A roundup of things consumed by our contributors.
I’ve been doing a lot of critical thinking about some comfortable favorites lately. For example, I’m re-reading the iconic Warren Ellis / Darick Robertson cyberpunk comic series, Transmetropolitan. It’s weird to read in 2012! The most famous plotline followed the series’ protagonist, a hard-drugging rogue journalist, as he tried to wake up a completely apathetic public during a presidential election. Very relevant in the dull prosperity years of the late ’90s; not so much now. That said, the books’ cavalcade of not-quite-dystopian ideas about posthumanism and urban identity are just as fresh now as they were when I was 16.
Similarly, I’ve been overdosing on Fresh Air interviews. I’m a longtime fan, but Christ, they can be frustrating. Terry Gross consistently gets guests I want to hear (recent highlights include Mad Men egomaniac Matthew Weiner and investigative journalist Lowell Bergman), but she’s just such a parody of herself sometimes. Y’know, asking “questions” that are just rambling paragraphs of her own thoughts that end with a half-hearted “Is that true?” And she trips over her own words way too much for the endeavor to be totally comfortable. Nonetheless, the show remains the brass ring for anyone promoting a great book, movie, or TV show. Ugh. Problematic.
On the other hand, when it comes to podcasts, Planet Money has been on fire, as of late. The recent one on the history of the income tax is legitimately delightful.
I’ve been on a TV jag for awhile, not in the watching sense, but in the listening and writing sense. I know that’s confusing, but I’m talking podcasts. Podcasts about television writing. It all comes together with the Nerdist Writer’s Panel hosted by Supernatural writer Ben Blacker. The typical setup is a live recording of a panel of screenwriters — people you probably don’t know, but whose shows you do. But recently host Blacker has been doing some intense one-on-ones and hit it big: 45 minutes with Vince Gilligan, the creator behind Breaking Bad and an epic Star Wars and Trekky-infused edition with Damon Lindelof, the creator of Lost. Both had been on the panels before, but here they reveal more behind the curtain.
In addition, Grantland writer Andy Greenwald recently interviewed Awake creator and writer Kyle Killen, who also gained notoriety for having a spectacular failure in the show Lone Star. Greenwald usually hosts a more conventional TV recap type of podcast, but in this one he really dives into writing specifics and what putting a “cable-style” drama on network TV really means.
Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker is madcap pulp, featuring interweaving conspiracies, secret societies, nonagenarian master spies, and sinister devices. The whole thing echoes the clockwork wonders that protagonist Joe Spork makes his living by repairing, and there’s delight to be found on both levels. And through all of the Big Ideas to be found in this novel, Harkaway keeps things focused; if his earlier The Gone-Away World contains deep inside of it a meditation on friendship, Angelmaker resonates because of its take on parents and children, of tangled generational legacies that continue to assert themselves in new and strange ways.
I finally got around to reading Patrick DeWitt’s Tournament-of-Books-beloved The Sisters Brothers, and enjoyed it considerably. There’s a definite Charles Portis feel here — taking existing tropes and tilting them slightly, and what emerges is pretty satisfying — gritty thrills with just enough pensiveness behind them to give them weight. I’ve also been reading Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence. As Lethem admits in his introduction, it’s a wildly disparate selection of pieces, from smart longform journalism to surreal fictional collages; while I don’t love them all, the best work in here is among the smartest writing on art and creativity I’ve encountered in the past few years.
After seeing him read earlier this week, I’m reminded that I need to delve into the copy of Simon Van Booy’s Everything Beautiful Began After that’s on my to-read shelf for a while now. Aside from that, I’ve been making my way through season one of Game of Thrones, and being impressed by the first issue of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s comic book Saga, which looks to be sprawling, heartbreaking, and full of impressively ludicrous ideas.
I am straight up going to brag, so apologies in advance. I went to see the San Francisco Symphony at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, and I saw Elvis Costello milling around in the cafe. He was wearing a very colorful scarf and a fedora, and when our eyes met I made that face you make when you see a famous person you really like. He totally saw that I knew who he was. He strutted slowly by my table while I tried to find a way to tell my companion that the guy to our right was Elvis Costello. Elvis, come on. I’m not going to come up to you and ask for a picture! I’m here to see the symphony, okay? Which was great, by the way. The tireless Alex Ross has a write-up here, but I wasn’t as big a fan of the Ruggles. I also appreciated the group of jaded New York teenage girls in the nosebleed section with my companion and me. They made noise constantly: putting jackets on and taking them off, mouthing gossip to one another, flirting (or something) with the boys behind us. One of the ushers got mad at them and made threats to kick them out. All in all, a quintessentially “this city, right?” evening.
Snooty classical music talk to the side, I read and loved Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick, and I’m lazily reading a Ross McDonald novel, The Instant Enemy. On Monday I saw Tiny Furniture after what seems like an eternity of resisting it and was pleasantly surprised, though not bowled over. It’s been kind of a New York Elite-y week, McDonald excepted.
I did a reading with Simon Van Booy this week and I became a fan. I’d read a few essays before but never any of his short stories or his novel. Now I’m looking at a pile of books that I hope to have finished before I go out of town for Passover and wondering if I can sneak one of his collections in there.
I’ve been trying to read every 3:AM Magazine article on Studs Terkel in anticipation of the late writer’s 100th birthday. I think growing up in Chicago means you’ve had a decent amount of exposure to Terkel, as well as an appreciation for his work. That said, I haven’t read nearly enough or tracked down enough of his radio work. Robert O’Connor’s piece on The Good War gave me a reason to push said book on my must read list.
I assume we all make hasty literary judgments from time to time. There are books we will never read because, well, because of nothing substantive. For a long time I chose not to read Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow because, in my naivete, I assumed that a book turned into a musical didn’t deserve my time (I thought the same thing about Fiddler on the Roof so I stayed away, foolishly, from the stories of Sholom Aleichem). Even after I read Doctorow’s outstanding The Book Of Daniel and City of God I refused to read Ragtime. However, I need to read it for class, and boy do I feel like a total idiot. I knew of his talent in metafiction, and his talent for the philosophical novel, but his ability to evoke the complexity of a historical period astounds me.
I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson at an age at which I don’t think I could fully appreciate what she set out to accomplish. I hear her name so often as one of the best writers today, that I couldn’t help but try again. I decided to start with her book of essays The Death of Adam to get a sense of where she situates herself in the landscape of ideas. Though I can’t deny the power of her writing abilities, I do feel ambivalent about many of her ideas, especially in regards to the power of literature, or reading. I respect her point about the need to rethink many of the ideas we think of as obvious, but her assumptions seem very strange to me. To provide but one example, “Think of how much less stupefying the last fifty years might have been if people actually had read Marx.” Robinson bemoans so much of our cultural naivete, but this seems to signify the opposite naivete: the naivete of the learned. However, I’m excited to discuss some of the essays with my friends who swear by her insights.
In the world of music, I’ve been listening to Andrew Bird’s new cd, Break It Yourself, over and over again. Though I can’t really distinguish between his different albums, the man can write melodies. For some reason, I also assume that he is abnormally intelligent and literate. I think we found our next person for the Band Booking column. As for singles, the new songs from Beach House and Sigur Ros make me tingle with excitement for their new albums.