I AM A MEDIA MAXI-PAD ABSORBING THE CONTINUAL FLOW OF POP CULTURE.

THIS JOURNAL DOCUMENTS MY INTAKE OF ONE BOOK, ZINE, CD OR DVD A DAY. RATINGS ARE: ***** = Godhead, **** = Great, *** = Good, ** = Fair, * = Why Bother?

Monday, January 4, 2021

Equinox (Netflix) ****

 


If you love Norse folklore and cults and are a fan of THE WICKER MAN or its most recent incarnation MIDSOMMAR, the new 6-part Danish Netflix show EQUINOX is for you. Based on Tea Lindberg's EQUINOX 1985 podcast, and directed by her, it stars Danica Curcic as Astrid, a young girl who was traumatized by the mysterious disappearance of her sister Ida and her school class in 1999. 20 years later, when she finds out that the only survivor from 1999 mysteriously died, Astrid sets off to discover what really happened. Curcic plays traumatized well - she's so tense she suffers from TMJ and is always rubbing her jaw, which even her mouthguard doesn't help.

It's downright creepy with a STRANGER THINGS vibe (especially as per The Upside-Down) even though you know all along what's coming - any time you have a pretty blue-eyed blonde cutie in the cast (this is Scandinavia, after all, Casting Central for Blue-Eyed Blonde Sex Appeal, a la those Noxzema "Take It Off, Take It All Off" shaving cream ads I grew up on!), you know we're talking about (spoiler alert!) Pagan Virgin Sacrifice. (Full disclosure: I'm a fan of PVS.) The blonde object of desire Ida is played beautifully by Karoline Hamm, who comes off like a sexy Anna Joy-Taylor in THE WITCH if she was raised by liberal Danish hippies instead of Protestant Bible-thumping killjoys.

And like THE WITCH, animals here take on a macabre aura - little Easter bunnies may be cute but anthropomorphic Hare Kings are NOT! Along the way we get schooled about the goddess of spring/dawn, Ostara (aka Eostre or "Easter," y'know?). (By the way, you will never think of Easter Egg Hunts the same again after this. I will now always associate Easter it with pagan sex rites and not milk chocolate bunnies and Peeps).

My only quibble was the unsatisfying ending. It's just too soft and sudden after all the intense build-up. Like Peggy Lee sang, "Is That All There Is?" Unless it is meant to hook us into signing on to a second season, I just thought the ending was anti-climatic and all too quick a cut to the end credits. That said, Viola Martinson as the nine-year-old Astrid is amazing - a young actress of exceptional presence to keep one's eye on. And fans of the "House of Cards"-style Danish political drama BORGEN will recognize a few cast members from that series here, as well, most notably Lars Brygmann as Astrid and Ida's dad "Dennis" and Hanne Hedelund as their mom "Lene."

Jack Irish (Acorn TV) *****

 

Three movies and two seasons streaming on Acorn TV


JACK IRISH is probably the best show Amy and I enjoyed in 2020. 

You've never seen pretty boy Aussie actor Guy Pearce like this before - he's an anti-hero in the mold of Philip Marlowe as played by Elliott Gould (or James Garner in his Jim Rockford persona). And funny! Based on the books by Peter Temple but even better as adapted for the screen for Acorn TV in 3 telemovies (based on the first 3 Jack Irish novels: BAD DEBT, BLACK TIDE and DEAD POINT) and 2 TV series (Season 1 based on plot elements of the late Peter Temple's final Jack Irish book, WHITE DOG, Season 2 an original, standalone screenplay), with a great supporting cast, including the old codgers in the Fitzroy Football Youth Club, Marta Dusseldorp (PLACES TO CALL HOME, JANET KING) as Jack's Sheila love interest Linda Hillier, Bob Hoskins clone Ray Billings as racetrack gambler "Harry Strang," Aborigine actor Aaron Pederson (MYSTERY ROAD) as Harry's sidekick muscle "Cam" and Shane Jacobsen as Jack's belching-farting-junk food-binging detective pal Barry Tregear! 

Jack's 1959 Studebaker Silver Hawk


A third season is promised, and it can't be too soon. Jack Irish is perhaps the coolest antihero lawyer-detective-gambler-debt collector-cabinet maker-Aussie Rules football club supporter in history. And did I mention he also has a cool ride - a 1959 Studebaker Silver Hawk? Oh, and he's not Irish! He's the great-grandson of I. Reich, a German-Jewish immigrant to the Down Under. All the more Oy to the World! Watch it, it's great!


