withdrawal from mass gleaning. I was disturbed and did some digging, but it’s a tough subject to penetrate. By sheer coincidence, American academic environmentalist Kate O’Neill has just put out a definitive examination of the topic in “Waste.” Covering the mechanics, economics, and politics of a baffling global subject of huge importance, O’Neill somehow manages to juggle myriad perspectives and yet produce a readable and rather concise book. Reading it, I realized my thinking had been shallow. Waste can be a bad or a good, an environmental blight or a vital resource. Anyone with the slightest interest in this accelerating issue would be well served by a keen read of “Waste.”
Who is this Rian Johnson? I’d heard of his “Looper” from 2012 but I’m no Star Wars fan, so his 2017 “The Last Jedi” passed me by. Based on “Knives Out,” his extravagantly Cluedo-meets-Poirot genre outing, I should have kept an eye out, for this is a treat for the senses and the mind alike. The setup is pure Agatha Christie – an aging writer (Christopher Plummer is, as always, spot on) who dies on his birthday, surrounded by a family of rogues, and along comes the cerebral, gimlet-eyed detective to help the police solve what is essentially a locked-room mystery. The locale, a gothic treat of an old mansion, is almost a character in its own right. Plenty of splendid performances here from the likes of Toni Collette, though to be fair, the script is so razor-sharp, the actors can ham things up without concern. And Daniel Craig as the cigar-toting private eye with the languid Southern accent to end them all? Believe it or not, he also rises to the occasion. Lush, kinetic, and brain-tickling, “Knives Out” grabs you from frame one and never lets go.
Roger Daltrey sounds half a century younger than his seventy-five years on the amazing comeback “Who” album, full of vinegar and still soaring. Pete Townshend’s songs, mostly about old rockers shouting and pondering but with 2019 checkpoints, are sprightly and varied, another surprise (most old songwriters have lost their mojos). His guitar sounds as sharp as ever. The anthemic, churning “All This Music Must Fade” is a hoot, “Beads on One String” does hippy lyrics proud, and “Street Song” rages about the Grenfell building disaster. A couple of lame tracks cannot dampen the renaissance.
Six months ago, I rated the very first episode of Season 2 of “Legion” at 8/10. I had adored Season 1 and much of what I adored – the mind-bending plot, the sharp scenes, the wonderful acting – seemed in place for a triumphant reprise. The six-month gap indicates what happened – the next three episodes revealed themselves as mystifying to the point of pointless absurdity. I’m a fan of complex plots but the emerging narrative for Season 2 reeks of plot opportunism and “good ideas.” I tried to persevere but the magic was gone. So I’m calling it quits on this series. Given that Season 3 is now on the shelves, this is severely disappointing, but I have to call it as I find it. If you’re an abiding fan, by all means lap up the many new episodes over two seasons, but if you’re just beginning Season 2 … well … don’t.
James Sallis has been my reading companion for years, from his Lew Griffin noir series, through the stunning “Drive” and “Driven” pair, to his increasingly oblique recent lit-noir offerings. He writes with a wonderful literary yet spare style. “Sarah Jane,” his latest, promises plenty with its tale of a female sheriff with a baroque past investigating her ex-boss’s disappearance, but alas, the reputational allure is misplaced. Sallis’s last half dozen books have increasingly had skating, baffling plots (baffling, even, I have to say, to someone who loves to be mentally tested). “Sarah Jane” is a plot mess and although I revelled in the poetic language, the storyline flopped again and again and again. For completists only.
What a beguiling concept! In “A Word for Every Day of the Year,” Steven Poole brings us 365 words that are “old and half-forgotten, or thoroughly forgotten.” He takes care, he announces at the start, to avoid two categories of words that crop up in similar books or websites, namely “nonce-words” used only once in history, and “dictionary orphans” that have a technical history “without ever being used in anger.” As soon as I opened the book, gratitude flooded me, for I’m forever bemoaning my lack of lexical self-education. Dear reader, in contravention of my contract with you, I have not read the entire book, because in 2020 I plan to work through “A Word for Every Day of the Year,” day by diligent day, and I don’t want to spoil the pleasure and impact. (If interested, check out the Day Zero post.) Instead, I have browsed the first seven entries, from “dringle” to “ultracrepidarian.” This dip of toes into the water is sufficient, I reckon, to report that Poole is a smart, engaging writer with a keen vocabulary curator’s eye. If the book’s very concept interests you, buy it and, I’m sure, enjoy.
