I’ve recently read a fascinating book about breathing, so the opportunity to learn more about our lungs could not be skipped. In “Breath Taking: The Power, Fragility, and Future of Our Extraordinary Lungs” [don’t have cover image yet], pulmonologist Michael Stephen offers an expert’s perspective on the subject, stylishly presented in terms comprehensible even to this layperson. The introductory chapters on the evolution of our breathing apparatus and its structure and functionality are deftly unwound. I was especially taken with his startling (to me, remember, I’m a neophyte) explanations of the differences between human and avian lungs and breathing. The profound impact breathing, and hence our lungs, have on health and well-being is covered without fanfare. The second half of the book details the incredible sophistication of the lungs’ defence mechanisms, and the plethora of ways in which they can be breached, from smoke inhalation to lung cancer and other illnesses. The tale of cystic fibrosis is especially harrowing, both depressing and encouraging. Covid-19 even receives summary, early treatment. All in all, this is a splendid everyperson introduction and resource.
“ZeroZeroZero” is a lavish, bleak mini saga of a massive smuggled cocaine deal, weaving between three equally nihilistic tales. In Monterrey, Mexico, a soldier (played with mesmerizing intensity by Harold Torres) involves his squad in a cartel assembling the drugs and shipping them to Italy. In Calabria, an aging, evil overlord (another stellar performance, by Adriano Chiaramida) spars with his aspiring grandson as they await the shipment. And the dealmakers in between are a Florida family (memorable acting by Andrea Riseborough, Gabriel Byrne, and Dane DeHaan). A study in evildoing, “ZeroZeroZero” is not for everyone; death stalks every scene and no lily-white hero leaps out. Instead, the eight equally gripping episodes cook ferociously, tension bubbling, amidst sumptuous cinematography and an industrial-brooding soundtrack. As someone endlessly baffled by and obsessed with humankind’s potential for darkness, I was held in thrall. Only at the end, when the three stories are played out and intersect, was I let down somewhat; the overall narrative arc seems to lack change and resolution. Be that as it may, “ZeroZeroZero” is compelling, black-hearted viewing.
Long tracks of chugging psych-folk, overlaid by singer (and band leader) Jeremy Earls’s gentle falsetto … Woods is both easy listening and somehow unsettling, shifting as you listen. They have been around for years but I only cottoned onto them with their 2017 “Love Is Love,” which I found to be overly sentimental. “Strange to Explain” also feels optimistic but more steely and varied, and it has played again and again on my turntable (of course I don’t have a turntable but that expression is too precious to ditch). Songs flow with electronic piano and mellotrons, and even strategically placed brass, playing off against the typical precise guitar. Poetic lyrics explore life and loss and the times. Highlights include the driving “Can’t Get Out,” a lament of desperation; the swaying, sublime title track; the jammy instrumental “Weekend Wind”; and the pulsing, sad “Fell So Hard.” A ray of musical light indeed.
Out of all the “writers riffing amidst a pandemic” offerings so far, “Intimations: Six Essays” is a fine contribution, simply because Zadie Smith is such a rhythmic, complex, intelligent stylist. No matter whether she is talking about the guilt we all feel during Covid-19, the notion that we must not complain, or exploring the dynamics of random street encounters, Smith grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and propels her along. A withering blast against the contempt infecting modern politics and discourse sits alongside a reflection on an extremist sign holder in a public square. Intimations backs you away from obsession with masks, numbers, and horrors, into a more nuanced, prospective view. Recommended if you’re like me and need the balm of excellent writing in these troubled times.
Stephen King polarizes. His deft, detail-ridden, smooth-as-silk writing style is derided by some of my friends as trite airport quality, but I, along with his legions of fans, readily fall under the spell of his capacious narrative skills. I especially admire how rapidly he launches stories or books, with a minimum of fuss but instant immersion. “If It Bleeds,” four disparate novellas, showcases his stylistics in the service of nifty but unspectacular story ideas. “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” messes with that hoary idea of the voice from the grave, “The Rat” is a riff on the pact-with-the-devil trope, and the fantastical “The Life of Chuck” zaps backwards in time. The longest novella, “If It Bleeds,” gives a character from “The Outsider” her first solo starring role, in a story of mind-tripping societal monsters. All of them held me in awe – I could imagine being told each story by a soft-voiced narrator – but none offers lasting gravity (which I guess is why they were spat out as novellas). Overall, probably one for the completists, but King always entertains, in a classic sense, something we can all do with right now.
