Harry Saddler is one of those pure-hearted autodidacts you would love to know and chat with, but never can find. Reading his books, indeed plugging into his Twitter feed, is an undiluted pleasure. ”Questions Raised by Quolls: Fatherhood and Conservation in an Uncertain World“ is a far-ranging digression on matters existential and conservation-related, anchored by his investigations into Australia’s quolls. Quolls, short-lived, carnivorous mammals now close to extinction, sound fascinating (I’ve never seen one) and the author traces their near-extirpation through chronicling his family’s history and investigating conservation efforts. Another persistent thread is his earnest, almost plaintive pondering on whether to pursue fatherhood in the fraught Anthropocene era. Saddler is a natural, easy stylist, and his control of the narrative is sweet to experience. The natural world comes to life on the pages of Questions Raised by Quolls, a beguiling book I heartily recommend.
Old folks gravitate towards soft music, is that true? Certainly I can barely stand much heavy rock now. And ambient music, something I used to love during its genesis in the 70s and 80s, is now making a comeback on my daily listening rosters (is that a pandemic symptom?). The fifth release from Icelandic ambient-classical artist, Olafur Arnalds, “Some Kind of Peace” offers ten dreamy melanges of electronic instruments and piano/strings, some with contributed vocals. Some tunes are as welcomingly sparse as George Winston’s famed solo piano pieces. Other tracks clearly come from a well-equipped studio. Highlights include the delightful plinky electronica of “Loom,” featuring Bonobo; the lilting piano of “Spiral”; Jofridur Akadottir’s aching ephemeral, string-backed vocals on “Back to the Sky”; and the gorgeously restrained keys of “We contain multitudes.” Some Kind of Peace is a drop of radiant beauty in a savage world.
“All My Mothers” begins by following a standard “general fiction” trope, with Eva (pronounced Ever) Martinez-Green abandoned by her father from a young age and traumatised with an emotionally distant mother, and Joanna Glen takes us on a standard “journey” of growing up and exploring love and belonging, written in a very up-close, acerbic-yet-emotional style that at first unmoored me. Was I destined to sink into a morass of sentimental particularities, irritated by the quirkiness of the stylistics? Instead, All My Mothers weaves an escalating, complex spell as Eva grows up and moves abroad, all the while gathering around her a veritable fleet of people, splendid and grubby alike. The final quarter of the novel explodes with deep connection, in a way that only a consummate writer (and there are few of them) can achieve. Nothing in the plot is foreordained, with no manipulative twists, yet everything slots into place as intrinsically, messily human. Reader, I wept, something I rail against. One of 2021’s treasures.
Every Christopher Nolan film is an event, a kaleidoscopic figurine of overkill expression that either triumphs or plummets. Unfortunately, “Tenet” falls into the latter camp, even if some of the Grand Guignol sci-fi scenes drop the jaw. Pandemic lockdown thwarted me from seeing it in its natural setting, a real cinema, but even on a small screen, the three-hour block-block-buster is very Nolan-impressive. The core plot climaxes churn with tension, down to the ultra urgent industrial music. But the storyline, an amazingly complex, tricksy time travel tale of spies and Russian oligarch baddies and the past interacting with backwards-in-time futures, is a disappointing mush. The plot could have been made to work but in Nolan’s hands, it is simply incompetent; explication is rushed, logic is rushed, complexities muddy the essence. As for the actors, all of them seem miscast and barely adequate, be they Kenneth Branagh as the bad guy, or John David Washington and Robert Pattinson as the goodies. Oh, if only the promise of this had been met … I would have swooned. As it was, I grinned at the colossal fight scenes and grimaced through the remainder of Tenet.
If John Boyne only wrote “The Heart’s Invisible Furies,” a one-person saga encompassing the Cold War until today, set in Ireland and elsewhere, I would shout happy. I don’t usually read novels four years old, nor had I really hankered to read any more Boyne after the admittedly heartrending The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. But my dearest behaved so strangely during her read, and afterwards, that I made two attempts to fit it in among the just-released fodder around me, before sinking in and rising a few days later, wrung out and blessing the Irish master. The Heart’s Invisible Furies tracks a gay Irishman, Cyril, from birth in 1945, leaping in seven-year increments. The earlier sections are heated, befitting a child and teenager repressed in fetid Irish society, but later sections turn heartbreaking and elegiac, as sweet, barbed Cyril makes his way towards some kind of light. I loved the spoken interplay with Cyril’s teenage best friend, Julian, as scurrilously hetro as Cyril is secretly gay; some hilarious scenes reminded me of J. P. Donleavy. Peppered with real characters among an array of distinctive fictional creations, the novel builds on the sadness, joys, and laughs of the times of my life. Boyne’s writing is expansive, rarely needing to was lyrical about the various settings, relishing spoken exchanges, and his novelistic tone is unusual and perfectly maintained. The Heart’s Invisible Furies read to me like an epic history of modern Ireland, of gay rights, and of our world today, shuddering at a precipice. Unforgettable.