Streaming masterpieces dominated a bountiful year. Dark-hued series can be seen aplenty in the list below but I also swooned over a doco, a comedy and some fine dramas. The first two received 10/10 ratings, the rest were 9/10. You won’t be disappointed by any of them.
If you need more delectable fare, check out these reviews of honorable mentions: high-finance drama “The Hummingbird Project“; Season 3 of the atmospheric police procedural “Cardinal“; another, especially imaginative police drama, “Criminal“; brilliant documentary “Diego Maradona“; quirky Icelandic climate change drama “Woman at War“; and “2040,” a rare upbeat climate change documentary.
2019 finished as a superlative year of reading. My preoccupation with climate change influenced the list in obvious ways but the Top 10 is eclectic enough for all tastes. The first two books below received the rare accolade of a 10/10 rating, the others were 9/10. Enjoy!
Jon Gertner orchestrates a combo exploration/science history masterpiece with “The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future.” It is as vital as it is compelling. Review.
Jonathan Safran Foer weaves a classic polemic with sophisticated philosophical discussion in “We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast.” Review.
You must not miss the unique voice of George Packer in his scintillating biography, “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.” Review.
Also check out reviews of these honorable mentions: Lou Berney’s noir “November Road“; Max Gladstone’s space opera “Empress of Forever“; Mick Herron’s spy thriller “London Rules“; Joe Ide’s mystery “Wrecked“; “The End of Ice“, a climate change eyewitness account by Dahr Jamail; “Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting” by Anna Quindlen; Nathaniel Rich’s “Losing Earth: A Recent History“; and “The Incomplete Book of Running” by Peter Sagal.
Transfixed … that’s a state I rarely enter into even with the best of movies but every one of the ten episodes of the second season of “Succession” pinned me to the screen. A Shakespearian mortality tale riffing on the Murdoch clan, this season covers the battle for survival of the media empire of Logan Roy. Venal and almost amoral, Roy’s clan of himself, his four children and all their partners could have been an unsavoury shitstorm but the quality of the screenplay subsumes any simple judgements. Brian Cox is transcendent in the role of Logan Roy, and his progeny are perfectly cast and interpreted: Jeremy Strong as the damaged, complex Kendall; Kieran Culkin as sneery, quicksilver Roman; Sarah Snook as ruthless, ambitious Shiv, and Alan Ruck as avuncular, shallow Connor. A special mention goes to the blistering performance of Matthew Macfadyen as unctuous, smiling Tom. Created by Jesse Armstrong and brilliantly sculpted by a bevy of directors, with a sublime score from Nicholas Britell, the episodes capture the high end of modern capitalism in all its glory and decadence. Yet although foulness pervades every scene, somehow we come to see the humanity behind each damaged individual, with only Logan Roy looming as an explosive, inscrutable Genghis Khan figure. Many times during the viewing, I was seized by an almost nostalgic surge of recognition for how modern corporate culture plays out. Mandatory viewing.
The brilliant author of the six-strong Sean Duffy series, Irishman Adrian McKinty has shifted terrain with magical effect. “The Chain” is one of those blockbuster thrillers with a premise so remarkable one wonders why it hasn’t been used before. A single mother, on an ordinary day, is thrust into hell when her daughter is kidnapped and she’s told by the kidnapper to pay a ransom (in bitcoin!) and to perpetuate “the chain” by kidnapping someone else’s child. The book kicks off at a ferocious pace and then accelerates, building up tension to an almost unbearable level. The characters, both heroes and villains, are vividly portrayed. McKinty is a robust yet elegant stylist and manages to both catapult the action and mystery forward and retain deep character connections. For this reader, “The Chain” was a single-night midnight-breaching read. A 2019 standout.