 


Monday, December 28, 2020

Bogus Bookcase Backdrop Boors

 Who Do You Think You're Fooling?

Illustration by Cari Vander Yacht

Wall Street Journal columnist Joe Queenan recently posted one of my favorite articles of the year: "It's Time To End the Bogus Bookcase Backdrops." He calls out what has now become a Zoom cliche - talking heads seated in front of a large bookcase studiously purged of the usual comfort trash "literature" (books about vampires, sharks, David Lee Roth, Pablo Escobar, Fifty Shades of Grey, everything by James Patterson and all sports books) and instead boasting gargantuan biographies of Winston Churchill or Stephen Hawking's A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, or political tomes stating which side of the aisle you lean toward (the vast archive of anti-Trump books vs THE ART OF THE DEAL or Bill O'Reilly's latest). What a crock! Even worse is having your own book on display, cover face out in an act of shameless self-promotion! Or journalists or politicos with a copy of the Constitution conveniently behind them. These are variations on what New York Times reporter Amanda Hess calls the "Credibility Bookcase" of serious thinkers whose unspoken motto seems to be "What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you.” Ack! Quit frontin,' Bogus Bookcase Backdrop Boors!


My own backdrop is a 3D Beatles YELLOW SUBMARINE poster and a well-stocked bar of masterpieces from my learned colleagues Evan Williams and Johnny Walker. It just happens to be behind where my laptop sits on the dining room table, because I get bad WiFi connection in the room where most of my books are upstairs, otherwise you'd see me perched in front of Dian Hanson's BIG BOOK OF BUTTS IN 3D (I read big butts and I cannot lie!) or JACK KIRBY'S OMAC: ONE MAN ARMY CORP. These would still be an improvement over that one Zoom work meeting when I used the "Golden Eggs" (the Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant Anaerobic Digesters) as a backdrop; my not-from-around-these-parts boss thought it was an Epcot Center extension!

Eggs Over Queasy: "You smell that?"


One final note: in her non-fiction essays collection Coventry, Rachel Cusk comments "I have often looked at photographs of writers in their elegant studies and marveled at what seems to me to be a mirage of sorts, the near-perfect alignment of seeming with being, the convincing illusion of mental processes on public display, as though writing a book were not the work of someone capable of all the shame and deviousness and cold-heartedness in the world." To me, all those backdrop bookcases strive to present that very illusion of "seeming" with all the deviousness of "being."


Sunday, December 27, 2020

150 Glimpses of the Beatles

150 Glimpses of the Beatles by Craig Brown (2020) ****

150 Glimpses of the Beatles by Craig Brown (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, October 2020)


I'm really enjoying reading Craig Brown's 150 GLIMPSES OF THE BEATLES, a Christmas gift from my wife. (150 GLIMPSES is the American retitling of Brown's ONE TWO THREE FOUR: THE BEATLES IN TIME, which was released in the UK in April 2020). It's a pop cultural snapshot of the Fabs that cherry-picks the labor-intensive research of Beatles musicologists like Bob Spitz, Mark Lewisohn (TUNE IN) and Tim Riley (TELL ME NOW) to present "glimpses" of their legacy in 150 short chapters for the word-count conscious Twitter Generation. As a result, you can open the book at random and dive into any chapter, willy-nilly, kind of like throwing the I Ching, and still come away with memorable facts and anecdotes from the sprawling, all-encompassing legacy. 

I'm at the age when all I can retain is "glimpses" - general impressions rather than exhaustive details - so it's perfect for me and my peanut-sized brain. And, at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself: would the Beatles themselves have had the patience to slog through all those telephone directory-thick tomes the indefatigable biographers and long-winded critics penned about them? I think not. (Therefore I ain't, Mr. Descartes!) Sure, it too is thick at 600-some pages, but like my favorite Beatles book, THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF THE BEATLES anthology (edited by Sean Egan, Running Press, 2009)...

The Mammoth Book of the Beatles (Running Press, 2009)

...it's designed so it can be read in bits and pieces, like clicking through various Google sites, as opposed to chronologically turning page after page (though you can try it on that way, as well - reader's freedom of choice!) By now, we all know the mythology behind what Brown calls "the chance fusion of the four key elements" that made up the Beatles - fire (John), water (Paul), air (George) and earth (Ringo) - it's been handed down through the ages, generation by generation; it's these capsulized anecdotes that will warm us as we settle down around the campfire to share enjoyable reminiscences.

