Through a Glass Darkly: 2015 – Year in Review

What is it about turbulent times…?

From earthquakes in Asia to epidemics in South America, from increasing economic inequality to encroaching environmental catastrophe, from Charlie Hebdo to Boko Haram, it’s been hard, over the last year, not to feel a sense of instability about our planet, uncertainty about our future. And while there’s nothing daring or visionary in suggesting that volatile circumstances often inspire some of the greatest art, it’s also been difficult not to feel a bit frivolous compiling a list of 2015’s best pop culture offerings…

And yet…

While writing the retrospective below, patterns began to emerge: Stories of people trapped in chaos and conflict, trying to find their way. Oppressive atmospheres, thick with dread. Binary oppositions dissolving into disorder around lone figures desperately seeking to blaze a path between. Artistic and scholarly attempts to find new perspectives on a world that, for all our intellectual progress, so often seems incomprehensible. And an almost desperate creativity as new modes of expression are sought to articulate our dismay, our determination, and our defiance. In various ways, every work below is a reflection of – and a response to – the moment in history in which we find ourselves.

And isn’t that what art is for…?

Maybe it’s not a “Best of…” As I always say, I’m just one guy. There’s a lot of great work from the past year that I haven’t seen. A lot that I’ll probably never see. Nor is everything on the list below flawless. Perfection, after all, is rarely inspiring. But each, in its way, offers a striking, inventive, resonant vision of life in these distinctly, if not uniquely, troubled times…

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MOVIES

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THE ASSASSIN

From stunning star, Shu Qi, to the staggering cinematography by Lee Ping Bin, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is almost intolerably beautiful to look at. But its breathtaking beauty is more than just skin deep. As engaging – and elusive – as it is entrancing, The Assassin borrows its often deliberately obscure narrative from “Nie Yinniang,” a 9th Century chuanqi by Pei Xing about a young girl who is taken from her home at ten years old, only to return five years later as a trained killer. The similarity pretty much ends there, but attempting to sum up the film’s enigmatic events would be futile. Plot is not the point. A diaphanous portrait of a girl trying to reconcile who she once was with who she has become – caught, like her uneasily insurrectionist home province, between fealty and freedom – The Assassin is a work of ethereal poetry. A meditation on the burdens of flight. If that sounds incomprehensibly abstract, it’s only fitting for a film this rich and this delicate. It’s the kind of cinema that demands the repeated viewings you’ll be more than happy to give it.

CHI-RAQ

Inventive, explosive, hilarious, heartrending, vulgar, visionary, incisive, and outrageous, Chi-Raq is Spike Lee’s most inspired and arresting film since… Well, at least, since The 25th Hour, but possibly ever… A fiery socio-political protest in madcap satirical drag, Chi-Raq transplants Lysistrata to the streets of Chicago’s South Side, using Aristophanes’ anti-war text to take on America’s epidemic of urban gun violence. If extreme situations call for extreme measures, Lee is more than up to the task, and his film pulls out all the stops: as in Aristophanes, the characters speak entirely in verse (a strategy that’s right at home in the world of rap battles and the Dozens), conversations spontaneously evolve into choreographed dance numbers, and the performances (led by an appealingly sensitive and sensual Teyonah Parris) are often hilariously over-the-top. There’s even a Chorus-cum-Rudy Ray Moore analog named Dolomites, played with note-perfect panache by Samuel L. Jackson. But what’s truly extraordinary is not that Lee can so confidently combat lunacy with lunacy, but that he succeeds in deftly balancing the outlandishly comedic with the affectingly dramatic, the drunkenly profane with the soberly sacred, never losing sight of the searing grief and anger that drive the film. He pulls no punches in his depictions of a mother’s loss or a minister’s outrage. For all that his characters can come off like cartoons, they bleed real blood and cry all-too-recognizable tears. An insane response to an insane world, Chi-Raq is a hysterical cry for help.

A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE

A literal bird’s eye view of humanity, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence contemplates the absurdities of human frailty and fragility from a puzzled, yet pacific remove. Noncommittally following two traveling salesman through a series of bleakly comic vignettes, from the mundane to the momentous, from the mournful to the quietly beautiful, Andersson’s use of static wide shots, minimal cuts, and dramatic performances reminiscent of zombie mental patients allows us to view the action (and inertia) as an alien species might. Laughter and tears, love and carnage are all observed with the same bemused detachment. Wringing horror from hilarity, significance from simplicity, and in both cases, vice-versa, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a funhouse mirror held up to human nature: a desolate and deadpan, strikingly minimalist and strangely moving vision of our species, our civilization, ourselves.

EX MACHINA

Alex Garland’s quiet and contained story of a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) hired to perform the Turing test on an artificial intelligence (a mesmerizing Alicia Vikander) is less a cautionary sci-fi fable about the project’s inherent dangers than an intense psychological drama about the ways in which people attempt to manipulate and control each other. We have invented the enemy and she is us. Full review here.

INSIDE OUT

“Children’s psychological comedy” is not an especially competitive genre. But Inside Out, Pixar’s tale of the inner workings of a young girl’s brain as she confronts the challenges of adapting to life in a new city, is not only inspired and inventive, it is also every bit as magical, and as moving, as any of the studio’s best offerings. Following the personifications of Joy (an aggressively chipper Amy Poehler) and Sadness (a delightfully dismal Phyllis Smith) on an odyssey through 11-year-old Riley’s (Kaitlyn Dias) turbulent psychological landscape, Inside Out paints an imaginative, insightful portrait of the human mind and its workings, while – somewhat daringly, in our inane, negativity-shaming, feel good culture – satirizing our obsessive desperation to stay positive all the time, and acknowledging the value of negative responses to trauma. Featuring faultless vocal performances by Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, and Lewis Black as Fear, Disgust, and Anger, respectively, and an especially notable turn by Pixar regular Richard Kind as Riley’s former imaginary friend Bing-Bong, the film is, simultaneously, so instantly appealing and so plainly purposeful, it would feel manipulative if it weren’t also so deeply sincere. By turns, hilarious and heartbreaking, Inside Out is one of the more poignant, powerful, and perceptive “Children’s” movies you’re likely to find.

