British physicist Arthur Terrell is the first to acknowledge the chronic label faced by nuclear fusion, that it is perennially the next big thing on the energy front, without getting any closer to fruition. But he, like the fusion pioneers he interviews at length in ”The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet,” is dazzled by this energy source’s progress over the decades, but especially recently. According to his research, the dauntingly difficult task of building a star in a physical structure has advanced by orders of magnitude. Having read about nuclear fusion in the 1950s, when it was first heralded with great fanfare, I have some knowledge but I was glad to learn more, and Terrell is a smooth enough writer. If he is not a riveting stylist, if he bounces too often between enthusiasm and scepticism, if the non-technical explanations of what is plainly a highly technical field still left me somewhat baffled … well, perhaps my eventual lack of engagement exposed a flaw in my mind or attitudes, but in the end, I found The Star Builders to be a diverting read that fell short of compelling.
Aisles by Angel Olsen [7/10]
One of the most compelling, intelligent musical artists gracing our ears is Angel Olsen. An EP of six songs, comprising 80s songs she recalls from supermarket aisles, “Aisles” is a tasty pandemic-times diversion, a woozy concoction. Olsen’s voice, as always, is hypnotic and emotional, her delivery flawless, and she is not afraid to subvert each song’s original treatment. Standouts are faithful but atmospheric rendition of Alphaville’s “Forever Young”; a gauzy, funereal version of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria”; and a lilting go at Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face.” Look, Aisles is not the next Angel Olsen, the one we’re longing for, but anything she sings is instant ear candy, and Aisles is a loveable diversion.
Sweet Jimmy by Bryan Brown [5/10]
Who would have thought a famous actor would turn to writing bleak, almost avant-garde noir? ”Sweet Jimmy” presents half a dozen stories of crims, cops, and ordinary people in a sparse Ocker style nothing at all like what you find in most books on the mystery shelves. Three thieving cousins go straight … but women are dying. An ex-swimming coach is scammed – what next? A young thief receives a dangerous windfall. Two tourists accept a lift. The author’s style is noir as noir can be, short sentences hammered around the plot, impressionistic thoughts amongst the raw action. Occasionally the plotting sprays in all directions, with back story popping up opportunistically, and characterisation is laid down with thick brush strokes that sometimes work, sometimes distances. Sweet Jimmy makes for a couple of hours of entertaining crime fiction reading that can, in a couple of the picaresque tales, aspire to emotional truth.
Hemingway by Ken Burns & Lyn Novick [8/10]
I read Ernest Hemingway too young, in my teens, and I retain a sense of awe and a recognition of stylistic heaven, but little else. I missed some of his seminal works. So “Hemingway,” the six-hour documentary biographical series from Ken Burns and Lyn Novick, proved to be fascinating from the first frame. Using an amazing archive of photographs, video footage, and background material, and accompanied with a stylish soundtrack, the series relates the Nobel-Prize-winning author’s life painstakingly, the measured commentary from Peter Coyote striking a commanding pose. Jeff Daniels narrates Hemingway’s own voice, from his various books, and his delivery is hypnotic. A range of talking heads, from biographers to novelists, provide varying commentary on the life laid before us; striking contributions chime in from Edna O’Brien, Michael Kitakis, and Tobias Wolff. Hemingway’s tale of ascent and descent needs no embellishment and none is given, just a reverential yet sober recounting. I find movie biopics to be sapped of life, yet this documentary hums with tension and import and drama. Hemingway is a balanced, moving, and revelatory examination of an amazing creator’s all-too-human life.
The Running-Shaped Hole by Robert Earl Stewart [6/10]
Robert Earl Stewart has this in common with me: he jogs, rather than runs, and running has played a central role in his life. “The Running-Shaped Hole” is his half-decade story of embracing running as a last ditch effort to escape a downward spiral of morbid obesity and morbid depression. Like me, he is ultra slow; like me, he finds purpose in his running quest; unlike me, he seems to have amazing willpower to aspire within a few years to run a half-marathon despite still being heavy. Using a conversational, confessional style, the author weaves an intricate story of his life with a wonderful family as he steps away from the brink of self-destruction, a story replete with tales of running’s pleasures and woes. Sporty readers or those pondering what jogging is like will find The Running-Shaped Hole a useful, entertaining read.