Case in point...I randomly opened the book to Chapter 148 and did a double-take reading the first sentence - "The most successful pop group of the twentieth century was formed in Liverpool in 1959 by Gerry Marsden and his brother Fred" - before realizing he was taking the piss! What followed was a delightful "What If?" bit of speculative fiction musings, as excerpted below:

The Fab Four: Gerry, Fred, Les and Arthur

The most successful pop group of the twentieth century was formed in Liverpool in 1959 by Gerry Marsden and his brother Fred. Together with Les Chadwick and Arthur McMahon, Gerry and the Pacemakers built up a huge following in their home city, while fine-tuning their talents in Hamburg, West Germany.

Many books have been written about Gerry and the Pacemakers, their origins, their influence, and their sociological and artistic impact on the 1960s. Different periods of their lives - from their early days rehearsing at the Campbell Laird shipyard at Birkenhead to their eventual break-up - have been turned into movies, the most recent starring Ryan Gosling as Gerry Marsden.

Why did Gerry and the Pacemakers succeed in overtaking musical rivals like the Dave Clark Five, the Searchers, the Beatles and the Swinging Blue Jeans to become four of the best-known faces in the world of pop?

For a start, their repertoire was broader than their rivals: by 1960 they had built up a repertoire of 250 songs, from rockers like “What’d I Say” to ballads such as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” Contemporary Merseybeat groups like the Beatles, who met with similar success in the early years, never possessed quite the same range. Moreover, the Beatles lacked a front man, so had no focal point. It’s hard to imagine, but had things gone differently, the world might now be talking of John, Paul, George and Ringo (the first names of the Beatles) instead of Gerry, Fred, Les and Arthur.

Their success was rapid. In January 1962, Gerry and the Pacemakers were voted number 2 in the Mersey Beat readers’ poll when the Beatles were number 1, but this proved a blip. Historians now see the Beatles decision to turn down the hit song “How Do You Do It?” as their greatest mistake. It had been offered to them by record producer George Martin, but instead they insisted on releasing one of their own songs, “Love Me Do.” This left “How Do You Do It?” to be snatched up by Gerry and the Pacemakers. And the rest is history…

But what became of the Fab Four’s early rivals, the Beatles? George Harrison died of cancer in 2001, following a successful career as a session musician. John Lennon and Paul McCartney toured Britain last year with their “Tribute to Gerry and the Pacemakers” show, thrilling audiences up and down the country with their exact rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Touchingly, they still perform one or two of their own numbers - “Yesterday” and “A Hard Day’s Night” - in each set. “We sneak ‘em in, even if no one wants to hear ‘em,” quips John. Ringo Starr retired from the music business in 1966 to pursue an earlier ambition. He now owns and manages a successful chain of hairdressing salons throughout the North-East.”
When I posted the above excerpt on Facebook, both my wife Amy and my friend Scott Wallace Brown recommended the similarly-modeled speculative fiction of Mark Shipper's novel Paperback Writer (Fred Jordan Books/Sunridge Press, 1978), which is loquaciously subtitled The Life and Times of the Beatles: The Spurious Chronicle of Their Rise to Stardom, Their Triumphs & Disasters Plus the Amazing Story of Their Ultimate Reunion. 

Paperback Writer by Mark Shipper (1978)


The Village Voice critic Greil Marcus hailed it as "the finest novel ever written about rock and roll...there's a real empathy for the Beatles and anger at what we, as fans, may be doing to the Beatles by refusing to let them drop their old identities." Hey Dullblog commentator Alexander added, "The value of the book is in how 'accurately' it satirizes its past, and how perceptively it propels the Beatles into unexpected (for us) positions in its future." As critic Alex Bledsoe commented on those "unexpected" positions, "The date of publication is significant. John Lennon was murdered in 1980; after that, any book like this would’ve seemed tacky, if not downright heartless. But in 1978, with Paul and John both still vital presences in the music world, it seemed reasonable to poke fun both at their excesses, and at the fans who would never let them forget their past." The novel's clever premise is that in an exclusive interview for the book, Ringo Starr recounted the entire Beatles story to Mark Shipper, who lost his notes on the way home. As a result, the author decided to make up his own version of their story. And that, as they say, is his history...I can't wait to read this book next! Curiously, the author vanished off the grid following one more book, leading Hey Dullblog critic Devin McKinney to christen Shipper the "J.D. Salinger of rock writers." Shame, that. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Food Trucks Run Amok in Loch Raven

Loch Raven Village Food Trucks Deliver Yums On the Run!