THE TRIBE

A bleak and brutal film set within the squalid corridors of a boarding school for the deaf, Ukrainian filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s debut feature has received a great deal of acclaim for its effective cinematic rendering of a world without dialogue (the film is purposefully presented without any subtitles, so unless you’re fluent in Ukrainian sign language…), but has left a few critics and moviegoers pondering what, exactly, Slaboshpytskyi was trying to say. Viscerally and formally arresting – both riveting and, at times, difficult to watch – The Tribe’s descent into teenage cruelty and criminality is a study of contained and systematized savagery: a microcosmic allegory exposing the violence inherent in any form of tribalism. The interactions and interrelationships between the students are clear enough, even if the specifics sometimes get a bit muddled, but more importantly, the lack of dialogue deprives them of the ability to rationalize or justify their actions (to us, anyway). We are silent observers, any sympathy or identification offered only fleetingly, if at all. Composed almost entirely of subtly, but impressively choreographed long takes, often featuring deliberately repeated compositions, the film literally traps us within its characters’ grim and grimy routines. When our unapproachable – and not especially likeable – protagonist disrupts the natural order, the escalating conflicts he sets in motion provide a desolate and disturbing commentary on escaping such oppressive systems. A comment that, perhaps, some critics and moviegoers have no desire to hear.

WILD TALES

An altogether different – and more easily enjoyable – take on human savagery can be found in Damian Szifron’s blackly comic anthology, Wild Tales. Over the course of six riotously funny vignettes, Szifron plunges with maniacal glee into the repressed animal passions that explode from within when people are pushed to their limits. Vengeance, guilt, greed, frustration, and jealousy are vividly caricatured in stories of road rage, marriage, and the particular rage evoked when navigating bureaucracy. But unlike Slaboshpytski, Szifron makes his characters both cartoonishly outrageous and uncomfortably sympathetic, over the top yet firmly rooted in our feral instincts, and at various times, we find ourselves almost cheering for them to indulge the worser beasts of their natures. Unbridled and unforgiving, but also cathartic and vital, Wild Tales reminds us that, while such base behavior might be distressingly common, it is common to us all, and suggests that there is something liberating, even empowering, about facing the beasts within and laughing.

’71

Such is the powerful authenticity of Yann Demange’s intense action-drama, ’71, you could almost believe it was actually shot in the decade in which it takes place. Driven by a genuine street-level urgency and arresting visual immediacy, the film energetically evokes some of that bygone era’s best cinematic offerings without ever falling prey to nostalgia, caricature, or mimicry. Dropping us in the rough and ravaged streets of 1970’s Belfast, the film follows Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), an unassuming British soldier abandoned by his company in the aftermath of a riot, whose run for his life brings him face to face with the realization that his country’s war on IRA terror may be more complex than it appears. A captivating cat-and-mouse chase film, adept and assured enough to dwell in its more meditative moments, ’71’s grey and gritty historical odyssey also resonates as an understated and artful allegory reflecting our own present-day attempts to navigate the moral complexities of our war-torn world.

WTF…?

Not necessarily disappointments, but some surprisingly poor offerings that have received inexplicable praise…

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

A prolonged demolition derby roaring its way through an apocalyptic (and aesthetic) wasteland, George Miller’s final (we hope) installment in the bafflingly overrated Mad Max franchise has been met with such widespread superlative acclaim, I’ve been forced to question, not only the judgment, but the sanity of many critics I respect and rely on. Utterly devoid of competent storytelling, compelling characters, or any kind of content at all, the film is so unceasingly kinetic and cacophonous it actually becomes monotonous. Yes, the effects are (for the most part) practical, and the choreography often impressive, but in service of what? Despite what any critic may claim regarding Fury Road’s deeper meanings or cultural significance, any anorexic attempts at feminist commentary or genre reinvention are brutally pulverized by the film’s barreling bombast, thudding script, bloodless characters, and wooden performances. At a time when so many critics claim to be weary of empty, overblown spectacle, the praise lavished on Miller and Mad Max seems almost hilariously ironic. It’s not that the emperor has no clothes; it’s that the clothes have no emperor.

SPOTLIGHT

Earnest, sincere, likable, and, unfortunately, not very good, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight wants very badly to be All the President’s Men, but possesses none of that film’s immersive intrigue, precision craftsmanship, or wit. Focusing on the Boston journalists who exposed the child abuse cover-up in the Catholic church, Spotlight neither invests in their drive, their personal relationship to the story, or the larger significance of the story, itself, amounting to little more than a dull and superficial recounting of factual events. Minus a bizarrely mannered Mark Ruffalo, most of the cast gives committed, sincere performances, but they can’t save the film from its flat screenplay or shoddy technique (politely excused as “restrained” by those critics swayed by the film’s good intentions). It’s not offensively bad. It’s just offensively bland.

CLOUDS OF SILS-MARIA

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils-Maria is exactly the type of brittle and pretentious exercise that gives arthouse films a bad name. A drama about an aging actress (Juliet Binoche) and her young assistant (Kristen Stewart), the film doesn’t explore their relationship so much as absently bat it around like bored cat with a dying mouse, punctuating their labored interactions with pedantic babble about art, truth, maturity, etc. (“It’s theatre. It’s an interpretation of life. It can be truer than life itself.”) Stewart is as excellent and understated as the bewildering praise heaped on the film suggests, but Binoche is shockingly poor, as forced and awkward as the dialogue she’s made to recite. An empty and self-important film about empty and self-important people that veers perilously close to self-parody.

 

TELEVISION

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RIVER

By now, the trope of the gifted – and cursed – eccentric detective has become as worn and weary as River’s title character. But with her six part BBC series, writer Abi Morgan (Shame, The Hour) successfully breathes new life into the tired premise by giving investigative focus to the miseries that drive her protagonist, rather than the mystery that drives the show’s plot. As psychologically troubled Detective Inspector John River, Stellan Skarsgard delivers a stellar performance, equal parts weathered and vulnerable, compassionate and removed. Probing his peculiar and problematic relationships to his co-workers and his cases, River offers an unsettlingly unromanticized depiction of loneliness and loss, exposing the contradictions and hypocrisies lurking beneath our culture’s fascination with mavericks and outsiders. Dark, desolate, and supersaturated with a haunting melancholy, River is uncommonly powerful and affecting television.

