Journalist Eric Holthaus, in “The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming,” seeks to “encourage all of us to explore possible futures based on the latest science and continue to have faith that the conversations themselves could be transformative.” A talented stylist with an urgent tone, Holthaus sets the scene by surveying the climate emergency, appeals to our common sense of humanity, and then walks the Earth forward three decades, decade by decade, based on the author’s scientific knowledge and interviews with leading thinkers. This “hypothetical” makes narrative momentum difficult to sustain, and sometimes there is a sense of a sci-fi script, but, as the author believes, the very act of telling a story of properly transformative emissions reduction (and some drawdown) is most instructive and encouraging. The author concludes with personal suggestions on how to model change. Overall, “The Future Earth” is an intriguing exhortation.
“The Assistant” should amount to more than it does. Writer/director Kitty Green has devised a smart, oblique peek into the #MeToo world of New York film and television. Julia Garner is stunningly successful in depicting (with few words but great visual aplomb) a single day of a junior assistant (five weeks into the job!) slaving away in the office of a horrific mogul we never see, just hear indistinctly behind a closed door. A strong feature of the film is the beautifully filmed, close-up corporate office world with its banality and hidden dramas (trust me, it rings true). The seemingly never-ending sequences of office-domestic duties carried out by the assistant, all the while increasingly realizing what abuses and ravages are being perpetrated by the Weinstein-modelled person behind the door (we never see him, another deliberate filmic choice), are clearly intended to reek of a Kafka novel, but something in the pacing or atmosphere or framing sucks all the horror out of the buildup. Only a brief foray into the office of a human resources manager (played with panache by Matthew Macfadyen) offers any narrative drive; frankly, boredom sets in readily. Overall, “The Assistant” amounts to an intriguing drama that misfires.
Conductor Lev Parikian wrote one of my favorite birding books of 2018, revealing in the process a unique voice: jokey, discursive, smart, bustling, compassionate. “Into the Tangled Bank” widens his ambit. Setting out to explore British nature in all its complexity, but also how people experience nature, and in particular what nature means to him, Parikian begins close-up, in his “non-gardener’s” garden, then expands horizons. He strolls his local “patch,” attempts to draw a heron, hikes through rain, examines nature in museums and via documentaries, tours London Zoo and the wetland reserve in Barnes (one of my special places), then journeys to Skye and onto a boat and into a bird banding project. Interspersed are homages to Darwin, Peter Scott, and others. Chuckles abound and Parikian never turns pretentious. Nor does he espouse a platform, though a mid-book “interlude,” a pithy rave about “the state of the planet” moved me greatly. Indeed Into the Tangled Bank weaves a subtle magic over its journey, professing to bumble but artfully suffusing the reader with awe and love of our planet and all its living forms.
M. John Harrison is an immersive, stunning literary stylist who has written several science fiction classics, but “The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again” is something altogether different. It follows Shaw, a drifter through life who takes on a job on a tumbledown London barge, and Victoria, Shaw’s sometime lover and also a scrambled person, as she settles into the family home in Shropshire. Nothing much happens—the two of them get together, part, and drift onwards, but around them something strange is happening in the waters, in the towns, everywhere … small oddities that build up into a sense of an ancient, menacing otherworld. Harrison cannot write a dull sentence, indeed the sentences overflow with piercing descriptions of a Britain in post-Brexit decline. “The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again” is a beguiling, aslant tour de force.
“Cardinal” began life based on the spellbinding police procedurals written by Canadian novelist Giles Blunt (the first one and among the best was Forty Words for Sorrow), but quickly established a separate life on the screen. The first two seasons were hypnotic and the third, one of my 2019 highlights, was almost unbearably dark and suspenseful. Season 4 is billed as the finale and I wish it were not so. Set in chilling Canadian snow country, the cinematography and scenic direction are as controlled and beautiful as in the first three seasons. After a harrowing opening murder scene, the plot swirls for the first three episodes, then settles into a duel between evil and the two detective heroes of “Cardinal,” John Cardinal (played as ever more worn-down but indefatigable, by wonderful Billy Campbell) and his junior partner Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse shines in this role). The embers of the attraction between the two of them glow. As ever, the supporting cast is stellar, and Shawn Doyle exudes tormented evil as the key opponent. The final two episodes, set in the white, white, frigid snow, pound with tension, and the denouement is apt and sweet. A triumph.
