Erica Chenoweth, political scientist and possibly the world’s preeminent expert on what I call nonviolent direct action, is famous within Extinction Rebellion for having first espoused the 3.5% notion: that an activist movement needs to fully and solidly mobilize that percentage of a population to achieve change. Chenoweth has written much, including books, on the subject. Now “Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know” is a consummate, wise, compendious everyperson treatment of this vital topic, suitable for both the experienced activist and anyone anxious to right wrongs and unsure whether to start a war or organize a protest. Chenoweth’s patient account, backed by as much research as has been done (she is at pains always to point out that research can be helpful but social change is ultra complicated and each case is unique), forms a history, a primer, a reflection, a from-the-headlines analysis (including, for example, how governments now fear civil resistance the most and actively fight it with fake news and deliberate provocation), and a toolkit. In my youth I read Gene Sharpe, the first systematic synthesizer of nonviolence’s history, and I’ve been an activist (an active activist, that is) twice in my life, so I am no neophyte, but I was spellbound by the usefulness and generosity of Civil Resistance. A must-read for anyone longing for a better world.
Hannelore Cayre’s pithy, packed crime thriller was a most unusual, delightful lockdown read. A tale of a Paris-based translator of Arabic drug dealer wire taps who crosses to the other side, it was mordant yet exciting. Because much of the pleasure of the novel lies in the hero’s inner thoughts (including much about the business of dealing drugs), I feared that the new movie version of “The Godmother” would flop, but my worries were misplaced. Cayre is credited as scriptwriter along with director Jean-Paul Salomé, and the script, while working harder on visual comedy and drama, and less on back story, retains the sharp, dark character of the book. Isabell Huppert is supremely confident and empathetic as “Mama Weed” (the French title), and the tautly choreographed actions scenes, one after the other, are filmed with great flair. The Godmother turns out to be an exuberant, French-infused caper film and is a hoot to watch.
What a refreshing “of the moment” series from veteran political journalist Annabel Crabb! The four episodes of “Ms Represented” examine the history of female parliamentarians and senators in Australia, from the early days when a single woman might swim amongst the sharks, through the awakening decades when handfuls of women got elected, through the glory days of our first female Prime Minister, up to the present day. Crabb has a natural affinity with her many interviewees, so that the tale is told through the eyes of a panoply of female politicians from all political parties, buttressed by her sure narrative and wonderful historical footage. The series takes no prisoners, slamming the pervasive sexism over the past century, a sexism that still reigns supreme in the corridors of Canberra. The various interviewees are all a delight, and the fact that Crabb is able to get some of them to ham up in telling the story is a credit to the rapport she achieved. Steady direction and surefooted scripting ensures smooth, immersive viewing. In the end, I was left with a joyful sense of hard-won progress tempered by the realisation that Australian politics remains blokey and primitive. Ms Represented is a perky, intelligent blast of immediate history.
United Nations diplomat Charles Petrie operated in the hellholes of the world for two decades, and in “The Triumph of Evll: Genocide in Rwanda and the Fight for Justice,” he jettisons his learnt reticence to pursue an evildoer he came across during the unbelievably appalling Rwandan genocide in 1994. A UN officer led the killings of numerous people, including UN friends of Petrie, but has remained free despite years of pursuit. Petrie’s crowd-funded book is a modern-day page turner, as he describes, painstakingly and often lyrically, the twists and turns of his diplomatic career, all the while attempting to keep the wheels of justice turning. He admits to failure, and one of his confessions is heartbreaking. What makes The Triumph of Evil so remarkable is the beautiful illustrated drawings of Spike Zephaniah Stephenson, especially a long visual narrative of the unspeakable events of 1994. The Triumph of Evil springs from the heart and is a work of bracing, solemn majesty. May Petrie’s campaign one day win!
“Thin Ice” offers so much: a setup (an Arctic Council meets in Greenland to sign a climate-emergency treaty) snatched from our headlines; eye-candy scenery amidst the grandeur of Greenland’s vast spaces and its town with colored houses; the promise of intrigue involving different countries, different languages; and ice-and-snow action scenes wonderfully staged? So why does the Swedish eight-part series periodically falter, risking viewer withdrawal. Whilst much of the direction is tight and slick, the frequent hotel scenes can occasionally seem clunky. As well, although the acting is serviceable (notables including Bianca Kronlöf and Angunnguaq Larsen), two key actors remain unconvincing throughout. And although plot switchbacks are de rigeur for such thrillers, the plot complexity of Thin Ice is torrid enough to raise eyebrows. Overall, entertaining and scenic but not outstanding.
“Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty” is an expose of evil that will stand the test of time as a classic. Patrick Radden Keefe is a consummate investigator and precise, rhythmic chronicler, and what a subject he has chosen to tackle. The Sackler family started and pursued the OxyContin opioid crisis that has engulfed large slabs of the United States and killed a half million people. The author follows the Sacklers from humble origins in the early 20th Century, through years of obscure but wealth-gathering pharmaceutical company building, through the years of fanning the greed-fuelled ascent to billionaire status, through the years of compulsive opportunistic philanthropy, through the twisted treacherous theatricality of a large, voracious family, to our current era of justice sought. This is no easy tale to tell, with its complexity and deeply disguised corruption, but the author exhibits masterful control and cogency. Empire of Pain should arouse rousing outrage and motivate sweeping change. Brilliant.
“No One Is Talking About This” immediately thrusts the reader into the world of a social media “influencer,” an unidentified woman fully immersed in what she calls the “portal.” In a manner reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s wonderful Something Happened, the first half of the novel riffs and riffs on our hero’s bizarre yet instantly recognizable life, more an online life than a real one, and then, with the impact of a lightning bolt, switches to a new existence rendered real by a tragic event. Nothing in the first fascinating pages prepares the reader for the wrenching tale that then ensues, and when the dust settles, the final uneasy juxtaposition between Trumpian, quotidian existence and the internet world a click away is unforgettable. Patricia Lockwood is a superb, poetic stylist with an unerring eye for both the banalities and the profundities of the modern world. No One Is Talking About This postures as experimental fiction, and readers need to be patient, but, please, stick with it, for I predict this novel will remain a mainstay for years to come.
Am I the only soul who hasn’t seen Bryan Cranston blitz the world in Breaking Bad? I came to “Your Honor” hesitatingly: what if he isn’t the compelling actor everyone claims he is? I need not have fussed. Peter Moffat’s storyline, about a New Orleans judge facing impossible choices when his son is involved in the hit-and-run of a mob boss’s child, is riveting, a vehicle tailor made for an intense character actor, and Cranston nails each and every scene. Over ten leisurely episodes, the sinuous tale twists in a manner almost always unpredictable but just so right. The cinematography is atmospheric, the music thrums with portent, and New Orleans figures as a character in its own right. Amazingly for such a lead-actor-centered drama, the large supporting cast is uniformly excellent, with special mention due to Hunter Doohan’s sensitive-waif portrayal of the judge’s son and Michael Stuhleberg malevolence as the crime lord. In Australia, at least, the streamed version of Your Honor was drip fed week by week. I watched each episode the hour it hit my iPad, so thrilling was the experience.
A superb five-part Russell T. Davies creation, “It’s a Sin” unfolds the lives of three young gay men who hit London at the start of the 1980s, just before the Aids epidemic laid waste to that entire community. Colin is the quiet Welsh boy, played with devastating subtlety by Callum Scott Howells. Roscoe flees his Nigerian religious father; Omari Douglas nails his exuberant defiance. And the heart of the series is Olly Alexander playing the supremely hedonistic Ritchie from the Isle of Wight. Oh, and I must not forget Ritchie’s university friend Jill, played with heart-catching earnestness by Lydia West, who glues together the entire narrative. Not a moment is wasted as the three friends, living in the same house, careen through the eighties in a vivid blur of wild, funny, real events and scenes. It’s a Sin illumes both the era’s homophobia and Britain’s willfully neglectful Aids response, and heartbreak looms large, but mostly it is a celebration of life and love and belonging. Destined to remain a classic.
No one can keep up with Robert Pollard’s unique outflow of unique garage-rock-style music, in a bewildering array of identities, and in practice, I suspect, few do. It’s not that his profligacy is full of filler—his amalgam of singalong melodies, rough prog-infused guitar music, and freeform lyrics never bores—but true brilliance is steady yet only partial. I seem to listen to only a tenth of the blur of releases. Luckily, he always comes back to his first group, Guided By Voices, and often those releases return to the mother lode. His 33rd GBV album, “Earth Man Blues,” seems to have found lockdown life. Nominally mostly rejects from previous GBV releases, they cohere wonderfully into something that resembles a harsher concept album from the early Genesis days, the fifteen inventive tracks often buttressed with woozy synths. Intoxicating stuff, Earth Man Blues is Guided By Voices at its magical best. Highlights include the two minutes of raging, melodic garage pop of “Trust Them Now”; “Lights Out in Memphis (Egypt),” a five-minute wig-out flitting between ponderous guitar riffs and 60s-style voiceovers; and the short, off-kilter swooning pop of “Sunshine Girl Hello.”