THE AFFAIR

After spending the initial installments of its second season finding its feet, The Affair made a sudden standing long jump into a series of wrenching, challenging, and uncomfortable episodes that live up to – and even surpass – the artfully agonizing promise of its prior season. Expanding its he-said/she-said narrative structure to include the perspectives of Maura Tierney’s Helen Solloway and Joshua Jackson’s Cole Lockhart, The Affair continues its unflinching plunge into the muddy waters of its characters emotional lives, reaching darker depths than ever, as it tallies the costs of their failed relationships and individual desires. As Noah Solloway, Dominic West continues to peel back the layers of his charmingly roguish screen persona, fearlessly exposing the festering self-doubt and self-loathing underneath, while Ruth Wilson’s Alison Bailey remains intriguingly inscrutable, all at once, ice cold and disarmingly delicate. But it’s Tierney who really emerges as the season’s star player, executing a magnificently controlled breakdown, as Helen struggles – and fails – to pull herself together in the aftermath of her broken marriage and find a way move forward. Best of all, in a truly masterful stroke, the season finale successfully folded The Affair’s strained murder mystery scaffolding into its character-driven narrative with a jarring reveal that neither compromised the show’s realism nor simplified its emotional conflicts.

DAREDEVIL

Aside from being just tremendously entertaining, Netflix’s Daredevil performs a marvelous balancing act. It’s not just the series’ artful blend of gritty urban drama and comic book fantasy, or its thematic exploration of the space between heroism and villainy. On every level, one finds a study in sharp contrasts that are allowed to bleed into one another until it becomes impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Even its dramatic tone expertly synthesizes the appealingly old-fashioned with the strikingly fresh. The central duality, of course, is the conflict between lawyer/vigilante Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and entrepreneur/criminal kingpin Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio). Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the comic book knows which one is the good guy and which is the bad, but over the course of its thirteen episodes, Daredevil blurs the distinctions between them, offering a surprisingly rich portrayal of two troubled men, both raised on violence, each trying to save their city in the only way they know how. And it’s that investment in character that gives the series its grace. Unlike a lot of other comic adaptations, Daredevil’s choreographed martial arts melees and quick-witted rhythmic banter are consistently supported by the recognizable reality in which it remains anchored, and the identifiable humanity that runs through its veins.

DOCTOR WHO

One of its finest, to date, Doctor Who’s ninth season offers an intense and intensive investigation into its title character’s complex and combative relationship with death. Comprised primarily of two-parters – a structure that not only reflects the thematic death/life dualism, but also riffs on the season’s driving narrative mystery of the “hybrid” – each story examines the complicated comingling of mortality and morality, from The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar (the series’ first truly worthy sequel to 1975’s superlative Genesis of the Daleks), which begins with a variation on the old ethical question of killing a baby Hitler, to The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion (a fierce political allegory that would make Malcolm Hulke proud), which critiques the notion of revolution and righteous slaughter, to Heaven Sent/Hell Bent (a haunting and heartrending finale), which considers the Doctor’s extraordinary determination – and extraordinary recklessness – when it comes to saving lives. The Doctor/Clara relationship (which has become one of the most engaging in the series’ history) provides the season’s beating heart, their dynamic anchoring – and reflecting – the show’s binary explorations. Now fully comfortable and confident in the title role, Peter Capaldi pushes at the boundaries of his Doctor’s charismatic cantankerousness, adding layers of humor and compassion, as well as shades of Doctors past. And Jenna Coleman continues to dig deeper into Clara, maintaining her captivating confidence and charm, even as she continues to evolve, making the most of her memorable last bow as the new series’ longest serving companion.

ASH VS. EVIL DEAD

After 2013’s unexceptional Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell produced Evil Dead remake, those with a longstanding love for Raimi’s classic slapstick-horror trilogy could be forgiven for approaching this series with some trepidation. News of Campbell’s return as the hapless Ash was met with giddy anticipation, but the question lingered: After 30 years, could they recapture the black comic magic of the originals? And, considering how different the three films are from each other, which particular magic would that be? Ash vs. Evil Dead turns out to be the best case scenario in that it synthesizes elements of all three while creating a magic all its own. After an uncertain pilot, the show quickly finds itself, as an aging Ash, saddled with two young misfits, sets out on a road trip determined to close the book on the evil he let loose once and for all. That, from episode to episode, the acting, writing, and directing can be a little uneven is ultimately insignificant. With the perfect synergy of the franchise’s distinctive over-the-top B-movie self-awareness and Campbell’s perfectly overcooked lead performance – to say nothing of the fathoms of near ludicrous gore – the magic is invincible. But what makes it a more than worthy successor is that, in the midst of its outrageously bloody cartoonishness, it delivers moments that are both genuinely creepy and – especially in its later episodes – genuinely affecting, infusing the gruesome theatrics with the kind of surprising and unsettling impact the Evil Dead series hasn’t possessed since its superlative second installment. And if watching Dana DeLorenzo repeatedly run a zombie’s face through a meat slicer while Death’s “Freakin’ Out” plays on the soundtrack isn’t TV bliss, I don’t know what is…

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Promising programs that failed to deliver…

TRUE DETECTIVE

There’s no arguing that the second season of HBO’s True Detective was a profound disappointment. There is some argument to be had about the cause. Though many, for various (sometimes not especially objectively critical) reasons, were eager to take down Nic Pizzalotto, blaming the new season’s failures on his deliberately stylized writing is as wrongheaded as the directing and casting choices that actually sank the show. (A quick glance at David Milch’s Deadwood reveals how artful and effective such ornate and dramatically stylized approaches can be when handled properly.) The poetic discourses on fate, characters named Anitgone, etc. make it abundantly clear that Pizzolatto was looking to inject a classically tragic sensibility into the show. A risky strategy, considering contemporary audiences, but one that, even if it had alienated the average viewer, could have been successfully realized on an aesthetic level in the right hands. The problem is that tragedy – classical tragedy – demands an austere, unsentimental realization (something with which most modern actors and directors are unfamiliar, to say nothing of uncomfortable). When executed with the typical Hollywood focus on emotional approachability, dramatic emphasis, and audience appeal, the whole thing collapses in a heap of overcooked melodrama. Which is exactly what happened. Thus, a potentially unique and poetic drama about the destructive power of buried secrets was reduced to a pompous and overwrought policier.

