A swirling novel about a Chicago stage designer thrust into violence, “Right After the Weather” is literary fiction at its densest. Around Cate revolves a kaleidoscopic cast of dramatic characters who bounce off each other like billiard balls. Inner Chicago, in all its messy beauty, is brought gloriously to life. And in the background lurks seedy, capricious evil. Carol Anshaw’s pen is wonderfully streaming and a coruscating sense of humor pervades. I enjoyed “Right After the Weather” immensely, even when the plot lost traction as the novel inched towards an ambiguous climax. An author to watch.
With her debut “Lab Girl,” Hope Jahren signalled the entry of a new master of science writing, someone able to distil complexity into eloquent, comprehensible story. In “The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here,” Jahren, a geobiologist by trade, narrates a class she regularly gives on climate change. As a primer, and indeed even for those well read on the subject, the book is superb, nineteen short chapters bundling up a vast amount of data into coherent morsels. Jahren has the scientist’s (indeed, dare I say it, the mathematician’s) gift of isolating what to sum up. Mostly here, her emphasis is on the “more” of the title, humanity’s vastly expanded earthly footprint over the past half century or so. After tackling where we are, she covers food and wastage, and then energy, and then the core of global warming, including brilliant chapters on rising sea levels and species’ extinctions. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the only area I found myself disagreeing with was how to reduce emissions from energy production, which is political as much as scientific. And a concluding appendix, “The Story of Less,” includes a section on personally reducing emissions that is at once necessary and heartfelt, but also naïve (a familiar distraction from political action on climate change is to assert the individual’s role). “The Story of More” concludes with an invigorating section on data sources for all the issues covered. Jahren is a beguiling stylist and a terrific organizer of ideas. All up, this is a vital book for our times.
We all sense the importance of electricity in our lives and in humanity’s future, and “A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations,” by journalist Robert Bryce, is an exuberant, stylish paean to what he labels “the juice.” The best of this readable polemic is several first-hand accounts of electricity’s vital importance and the problems of electricity failure. A particularly enjoyable chapter digs into the incredible electricity needs of the new tech giants such as Google and Facebook. Bryce is an unashamed champion of the doubling of global electricity over the next two decades, not just for us developed nations but for the sake of the poor of the world, and it’s easy to get swept up in his polished prose. “A Question of Power” is a virile expression of a point of view that seems oddly old-fashioned in the new era of global warming urgency, and Bryce’s “N2N” philosophy – of moving to natural gas then nuclear – is a well-trodden playbook that is rehashed without much life. But even if you feel his unalarmed policy prescriptions miss the point – as I do – there is much to relish in this romp through the Juice.
Who can resist a geeky private detective, a la Sherlock, especially one in gangland L.A.? Isaiah Quintabe caromed onto the scene with Joe Ide’s first mystery “IQ” in 2016. I fell in love. Isaiah is nerdy as all heck, but dead smart and principled, and it turned out in books 2 and 3 that he could also wield arms. Joe Ide is a ferocious, lucid, gorgeous writer and the gangland setting, contrasting as it does with the cerebral crime solving, is evoked wondrously. I felt that 2018’s “Wrecked” squandered some of the series’ steam, but I’m happy to announce that “Hi Five” is not only a return to full form but a maturation both of character and themes. The plot scenario in “Hi Five” is audacious – an arms dealer’s daughter witnessed a murder but has five warring personalities inside her – but Joe Ide carries it off with outrageous aplomb. More importantly, Isaiah is changing. Having sloughed off childhood tragedies and his first true love, now he is searching for a fuller life. And underneath this tale is a rising sense of what modern justice might look like. The plot is a frenetic, pulsing wonder that impels one-night binging, but there is so much more to “Hi Five.” Grab it, please.
“Apeirogon” is a aching, meditative jumble of fact and fiction by one of our master, Colum McCann, author of one of my favorite novels, “Let the Great World Spin.” Hewing close to the amazing lives of Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian who reaches across the divide to Israelis (and studies the holocaust), and Rami Ethanan, an Israeli who opposes the occupation, the two of the united by wartime tragedies a decade apart, the two of them travelling together to bear witness to their own tales. But that plot snapshot barely touches the aspirations of “Apeirogon,” a long book of 1,001 mini chapters that interweaves the detailed stories of Bassam and Rami with a kaleidoscope of ruminations. McCann pivots from tightrope walker Philippe Petit to Mitterand’s last meal to the origins of rubber bullets. McCann writes deceptively readable prose that often climbs into poetry and is always rhythmic. The experimental structuring and the use of episodic fragments can distance the reader but over the book’s journey, the end result is a searing guitar solo to the spirit of goodness in the midst of evil.
