Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert [7/10]

Elizabeth Kolbert Under a White Sky review

Elizabeth Kolbert is one of a handful of consummate climate-change-obsessed journalists. As in all her books, “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future” shies away from polemicism, electing instead to forensically reveal truth in the actions of her human subjects. This time out, she tackles our propensity to spot how we’ve change the planet for the worse and to immediately, proactively change it back for the better. Without trumpeting the fact, with quiet understatement, Under a White Sky is about consequences, unintended and intended and unintended. Kolbert is sympathetic to both the scientist arguing we are place “under an obligation” to fix things, and to her clearly revealed evidence that “the history of biological interventions designed to correct for previous biological interventions reads like” Dr. Seuss. Kolbert works hard, writes precisely but also with understated eloquence, and she comes to know her interviewees. Topics tackled include river diversion and (yes!) electrification; extinction rescue; genetic modification; BECCS and other massive carbon capture notions; and solar geoengineering. Under a White Sky is an education, a pleasure, and a timely warning.

What Is Life? by Paul Nurse [6/10]

Paul Nurse What Is Life? review

In a succinct synthesis, “What Is Life?: Understand Biology In Five Steps,” barely over a hundred pages long, Nobel Prize winner Paul Nurse expounds what a lifetime of work has taught him about his field. A lyrical, yet cogent ode to arguably the most important science of all, the book eschews textbook details and aims to instruct at the highest conceptual level. Five massive concepts underpin biology, according to Nurse, and what astonished me is that the final one, the most recent to be perceived by leading biologists, was unknown to me yet arrived as instantly intuitively correct. Nurse peppers his overview with modestly framed anecdotes from his storied career. Final rejoinders round up the journey of What Is Life, and here he finds room to mention our current pandemic.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke [8/10]

Susanna Clarke Piranese review

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s bestselling novel, left me cold, but sixteen years later, the much slimmer “Piranesi” is an accomplished, moody take on a science-fiction trope of the hidden other world. In the grand universe of the House, with its countless massive halls amidst clouds, its flooding waves, its innumerable ornate statues, a meticulous madman named Piranesi lives, roams, and scientifically records in notebooks. The only other occupant is the Other, a friend … or is he? When an intruder arrives, Piranesi’s world comes under threat. Clarke has constructed a complex puzzle requiring the reader to solve the mystery of where, who, and why, and she does with extraordinary finesse. Written in a gothic style, the novel wrapped me in the grip of a memorable hero and an almighty, intricate brain twister. And an enduring character is the House itself, evoked in atmospheric prose. The ending is wonderful and wonderfully revealed. I’m reminded of some classic I might have read half a century ago, perhaps a half-remembered Wilkie Collins novel. Unusual, eerie, and compelling, Piranesi is a fine, intelligent read that sticks in the memory.

A Lonely Man by Chris Power [8/10]

Chris Power A Lonely Man review

A classic “writer novelizing a dangerous true tale” story, “A Lonely Man” follows Robert, a young writer in Berlin. Gestating not too much in the way of words, while with a wonderful wife and two daughters, he stumbles onto Patrick, a driven, perhaps shifty ghost writer who fears Putin’s reach because of starting a book by one of those Russian oligarchs who could only have been born from as cataclysmic an event as the end of the Cold War. Is Patrick for real or just paranoid? Why does Robert latch onto Patrick’s images and scenes so frantically? It can’t turn out well. A Lonely Man begins as a cross between a modest expatriate tale and a thriller by Robert Harris (remember his The Ghost?) but darkens and deepens, the prose precise and immersive, into an existential drama that enthralls. Domesticity nestles with opulence, violence with tawdriness. Lit thriller par excellence.

Lupin Season 1 [8/10]

Lupin Season 1 review

A caper series based around the conceit of imitating the famous French escapologist/burglar Arsène Lupin, “Lupin” is imperfect but shines brightly where it most counts. Assane Diop, a Senagelese in Paris, is out to unravel and avenge the prison death of his father when he was a boy, and to do that, he needs to invade the world of a sleazy, powerful businessman (played wonderfully by Hervé Pierre). The first episode (of five) involves a jewel heist in the Louvre, very much in the Mission Impossible style (but, it has to be said, less hi-tech), and each episode involves deception, misdirection and trickery a la the legendary Lupin. The series is plotted tightly and directed in workmanlike fashion, but the series stands or falls with Omar Sy’s larger-than-life portrayal of both Assane, the wronged boy grown up, and Assan the incarnation of Lupin. And here I found myself wavering. Omar Sy’s huge frame and handsome smile often seemed to render him as shallow, yet at crucial times, usually in the midst of mayhem and action, his acting revved up a notch. The caper machinery of Lupin could have come across as cliched, instead it is fresh and enjoyable, and towards the end, what lifts this season above the ruck is the nuanced performance of Ludovine Sagnier as Claire, Assane’s on-again-off-again partner. The interplay between Assane and Claire elevates the inevitable cliffhanger finale into something rather special. Lupin ends up more affecting than its parts.

Angry Weather by Friederike Otto [8/10]

Friederike Otto Angry Weather review

Global climate change models are finally, after decades of devoted, amazing work, comprehensive enough to answer local questions about extreme weather events, be they hurricanes, flooding, heat waves, wildfires, and the like. Over the last few years, an underfunded, ragtag bunch of heroic climate science nerds has pioneered a new field: weather attribution. If there is enough historical data, we can at last rigorously unpack the probability of particular climate change era events. For example, when Hurricane Harvey freakishly flooded Houston in 2017, killing a hundred people, Friederike Otto and her compatriots dotted around the globe were able to announce, almost real-time, that climate change had made the flooding three times more likely than normal. The author cleverly hinges her narrative around a day-by-day diary of her analytical and expository Harvey activities. “Angry Weather: Heat Waves, Floods, Storms, and the New Science of Climate Change” is written in crystal clear, fervent prose, and not a word is wasted when outlining the reverberating impacts of attribution science. This outstanding book will be a mandatory textbook for years but it deserves a far wider general readership.

Dick Johnson Is Dead by Kirsten Johnson [6/10]

Dick Johnson Is Dead review

An oddball documentary by documentary maker Kirsten Johnson, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” chronicles the final days of her avuncular father. Dick, seemingly graced with a never-ending childlike smile, is already suffering from dementia (which, poignantly, his wife expired from) when the movie kicks off, and over the course of the film he relocates from Seattle to New York. Perhaps as an act of grace toward his beloved daughter, Dick acquiesces to participating in an outlandish set of mortal what-if scenes: what if he tripped down stairs, what if an air conditioner fell from on high onto him, etc., etc. Is this series of scripted, performed scenes meant to prepare the father for death? Or the daughter? Kirsten Johnson reveals little, even as she escalates the imaginary events into post-death scenes in heaven. All of this makes for a vaudevillian smorgasbord interspersed with footage of the father declining, and the juxtaposition can seem a little unfocused. But the inevitable climax is truly moving, and as centered in reality as the rest of the movie is in flights of fancy. Overall, Dick Johnson Is Dead is not for everyone, but for the questing, cerebral moviegoer, it might prove to be a viewing highlight.