Inveterate medical pursuer of the cutting edge, Michael Mosley has informed a chunk of my life. I executed his 5:2 diet from “The Fast Diet”, am right now occasionally on his “The Fast 800” diet, and read with great interest “The Clever Guts Diet” and “Fast Exercise.” I don’t always agree with him but he has a knack with clear explanation, readily implementable good practices, and the harnessing of cutting-edge medical/scientific ideas. “Fast Asleep: How to Get a Really Good Night’s Rest” (notice how he neatly gets the word “fast” into the title) is his examination of insomnia and other sleep problems. As he and many others see it, poor sleep is a modern plague. In his customary fashion, he sums up the science and explores options, and comes up with a process to inculcate better sleep routines, consisting of a savage attack on the issue followed by sound ongoing principles. Though no expert, I’ve read a lot about sleep and insomnia recently, and Mosley’s ideas gibe with the sensible views of the most forward-looking. A disconcerting coda section provides recipes written by his wife, but this can be justified by his emphasis on diet in improving sleep. I commend the book to anyone concerned about the dark hours.
“Snow” is both a stock-standard police procedural, set in the Republic of Ireland in the 1950s, and a sly oddity. John Banville, a Booker Prize being one of his many achievements in the literary fiction field, has also penned seven fast mysteries set in the same milieu under his Benjamin Black penname, and one wonders why Snow did not more properly fit into that universe. I think the difference is the sensibility of Snow. Starring Detective Inspector St John Strafford from Dublin, Snow features a claustrophobic, isolated manor in the Agatha Christie or Daphne du Maurier tradition, and the murder victim, a castrated priest, creates a tableau of subterranean horrors contrasted with pristine glitz. Strafford is an engaging, capable, somewhat detached puzzle solver, Banville is a consummate wordsmith with an easy rhythm, and the plot unfolds in a well-controlled fashion. I really did feel like I was reading a mystery from my teens, albeit with a modern macabre edge. If the easy read did not translate into palpable tension, if the twist ending was not really a twist at all, if Strafford’s otherness left him a cypher … none of these spoiled a juicy period piece mystery.
Gifted comedian and provocateur Craig Reucassel came out swinging in the sustainability/environmental space with his entertaining, spot-on series War on Waste. Now his four-part “Fight for Planet A: Our Climate Challenge” takes on a bigger challenge, the most fraught of them all. Employing his trademark mix of interviews, consumer challenges, politician bail-ups, and voice-over narration, Reucassel quickly drives into the heart of Australia’s shameful inaction on global warming. He sets an eclectic panel of ordinary Aussies the challenge of reducing carbon emissions from the various sectors that count. He chases politicians in Canberra and even on the beach. He employs the “black balloon” device to illustrate the relative dimensions of emissions. By its nature, Fight for Planet A is a polemic for the times, and it doesn’t pretend to be more than an intelligent tilt at the issues, but after an initial episode that seemed timid, the show picks up pace and culminates in a powerful plea for political sanity, community action, and a way forward that lines up with the science. Especially moving is a trip and interview with Charlie Veron, possibly the world’s foremost experts on coral reefs, who now despairs of reef survivals as the sea warms. Perhaps for Australians only, but recommended as a reminder of sanity and a call for action.
Is “The Trip to Greece” the last of the four “Trip” movies featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing fictionalized versions of themselves on whirlwind gourmet travelogues? It seems to be and perhaps the time has come, for the premise was always threadbare at best, and all the best jokes have been said. This time the pair pretend to retrace the voyage of Odysseus, an excuse for voluptuous scenery shots, brief clips of busy gourmet chefs, repartee between mouthfuls, repartee while driving, and the odd, slightly emotive scenes of the two in between. Michael Winterbottom is a superb director and he imbues this film, like the others, with an indie slant even while the cinematography and scene shifting are impeccable. But hey, we “Trip” lovers are not glued to the screen for any of that, what we want is spirited bickering, inspired wordplay, and voice imitations nonpareil. As usual, I watched with a perpetual half smile, nodding occasionally at cleverness, interspersed with laughing out loud. When Brydon and Coogan strike a motherlode, they are very, very funny. Overall, “The Trip to Greece” is definitely for fans and is engaging, subdued entertainment for first-timers.
“Thief of Stars” rapidly follows The Final Dawn, the first in a space opera series that runs at a cracking pace. We follow Jack Bishop’s adventures in space with a team of sentient automata, his adventures both encountered but also pivoting around his central quest to find his home planet Earth. Ashford conjures up a vast world of stars, planets, and alien races, and Bishop’s team is brought to life through excellent characterization and dialogue. On this outing, Bishop, ever more desperate to seek home, finds himself boxed into stealing a “solar core” aboard a colony ship, and a sinuous plot ensues. As in the debut, the author is at his best amidst the vivid action scenes, and once more Thief of Stars is a quick treat to read, but I had the feeling the series could be stumbling a tad. I shall, of course, be hanging for another reprise of resourceful Jack Bishop in far-flung space.