Assessing, modelling, and predicting the global impacts of anthropogenic warming is, of course, almost impossibly complex, and one of the complexities is our very air, the atmosphere, sloshing around in barely decipherable configurations. In “Jet Stream,” a marvel of compact storytelling and explication, meteorologist Tim Woollings explains to us one crucial element of our understanding, a “river” of fast-moving eastward air over five kilometers above our heads, whizzing around the equator. Woollings posits a weather balloon journeying around our planet in the jet stream, and he artfully uses stopping points – in the Caribbean, in Africa, in Asia, in the Americas – to explain to us the weather, the climate, and the history of climatology. 195 pages is all it takes to bring the reader up to scratch (albeit an information-dense position that forced me to think hard). And the author’s prose sings! If you’re at all interested in weather, climate, and our fate, Jet Stream is an epitome of elegant science writing.
The Troublemaker by Sasha Snow [9/10]
A documentary maker with a heart, Sasha Snow is also a consummate craftsman, and “The Troublemaker” is a tour de force. Clocking in at just under an hour, a viewing is an existentially intense epic that seems to last … well, an existence. Framed around the talking head of charismatic Roger Hallam, cofounder of Extinction Rebellion, and expanding into a deft coverage of XR’s 2019 campaigns, while drawing in another XR interview and footage of the damage already being wrought by global warming, The Troublemaker is the most intellectually and emotionally call to climate emergency action I have witnessed. Hallam’s piercing analysis of our current crisis and his own account of metamorphosis from organic farmer to nonviolent-direct-action rebel leader is riveting, sentence-by-sentence riveting. On two occasions, his words, so forensically and scientifically accurate, but oh so passionate, set me to tears. The film’s cinematography is sumptuous, the soundtrack (by Adem Ilhan) is gorgeous, and Snow’s direction is intelligent. All up, this is a must-see in 2020, perfectly capturing our moment between one age, of humanity’s ignorance of its own existential peril, and a new age of ameliorative and restorative action.
Making A Door Less Open by Car Seat Headrest [7/10]
Will Toledo, singer and brains trust behind Car Seat Headrest, has pumped out lo-fi indie rock over nearly a decade. Bold with musical flourishes, introspective lyrics, and a pliable, howl-ready voice, Toledo has slowly acquired fame. Now he has taken four years to bring out “Making A Door Less Open.” No longer lo-fi, indeed close to stadium ready, Toledo zaps all over his range of genres, from buzzing guitars to electropop to world-music-lite. The album feels like a rolling set of fun songs, or at least as fun as a gloomy headspace guy can be. Vocally channeling various garage rock styles but also notably Matt Beringer from The National, Toledo is in fine form, and every song is both interesting and catchy (again in that indie sense). Highlights include the two versions of “Hostile,” one guitar punk, one brooding electro (the latter with a lovely acapella outro sealed with shouting); the opener, “Weightlifters,” with its Led-Zep-Kashmir intro and sawing guitars; and the majestic, National-esque “Life Worth Missing.” A beguiling, foot-tapping, intelligent jumble.
Connected by Latif Nasser [7/10]
Latif Nasser, a Ph.D. who has carved out a career of wide-eyed wonder in a radio show, now showcases his brand of science explication in the six-part “Connected: The Hidden Science of Everything.” The show bears his signature throughout, riffing on conceptual connectedness between subjects rarely linked. The most fascinating episode tracks dust from the vast Saharan Desert tracts across different parts of the globe. Another episode exults in clouds, both atmospheric and the Internet’s figurative version. The one topic I’m familiar with, nuclear explosions, makes interesting points but with less surety. As a host, Nasser is perennially “wow,” a whippet-thin bundle of energized curiosity, which is both the show’s strength and, sometimes, its sole source of tedium; I found him as fascinating as the arc of his mind. For science geeks and ordinary folks alike, Connected is recommended.
Walk the Wire by David Baldacci [4/10]
David Baldacci, writer extraordinaire of airport thrillers, introduced his policeman/detective hero, Amos Decker, in 2015 and has pumped out one such every year since. The sixth, “Walk the Wire,” launches speedily, with Decker (gifted with perfect memory and synesthesia) travelling to North Dakota with a colleague, charged with investigating a gruesome murder in the snow. A seemingly routine, if intriguing, murder inquiry soon explodes into a fiendishly complex plot involving fracking (interestingly portrayed), a military base, and shadowy forces from Washington. Decker is an appealing, bluff, troubled character, and the author employs a well-etched cast of characters. The savage ice-bound environment of the Badlands is brought to life. Baldacci can write fluently with subtlety. All well and good, one might say, and I was looking forward to a pacy read to match the enjoyable, well-crafted Decker debut of “Memory Man,” but from the halfway point, “Walk the Wire” turns sour. Extravagant plot flourishes escalate, an assassin (star of another Baldacci series) enters the fray, and the action turns cartoonish. Plot twist after silly plot twist mars the capable execution. The finale will appeal to James Patterson fans but, in my opinion, lacks narrative depth. A disappointment.