One of the few perks of living in this dystopian proletarian community of pickup trucks and pick-up trash (where you can spot a discarded shopping cart or PPE mask every other block - sometimes even a pair of "Bootay"-brand panties) is the steady availability of weekend food trucks just around the corner from our house in the parking lot of Babcock Presbyterian Church, 8240 Loch Raven Boulevard. We used to see them mostly in the summer, but with the dining and gathering restrictions associated with the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, they have become a regular feature and something to look forward to each week. Like the obsessive cult of trainspotters, we have become obsessive foodtruckspotters, regularly checking the Knettishall Community Association Facebook page to see that week's mobile food vendors. For neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these comestible couriers from their appointed rounds. Yes Virginia, there IS a Santa Claus. And yes, Loch Raven Villagers, there IS a Food Truck a-comin'! BELIEVE!

For latest postings, always check the Knettishall Community Association Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/knettishalltowson. You have to scroll down a bit because, for some reason, an old post about a vehicle running over the Knettishall sign is permanently embedded as the lead story of the page. (It's time to move on, Knettishall.) Oh, and while waiting for your food, you can walk around the little labyrinth that's behind the church facing Loch Ness Road; blink and you miss it, partially obscured as it is by surrounding trees, but it's well worth a merry-go-round!

So far, Amy and I have lauded the following "Top of the Slops" vendors on our personal Hit Parade at Loch Raven's Trucks-a-palooza:

  • Jimmy's Seafood food truck
    I first discovered the Jimmy's food truck back in the summer as I jogged past the Babcock Church on my run up Loch Raven Boulevard. I saw a crowd gathered and stopped to check it out; on my arrival back home, I relayed the menu to Amy and from then on my weekend runs became "recon missions" giving her a preview of available weekend dining options. Though we are biased towards our beloved Pappas crabcakes over on Taylor and Oakleigh Road (oh how we missed the Pappas Sports Lounge - only recenty reopened - during the pandemic!), Amy took the first plunge (despite her hard-to-please mom criticizing it) and sampled the 5-ounce Jimmy's crabcake - plus "Crabby Fries" (fries smothered in a sea of imperial crab) - and was pleasantly surprised. We have now converted to Jimmy's! Moreover, we are now addicted to Jimmy's famous Chesapeake Bay Sauce (which looks like a mix of Aioli/Russian dressing with a little kick), which we use on everything from crab to brussels sprouts. Jimmy's has several trucks that go all over the metro Baltimore area. You can check their food truck schedule here. Wish they would come back to Loch Raven Blvd. It's been a while! (But, alas, I don't recall seeing their famous Crabcake Egg Roll on the food truck menu.)

Jimmy's Seafood food truck

Jimmy's Chesapeake Bay Sauce
  • Stony Man Coffee and Donuts 
    As a RoFo and Dunkin' Donuts devotee, I found the $4 coffee a little pricey, but hey, it's good coffee and he's a independent entrepreneur, so I willingly paid it. The donuts - 15 donut holes for $10 - are also a little pricey compared to Dunkin', but you get what you pay for and Stony Man's deliciously sweet toppings make any flavor selected worth it. The self-described "Gourmet, small batch coffee shop on wheels" offers the highest quality and locally roasted coffee and eats to you, with cold brew, nitro cold brew, and fresh hot donuts in every conceivable variety (over 20, in fact), from Boston Cream and Bananas Foster (our neighbor Todd's favorite) to Old Bay caramel and Hot Honey. The Stony Man himself is a friendly sort (who I noticed either paints his fingernails or has them permanently covered in some sort of topping). The Caramel Apple and French Toast donuts in particular are to die for. We try to make them last several days, heating them up in microwave when they start to get a little stale. Probably the biggest line we've waited in is for the Stony Man! He is loved in the Loch Raven community and also in the Perry Hall area, where he makes regular appearances at the Seven Courts community. Find also on Facebook or call: (410) 660-5772.

Stony Man Coffee and Donuts food truck

Over 20 varieties of donut delectables!

