Oh, to laugh, to laugh. “Revenge of the Librarians” is that rare comic collection, funny yet never dumb. Aiming at every conceit and hapless circumstance of the modern author, Tom Gauld and his deliciously detailed and distinctive strips veers from slapstick to bitter irony, somehow always laced with compassion. Laugh out aloud at “some useful abbreviations for the time-pressed online author,” chuckle at the pandemic-locked-down bookshop cat, join Godot as he waits for a Zoom meeting, use the “thriller concept generator.” Savor one a day and Revenge of the Librarians will bless you with six months of intelligent pleasure.
Despite his longtime fame, for some reason “Licorice Pizza” is the first of his nine films I’ve seen, and I’m now bereft at missing the other eight, for this is a stunningly evocative, intelligent, funny comedy-fantasy-drama. Set in 1973 and stuffed with that era’s music, some famous, some obscure, and shot with wonderfully resonant-of-those-times cinematography (often tinged with exaggeration just shy of excess), the film’s arc is simple. When child actor Gary, aged 15 (played with aching realism by Cooper Hoffman; I can guarantee you’ve met someone just like Gary in your life), meets 25-year-old Alana, he is smitten. Anderson is simply brilliant in setting up that impelling premise within a couple of minutes of the film’s bouncy opening. Gary is fast-talking, an archetypal American entrepreneur, launching businesses around waterbeds and pinball machines. Alana is a clever, frustrated rebel within her conservative Jewish family in the San Fernando valley. Bemused, Alana resists Gary, and resists him, and resists him, even as the pair deal with wonderfully strange characters hammed up by the likes of Sean Penn and Brad Cooper. Suffused with nostalgic but universal in its storyline, Licorice Pizza is a delight from its kick-off to its unforgettable final scene.
Debut novel “Denizen” is a dark, dark, in-depth dive into mental ill-health in the hellish Australia of remote outback towns. I’m unsure if I’ve ever read anything as boldly stark in Australian literature; the closest would be the American novelist, David Vann. The author throws everything at the reader, a torrent of lyricism in or around the head of the first-person narrator, Parker, whom we first meet as a nine-year-old in nowhere-land Colladai with a volatile mother, and then as a young father in Sydney with a baby, and then as a hiker with old friends back home. Parker’s narrative is like his head, ducking back and forth in time, paced fast at the start and then accelerating. This reader rushed to the end, borne along by the fervor and plot, so in one sense, the novel succeeded. I only wish the endless dramas in Parker’s head were more deftly spilled, Denizen containing far too much “voices in the head” dialogue. And the plot twists, shocking as they were, felt as artificial as Parker himself. Recommended (if only to announce a talent) with caveats.
Having never read any of philosopher A. C. Graying’s bulging bibliography, I was prepared for any reaction when I commenced “For the Good of the World: Why Our Planet’s Crises Need Global Agreement Now.” He was speaking at a Melbourne venue and I was drawn to his topic. How indeed was the climate crisis, a truly global, interlaced disaster in the making, to be tackled in a world seemingly riven with discord? First things first: from the outset, he bundles two other overweening global crises alongside the climate one, namely the threats posed by technology’s overreach (i.e. AI, genetic manipulation, advanced weaponry, social manipulation, etc.) and the ever-rising threat of extreme inequality seemingly writ into our globalized future.
Grayling is a liquid, refreshingly precise stylist who has a knack for presenting situations and arguments in a matter of paragraphs, and his coverage of these three chapters—”Confronting the Dangers of a Warming World”; “Technology and the Future”; “Justice and Rights”—is a treat to read, quite apt in my opinion. Then he deals with the philosophical and political problems of relativism—the seemingly impassable obstacles posed by vested interests acting badly and religious/nationalistic worldviews resisting positive solutions—and here he shades into pessimism. The final chapter addresses whether global agreements on climate change, technology, and rights have any hope of realization, and here he ventures into a spirited defense of properly proportionally constituted democracies. In the end he is both pessimistic/realistic and optimistic, but for the reader, For the Good of the World is a refreshing, bracing viewpoint that should clarify future actions. I recommend it highly.
Science journalist Ed Yong, whose Covid-19 reporting for The Atlantic gained him a Pulitzer, is, first and foremost, a consummate researcher. In “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us” there seems to be no interesting scientist in the fields of animal sense discovery whom he has not interviewed, subsequently dissecting the evidence and crystallizing it in his own mind. From sight to sound, from echolocation to magnetoreception, the author paints wondrously fascinating portraits of the latest understanding of how animals interact with the world. Using a beautiful term—the Umwelt of a creature—to signify the gulf between how we sense and how others do, Yong dazzles and delights with precise yet poetic, perky prose stuffed with similes. His sheer pleasure in the joy the many scientists express is infectious. Nigh perfect from start to finish, An Immense World is the most comprehensive, stately, yet exhilarating everyperson-science book I have read in years. I can guarantee it will grace university syllabuses and school libraries for the next century. Not to be missed.
