The Power of the Dog by Jane Campion [7/10]

The Power of the Dog review

Celebrated filmmaker Jane Campion tackles the sunset days of the American cowboy era in “The Power of the Dog,” her screenplay based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. Set in Montana in 1925, with the motor car just arriving on the scene, the movie centers on two brothers running a cattle farm. Benedict Cumberbatch is a mesmerizing, fearsome ball of fury as the macho one of the pair, while Jesse Plemons is also perfectly cast as the besuited gentler brother. When the quiet one falls for a widow (played pitch perfectly by Kirsten Dunst) running a restaurant, the furious one begins a war of intimidation, one rendered even more suspenseful and unpredictable by the entry of the widow’s gangly, effete son (Kodi Smit-McPhee almost steals Cumberbatch’s thunder in this role). The four of them swirl around each other with a growing sense of approaching calamity, underscored by unsettling music from Jonny Greenwood. As always with Campion’s films, the cinematography is exquisite, with metaphor and meaning in every frame. Campion is an “arty” filmmaker in the best and worst sense of the word: while the tension builds almost unbearably, the spare, unsentimental direction makes identification with the characters hard to attain. Nonetheless, The Power of the Dog is a powerful, intriguing movie, a must-see.

Full Circle by Scott Ludlam [8/10]

Scott Ludlam Full Circle review

Full Circle: Power, Hope and the Return of Nature” is the magnum opus of Scott Ludlam, a climate change activist and former Greens senator who epitomizes the concept of courage through action. In this book, he intertwines his own global travels in search of insights into how individuals face up to the climate emergency; a virtuoso exposition of the history of life on Earth; and his amazingly comprehensive readings on philosophy, economics, culture, and science. Ludlam is a beautiful writer, always on point in terms of precision but possessed of great eloquence. Any reader like me, constantly bisected between hope and nihilism, will be taken on a journey of place, time, and ideas, questing for a fresh political paradigm. That he was an Extinction Rebellion arrestee, at the same time as I was, attests to his ongoing determination. Full Circle deserves to be read and pondered by anyone struggling to find a way forward in these dark times.

Closer to the Dead by Scott Hunter [8/10]

Scott Hunter Closer to the Dead review

I’m a steady fan of Detective Chief Inspector Brendan Moran, grappling with heinous murders in southwest England, while commandeering an eclectic, fascinating police crew. “Closer to the Dead” is the ninth in the series and strikes me as a welcome detour from the usual frantic investigation. This time, Moran is assigned the task of clearing up the cold case of a murder four decades earlier on an RAF base. At the same time, the blowback from an earlier case, in the form of a malevolent nemesis, crowds Moran’s crew and explodes into panicky pursuit. As ever, the author honors all the hallowed requirements of this genre: wonderful core characters, excellent characterization amidst the storyline, easily pictured evocations of England, a curly plot, and delicious ratcheting-up of tension. Closer to the Dead: another winner, Scott Hunter!

Hell of a Book by Jason Mott [8/10]

Jason Mott Hell of a Book review

Hell of a Book,” is the first novel I’ve read from black author Jason Mott, and my oversight has been my loss, for this is scintillating, daring, and moving. An unnamed author is on book tour for his bestseller, called “Hell of a Book” (you can see the author’s playfulness), a book he can barely remember drafting. Weighed down by ennui and self-loathing, the author begins to receive visitations of The Kid, a black boy who looks like the one recently shot by white police. Hell of a Book is at once a scorching, funny satire of the book world; a beguiling work of metafiction; and an emotional, searching examination of the ruinous legacy of police violence against African-Americans. Somehow, this swirling concoction also flows sweetly, imbued with an easy sense of poetry. I read it in two sittings and emerged at the end full of admiration. Hell of a Book deserves all the accolades it is bound to earn (it has already won the National Book Award for Fiction).

So You Think You Know What’s Good for You? by Norman Swan [7/10]

Norman Swan So You Think You Know What's Good for You review

Along with tens of thousands of other Australians, I listen daily to Coronacast, a perfectly pitched podcast about Covid-19, run by a journalist and centered on “physician/journalist Norman Swan,” as he introduces himself. On the podcast, Swan is eloquent, sensible, deeply knowledgeable, and straight talking. His new book, “So You Think You Know What’s Good for You?” is pitched at the same general audience, but covering general health issues, especially dietary ones. This mightily useful book reads as if the doctor is talking to the reader, using understandable language (without ever oversimplifying) and peppering the text with chuckle-worthy asides and jokes. Swan’s general thesis, one I agree with, is that no magic bullets exist, that human health is complex, that the mind and body interact seamlessly. He slams fad diets, argues for sensible indulgence, and throws in cutting-edge research results. On psychological matters and general “happiness,” he is a fount of fatherly advice. So You Think You Know What’s Good for You? is a fascinating, germane compendium to be revisited and revisited, each time selecting whatever preoccupies you about your well-being.

Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson [6/10]

Antoine Wilson Mouth to Mouth review

Mouth to Mouth” revisits a revered plotline of a stranger (or near stranger in this case) relating a twisted tale to our narrator hero in the bar (actually an airport), with slow reveals and a juicy ending twist. Set in the arcane world of high-end art galleries, it recaps a young man saving an art dealer’s life and then insinuating himself into the other man’s life. It’s not easy to maintain control of a narrative told to another in a short time, avoiding the shaggy dog aspect of the setup, but the author carries it off with aplomb, eking out the tension. A patina of unreliability clouds the entire tale, to good effect. Mouth to Mouth is concise at under 200 pages and I read it in a single satisfied sitting, although after the climax, even with the nifty surprise, I was left with an impression of a modest achievement. Nonetheless, Mouth to Mouth will grace many a book club’s considerations, I am certain.

A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris [8/10]

Joanne Harris A Narrow Door review

I last read Joanne Harris when she hit the big time with Chocolat over two decades ago. I guess I typecast her thereafter and ignored a steady stream of novels in diverse styles and genres, including a series of standalone thrillers set in a fictional boys’ school, St Oswald’s. The third in this loose trilogy, “A Narrow Door,” captivates from the very first chapters, spilling a deliciously twisty yarn about the new female headmaster (one of the two voices present) regaling her puzzling familial and career pasts from decades ago to an ancient St Oswald’s teacher (the other alternative voice). The stimulus is a body under the sports ground, a body from the past. Harris is a salty, evocative storyteller, clearly enjoying laying down clues for the crime fiction reader, and her two narrative voices are both strong and true. I like to think I can figure out a mystery’s potential paths by the book’s midpoint, but A Narrow Door baffled me as much as it gripped, and I read in a flurry. The novel climaxes with a thoroughly satisfying and devious confluence of past lives and the present.

The French Dispatch by Wes Anderson [8/10]

The French Dispatch review

Wes Anderson’s movies, whimsical and quirky, infuriate some and delight others. I am one of the latter, and “The French Dispatch” is a quintessential example of his vision and craftsmanship, and, for a certain audience, a hoot to boot. The movie is a doting homage to The New Yorker magazine, presented as a Kansan newspaper’s offshoot magazine set in a fictional French (extremely French) town, the storyline being three magazine articles (each so emblematic of a New Yorker article), each presented (in various forms) by one of the magazine’s eccentric stable of writers. A prison-bound homicidal abstract painter, a moody 1968 demonstrator, a police chef dealing with a kidnapping … you get the picture. Nothing makes any sense plotwise, except as the cogs producing a magazine issue under the relentlessly editing gaze of its founder (played perfectly by Bill Murray). A cast of luminaries (Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Adrian Brody, Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson, plus many more) hams up the stories with po-faced solemnity. Unlike his other films, there is nothing overtly funny, except every moment is deliciously amusing. Anderson clearly obsesses over every frame, every object, every nostalgic aspect. I loved The French Dispatch. You might also.

Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn [8/10]

Cal Flyn Islands of Abandonment review

What happens when humans jettison, deliberately or due to circumstance, cities, towns, factories, or farms? What does such retrenchment of Homo Sapiens’ reach signify in our Anthropocene Era? Scottish writer/journalist Cal Fly traveled the world to discover and reflect, and in “Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape,” she has produced a comprehensively researched and deeply examined book that is also a pleasure to read. In the British Isles, Tanzania, western and eastern Europe, Cyprus, and America, she explores nuclear exclusion zones, near-abandoned cities, people-less islands, environmental disaster areas, and ex-war zones. I had read about the industrial/urban wasteland of Detroit, and I have visited Chernobyl, but much of the author’s coverage was revelatory to me. In lyrical prose, she flirts with doomism: “How will it unfold, I wonder: the creeping decline, or the sudden collapse?” But finally, hope springs nonetheless: “… I have found new life springing from the wreckage of the old, life all the stranger and more valuable for its resilience.” Highly recommended.

The Codebreaker by Walter Isaacson [8/10]

Walter Isaacson The Codebreaker review

Walter Isaacson never disappoints, and with “The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race,” he has written a fascinating, bang-up-to-the-minute account of a biochemistry milestone, the invention of CRISPR, a revolutionary, easy-to-use means of editing DNA code. CRISPR is most often credited to Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna, and Isaacson hangs this book on her story, but a large group of associates aided her, and several brilliant rivals goaded her to her success, and Isaacson gives their stories air time. Doudna has herself written an account of the CRISPR discovery, but Isaacson’s book is not only far more fulsome and interesting concerning the race to bag credit, it is also (surprisingly) better at explaining how bacteria mesh with viruses to create CRISPR. Isaacson is a fluid writer at the apex of his craft and The Codebreaker is a fast, immersive read. And the book tackles head on the ethical dilemmas now confronting humanity (Doudna has spearheaded much of the discussion). One of the most useful yet human-oriented science books of the year, The Codebreaker deserves to be read widely indeed.