Holistic Therapy: Stony Man's Hot Donut Hole menu


  • Gypsy Queen Cafe truckstaurant
    This Hampden-based food truck (the mobile version of the Clipper Mill truckstaurant at Clipper Mill Auto) is known for serving up dishes in ice-cream waffle cones (though they have others that come in tortillas, pitas and whatnot), specifically its wildly popular "Crab Cone" (a jumbo lump crab cake sitting atop garlic-and-Old Bay fries drenched with chipotle aioli inside a large waffle cone) and "Crabgasm." We haven't sampled these top-sellers - a tad pricey for us, plus sampling the "Crabgasm" sounded like we might have to wash our clothes and take a shower afterwards - but Amy tried the Curried Basil Falafel, which is avalable in either a waffle cone or a pita wrap. There's also Fish Tacos, Lamb Gyros, Buffalo Wings and Korean BBQ Wraps on offer, as well. And we recently just discovered their Bacon and Bourbon BBQ Brussels Sprouts side dish that is a meal in itself - THESE ARE THE BEST BRUSSELS SPROUTS WE'VE EVER TASTED! We love grilled Brussels sprouts and have tried many variations ever since they became a thing a few years back when we first saw them being touted and celebrated on Rocket To Venus' menu; these easily trump those and even Ryleigh Oyster's superb crispy roasted sprouts in vinegar reduction version. After spotting their "Every time you don't tip, a child gets a mullet" sign, Amy made sure she dropped a buck in the tip jar. Contact Val at vweidel70@gmail.com for food truck suggested visits.





Gypsy Queen Cafe menu

  • Kommie Pig BBQ 
    Kommie Pig has perhaps the best icon -  a red boar emblazoned with the Soviet hammer and sickle - and is actually run by a Russian guy from St. Petersburg. Since I only know one Russian expression (taught to me by my Russian former workmate Alex, who told me, "Thees is only dink you need ever say to womans"), I said the the guy, "I only know one Russian expression, but I can't say it to you, so I'll say it to your lovely lady helper: Ty ochen krasivaya!" He laughed and said, "You can say that to me - I am!" then translated to his female assistant ("He says you are very beautiful!"), who thanked me. Kommie Pig is renowned for its ribs and pulled pork, but also offers Cubans and Reubens sandwiches and every variety of Hot Dogs-Kielbasas-Sausages. Best-named entree: The Chernobyl (ham, pulled pork, bacon, Tiger and BBQ sauce on a Hawaiian Kaiser roll). Amy got the smoked BBQ chicken that came with spicy collard greens (which I stole!) and cole slaw. Check out the Kommie Pig Facebook page for latest food truck location info.


    Amy mulls over the Kommie Pig options

Kommie Pig menu

  • Southrn' Spice 
    This "soul food restaurant" on wheels offers every kind of smoked BBQ meat you can imagine, but Amy settled on the glazed salmon with sides of leafy collard greens and red-beans-and rice. The salmon was served on a bed of richly seasoned southern rice, as well (bonus!). Totally boss combo! Plus, a big ole brick of CORNBREAD to die for! Only pet peev: Why the apostrophe on Southrn'? If anything, it should be after the "h," as there is no "e" in their spelling. (Sorry, the English major in me...) Contact at: southrnspice@gmail.com,@southrnspicedmv, or call (202) 914-1151.


    Southrn' Spice's flame-emblazoned food truck

Glazed salmon, collard greens, reds bean and rice


Southrn' Spice menu

  • Craving Potato Factory
    The surprisingly awesome carbocentric 'tater dining experience and Amy's go-to favorite. On its surface, getting a  baked potato is a pretty vanilla dining option, but these 'taters are HUGE and the spud toppings are "scrumptious"! Amy tried the shrimp and spud combination and the shrimps were some of the tastiest we've ever had, with one entree lasting several meals (if you can consume an entree in one sitting, you might want to consider a career on the Competitive Eating Circuit!). Later we went the extra $2 to add crab - available as the misleading "Dirty Bird" combo - to the shrimp, all lathered in a gooey cheese topping. Check out their Facebook page, as well.

    "I Am Spud Truck": Craving Potato Factory food truck


    The humble potato: It's elementary!
  • Kooper's Chowhound Burger Wagon
    Kooper's of Fells Point is known for their big gourmet burgers and since 2009 has been sending its Burger Wagon out to offices, festivals and private events all over Baltimore. They offer a veggie burger as well as all slaughtered creatures great and small: beef, bison, turkey, lamb, even Japanese Wagyu. Amy custom-built her humungous turkey burger - with a choice of one cheese and three sides, she selected feta cheese to go with sauteed mushrooms, roasted red peppers and arugula - on a soft brioche roll and got two tasty meals out of it. Since the same owners run the Irish soccer pub Slainte, they also offer Slainte's rich and thick seafood gumbo. It's chock-full of crawfish, shrimp and sausage with a spicy kick that makes it perfect for this chilly time of year! Sound good? Then check their Burger Wagon schedule here.

    A customer-built Kooper's Turkey Burger


    Baby Yoda would eat here again! So should you!


