Synthesizing Gravity by Kay Ryan [6/10]

Kay Ryan Synthesizing Gravity review

A prolific reader of prose, I struggle with poetry but I enjoy the struggle. “Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose” is a swag of essays, over three decades, by a celebrated poet talking about poems and poetry and the practice and aesthetics of creativity, and while perhaps much of Kay Ryan’s specific commentary on and reviews of other poets’ poems flew past me, simply because I hadn’t read the poems, I do love sweet style with a beat, and this book swept me up with its prose beauty. I enjoyed her trenchant, unusual reflections called “Notes on the danger of notebooks.” Recommended for those deep into poetry or the mysteries of creativity.

Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers [7/10]

Phoebe Bridgers Punisher review

Indie singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers last collaborated with Conor Oberst on a terrific album, but her latest solo sophomore effort, “Punisher,” is even more impressive, a layered mix of contemplative, electronic-backed songs and upbeat, pounding anthems. Impressionistic lyrics explore yearning and dread and dislocation. Her voice, able to switch between whispery, penetrating urgency and soaring emotion, is particularly memorable. A stellar supporting crew of musicians and singers (including Oberst) never overpower. Highlights include the rousing, multi-voice chorus on “The End Is Near,” topped by crazed trumpets; the heartbreaking “Moon Song”; and the lovely, plaintive “Kyoto” buttressed by a burbling bass line, as she sings “dreaming through Kyoto skies.”

D (A Tale of Two Worlds) by Michel Faber [6/10]

Michel Faber D review

D (A Tale of Two Worlds)” is the first YA novel from acclaimed stylist Michel Faber, but it very much fits into the “also suitable for adults” category, so I came to it expectant of the pleasures of books from, say, Phillip Pullman. And so it turned out to be, Faber crafting a fable reminiscent of the Narnia classics but laced with Dickensian shadows. Dhikilo, a teenage refugee from Africa living in England, is roped in by an absent-minded professor to jump to a strange land (partnered with the professor’s dog who is also, naturally, a sphinx) in search of the theft of the letter “D” from the world. The plot bolts along with numerous entertaining adventures of the type one would expect, strange creatures proliferate, and much fun is had with “D”-less words. Dialogue throughout is a treat and a certain modernity is referenced in asides.. Faber is an artisan of the varied style, and in this novel he adopts an earnest, YA-ish clarity with undertones of enough sophistication to keep adults amused. The tale smoothly concludes with pleasing results and overall, D (A Tale of Two Worlds) is a stylish, energetic romp.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga [6/10]

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga review

Will Ferrell is not the most convincing actor (and in this film his age jars), but he is funny and can write funny, and in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” he tackles a worthy target, the music phenomenon that I personally abhor but is undeniably a global unifying musical phenomenon. The storyline is as kitsch as the subject matter, with Icelandic lifelong music partners Lars (Ferrell himself) and Sigrit (a wonderful performance by Rachel McAdams) chase their Eurovision dream against seemingly impossible odds. In quasi-mockumentary style, we accompany Lars and Sigrit, a bumbling pair with some decent Abba-style songs, to the finals in Edinburgh, where mayhem and bubblegum music and extravaganzas reign. The script surely intends us to be sympathetic to the duo, but that interferes with the comedy, and the number of truly comic scenes (a couple of madcap ones, one in which Lars insults blithe American tourists) is way lower than it should be. The cast of Eurovision aspirants is strong, especially Dan Stevens (one of my favorite actors) playing an oily but somehow charming Russian superstar. Bubbling under the surface of what surely one might expect to be a manic satire is genuine affection for the Eurovision scene, and that accords “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” with its own gravitas but saps the hope of laughs. Overall, a diversion with some funny moments.

Breath Taking by Michael J. Stephen [6/10]

Michael J. Stephen Breath Taking review

I’ve recently read a fascinating book about breathing, so the opportunity to learn more about our lungs could not be skipped. In “Breath Taking: The Power, Fragility, and Future of Our Extraordinary Lungs” [don’t have cover image yet], pulmonologist Michael Stephen offers an expert’s perspective on the subject, stylishly presented in terms comprehensible even to this layperson. The introductory chapters on the evolution of our breathing apparatus and its structure and functionality are deftly unwound. I was especially taken with his startling (to me, remember, I’m a neophyte) explanations of the differences between human and avian lungs and breathing. The profound impact breathing, and hence our lungs, have on health and well-being is covered without fanfare. The second half of the book details the incredible sophistication of the lungs’ defence mechanisms, and the plethora of ways in which they can be breached, from smoke inhalation to lung cancer and other illnesses. The tale of cystic fibrosis is especially harrowing, both depressing and encouraging. Covid-19 even receives summary, early treatment. All in all, this is a splendid everyperson introduction and resource.

