“Apeirogon” is a aching, meditative jumble of fact and fiction by one of our master, Colum McCann, author of one of my favorite novels, “Let the Great World Spin.” Hewing close to the amazing lives of Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian who reaches across the divide to Israelis (and studies the holocaust), and Rami Ethanan, an Israeli who opposes the occupation, the two of the united by wartime tragedies a decade apart, the two of them travelling together to bear witness to their own tales. But that plot snapshot barely touches the aspirations of “Apeirogon,” a long book of 1,001 mini chapters that interweaves the detailed stories of Bassam and Rami with a kaleidoscope of ruminations. McCann pivots from tightrope walker Philippe Petit to Mitterand’s last meal to the origins of rubber bullets. McCann writes deceptively readable prose that often climbs into poetry and is always rhythmic. The experimental structuring and the use of episodic fragments can distance the reader but over the book’s journey, the end result is a searing guitar solo to the spirit of goodness in the midst of evil.
In this time of global warming and looming species extinctions, a growing roster of naturalist-authors paying tribute to their selected non-human species helps us connect the planet’s future with ours. Andrew Darby, Hobart-based environmental journalist, beams his intelligence and love on the Grey Plover, a bird very few ever distinguish with a second look, a bird he describes as “a dovish wallflower at the shorebird dance.” “Flight Lines: Across the Globe on a Journey with the Astonishing Ultramarathon Birds” tracks these extraordinary migrants from Victoria’s coast to remote Siberian tundra, employing as lynchpin characters two female, satellite-tagged Grey Plovers called CYA and CYB. In a dramatic twist, Darby contracts lung and spinal cancer, just before an attempt to head far north, and in a sense his and CYA/CYB’s journeys, both epic, combine into a narrative whole. “Flight Lines” pulses with ardent, vivid prose. It celebrates the hero-scientists working in harsh conditions to document species loss. It bemoans the recent human destruction of those most important wetlands for migratory birds, the Yellow Sea coasts, but offers slight hope towards the end as China’s nascent middle class flexes its muscles in favor of environmentalism. The world can do with many more nature paeans like this elegant book and I commend it to you.
“Medical Police” should be anathema right now, a bioterrorism/pandemic spoof making light of our lockdown and the plight of Covid-19 sufferers, but the ten-part series is so silly in plot that considerations of rectitude do not apply. And it is tremendously funny. To summarise the show’s premise, two hospital pediatricians are thrust into a battle to trace and cure a terrorist-delivered global virus. Very much descended from Flying High, it’s the nonsensical disjunctive segues in each scene that bring out the chuckles and, surprisingly often, the belly laughs. The two main actors, Errin Hayes and Rob Huegel, are the key comedians, and they are pitch perfect, backed by a stellar crew of supporting actors who flesh out the loopy goodies and baddies. Direction is crisp and intelligent, the action scenes are wonderfully choreographed, and nothing is labored. If you’re after gags and jokes, “Medical Police” might be just your next binge.
What genre of music suits lockdown best, came the thought. Methinks it’s the earworm indie rock put out by London four-piece The Big Moon. On their sophomore album, “Walking Like We Do,” the band overshadow their guitars with bouncy synths, keys, even some sax. Nothing revolutionary or even evolutionary here, female-singer songs that could have come out of any of the past four decades, but the writing is tight and intelligent, and lead singer Juliette Jackson’s yearning, sweet voice rules over an airy production. The lyrics are light but not silly. All eleven tracks hit a mood in the first second and play out with wonderful timing. Standout tracks, hard to separate from the ruck, are “It’s Easy Then” with its piano/bass intro and synthy harmonies and oh-so-catch chorus; “Don’t Think” sees the roaring twin guitars return for a dark-edged ripper; and “Your Light” is the highlight, Jackson’s voice light over banging bass and drums as the verses build to a Heart-reminiscent chorus. If only all so-called light indie pop could be so accomplished yet unmanufactured.
I wrote a murder mystery, set in the year 2000, based around the concept of an investment fund in which decisions were taken by computer algorithms devised by quants (I didn’t call my quants that, the term has really hit our dictionaries over the last decade). I wish I had been able to read something like “The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution” back then. I knew nothing of Fred Simons, the man behind the Renaissance Fund, which, according to journalist-author Greg Zuckerman, has beaten, over the long term, all the more commonly lauded investment geniuses. Simons left careers as brilliant mathematician and cryptographer behind in order to apply mathematical principles to buying and selling stocks and other tradable securities, and eventually turned himself and others into billionaires. Zuckerman’s biography of Simons and, by extension, Renaissance, is a tour de force, both easy to read and knowledge-imparting, and structured into a half-century-plus narrative that rockets at a blistering pace. Zuckerman somehow managed to pierce the notoriously effective privacy veil of Simons and to interview dozens of amazing characters. Business histories rarely compel or indeed tell much, but “The Man Who Solved the Market” is a superb exception. Buy it.