JESSICA JONES

Despite a promising premise and a commendable attempt at allegory, Marvel’s Jessica Jones simply doesn’t hold together. With its tale of a failed superhero-turned-private detective haunted by a dark past, and its novel use of the hero-villain dynamic as an metaphor for abusive relationships, it could have been something really remarkable. The problem is that while showrunner Melissa Rosenberg clearly knows what story she wants to tell, she doesn’t seem to know how to tell it. Awkward and unfocused, the show hits its stride for an episode or two, only to lose it again, making its best moments some of its most frustrating, as well. Compounding the problem is the bratty lead performance by Krysten Ritter, who, despite delivering effective turns in Veronica Mars and Breaking Bad, simply lacks the gravitas to fully convey the weight of her character’s damaged soul. David Tennant is solid, but underused, as the sad and sociopathic Kilgrave. And Mike Colter’s layered and laid-back performance as Luke Cage inspires some optimism for his forthcoming Netflix series. Beyond that, Jessica Jones – in its first season, at least – never lives up to its potential.

MUSIC

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ALGIERS

Music for the end times. And maybe that’s why this punk/industrial/gospel trio’s searing debut has not been showered with the acclaim it rightfully deserves. Soulful wails build and break atop haunting and volatile sonic tides, lyrically demolishing our contemporary comforts and complacencies. It’s an intense, often challenging listen, both musically and intellectually. It’s also the most commanding, vital, and passionate album of the year. A revelation. Full review here.

SLEATER-KINNEY, “No Cities to Love”

Sleater-Kinney came roaring back from an eight year hiatus with an album that might be their very best yet, proving that they’re still one of the most accomplished, exciting, and important bands around. Full review here.

BEAUTY PILL, “Describes Things as They Are”

One of the most unique bands to emerge from Washington D.C.’s post-punk environs, Chad Clark’s Beauty Pill also came back from a long hiatus in 2015 with a compelling, affecting album unlike anything you’ve ever heard. All at once, dense and delicate, appealing and esoteric, lush and angular, “Describes Things as They Are” carries you away on its flowing soundscapes of guitars, drums, electronica, and reflective vocals, while quietly revealing its complex layers with every repeated listen. Clark possesses a lyrical gift for expanding the personal and idiosyncratic into the realm of cultural relevance and powerful catharsis. “Afrikaner Barista,” a sweet and funny song about a crushing on a coffee server, also examines the complications and frustrations of navigating identity politics. “Steven and Tiwonge” presents a moving vignette of star-crossed love that masks a subtle, but fiery, protest of institutionalized homophobia. And on “Dog With Rabbit in Mouth, Unharmed,” an ode to a departed pet evolves into a meditation on mortality and loss. Ultimately, though, no description of this album can do it justice. Like the best musical offerings, it just needs to be experienced.

TROYKA, “Ornithophobia”

I’ve never been a fan of demanding – or even suggesting – the retirement of specific words or phrases from the critical lexicon, but I might make an exception with the phrase “not for everyone.” Obviously, Troyka’s eccentric, knotty, unrepentantly unpredictable musical synthesis is not everyone’s taste, but you know what? Neither is Taylor fucking Swift. It’s a phrase that only further cements the erroneous notion that popular appeal somehow suggests artistic accomplishment. The fact is, whether or not it’s your thing, “Ornithophobia” is a dynamic, inventive, funny, disquieting, and dizzyingly sophisticated album offering a one-of-a-kind musical experience that needs to be heard to be believed. Deftly blending fusion jazz with math rock – at times, evoking nothing so much as Faraquet covering Bitches Brew – “Ornithophobia” can swing with an easy cool one moment, snap into strutting funk the next, erupt into a dissonant frenzy, and then downshift into haunting harmonies. Strange, surprising, and surprisingly beautiful, it will never be Top 40. But that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

BINKER AND MOSES, “Dem Ones”

While the rest of the jazz world had orgasmic fits over Kamasi Washington’s “The Epic” – a masterpiece, admittedly, but an overproduced, bloated, and self-indulgent one, to these ears – I found myself much more enthralled by this short, spare sax-and-drums offering from longtime bandmates Moses Boyd and Binker Golding. Comparisons to “Interstellar Space” are inevitable, and Boyd and Golding wisely lean into the punch, paying tribute to Coltrane’s free-jazz classic in various ways. But “Dem Ones,” while certainly adventurous, is more unapologetically groovy than any of Coltrane’s searching latter day peregrinations, anchoring the better part of its six tracks in swaggering rhythms and soulful runs, even as they stretch into the atonal and avant-garde. A dazzling display of musical synergy from two players whose proven partnership has provided them with the confidence to cut loose and see where their particular chemistry takes them.

LE BUTCHERETTES, “A Raw Youth”

On her follow-up to 2014’s raging, ravaging “Cry is for the Flies,” Teri Gender Bender (nee Suarez) offers a bracing, ravishing flirtation with pop melodies, crafting a textured ode to youthful resistance and resilience in all its forms. “A Raw Youth” tears ravenously into 60’s rock ‘n’ roll, 70’s punk, 80’s synth-pop, and 90’s electronica, while sacrificing none of Le Butcherettes’ trademark passion or power, confidently synthesizing its diverse influences into a tenacious, undeniable, irresistible whole. Full review here.