Sideways to New Italy by Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever [6/10]
After their unexpectedly successful debut Hope Downs, “Sideways to New Italy” is both another splash of rushing indie rock from Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, and quite different in feel. With three singer-songwriters steeped in 80s Australian rock and pop, with breezy vocals, with jaunty lyrics, with a rhythm section both driving and somehow calm, the early songs hark back to Hope Downs. “The Second of the First” bursts into life with an instrumental flurry, picks up urgent vocals, then morphs and grows wonderfully. “Falling Thunder” brims with lightness (“is it any wonder?”) over a rock-steady foundation. “She’s There,” a classic breakup rant, mixes lovely guitar figures and chart-ready call-and-response vocals. Then the album shifts into something more subdued, and occasionally less inspired, covering a range of pop/rock references, before the closing track “The Cool Change” lands us back in the 90s with a blissed-out confections. Sideways to New Italy is a feel-good antidote to lockdown Melbourne winter.
The Virus in the Age of Madness by Bernard-Henri Levy [5/10]
In his pell-mell, inevitably too early discourse on the Coronavirus pandemic, “The Virus in the Age of Madness,” philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has a go at dissecting the true nature and hidden meanings of this moment. Those more technically philosophically inclined and trained will do this book more justice than a layperson like me, but I found it both highly interesting (a very different take than other early writerly musings) and baffling. Baffling because it seems to me that Levy is always careful to adhere to the “risk management” ethos of pandemic response (that is, with unknown mortality/morbidity risk of a virulent virus, let’s show extreme care and save lives), while at the same time eviscerating careless memes that have arisen. “It is the epidemic of fear,” he asserts at the beginning of the book, “not only of Covid-19, that has descended upon the world.” He takes aim at sloppy logic: health professionals are not always worth revering; the virus does not intrinsically possess hidden virtues; Covid-19 need not be delivering a special message; it was not inevitable; it is not a judgment of God; the dichotomy between “life” and “the economy” might be false; lockdown should not be “basked in”; “stay at home” rebuffs centuries of philosophical lessons and “we will have to muster our courage and go for real life”; and it is not true that “the world is made for us to huddle up in, say King Corona.” I used the word “baffling” above and I mean it, no narrative thread of logic seems to be employed. Nonetheless, Levy is a spirited, polymath orator and The Virus in the Age of Madness is well worth reading, if only to reinforce the need to keep questioning every step in our 2020 world.
The Speed Cubers by Sue Kim [7/10]
Clocking in at 39 minutes, who could imagine that “The Speed Cubers,” a documentary about a Rubik’s Cube championship, would compel? Yet that is exactly what Sue Kim achieves. Artfully switching between the two titans of the sport, handsome Feliks Zemdegs and autistic Max Park, Kim quickly gets to the nub of the skill and the contest, and then builds up suspense around the relationship between the pair. Unobtrusive, intelligent cinematography nails every scene, the various “talking head” interviewees are terrific, and the director’s control of pacing is exemplary. The final scenes carry considerable emotional heft. A fascinating subject accorded an exemplary treatment … recommended.
A Short Philosophy of Birds by Philippe J. Dubois & Elise Rousseau [4/10]
If you’re like me and use birding as a portal into our real Earth, “A Short Philosophy of Birds” could well appeal to you. An ornithologist and philosopher combine forces to offer 22 short and deep observations of birds in the wild, and to draw out “the secret lessons that birds can teach us about how to live.” For example, watching larks elicits: “Knowing how not to worry – perhaps that is the beginning of happiness.” The authors are engaging writers and the book is a graceful, short trip through the pleasures of observing birds, and that aspect I can recommend to any birding reader. But, reader beware: the philosophical conclusions quickly emerge as nonsensical. I guffawed at the very notion that observing the miracle of bird migration contains any lessons at all for us humans, and certainly that it might compel us “to learn our own truth” defies any reasoning. So … perhaps you might be partial to such illogicality; even if not, you could well enjoy bird observations well penned.
When One Person Dies, The Whole World Is Over by Mandy Ord [6/10]
“When One Person Dies, The Whole World Is Over” is a full-length comic book that extends the form into new territory. Four panels sketch out each of 365 days in an entire recent year. Cartoonist and teacher Mandy Ord is an idiosyncratic, powerful sketcher of moments and each of the 1,460 panels is a visual black-and-white treat. The plot (and it might surprise you to hear there is a highly intelligent story arc) covers the quotidian life of the author, in her work, her marriage, family, and friends, while the events of the world hover in the background. Various storylines, plonked down now and then with a single panel, build up into emotional intensity. I was intrigued (I’m no comic reader, normally), then drawn in, then emotionally swept up. A climax comes: “This is it. The moment underprepared for. ” An immersive, powerful read.