  • The Chowhound food truck: home of gourmet burgers

  • Just Like Home (Indian cuisine)
    It's just like home...if home is India! "Dumb name," says Amy, "but good food!" The Knettishall Community web master apparently agrees, adding "Really really good!" to this week's schedule listing. Specialties include the popular Goat Curry (mutton slow-cooked with spices and herbs in yogurt and fresh cream) and - since this a seafood state - Crab Curry (cooked in dry, grated coconut, coconut milk, cilantro and spices). Amy got the Chicken Saag Paneer which featured very spicy creamed spinach (all the more to my benefit, as it was too spicy for her delicate palate but not for mine!), plus garlic Naan bread. Just Like Home is also on Facebook (isn't everyone?) and you can always call 443-570-3302 for more information.


    Amy prepares to order her Chicken Saag with Rice



    Just Like Home's Indian Cuisine menu


  • BMore Greek Grill
    Amy got the Gyro platter with gyro slices over rice and drizzled Tzatziki sauce and pita strips to soak up that tasty sauce. They are due back soon, so more details about the menu offerings to come later...

BMore Greek Grill menu


  • Taco Bar
    Don't know much about this truck, but we happened upon it by accident one night (it wasn't listed on the Knettishall Community Facebook schedule). Amy got the Shrimp Tacos and said they were not bad. She got three meals out of them. I like that their sign changes colors in the dark. Check out their menu here and their Facebook page here.



Those are the trucks we've sampled so far. And we haven't yet sampled Mi Ranchito, the Tex-Mex truck that is permanently parked in the Exxon station lot at the intersection of Putty Hill and Goucher Boulevard across from the Red Robin and Calvert Hall. I hope there're more trux redux to come this winter! In the meantime, keep on truckin'! This winter I'll be truckin' my blues away!










Buck Books Bibliography

One Man’s Dollar Bin Library

With bookstores and libraries either closing or limiting the number of people allowed inside during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, avid book readers were faced with a dearth of browsing opportunities. You could either poke around on Amazon or Barnes & Noble online or cruise over to your friendly neighborhood dollar store and discover a new world of remaindered and forgotten books. Most represented the lowest of lowbrow genre publishing. - the unreadable dreck of sappy teen romance novels, geeky fanboy sci-fi fantasies, unimaginative horror novels featuring post-Twilight compassionate vampires and Walking Dead franchise derivative brain-eating zombies, “inspirational” self-help books, vapid sports “as told to” biographies by ex-jocks, and right-wing conservative rewrites of history (hello Bill Reilly!) - while only a scant few were true literary finds. But it’s the score that thrills at the dollar store.

Following is the library I amassed in 2020 for less than $10, including tax, at my friendly neighborhood Dollar Tree.

  1. Kudos - a novel by Rachel Cusk



    Kudos may have been the final book in Rachel Cusk's Outline trilogy, but it was my introduction to her radical reinvention of "the narrative voice" in literature. The entire novel is connected by a succession of overheard conversations, statements taken at face value with no look inside their heads, no inner voices. "Human lives can be governed by narrative," she writes, "and all events that occur are merely our interpretation of events that created that illusion." This was not an easy read, yet I found myself writing down passage after passage (e.g., "History goes over the top like a steamroller...crushing everything in its path, whereas childhood kills the roots. And that is the poison...that seeps into the soil" ) intrigued by the Kafkaesque minimalism of detail: no concrete descriptions of the city, airline, buildings; no proper names ("the man," "the hostess," "the interviewer," "the publicist," "the wife"). Everything seemed very general and non-specific, archetypal, like myths and fables. Our capacity for telling stories (narratives) informs the lives we want to live or to be seen living. But they remain stories and nothing more, for no one can truly get inside another person's head - that is the "lie" in fiction that writers use to tell "truths." But it is merely one technique. First person, third person, point of view - all are merely tricks of the trade. Along the way, Cusk pens so many great lines:

    "It is only when it's too late to escape that we see we were free all along."

    "No more ambition than a colony of seals, who go where nature directs them."

    I ended up reading the other two entries in the trilogy and found that the narrator did, in fact, have a name, and that the author did end up using some other names and some additional (albeit sparse) details, but overall the effect was that of a fly-on-the-wall observing conversations as they were uttered, and the narrator (an obvious stand-in for Cusk herself) reflecting on still more stories recalled and their meaning, if any.

  2. A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fisher



  3. Everybody has at least one redeeming factor, even North Korean despot Kim Jong-Il, whose Orwellian iron-clad grip on the in-name-only "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" consistently squeezed the life out of this destitute, starving nation. Going by his ubiquitous gray khaki worksuit and oversized 1970s computer programmer glasses that even Elton John wouldn't be caught dead in, it ain't Fashion or Good Looks. And it sure ain't sparkling personality (did the man EVER smile? I mean, even Dr. Evil smiles!).