ZeroZeroZero [7/10]

ZeroZeroZero review

ZeroZeroZero” is a lavish, bleak mini saga of a massive smuggled cocaine deal, weaving between three equally nihilistic tales. In Monterrey, Mexico, a soldier (played with mesmerizing intensity by Harold Torres) involves his squad in a cartel assembling the drugs and shipping them to Italy. In Calabria, an aging, evil overlord (another stellar performance, by Adriano Chiaramida) spars with his aspiring grandson as they await the shipment. And the dealmakers in between are a Florida family (memorable acting by Andrea Riseborough, Gabriel Byrne, and Dane DeHaan). A study in evildoing, “ZeroZeroZero” is not for everyone; death stalks every scene and no lily-white hero leaps out. Instead, the eight equally gripping episodes cook ferociously, tension bubbling, amidst sumptuous cinematography and an industrial-brooding soundtrack. As someone endlessly baffled by and obsessed with humankind’s potential for darkness, I was held in thrall. Only at the end, when the three stories are played out and intersect, was I let down somewhat; the overall narrative arc seems to lack change and resolution. Be that as it may, “ZeroZeroZero” is compelling, black-hearted viewing.

Strange to Explain by Woods [7/10]

Woods Strange to Explain review

Long tracks of chugging psych-folk, overlaid by singer (and band leader) Jeremy Earls’s gentle falsetto … Woods is both easy listening and somehow unsettling, shifting as you listen. They have been around for years but I only cottoned onto them with their 2017 “Love Is Love,” which I found to be overly sentimental. “Strange to Explain” also feels optimistic but more steely and varied, and it has played again and again on my turntable (of course I don’t have a turntable but that expression is too precious to ditch). Songs flow with electronic piano and mellotrons, and even strategically placed brass, playing off against the typical precise guitar. Poetic lyrics explore life and loss and the times. Highlights include the driving “Can’t Get Out,” a lament of desperation; the swaying, sublime title track; the jammy instrumental “Weekend Wind”; and the pulsing, sad “Fell So Hard.” A ray of musical light indeed.

Intimations by Zadie Smith [6/10]

Zadie Smith Intimations review

Out of all the “writers riffing amidst a pandemic” offerings so far, “Intimations: Six Essays” is a fine contribution, simply because Zadie Smith is such a rhythmic, complex, intelligent stylist. No matter whether she is talking about the guilt we all feel during Covid-19, the notion that we must not complain, or exploring the dynamics of random street encounters, Smith grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and propels her along. A withering blast against the contempt infecting modern politics and discourse sits alongside a reflection on an extremist sign holder in a public square. Intimations backs you away from obsession with masks, numbers, and horrors, into a more nuanced, prospective view. Recommended if you’re like me and need the balm of excellent writing in these troubled times.

If It Bleeds by Stephen King [7/10]

Stephen King If It Bleeds review

Stephen King polarizes. His deft, detail-ridden, smooth-as-silk writing style is derided by some of my friends as trite airport quality, but I, along with his legions of fans, readily fall under the spell of his capacious narrative skills. I especially admire how rapidly he launches stories or books, with a minimum of fuss but instant immersion. “If It Bleeds,” four disparate novellas, showcases his stylistics in the service of nifty but unspectacular story ideas. “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” messes with that hoary idea of the voice from the grave, “The Rat” is a riff on the pact-with-the-devil trope, and the fantastical “The Life of Chuck” zaps backwards in time. The longest novella, “If It Bleeds,” gives a character from “The Outsider” her first solo starring role, in a story of mind-tripping societal monsters. All of them held me in awe – I could imagine being told each story by a soft-voiced narrator – but none offers lasting gravity (which I guess is why they were spat out as novellas). Overall, probably one for the completists, but King always entertains, in a classic sense, something we can all do with right now.

Fast Asleep by Michael Mosley [7/10]

Michael Mosley Fast Asleep review

Inveterate medical pursuer of the cutting edge, Michael Mosley has informed a chunk of my life. I executed his 5:2 diet from “The Fast Diet”, am right now occasionally on his “The Fast 800” diet, and read with great interest “The Clever Guts Diet” and “Fast Exercise.” I don’t always agree with him but he has a knack with clear explanation, readily implementable good practices, and the harnessing of cutting-edge medical/scientific ideas. “Fast Asleep: How to Get a Really Good Night’s Rest” (notice how he neatly gets the word “fast” into the title) is his examination of insomnia and other sleep problems. As he and many others see it, poor sleep is a modern plague. In his customary fashion, he sums up the science and explores options, and comes up with a process to inculcate better sleep routines, consisting of a savage attack on the issue followed by sound ongoing principles. Though no expert, I’ve read a lot about sleep and insomnia recently, and Mosley’s ideas gibe with the sensible views of the most forward-looking. A disconcerting coda section provides recipes written by his wife, but this can be justified by his emphasis on diet in improving sleep. I commend the book to anyone concerned about the dark hours.