A fine example of theme-led investigative and writing, noted broadcaster Ramona Koval’s third book, “A Letter to Layla,” wrestles with humankind’s deepest past and fleetest future. What can science tell us about Homo Sapien’s evolutionary origins and how does that prepare us for present-day existential challenges? What can speculative science offer along the same lines? Koval seats her travels, interviews, and reading alongside fascinated observation of her granddaughter Layla’s precocious development. The author plonks herself in the middle of the book, offering a beguiling writerly/travel/quest memoir to the reader, and that makes for much of the appeal of A Letter to Ramona, as she travels to Georgia (the republic), France, and U.S.A, and provides mini pen portraits of an eclectic bunch of archaeologists, paleontologists, and futurists. I enjoyed dwelling on her gently intelligent style while her mind unpacks her investigation’s conclusions. Highly recommended for general nonfiction readers.
Every one of Michael Connelly’s numerous novels delivers a satisfying brew of tantalizing plot, deftly drawn characters, and clean, robust writing. That said, recent outings have begun to fray under the baggage of his series’ growing complexity. His third in the Jack McEvoy series, Fair Warning, slightly underwhelmed me, so I came to “The Law of Innocence,” the sixth Mickey Haller book, with a buzz of trepidation. I need not have worried, for this is a typical Connelly humdinger, in part because super-smart, attitudinal street lawyer Haller is a triumph of a hero. This time a policeman finds a leaking body in his boot (his trademark Lincoln, from which he plies his trade), and wham, Haller is buried in jail awaiting what seems like a slam-dunk murder conviction. Haller’s quest to prove he has been framed is fiendishly complex, and the plot, replete with legalistic issues and courtroom machinations, rockets along. If I were to issue a caveat, namely that there are so many side characters involved in Haller’s life by now (including one Harry Bosch) that a whiff of TV sludginess can be sniffed a few times, Connelly’s sure hand at the tiller ensures the customary satisfying ride. If you’re a Mickey Haller fan, you’ll love The Law of Innocence. If not, why not?
Legendary New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani offers, in “Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread,” a generously curated cornucopia of reading. Kakutani’s breadth is stunning, ranging from classics and obscure documents, through school staples, through “top 10 of all times” listers, to trenchant modern nonfiction takes on America. Refreshingly, she has not attempted any form of balance or orientation, rather Ex Libris is a magpie-reader’s “the shit I read” A-Z dump, and I was captivated. Four Muhammad Ali books sit next door to an obscure Martin Amis memoir. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying slides into Elena Ferrante’s The Neapolitan Quartet. A zinging coverage of Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction is followed by a Jhumpa Lahiri novel and then by two Jarod Lanier polemics. In contrast to her formal newspaper reviews, Kakutani’s treatment is convivial. She spends time telling us what each book is about. Often a book’s virtues are barely enumerated; all you need know is that she has chosen it and therefore is is worthy. The books I knew were reborn under her gaze, and the unfamiliar offerings … well, I’ve plucked a dozen out to try. I can roundly recommend Ex Libris for any passionate reader, indeed for anyone commencing a journey of reading passion.
At this point in a year, I customarily provide my Top 10 albums thus far, but over the past six months, despite thinking I might have enjoyed some twenty musical offerings by now, my listening has been paltry. Eight albums, barely one a month!
I did hear amazing stuff. Virga I from the prodigious talent of Eluvium was the highlight, but it’s a niche taste, long-form ambience that reminded me of Klaus Schultz from the 70s! Matt Berninger’s Serpentine Prison ear-wormed me for weeks with its poetic, lilting songs. And who could resist the indie folk-pop magic of Swallowing the Sun by Steve Robinson? But none of the other five albums ranked over 7/10.
It’s not that I don’t long to be blown away by a diet of superb modern music. The problem has been long brewing and it is twofold. Firstly, background listening seems to annoy me during this phase of life and dedicated loungeroom listening is history. Secondly, I have not lucked upon an efficient, enjoyable means of garnering and triaging new rock music. The result is that listening is not part of my life in the way that reading and watching is, and, even more relevant, what I hear is mostly old-person shit that is, at best, tired.
No solution readily pops up. But I’m not ready to retire my ears (even though all my friends have done so) and I’ll attempt to address the issue over the coming months.
The cinematic world remains chaotic. Non-streamed movies have been tough to launch inside a pandemic. I have the sense that the pinnacle of streaming series’ excellence has been and gone; much of the fare released has reverted to pap. But the streaming platforms’ competitive jungle ensures that the best of what is out there is stellar. I have experienced another superb half year of viewing. One movies, a documentary at that (The Dissident) received a perfect score of 10/10. The other nine ranked at 9/10, indicating that any one of them will amaze. Links below are to my reviews.
The Dissident—flawless, thrilling storytelling by Bryan Fogel, and this in aid of the true story of the Russian blogger chopped up in a Turkish embassy!
The Queen’s Gambit—cool and cerebral, a fine, visually arresting 7-parter about a female American chess champion.
Mrs. America—a triumphant acting role by Cate Blanchett, but this dense 9-episode series about seventies’ feminism never misses a beat.
Mank—a brooding, monochromatic film about the screenwriter behind Citizen Kane.
Upright—a splendid 8-short-episode tale of a road trip across Australia.
The Midnight Sky—George Clooney’s masterpiece, an elegiac dystopian sci-fi that entrances.
Call My Agent Season 4—no more, no more, and what a pity, this marvelous series goes out on a luscious, hilarious high.