    No, but perhaps Fearless Leader's lone redeeming factor was that he was an avid Film Fanatic. Though his people aren't allowed to see Western films (especially not those South Korean films that show their well-off southern brethen driving Hyundais and stuffing their faces with kimchi and soju in middle class bliss), Kim supposedly had a private library of over 10,000 videos and DVDs, including many foreign films (though probably not Team America!), and was allegedly fond of slasher films and action movies.

    In the past, Kim's film fanaticism went so far that he even ordered the kidnapping of prominent South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hi, to produce propaganda films for North Korea. One of those films was Pulgasari (1985), described as a "socialist Godzilla movie," which only got international attention because it was executive-produced by Kim Jong-Il (the Aaron Spelling of North Korea) himself! Shin and his wife eventually escaped North Korea in 1986. And that is what Paul Fischer's fascinating book A Kim Jung-Il Production covers in as much detail as can be hoped for given the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's "hermit nation" status.

  4. The High Places - stories by Fiona McFarland


  5. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher - stories by Hilary Martel


  6. The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe



  7. Fresh Complaint - stories by Jeffrey Eugenides



    This is a collection of 10 stories by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Middlesex that NPR claimed "showcase his ability to write convincing female characters, his sensitivity to spouses and artists under duress, and his compassion for people who disappoint themselves as much as each other. Although not thematically linked, a recurring concern is what happens when basically good people succumb to temptations and pressures and behave badly." Or stupidly, I might add, in the case of the title story, in which a book-touring college professor makes the mistake of having an ill-fated tryst with a flirtatious teenager trying to foil her Indian family's plans for her arranged marriage by losing her virginity to a stranger and thus taking herself off the market. She loses her virginity but gains her freedom, while the professor loses everything in a moment of lust. I didn't read Middlesex or The Marriage Plot, but characters from these two Eugenides novels make appearances here, as well: Middlesex "sexologist" Dr. Peter Luce (hmm, "Loose Peter"?) turns up in "The Oracular Vulva" and The Marriage Plot's soul-searching religious studies major Mitchell seeks "spiritual and intestinal transcendence" in Thailand. Speaking of gut-wrenching prose, NPR's review observes that "Eugenides writes with his heart, but also his nose. Bathrooms and foul odors pervade this collection — bad breath, mildew, the lingering scent of elderly homeowners, the stench of diarrhea." Hmm, having just had a colonoscopy, I can't wait to dive into my element in the stories collected here! 

  8. Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy by Dr. Pat Morris with Joanna Ebenstein



Sunday, December 20, 2020

2020 TV Eye: A Top 10

My 2020 Year-end Wrap-up: TV Top 10


1. SVENGOOLIE: THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (1940) - MeTV

Svengoolie consistently screens the classic horror B-movies of the '40s and '50s, but this one (an absolutely beautiful print) clearly stood out. The great cast includes Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard, Charlie Ruggles, Margaret Hamilton and Shemp Howard!

2. A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS (1964) - Amazon Prime

Rod Serling's nuclear age update of Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL rings home with relevancy today with a star-studded cast of Sterling Hayden, Peter Sellers, Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, Steve Lawrence, James Shigeta, Robert Shaw, Britt Ekland echoing his pacifist plea for global awareness and anti-isolationism. Produced by Herman "Mank" Mankiewcz's kid brother Joseph.

3. JACK IRISH, 3 standalone movies and 2 seasons - Acorn 



Guy Pearce, Marta Dusseldorp (A PLACE TO CALL HOME), Roy Billings and Aaron Pederson (MYSTERY ROAD) star in this well-written, character-driven Antipodean ROCKFORD FILES crime series that offsets the topical storylines and sometimes graphic violence with deadpan Ozzie humor. The movies were based on the first 3 novels by Peter Temple and the two series used themes Temple created in the 4th and final Jack Irish mystery, WHITE DOG. Made me a Fitzroy Lions rugby fan! Special mention: Shane Jacobsen as overweight cop Barry "Baz" Tregear gets a Fart Club Lifetime Achievement Award as most flatulent crime-stopper. He has no bodily functions filter (BFF). 

4. THE GOOD PLACE, Season 4 - NBC and Netflix


The Ur show for moral philosophers everywhere, each season managed to reinevent its storyline and prove that network TV could still be relevant. An existential meaning-of-life premise played for comedy - and successful! Like THE DETECTORISTS and EPISODES, also provided a "perfect" and satisfying ending with Ted Danson's "Keep it sleazy!" Isn't that what life is all about? 