Grandiloquent space opera grounded in the lives of real people flows from the pen of Frank Kennedy. “The Promised Few” is the conclusion of his tetralogy, The Impossible Future, and it delivers as a maximum-octane, intelligent finale. Over the previous three instalments, we followed the lives of three young Americans – awkward Jamie, joshing Michael, and composed Samantha – thrust into the sprawling space empire of the tyrannical Collectorate. At the end of Book 3, James was a rising god overseeing god-human hybrids and immortals, now ravaging the Collectorate; Samantha was Collectorate nobility captured by James; and Michael was a semi-reluctant rebel within the Collectorate. The Promised Few plunges us into frenetic action interspersed with brilliantly conceived and executed space empire diplomacy. Kennedy’s dialogue is whip-smart, his control of the rocketing pace is wonderful, and the many battle scenes thrill. Imaginative plot twists abound. Best of all, the grandiosity of the war and diplomacy sit alongside deeply rooted character studies; this is that rarest type of space opera, one that marries the personal with the vast. And, in the grand tradition of this genre, the entire series of four books is suffused with the mystery of the Jewels, powers that choreograph the fate of all three of our characters, and indeed of the world. The Promised Few is a superb closing volume of a brilliant series. Indulge yourself and sink in!
A prolific reader of prose, I struggle with poetry but I enjoy the struggle. “Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose” is a swag of essays, over three decades, by a celebrated poet talking about poems and poetry and the practice and aesthetics of creativity, and while perhaps much of Kay Ryan’s specific commentary on and reviews of other poets’ poems flew past me, simply because I hadn’t read the poems, I do love sweet style with a beat, and this book swept me up with its prose beauty. I enjoyed her trenchant, unusual reflections called “Notes on the danger of notebooks.” Recommended for those deep into poetry or the mysteries of creativity.
Indie singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers last collaborated with Conor Oberst on a terrific album, but her latest solo sophomore effort, “Punisher,” is even more impressive, a layered mix of contemplative, electronic-backed songs and upbeat, pounding anthems. Impressionistic lyrics explore yearning and dread and dislocation. Her voice, able to switch between whispery, penetrating urgency and soaring emotion, is particularly memorable. A stellar supporting crew of musicians and singers (including Oberst) never overpower. Highlights include the rousing, multi-voice chorus on “The End Is Near,” topped by crazed trumpets; the heartbreaking “Moon Song”; and the lovely, plaintive “Kyoto” buttressed by a burbling bass line, as she sings “dreaming through Kyoto skies.”
“D (A Tale of Two Worlds)” is the first YA novel from acclaimed stylist Michel Faber, but it very much fits into the “also suitable for adults” category, so I came to it expectant of the pleasures of books from, say, Phillip Pullman. And so it turned out to be, Faber crafting a fable reminiscent of the Narnia classics but laced with Dickensian shadows. Dhikilo, a teenage refugee from Africa living in England, is roped in by an absent-minded professor to jump to a strange land (partnered with the professor’s dog who is also, naturally, a sphinx) in search of the theft of the letter “D” from the world. The plot bolts along with numerous entertaining adventures of the type one would expect, strange creatures proliferate, and much fun is had with “D”-less words. Dialogue throughout is a treat and a certain modernity is referenced in asides.. Faber is an artisan of the varied style, and in this novel he adopts an earnest, YA-ish clarity with undertones of enough sophistication to keep adults amused. The tale smoothly concludes with pleasing results and overall, D (A Tale of Two Worlds) is a stylish, energetic romp.
Will Ferrell is not the most convincing actor (and in this film his age jars), but he is funny and can write funny, and in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” he tackles a worthy target, the music phenomenon that I personally abhor but is undeniably a global unifying musical phenomenon. The storyline is as kitsch as the subject matter, with Icelandic lifelong music partners Lars (Ferrell himself) and Sigrit (a wonderful performance by Rachel McAdams) chase their Eurovision dream against seemingly impossible odds. In quasi-mockumentary style, we accompany Lars and Sigrit, a bumbling pair with some decent Abba-style songs, to the finals in Edinburgh, where mayhem and bubblegum music and extravaganzas reign. The script surely intends us to be sympathetic to the duo, but that interferes with the comedy, and the number of truly comic scenes (a couple of madcap ones, one in which Lars insults blithe American tourists) is way lower than it should be. The cast of Eurovision aspirants is strong, especially Dan Stevens (one of my favorite actors) playing an oily but somehow charming Russian superstar. Bubbling under the surface of what surely one might expect to be a manic satire is genuine affection for the Eurovision scene, and that accords “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” with its own gravitas but saps the hope of laughs. Overall, a diversion with some funny moments.