In this time of global warming and looming species extinctions, a growing roster of naturalist-authors paying tribute to their selected non-human species helps us connect the planet’s future with ours. Andrew Darby, Hobart-based environmental journalist, beams his intelligence and love on the Grey Plover, a bird very few ever distinguish with a second look, a bird he describes as “a dovish wallflower at the shorebird dance.” “Flight Lines: Across the Globe on a Journey with the Astonishing Ultramarathon Birds” tracks these extraordinary migrants from Victoria’s coast to remote Siberian tundra, employing as lynchpin characters two female, satellite-tagged Grey Plovers called CYA and CYB. In a dramatic twist, Darby contracts lung and spinal cancer, just before an attempt to head far north, and in a sense his and CYA/CYB’s journeys, both epic, combine into a narrative whole. “Flight Lines” pulses with ardent, vivid prose. It celebrates the hero-scientists working in harsh conditions to document species loss. It bemoans the recent human destruction of those most important wetlands for migratory birds, the Yellow Sea coasts, but offers slight hope towards the end as China’s nascent middle class flexes its muscles in favor of environmentalism. The world can do with many more nature paeans like this elegant book and I commend it to you.
“Medical Police” should be anathema right now, a bioterrorism/pandemic spoof making light of our lockdown and the plight of Covid-19 sufferers, but the ten-part series is so silly in plot that considerations of rectitude do not apply. And it is tremendously funny. To summarise the show’s premise, two hospital pediatricians are thrust into a battle to trace and cure a terrorist-delivered global virus. Very much descended from Flying High, it’s the nonsensical disjunctive segues in each scene that bring out the chuckles and, surprisingly often, the belly laughs. The two main actors, Errin Hayes and Rob Huegel, are the key comedians, and they are pitch perfect, backed by a stellar crew of supporting actors who flesh out the loopy goodies and baddies. Direction is crisp and intelligent, the action scenes are wonderfully choreographed, and nothing is labored. If you’re after gags and jokes, “Medical Police” might be just your next binge.
What genre of music suits lockdown best, came the thought. Methinks it’s the earworm indie rock put out by London four-piece The Big Moon. On their sophomore album, “Walking Like We Do,” the band overshadow their guitars with bouncy synths, keys, even some sax. Nothing revolutionary or even evolutionary here, female-singer songs that could have come out of any of the past four decades, but the writing is tight and intelligent, and lead singer Juliette Jackson’s yearning, sweet voice rules over an airy production. The lyrics are light but not silly. All eleven tracks hit a mood in the first second and play out with wonderful timing. Standout tracks, hard to separate from the ruck, are “It’s Easy Then” with its piano/bass intro and synthy harmonies and oh-so-catch chorus; “Don’t Think” sees the roaring twin guitars return for a dark-edged ripper; and “Your Light” is the highlight, Jackson’s voice light over banging bass and drums as the verses build to a Heart-reminiscent chorus. If only all so-called light indie pop could be so accomplished yet unmanufactured.
I wrote a murder mystery, set in the year 2000, based around the concept of an investment fund in which decisions were taken by computer algorithms devised by quants (I didn’t call my quants that, the term has really hit our dictionaries over the last decade). I wish I had been able to read something like “The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution” back then. I knew nothing of Jim Simons, the man behind the Renaissance Fund, which, according to journalist-author Greg Zuckerman, has beaten, over the long term, all the more commonly lauded investment geniuses. Simons left careers as brilliant mathematician and cryptographer behind in order to apply mathematical principles to buying and selling stocks and other tradable securities, and eventually turned himself and others into billionaires. Zuckerman’s biography of Simons and, by extension, Renaissance, is a tour de force, both easy to read and knowledge-imparting, and structured into a half-century-plus narrative that rockets at a blistering pace. Zuckerman somehow managed to pierce the notoriously effective privacy veil of Simons and to interview dozens of amazing characters. Business histories rarely compel or indeed tell much, but “The Man Who Solved the Market” is a superb exception. Buy it.