5. THE RIPPER - Netflix


Outstanding, gritty 4-part British documentary miniseries on Peter William Sutcliffe, the "Yorkshire Ripper" who terrorized women (mostly prostitutes, like "Jack") from 1975-1981 around Leeds and West Yorkshire. Pandemic justice was served when the Covid-19 led to Sutcliff's passing in NOvember of 2020. In the days before CCTV solved every crime, "proper coppering" brought this villain down, when a wooden top called in the plates of his cruising car. Accents matter: the cops initially ignored promising leads about Sutcliffe due to a hoax tape recording of his voice made by a Sunderland "Geordie," leading detectives to ignore evidence that he was a local Yorkie. Silly buggers!

6. TOAST OF LONDON, 3 seasons - Amazon 

Kudos to my BritCom-loving pal David Cawley for the shout-out about this hilarious Brit comedy show starring Matt Berry (WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS) as a hack actor reduced to doing voiceovers for a bunch of ass-clowns like Clem Fandango while battling (and cuckolding) his actor nemesis Ray Purchase. My fave bit was seeing John Nettles (Inspector Tom Barnaby from MIDSOMER MURDERS) make cameos as a poacher! Viewer's Advisory: Like Ryan Murphy, Berry is prone to musical interludes. 

7. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS Season 1 - Hulu

 The TV adaptation of Taika Waititi's brilliant vampire comedy was a great example of how this story can work in an episodic format. With Matt Berry (TOAST OF LONDON). 

8. SCHITT'S CREEK Season 6 - Netflix

 Though I liked Seasons 1-5 better, Season 6 - primarily focused on David's Big Gay Wedding Day - swept this year's Pand-Emmy Awards. You never want a series like this to end (and I think it probably should have ended after Season 5), so I savored it until the final credits (set to the tune of the Zombies' "This Will Be Our Year"), though I think it was obvious by then that much of its ideas and vigor were retreads of previous seasons. Still, the series finally got the recognition it deserved. And any show with Chris Elliott is must-watch TV! 

9. SINGLE-HANDED, 2 seasons - (Acorn) 

If HAMISH MACBETH was a serious Irish garda instead of a laid-back highlands bobby, he'd be Jack Driscoll (Owen McDonnell) , the star of this picturesque 2007-2010 series set in West Galway. Both lawmen know everyone in their small communities by name, like latter-day Andy Griffiths. Jack has deep-seated father issues and his community has drinking, sex, religion and economic issues. And both coppers have romantic issues that complicate things along the way and make people realize "You don't know Jack!" 

10. COASTAL RAILWAYS WITH JULIE WALTERS - Acorn 

The veteran actress (HARRY POTTER) exudes cheeky charm as she travels by railway along scenic coastal landscapes across Britain, from the West Country up to the Scottish Highlands. Her wit and risque humor is the icing on the cake of this well-done travel series. Amy and I alternated watching this with the other well-done Acorn "These scenes were made for walking" travelogue series: Julia Bradbury's COAST & COUNTRY: RAILWAY WALKS and WALKS WITH DOGS (featuring a rotating cast of presenters with their dogs, including John Nettles on the Jersey channel island and quite a few with Bill Bailey of BLACK BOOKS). By rail or by trail, Acorn made high-production travelogue series its specialty in 2020 - and it never seemed to rain on these travel dates! 

Oopsie, almost forget this one...thanks to Marc Sober for reminding me that this list (in the immortal words of Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel) "Goes To 11!" 

11. THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH TV pilot - YouTube 


Orson Welles' "lost" TV pilot that aired once, made with the support of Desilu Production (Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball), in 1958. As New Yorker critic Richard Brody describes the would-be showrunner Welles' pilot, which was presented and narrated by Welles himself: "The pulp-fiction plot, based on a short story by John Collier and set in New York in the nineteen-twenties, concerns a middle-aged scientist named Humphrey Baxter (Dan Tobin) who falls in love with a twenty-three-year-old burlesque dancer, Caroline Coates (Joi Lansing). When he leaves town for three years of study in Vienna, she leaves him for a muscular tennis star, Alan Brody (Rick Jason). When Humphrey returns to New York and finds himself dumped, he relies on the product of his research—a vial of an anti-aging potion, the titular fountain—to get his revenge." Though the series wasn’t picked up, it was noteworthy for its creative use of photographic stills (anticipating Chris Marker's LA JETEE?) and other effects, later even winning a Peabody award. "In his foray into TV, Welles foregrounded, defiantly flaunted, exulted in visual artifice and confected fantasy." But it fell on eyes wide shut.