Staged Season 2—Even more post-ironic and maniacal than the first season, this made-during-lockdown season of eight episodes, about the making of lockdown series, is hilarious.
City on a Hill Season 2—brilliant eight-parter, savage and heartfelt equally, about crime and race in Boston in the nineties
Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World—artfully and respectfully composed, an inspiring look at one year in the life of an inspiring person.
At this stage last year, my lockdown-influenced reading tilted more towards nonfiction and the thriller/mystery genres than is customary. This year’s first half reading highlights are both of higher impact (all are rated 9/10 except The Premonition, which I gave a perfect 10/10 score, and one 8-rater) and spread out across the spectrum of categories. One rare occurrence – two books in a trilogy both hit my Top 10, signaling, of course, consistent excellence, but also an extremely rapid publication rate. The links below take you to my review.
The Premonition (10/10) by Michael Lewis—a riveting, illuminating tale of a group of analytical American officials and analysts who understand Covid-19 as soon as it hits their shores.
Garry Disher’s Consolation—the crown of top Australian crime fiction author rests on Disher’s head and this is one of his most propulsive and haunting.
The Cold Millions (8/10) by Jess Walter—a captivating, swaggering literary novel set in the American battle for unionism a century ago.
Mick Herron’s Slough House—buckle up for a brilliant ride with the seventh in the Jackson Lamb spy thriller series.
Untraceable by Sergei Lebedev—plucked from the headlines of Soviet nerve poisons, this literary thriller is just as much about the characters.
Charlie Newton’s Canaryville—no one pens a thriller as stylishly as this author and Canaryville is his incendiary, unputdownable pinnacle (so far).
A Man at Arms by Steven Pressfield—the writing guru can also write, and write brilliantly, with a raw, thrilling tale of early Christianity.
The Trials of Koli by M. R. Carey—the second instalment in this remarkable author’s Rampart science fiction trilogy, told in Koli’s unforgettable voice, unfolding a post-technology epic and riddle.
The Fall of Koli by M. R. Carey—the triumphant capstone to a trilogy of classic status.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future—hard science fiction addressing near-term climate change, but stellar story-making as well.
“Bridgerton,” a rollicking eight-episode adaptation of a best-selling historical romance novel (the first in a series, now nine strong, by Julia Quinn), does not match my reading circles at all. For one thing, it is set in the Regency period of British royal times (the early nineteenth century, a fact I had to establish), part of an extended period of British history of zero interest to me and, I would wager, zero relevance to the modern world. Second, it exudes romance genre of the steamier sub-genres, full of breathy declarations and bared arses. And third, by very definition, this tale of “wealth, lust, and betrayal … seen through the eyes of the powerful Bridgerton family,” as a blurb puts it, might be a yawn. Yet somehow, by adding clever mini forks in typically predictable romance plots, by injecting alterna-history through including a few black noble families, by souping up the music, by amping up the glitz and color, by working extra hard at all the romance tropes … by focusing on intelligent escapism, Bridgerton succeeds in freshening up what could have been Downton Abbey with nudity. For every scene that had me cringing at quasi-porn or silliness or affectation, I enjoyed another scene tinged with seriousness or mystery or coolness. Quite a surprise, this one.
French playwright Florian Zeller has scooped the pool by snaring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman for his self-directed, co-written debut film, “The Father.” Be assured that both these outstanding actors are in scintillating form. A movie about dementia, told from the loopy, time-shifting, place-shifting perspective of Anthony, the eighty-year-old former engineer steadily seeping reality, The Father holds one gripped in an uncomfortable hold. Anthony (played by namesake Hopkins) is living in his daughter Anne’s (Coleman) apartment but the furnishings, the people, the faces all switch disconcertingly. This is best described as “harrowing fare,” an education for those who haven’t gone through this phase with a loved one, and at the end I expected to be shattered. Yet there is something overtly stage managed about the scripting and direction, and I found myself impressed but strangely unmoved at the end. Recommended nonetheless.
Improv, the stage theatre of ensemble improvisation, is sometimes seen but is rarely dissected. Pippa Evans, a longtime master at improv, and more recently a passionate teacher of improvisation, both as a stage discipline, but also for life training purposes, has fashioned a fascinating mix of technical advice and all-purpose life advice. “Improv Your Life: An Improviser’s Guide to Embracing Whatever Life Throws at You” melds her own story and stagecraft lessons and, most relevant of all for me, notions of thinking and acting on your feet in everyday life. As an introvert, I was spellbound by her suggestions on “small steps to practise taking up space” and noticing “whenever you say YES, YES AND or YES BUT,” and the subtle role of status in every human interchange. I’ll never join a stand-up crew riffing off each other on a stage, but I’m enriched by reading about the craft, and enriched by the practical lessons of Improv Your Life.
From its opening scene, the brown-tinged Cold War thriller “The Courier” looks, sounds and feels like a movie out of my teens. Director Dominic Cooke does a masterful job of planting the viewer right there in 1960, the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis. International salesman Greville Wynne is approached by MI6, partnered with the CIA (Rachel Brosnahan gives a perky characterization), and asked to expand his Eastern European bailiwick to Moscow, to act as courier for volunteer Soviet spy Oleg Penkovsky. Wynne, slick and adept at selling through boozing, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a superb performance. Merab Ninidze is almost as wonderful as Penkovsky. Cooke’s unwinding of the straightforward script, which escalates towards Armageddon, is surehanded, and the tension is terrific. The aftermath allows Cumberbatch to portray pathos with gripping dramatics. The Courier is based on a true story, normally a handle that signifies filmic yawning, but this movie is traditional and exciting and nothing more needs be said.