SIGH, “Graveward”

If Emperor spent their legendary career elevating Black Metal to the majestically operatic, Japan’s Sigh have, on their latest album, decked its halls with all the flash, splash and dash of a Broadway spectacular. And, believe it or not, that’s praise. Flamboyantly, defiantly – almost recklessly – experimental, ever since their landmark 1997 album, “Hail, Horror, Hail” (which came with a warning label cautioning the listener that, “If you find that some parts of the album are strange, it isn’t because the music in itself strange, but because your conscious self is ill-equipped to comprehend the sounds produced…”), the band has relentlessly pushed into increasingly eccentric territory, developing a sound that can only be described as an unholy hybrid of Black Sabbath and Frank Zappa. “Graveward” features plenty of driving, pitch-black metal aggression and impressive riffage, but – as always – careening over dense layers of synths, organs, strings, horns, chants, and chimes, breaking into magnificent choral refrains, and veering unpredictably into strange interludes incorporating everything from acoustic strums, to jazz piano, to hip-hop beats, to theremin solos. While all of that may be business as usual for Sigh, “Graveward” also boasts a grandiose cast-of-thousands theatricality that lends it the air of a Tony Award winning production. Though perhaps not as insanely inventive as 2001’s “Imaginary Sonicscape,” or as focused and furious as 2007’s “Hangman’s Hymn,” it’s nonetheless one of the most wildly entertaining and evocative albums of the year.

CZARFACE, “Every Hero Needs a Villain”

While I’m not, for a moment, going to pretend that Czarface’s “Every Hero Needs a Villain” is the best rap album of the year (that honor, almost certainly, goes to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which, try as I might, I just can’t get into), it’s easily the most fun. Turning the tables on the hip-hop superhero concept they laid down on their self-titled debut, “Every Hero Needs a Villain” finds Inspectah Deck and Esoteric wickedly playing up the dark side of their collaboration’s comic book sensibilities. Backed by 7L’s rock beats and guitar flourishes, the result is even cooler, catchier, and more charismatic than its predecessor. Who can resist Deck referencing every geek-centered enterprise from Star Wars to Harry Potter to Doctor Who? Or such lyrics as, “You lack vision, like the first Avengers?” Sure, it may not be as ambitious or innovative as Lamar’s magnum opus, but “Every Hero Needs a Villain” is pure energy and enjoyment from start to finish. And I don’t care what anyone says: “Lumberjack Match” is the best hip-hop song of 2015.

SURVIVAL GUIDE, “Way to Go”

An uneasy dream of an album, Survival Guide’s debut finds former Tsunami Bomb vocalist Emily Whitehurst paying homage to all her 80’s synth-pop influences, while still wearing her punk heart on her sleeve. Deceptively dulcet, Whitehurst and guitarist Jaycen McKissick freight “Way to Go’s” swirling melodies with an undercurrent of dark, buzzing menace, and a quick glance at the lyrics reveals a series of gloomy musings and weary self-reckonings. The result is something haunting and beautiful and, for all its seeming familiarity, quite unique. Full review here.

SCARFACE, “Deeply Rooted”

Hip-hop’s elder statesman of the Dirty South, Brad Jordan aka Scarface, emerged from retirement (yet again) in 2015 with this grim, gritty, and intensely soulful album that only further cements his place as one of the genre’s most unflinching and affecting tragic philosophers. Having begun his career with the almost cartoonishly violent Geto Boys, Scarface’s solo albums, though often no less brutal, increasingly evinced the sort of weathered wisdom that can only be obtained through years of wrestling with darkness. On “Deeply Rooted” he strikes a perfect balance, exhaustively investigating the two deeply rooted ideologies – religion and gangsterism – that have both propped-up and let down his culture and community. Clear-eyed and courageous, he pulls no punches in condemning the failings of spirituality or acknowledging the empowering allure of criminality, but it is his personal portraiture and intimate experiences with both that give his anecdotes and analyses their cathartic force. For a gangsta rap album, it is almost entirely free of any posturing or platitudes, seeking instead to get to the more troubling truths that lurk beneath them.

SONGHOY BLUES, “Music in Exile”

When northern Mali fell to Ansar Dire in 2012, many of the Songhoy found themselves exiled from their homes and fleeing south. Among them, four young musicians who met in Bamako and formed Songhoy Blues. Offering an irresistible mix of early American rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and traditional Songhoy melodies, “Music in Exile” exemplifies the best aspects of all those traditions: music as an expression of cultural identity, resilience, and protest. That you won’t understand the lyrics (unless you speak the language) is unimportant. The music, in its sincerity and simplicity, is so catchy and compelling, it’s almost enough to restore your faith in humanity.

In a year full of so much exceptional music, why waste time on disappointments, missed opportunities, or misplaced praise, when I can, instead, mention a few…

RUNNERS-UP

For all its bloat and bombast, KAMASI WASHINGTON’S “The Epic” is still a pretty magnificent achievement. UnWED, a new post-hardcore/rock outfit featuring former members of Hot Water Music and Small Brown Bike, released their very solid debut, “Raise the Kids.” MARRIAGES’ first full-length, “Salome” is a dark, haunting post-rock nightmare that really gets under your skin. And PARTIKEL’S “String Theory,” though it really should be more exciting and surprising than it is, still makes for a very interesting, if dispiritingly easy, listen.

Finally, in terms of more short-form offerings, Devin Ocampo’s new band, EFFECTS, released a series of cassette singles (available through their bandcamp site) that will have fans of Faraquet and Medications salivating for more. And Oakland’s SUPER UNISON released a grippingly frenetic debut EP that picks up where latter-day Black Flag left off…

BOOKS

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forms

FORMS by Caroline Levine

Leave it to a critic to name a book of critical theory one of the best of the year, but Forms is a truly visionary work. Re-inventing (and resuscitating) formalism for a post-historicist, post-post-modernist, post-post-structuralist age, Caroline Levine surveys the strengths and failings of previous literary and political theories, while mapping a fresh, holistic approach to both aesthetic and political landscapes, and illustrating the ways in which they often shape each other. Using historical and literary examples, Levine examines the affordances of four formal arrangements – whole, rhythm, hierarchy, and network – revealing the complex ways in which seemingly unified structures, events, and texts actually contain competing, conflicting, overlapping, and potentially subversive elements. It’s a much needed approach that acknowledges the intellectual value of considering spatial, temporal, and textual definition, while pushing beyond those illusory borders to gain a more comprehensive understanding. Refreshingly brief and direct for a work of political/aesthetic theory, Forms is, nonetheless, thorough, penetrating, and exhaustive, offering something every critic – ideally, every reader – finds exciting and empowering: a new way of seeing.