Blessed with a plot premise made in cinematic heaven, ”The Patient” transcends this premise with two stellar acting performances. You probably already know the storyline: a psychotherapist is chained to a wall in the house of a serial killer, who demands to be cured. Steve Carell plays the empathetic, yet self-doubting shrink and his performance must be a career standout, so perfectly does he inhabit this ordinary person in the most dire circumstances. Domnhall Gleeson is equally stunning as the distinctive, fearsome, yet tormented mass murderer. Other characters pop in and out in minor roles, but The Patient is essentially a claustrophobic two-actor play, and the term “claustrophobic” is entirely apt as we shudder our way through ten pithy episodes, each gorgeously ratcheting up the tension. The ending was always going to be intriguing, no matter how it was played, but the climax opted for works well. Both creepy and moving, The Patient is a streaming treat.
Koalas spark unholy terror in me. Based on little knowledge, I’ve conflated the species with the Great Barrier Reef, something that will (so goes the idea in my head) disappear from our planet during my remaining lifetime, so that my grandchildren will never really appreciate either. But as I indicated, while I understand the Reef reasonably well, my background on koalas is weak, so I jumped at the chance to read “Koala: A Life in Trees.” Danielle Clode is one of Australia’s finest natural historians, naturalists, and writers on nature-related subjects, so I expected a portentous text but instead, what I got as I sank into these pages, was the author’s own urgent but unhurried quest to understand this iconic Australian creature. Mixing tales of her own journey of discovery, factual education of the reader, and lyrical essaying, she digs into the koala’s evolution, including its fossil evidence; anatomy; ecological history; dietary niche; fall and rise and fall within modern human history; and status amidst the climate crisis. I won’t reproduce her findings here because much of the wondrous joy of this book is the author’s relentless pursuit of the truths behind the myths and ignorance. Let me just say that the realities and mysteries of this creature’s place in our Australian ecology are utterly intriguing. “Ecologically, as well as evolutionarily,” the author points out, “koalas really do sit alone on their tree.”
Perhaps what stood out most for me during my read—and what I wish for you, astute reader—was a nuggety sense of inquiry and adventure that sent her down alleyways of fascination. I slowed down as I read and my pleasurable absorption restored to me my intrinsic curiosity about a different natural world subject that I had recently let go of. All of us, even the most “expert,” are curious children when it comes to the natural world, and Koala: A Life in Trees is a blissful journey through exploration and revelation. This is one of the two natural science triumphs I have read in 2022 and I commend it to any serious reader.
The super-high-octane, ridiculous thriller is now effectively a sub-genre in its own right. Mostly entries in this sub-genre generate flash and blood but offer little more, not even visceral cinematic thrills. Viewed in that light, “Bullet Train,” a picaresque tale of five assassins battling on a Shinkansen in Japan, delivers plenty of chuckle-rousing quips and twists, but somehow conveys little drama other than occasional moodiness. Without a doubt the highlights are the screenplay’s cleverness (courtesy of Zac Olkewicz) and the dialogue chops of Brad Pitt and Brian Tyree Henry (in that regard Aaron Taylor-Johnson is excellent also). The action scenes are executed with flair, the cinematography (especially the special drone-style snippets of the rushing train) is fine, and the direction by David Leitch. All in all, Bullet Train made, for this jaded viewer, an entertaining two hours of violent nonsense. And yet, dear reader, let me repeat: I never leapt from my seat. This type of thriller, it seems to me, never thrills.
Is “The Bear” (Season 1, apparently Season 2 is on the way), an eight-short-episode show about a “genius prodigy” chef moving back to Chicago to take over a down-market sandwich joint, a candidate for the best cinematic experience of 2022? Just putting it that way accentuates the unlikely nature of this show, but, viewer, all I can tell you is that I was blown away. From the opening scene, the make-no-concessions script charges propulsively though this classic “prodigal son” story, combining an immersive culinary setting and a nutso, dysfunctional family framework that screams minute-by-minute tension. Jeremy Allen White will surely win awards for his lead role and Ebon Moss-Abrach gives an incendiary performance as the restaurant’s reigning asshole, while Ayo Edebiri deeply inhabits the other key role of a questing sous chef. All the acting is impeccably in the moment; the cinematography, both amidst the slop and stylistics of the restaurant, and on the atmospheric streets of Chicago, dazzles; the music stuns; and the direction by Christopher Storer (also the show’s creator and co-writer) and Joanna Storer (a co-writer) is dizzyingly frenetic yet controlled). The story arc is a classic redemption-from-the-gates-of-hell passage that somehow manages to surprise until the final, rousing finale that left me in tears. Watch The Bear. Just watch it.
American novelist James Wade’s third novel, “Beasts of the Earth,” dovetails two time-separated tales of light among darkness. In Texas, a quiet, polite school groundsman butts up against an appalling act of violence. In the backwaters of Louisiana, a boy grapples with a malevolent father released from jail. The author’s magisterial prose, fulsome and freighted with gravity (reminding me, bless me, of Cormac McCarthy), propel a story populated with wonderfully realized characters. Texas and Louisiana blossom on the page. A morality fable, an ode to brutal landscapes, a hymn to humanity’s weakness … Beasts of the Earth inspires grand thoughts and is a wonderful read.