Boisterous neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta has penned a highly useful everyperson manual on the human brain, “Keep Sharp: How To Build a Better Brain at Any Age.” Multidisciplinary understanding of how the brain works, and in particular how it declines, both naturally and under dementia conditions, is accumulating rapidly, and Gupta is an engaging, lucid reporter on this topic. After a general overview of our frontiers of knowledge, he offers five general prescriptions for staving off mental decline, followed by a twelve-week “program” to put all five into place. As someone “in the market” for such advice, I found the advice and the program rather general and even a little obvious, but I could imagine Gupta’s advice being revelatory for many. Gupta winds up Keep Sharp with an overview of how cognitive decline can be expected to unwind, and he offers sane (if, once again, a tad simplistic) caregiver advice that might resonate. The author writes stylishly, with lashings of enthusiasm, and I found myself bound up in my reading. Keep Sharp is not as astounding as the blurb promises but it is rational and balanced. Recommended.
I can only wish I’d begun reading Maggie O’Farrell earlier, for “Hamnet” is scene after brilliantly written scene delivering technicolor mental pictures and breath-catching emotiveness. When the plague visits Stratford, twins Hamnet and Judith, are accosted by death. Their parents, an individualistic, expressive woman and an aspiring playwright in London, must wrestle with fate, grief, and each other. Out of this stew of family trials, O’Farrell has woven a speculative, fierce novel at the edge of one of the English language’s most famous plays. Hamnet is a lush, intimate literary novel that deserves a wide audience.
A breathless “guess the twist” thriller written in an earnest, first person present style that irks the reader every few pages, “The Girl in the Mirror” arrives laden with its inciting premise. Iris and Claire are identical twins who separated in the womb just before birth; quite alike to strangers, inside body and mind they are completely unalike. And when Iris, sailing from Thailand to the Seychelles with Claire, finds herself alone on the boat, a classic identity ploy kicks off, one that involves trickery, inheritances, and double crosses. The twist and the double twist seemed to telegraph themselves to me (you might have a completely different experience), and the characters swirling around Iris were clearly props, but the author is adept at propelling and muddying the story. In the end, The Girl in the Mirror delivers on its promise: a serpentine plot unraveled at the speed of an evening’s sofa read.
Based on a novel about a real event, “The Dig” is one of those minor-register British films that basks in deep character study and deep place orientation. Just prior to World War II, a burial mound in Suffolk is dug up for investigation by a self-taught archeologist Basil Brown (he self-effacingly labels himself ” an excavator”), revealing a hugely significant archeological treasure trove. The film mostly revolves around the Brown’s growing connection with the farm’s owner, plus the London bigwig archeologists who arrive to try to gain credit, but towards the end an engaging subplot emerges involving two young people. Without a doubt, Ralph Fiennes is the centerpiece of the film, superb as the pipe-smoking, laconic, prickly Basil Brown, but Carey Mulligan also shines as the widow farmer. Mike Eley’s cinematography evokes those Suffolk fields and interiors, and Simon Stone’s direction bustles the mild plot along. The Dig tackles the joy of scientific discovery and the loneliness of hearts, depositing on this viewer a satisfied aftertaste of insights. Altogether satisfying in an unemphatic style.
I cannot pretend to adequately grasp the detailed interlocked histories of Israel and Palestine, though I have some knowledge of Israel’s nuclear weapons history and have read reasonably deeply over the past four decades. I was therefore delighted to come across the newly published “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonial Conquest and Resistance,” from the pen of historian Rashid Khalidi. This is a rigorously referenced, passionately written history with its heart on its sleeve, correctly, I believe. I enjoyed its broad sweep and the fact that it cogently focuses on six historical segments – 1917 (two decades), 1947 (two years), 1967, 1982, 1987 (eight years), and 2000 (a decade and a half) – struck me as most canny. An intelligent, worthy read, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine should be soaked up by many.