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SPOOKY ACTION AT A DISTANCE by George Musser

Taking its title from Einstein’s troubled musing on the nature of quantum entanglement, George Musser’s Spooky Action at a Distance provides a thorough, and thoroughly enjoyable, explication of the concept of nonlocality. Guiding us through the concept’s long and troublesome history – which, in a sense, is the history of science, itself – Musser not only introduces and illuminates the various complex theories, hypotheses, and (sometimes contentious) debates in which nonlocality has played a role, but also the various complex personalities who devised, tested, and argued them, expertly balancing detailed scientific information with vivid characterizations and entertaining anecdotes. But nothing surpasses the mind-blowing implications of the concept itself, and what it reveals about our limited – and possibly illusory – understanding of the universe.

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A passionate, pleading, fierce, and fatalistic boots-on-the-ground memoir of growing up black in America, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me consciously borrows its structure from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, taking the form of a letter written by the author to his teenage son. Deftly balancing piercing analysis with searing emotion, Coates takes him – and by extension, us – on a lightning tour of his childhood, adolescence, college, and early adult years, while forcing us to confront and consider the harsh and unjust realities of life on the flipside of the American Dream. Keeping his reminiscences grounded, anchored – often palpably – in the physical, Coates’ eschews the spirituality, the progressive optimism, the political oratory, and the moral sermonizing that have become all too commonplace in contemporary discussions of race, allowing his personal vision of America’s entrenched and intractable racial divide to emerge more organically. He offers no solutions and, perhaps most strikingly, even goes so far as to suggest that none may realistically exist. Unlike so many other meditations on race and racism, Between the World and Me is not a prescription, but an honest reflection – an uncompromising and enlightening one from which everyone in America might have something to learn.

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BOOK OF NUMBERS by Joshua Cohen

It’s been interesting to watch the arc of the acclaim that followed the publication of Joshua Cohen’s dense, dizzying, and dazzling Book of Numbers last June. Initially hailed as superlatively brilliant, it began to disappear from various “Best Of…” lists after a barrage of condemnations from hypersensitive cultural watchdogs whose obsession with parity blinded them to parody, as they attacked everything from the book’s “unrelatable” depictions of privilege to the casual sexism and prejudice occasionally evinced by its protagonist. To say such criticisms missed the point of the book would be an understatement. They also misrepresent it. A masterfully complex investigation into issues of identity and isolation in the internet age, The Book of Numbers follows a satirically distorted author surrogate named Joshua Cohen who is hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of an iconic Silicon Valley innovator, also named Joshua Cohen. The binary, like everything else in this richly and carefully detailed novel, is pointed and deliberate, as the book divides itself between Cohen the writer’s first-person narration of the events, and the incomplete drafts, fragments, transcripts, and emails relating to the memoir he attempts to write. Along the way, we travel from New York to Dubai to Europe, tour some of the wealthiest and most impoverished environments on the planet, and learn the history and evolution of the internet (at least, as experienced by Cohen the computer genius). What emerges is a fractal set of closed systems competing within vast networks, struggles between the private and the public, and contrasting accounts of the impact and importance of new technologies in our lives. Engrossing, entertaining, and enlightening, dismiss the denunciations. Book of Numbers deserves to be counted among the best of the year.

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OUTLINE by Rachel Cusk

These days, I find myself getting pretty exasperated with books about writers. In the last few decades, the dictum, “write what you know,” has been epidemically interpreted among novelists as “write only about yourself.” Ironic, then, that both fiction books on my list this year feature not only writers, but author surrogates, as their main characters. But what’s interesting about Rachel Cusk’s deceptively quiet and compact novel is that it’s really not about her at all. Or, rather, it is. Just not in any conventional way. Outline follows an English author on her journey to Athens to teach a writing workshop, but its first person narrative is not so much about her, as the people she encounters. Cusk describes them in vivid detail, allowing them to come to life on the page, as they discuss their lives, their histories, their perspectives. As the title suggests, despite her marginal – almost documentary – presence, our main character is developed and defined through her perceptions and her portraiture of others. It’s a technique that is simultaneously innovative and classical, in that, without directly addressing any of these issues, Cusk questions not only the nature of authorial presence in fiction, but the nature of authorship – and even identity – as a whole.

DISAPPOINTMENT

I was really looking forward to getting my hands on this one, and I stuck it out all the way through…

GUTSHOT by Amelia Gray

The dark and disturbing stories collected in Amelia Gray’s Gutshot are inventive, intriguing, unnerving, and often funny. Unfortunately, what they aren’t is focused, polished, or terribly expressive. Gray clearly has talent and a twisted imagination, and her stories are economical and entertaining. But, too often, they come off less like the output of a driven and inspired author than a series of assignments completed by a wickedly eccentric creative writing student. And the lack of a compelling vision too often translates to a not terribly compelling read.

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Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler

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Blake Butler began one of his more recent Vice columns, “Three Short, Savage Books You Have to Read,” by contrasting the tense and tenuous state of the world with the increasingly insular and self-involved state of literature, bemusedly musing on our curious ability to curl up with a good book (and, by implication, write one), losing ourselves in reassuringly clear and concrete narratives, as civilization crumbles outside our windows:

“It’s pretty clear by now that everything is fucked. So much so that even sitting at home and reading seems insane. As such, it’s become more and more difficult for me to believe a narrator who has any kind of clue what they are doing, where we’re headed, or whose world is anything but a constantly mutating maze, where memory and reality collapse into one another as casually as all the other horrors.”