Under the Sky We Make by Kimberly Nicholas [8/10]
Climate scientist Kimberly Nicholas, accustomed to speaking about the climate emergency and how we react to it, has now offered up a far-reaching manifesto on how to move forward. ”Under the Sky We Make: How to Be Human in a Warming World” takes the chaotic data dump we all face when we come to grips with the crisis and delineates a hopeful chain of thought and action. The first few chapters (“It’s warming, it’s us”) sets out the science and its strength, and how much we need to know. Next (“We’re sure, it’s bad”), she provides a kind of counselling service, on how to deal with the waves of grief, rage, nihilism, and helplessness that assail the modern activist. And finally, and most importantly (“We can fix it”), she examines, using personal anecdotes, how we can most sensibly align our own worlds with the societal changes we are seeking to bring about. The author is a smooth, confident stylist, with a sense of humor and refreshing candidness, and the book, far from being a chore, is a breeze to read. Under the Sky We Make might well be the book that changes your life.
Long Way Up [7/10]
Seven years after the previous television series starring Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman undertaking an epic motorcycle trip, “Long Way Up” sees the convivial duo (backed by a support team that often offers subplots) tilt at riding from the southern tip of South America all the way to Los Angeles. A novel addition to their schtick is that they’re on prototype Harley-Davidson electric motorbikes. The eleven episodes of Long Way Up make for a pleasant, often fascinating viewing experience, the highlights being spectacular scenery brilliantly shot; the genuine camaraderie of McGregor and Boorman; the insights into our future electrified world, as they struggle to charge their bikes on an underdeveloped continent; and admiration of the riders’ pluck. The first half of the season struck me as more exciting, with the final two episodes of dramatic passage through cartel-ridden Mexico proving to be a little flat, but overall, Long Way Up is an intriguing, warm-hearted travelogue.
Foundation Season 1 [7/10]
David Goyer and Josh Friedman are brave indeed to tackle “Foundation,” their screen rendering of Isaac Asimov’s groundbreaking (but very complex) set of books from the 1950s. In broad terms, Asimov imagined a vast intergalactic empire ruled by dynastic, authoritarian clones, challenged by Hari Seldon and his “psychohistory,” which foretells, using mathematics, the empire’s collapse. I marveled at the books’ grand sweep and brainy ambit, five decades ago, but have never revisited them (and will not now). The creators of the Apple+ series have apparently envisaged eleven seasons, and have substantially recast the plot and characters, both of which facts can be gained from the “official podcast” (which is surprisingly useful). Foundation is as much a cultural event as a cinematic experience, and similar bold remakes in the past often bombed. Thankfully, the news is good. Foundation is excellent, with captivating plot arcs backed by very solid acting performances (let me single out Lou Lobell’s pitch perfect rendition of Gaal Dornick, Hari’s protege; the inimitable Jared Harris as Hari; and Lee Pace’s superb mastery of the role of Brother Day, the middle of the three ruling clones). The visual spectacles of the Empire and its planets are mind-blowing. My only genuine complaint is the soundtrack, a cloying, Star-Wars-y orchestrated intrusion (hey, I know that’s a personal preference thing). If you can master the first few episodes of patient world-building, you’re in for an intriguing, ever-surprising watching feast. In the final analysis, the very complexity of Asimov’s plot and the plot gymnastics of the series, seem to prevent full emotional identification, but let’s wait for Season 2 to deepen the filmic journey.
The opening scene of “Finch” is spectacular, Tom Hanks in a cumbersome protective suit prospecting in the wreckage of our planet after a “solar flare” has destroyed most it. The visual depiction of this radioactive, ozone-holed world aroused all my Anthropocene Age fears. And the rest of the first half of this ambitious-yet-modest film works brilliantly. We see that the survivor, an ex-IT superstar, has a cute dog he loves, and we watch him create a clunky-looking robot who instantly appeals. As the trio flees west across America’s vast wasteland in a specially rigged van, aiming for the San Francisco Bridge, all seemed in hand for an intriguing, intelligent hour and a half. Hanks is in top form, the human-robot dialogue avoids pitfalls, spectacular scene follows spectacular scene, and a sense of foreboding builds. Unfortunately, the second half of Finch slides into mawkishness and slumping tension. By the end, I was fidgeting with embarrassment. So, by all means while away time with this interesting dystopian aside, just don’t expect The Road.
Sympathy for Life by Parquet Courts [6/10]
“Sympathy for Life” is a departure for Parquet Court, the rambunctious, intelligent punk rockers. Alongside angular thumpers like “Walking at a Downtown Pace,” the album includes bumpy, loud rockers (“Black Widow Spider”) and Talking Heads robot-rock (“Marathon of Anger”) and almost-funk (the title track). Adding continuity are Andrew Savage’s shouty voice and the band’s rousing choruses. Much of it is actually dance-inducing, something that does not always appeal to me, but I found repeated listens burned all the songs into my head. Impressionistic lyrics complete the picture of a solid ninth album.