If you insist on sticking to one genre of reading, please, I entreat, make it the flood of important writings on climate change. I read the doomsayers, the exhorters, the science/history heroes, the activists, but it’s rare to find someone non-academic able to talk about policy. Mark Jaccard, economist and environmentalist both, an academic but with longstanding roots in policy formulation advice, is one such. And with “The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success: Overcoming Myths that Hinder Progress,” he has fashioned a truly essential book for the 2020s. Shaping his honed, practical viewpoint, he dissects ten “myths,” delusions he believes are held by both the deniers and the activists. A few of them are priceless, and helped to shift my views, such as: “all countries will agree on climate fairness”; “we must price carbon emissions” (in this and other chapters he provides one of the most lucid explanations of a carbon tax or equivalent mechanism that I have seen); “peak oil will get us first anyway”; “energy efficiency is profitable” (a topic still undecided in my mind); and “renewables have won” (oh, I know they haven’t). Particularly pernicious is the view that “we must change our behavior,” a stalling tactic that diverts responsibility onto the largely powerless individual. A final chapter is a call to organized political action, focusing on finding the political leaders of the future, and here Jaccard offers, slightly tongue in cheek but actually deadly serious, a flowchart for judging the climate action credentials of all our politicians. “The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success” is superbly written and life-changing and mandatory. Hear that: mandatory.
Half siblings, one a wastrel, the other an opportunist; a stunning hotel unreachable on an island; a Ponzi scheme merchant; and the tumbling years after it all falls apart. “The Glass Hotel” is a time-shifting puzzle of a plot formed from a number of characters questing through the world. Emily St. John Mandel is a smooth, hypnotic stylist and this novel melts through the hours like one of E. L. Doctorow’s masterpieces. It’s an ambiguous, almost moral fable about bonds and unforeseen consequences, about fate and luck, about wealth and greed. For all of its many strengths, I had a sense as the end, the climax if you like, approached, that the foundational plot lacked drama. All the scenes of “The Glass Hotel” reeked of tension, yet the ker-chink of plot completion never came. Most enjoyable, nonetheless.
A muscular masterpiece, “Weather” features Lizzie the New York librarian, acutely observing her customers even as she tends to her young son, patient husband, and ex-addict brother, Henry. When her former mentor, now a climate change nihilistic podcase star, ropes Sylvia in to answer nutcase questions, and Henry overreaches by marrying, Sylvia’s world careens between end-of-the-world anxiety and ultimate-carer anxiety. Told in pithy. lurching fragments as sharp as bullets, “Weather” elicits miniature laughs while the overall arc approaches Armageddon. This novel will surely divide readers, requiring as it does keen word-by-word attentiveness and obliqueness, but for this reader, it perfectly captured the ever escalating Trump-era dread percolating today’s world. Lizzie is a character begging for movie treatment, and even though the book is slim, the supporting cast of characters is huge and precisely observed. Under the pen of a lesser experimentalist, the style would surely be cute to the point of cringing; instead, Jenny Offill nails a voice that spoke to me and has echoed ever since. Brilliant.
“Modern Love” sounds too twee to work: based on a New York Times’ column of the same name, bittersweet Big Apple-based parables illustrate that concept. But the eight episodes form a mosaic of gentle narratives crafted exquisitely. Although written and directed by a flotilla, a sense of unity pervades, no doubt instilled by the affectionate cinematography of Yaron Orbach, which casts the metropolis as its own character. The stories, too, ring genuinely true: a doorman cares for a young pregnant woman; two older folks meet while jogging; a gay couple and a nomadic mum carrying their baby; a near-broken marriage and what keeps it together; and so on. Predictably, the ensemble cast is strong but many of the actors transcend their short roles, notably Dev Patel and Anne Hathaway. Yes, “Modern Love” is sentimental, but it is unashamedly so, and the result is a gentle series that leaves a firm mark.
The second album from Halifax band The Orielles showcases their off-kilter rhythms and melodies and phrasing. “Disco Volador” sounds like smart, funky style squirrels at work, shifting mid-song from funk to art-rock instrumental asides. Unlike many art-rock aspirants, the constant cleverness seems almost tongue in cheek. Breezy girl-band vocals glisten over the top of the equally commanding arrangements. The ten tracks on “Disco Volador” form a semi-sleepy melange of pop-rock styles that serves equally as work ambience or evening relaxant. Highlights include the jangling, woozy, chorus-rich “Come on down Jupiter,” the dance-cool flurry of “Bobbi’s second world,” and the cheesy cuteness of “Euro Borealis.” A sparkling late summer treat.