The sentiment so effectively sums up his own authorial approach to his 2010 “novel-in-stories” Scorch Atlas, you could practically reprint it on the dust jacket, though even this expertly expressed post-facto mission statement can’t really prepare you for the marred and molten hell-scape he conjures in the book’s ravaged pages. Scorch Atlas is less a “novel-in-stories” than a found object from our blighted – and not too distant – future: an oral history of the apocalypse relayed by humanity’s remains.

In an unhinged prose that ranges from disoriented near-coherence to a surreal, almost poetic, stream-of-consciousness, Scorch Atlas presents a collection of short stories, descriptive passages, erratic questionnaire responses, and fitfully annotated photo albums documenting mankind’s final days: Outrageous storms relentlessly lay waste to imploded suburbs – blood, feces, concrete, and glass as likely to fall from the sky as rain. Sinkholes open without warning, sucking cars, homes, and humans into infernal oblivion. Bruises, boils, and alien growths erupt on the flesh, the result of unnamed, unknown infections. Gutters and sewers are overrun with the rotting corpses of animals and insects. In its final flickering hours, the television monotonously rattles off the names of the day’s dead. And the sun, even from behind thick layers of toxic clouds, sears the skin of the planet and its beaten survivors.

Hoping for logical explanations, or conventional narratives, in this festering landscape would be as futile as any other hope. Nature, itself, seems to have abandoned all reason, its chaotic revolt filtered through the groping agony of our narrators’ blistered, sun-burst brains. A mother literally destroys herself to care for her demonically feral sons. A man confronts the bloated, babbling undead corpse of his child sprawling in the attic, knowing it can’t be real, but unwilling to turn his back. A woman paddles an old wash basin through a corpse-littered lake towards a black, monolithic wall that appeared ominously overnight, believing it is speaking to her. Many of these individual accounts seem to melt before our eyes into hallucinogenic heatstroke delirium, either retreating from reality, or recoiling as it is rent apart. All of which might make it sound like Scorch Atlas is hard to follow, but there’s no need to follow a book that grips you so violently by the throat and drags you kicking and screaming into its nightmarish depths. Butler’s language of horror is so intense and exhaustive that, by the book’s end, he seems almost at a loss for words, leaving us, correspondingly, thoroughly psychologically drained.

But what ultimately enables Scorch Atlas to really pierce and scar the psyche is that, for all its bizarre and disturbing cataclysmic imagery, like our most uneasy dreams, it is somehow hauntingly familiar and troublingly believable. As our own world teeters on the edge of environmental and economic catastrophe, it’s not hard to imagine an Earth devastated by a blinding sun, unchecked disease, and scant resources. In that light, Butler’s focused descriptions of a deranged, broken planet can seem terrifyingly prophetic. While most of the survivors we encounter still remember a world before whatever unnamed crises reached such disastrous proportions, they exhibit no desire to rebuild. These are not the idealized, heroic post-apocalyptic archetypes we’re used to encountering, determined to forge a new civilization from the wreckage of the former. They are appallingly adaptable human animals struggling merely to maintain their ugly and desolate day-to-day existences, stripped of all hope, determination, or resolve – almost of all volition – by unendurable pain, fatigue, and trauma; reduced to simple, mechanical survival, whatever their current ghastly circumstances, even as the world around them sinks further into ruin. The planet’s environment may be grotesquely warped, even caricatured, but its inhabitants – in their resignations, their rationalizations, their inertia – remain unsettlingly, upsettingly recognizable.

With its vivid scenic renderings and rejection of narrative conventions, Scorch Atlas might be described more as portraiture than literature, its closest cousins being the phantasmagoric, yet gruesomely corporeal works of Hieronymus Bosch or Francis Bacon. It is a map of the end of the world for those of us who might conceivably find ourselves living through it. A short, savage book you have to read.

2014: Year in Review

by Matt J. Popham

Best-Of-the-Year lists have sort of become compulsory in the internet age, but I’ll be honest:

I hate them.

They are always limited and, often, largely arbitrary. No critic in the world – no matter how much time they have or how well-paid they are – can possibly have seen EVERY worthy film, heard EVERY worthy album, etc. And I have significantly less time and less of a salary than most. So, not only can I not even begin to claim that I have seen, heard, read, or even encountered EVERY artistic offering worthy of consideration, the truth is I have barely seen/heard/read ANY of them…

Which means this is not – and should, in no way, be confused with – a “Best-Of-the-Year List.” I can’t even begin to pretend that I’ve absorbed enough of last year’s offerings to be any kind of authority on the subject. No, think of the below as something like an aesthetic travelogue: As I zigged and zagged my way through 2014, these were the releases and publications that made an impression…

I. SPEECHLESS CINEMA

UNDER THE SKIN – Jonathan Glazer’s icy, alien meditation on identity and sensuality features a masterfully layered performance from Scarlett Johansson as an extra-terrestrial predator who becomes lost in her own borrowed skin. A corporeal cousin of Kubrick’s 2001, Under the Skin lingers over the surfaces of its story and central character, exploring the possibilities of both the human and the cinematic form. Full review here.

MR. TURNER – Less a biopic than an impressionistic character study of one of my all-time favorite artists, Mike Leigh’s magnificent Mr. Turner capably steers clear of the clichés that afflict so many films about painters, effectively becoming a dazzling, touching, and unique piece of visual art in its own right. Beautifully portrayed by Timothy Spall, Turner lurches brutishly through the film, grunting and growling inarticulately, and yet, in every scene, is revealed to be a man of tremendous perception, sensitivity, and feeling. The opposite of the stereotypical tortured artist, Leigh’s Turner is a man in love with the light, devotedly translating it into powerful realizations of his inner life. His vivid, passionate paintings are his only true mode of expression, but rather than fetishizing his work, Leigh keeps his focus studiously on the man, brilliantly illustrating the line between deceptive appearances and visions of truth.

LOCKE – An intense, confined portrait of a man in existential free-fall, showcasing the sublime talents of Tom Hardy, Locke was short-sightedly dismissed by a number of critics as a “gimmick” film, due to the fact the action takes place entirely within a moving car. But doing so overlooks both the thematic necessity of the location and the remarkable visual inventiveness of director Stephen Knight, who allows his protagonist to believe he’s in the driver’s seat, while highlighting the illusory nature of so many of his ideas about himself and his choices. Full review here.

CALVARY – All at once, deeply tragic and darkly comic, John Michael McDonagh’s portrait of a lone decent priest struggling to be a good shepherd to his hostile and disillusioned flock in the wake of the Catholic church’s abuse scandal sympathetically questions the value of forgiveness in the modern world. After a former abuse victim threatens to murder him as an act of symbolic vengeance, Brendan Gleeson’s Father James Lavelle visits each and every troubled member of his small-town Sligo congregation, attempting to offer them absolution before he meets his demise. Gleeson imbues Father James with a charismatic balance of warmth and wisdom, but in a way, it is precisely those characteristics that provoke the ire of those around him. It’s not just that they view him as a representative of a corrupt and crumbling institution; they resent being judged by someone whom, despite their cynicism, they cannot help but see as both a moral arbiter and exemplar. McDonagh has a native’s understanding of just how profoundly the abuse scandal shook Ireland’s cultural foundations, and to his credit, Calvary neither defends nor condemns Catholicism. If anything, the film is critical of any and all sweeping, simplistic judgments, championing a more complex, humanist understanding. And as the haunting finale suggests, if forgiveness is to have any worth at all, it has to go both ways.

GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE – Jean-Luc Godard is one of the most fluent and sophisticated cinematic linguists in the world. A filmmaker who has reinvented himself and his art several times over, the density and intricacy of his artistry has only increased over the decades. So when, at the age of 84, he makes his first foray into 3-D and titles it, “Goodbye to Language,” it’s a safe bet it will be puzzling, challenging, provocative, and significant. Abstract and experimental – even by Godard’s standards – Goodbye to Language tangles narrative film with essay, erratically cross-cutting and interweaving scenes of a couple at the decaying end of an adulterous affair, a wandering canine (played by Godard’s own dog, Roxy), contemporary life in the age of the smartphone, various scenic exteriors, and fragments of newsreels and classic films. There is an assortment of literary quotations, presented dramatically and in voice over, and even an enigmatic hint of unexplained political intrigue. If it all sounds like cinematic cryptography, well… It’s Godard, so… Yes, it is. But that’s part of the point. His trademark captions and title cards functioning as something of a cipher, what emerges seems to be a series of juxtapositions and paradoxes dissecting the breakdown of communication on both an intimate and a global scale. There is a recurring motif of contrasted extremes – Nature vs. Metaphor, Reality vs. Language, Infinity vs. Zero, Nudity vs. Attire, Sex vs. Death – which are then exposed as false dichotomies (it’s worth remembering – though never specifically mentioned – that in France, sex is often colloquially referred to as “le petit mort”). The film warns us that language can shape reality to its own ends, but then reminds us that the reverse is also true, ultimately suggesting that our greatest misunderstanding may be the way in which we define language in the first place. Summarizing Godard, especially in an encapsulated review, can never be anything other than hopelessly reductive, but if there’s a message to be distilled, I think it’s something like this: Those who do not understand the nature of language, or the language of nature (if, in fact, they are even distinct entities), are condemned to be enslaved by both.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:

GONE GIRL – David Fincher’s GONE GIRL is a dull, dour, sluggish adaptation of a sharp, fast, and funny book. It’s not just that the characters, who should be grinning, self-satisfied narcissists, come off like they just swallowed handfuls of barbiturates, or that Flynn’s screenplay of her book feels rushed rather than distilled. It’s that Fincher has taken a book ABOUT emptiness and made it into an EMPTY movie. A glossy, blank bit of celluloid as hollow as the houses and humans that haunt Flynn’s novel. There’s nothing more disheartening than watching one of your favorite directors phone it in…

II. FEARLESS TELEVISION

TRUE DETECTIVE – Those who eagerly tuned-in to Nic Pizzolatto’s dark, spiraling noir series, obsessively following its trail of obscure, occult literary breadcrumbs, and expecting a mind-blowing payoff to the show’s murder mystery weren’t just missing the point. They missed the show. A riveting portrait of two men fighting monsters, internally and externally, and staring into abysses, within and without, True Detective never presented itself as a typical Whodunit or even a typical police procedural. And that was its strength. Boasting career-zenith performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, for all its familiar genre trappings, True Detective’s true narrative focus was the relationship between its dueling protagonists. Its true reveal was the smallness – and the importance – of their victory. And its true investigations were not forensic or judicial, but philosophical, existential, and deeply human.

THE AFFAIR – The entertainment industry usually takes a simple, reductive stance when it comes to infidelity. And sitting for five minutes in front of Hagai Levy’s and Sarah Treem’s The Affair will leave you with no doubt as to why. A complex and agonizing vivisection of two imploding families, and the infidelity that connects and divides them, The Affair refuses to sit in moral judgment of its characters, unflinchingly poring over the pain, the conflict, the confusion that motivates – and results from – one spouse cheating on another. Dominic West and Ruth Wilson are both astonishing, simultaneously evoking our sympathy and our outrage. And someone please give Maura Tierney her long overdue Emmy already! The season finale did little to nothing to resolve the, at times, awkward murder mystery framing device, but I’m hoping that – as with True Detective – its function is symbolic and narratively inconsequential. The series’ gloves-off confrontation with the complicated truths of ordinary domestic life are so powerfully affecting that veering into noir would be an infidelity in its own right. As it stands, The Affair is something unique and challenging. All at once poetic and raw, it is heartbreaking, hard to watch, and worth every torturous minute.

COSMOS: A SPACE-TIME ODYSSEY – I chuckled every time I heard someone dismiss last year’s sequel to/update of Carl Sagan’s milestone miniseries as “over-produced.” Visually resplendent, strikingly detailed, and stunningly beautiful, Cosmos’ effects-heavy aesthetic captured the breathtaking, awe-inspiring, infinite complexity and elegance of the universe better than any onscreen rendering since 2001: A Space Odyssey (the show’s updated subtitle even offers a knowing, confident nod to Kubrick’s masterpiece). You might as well call the universe, itself, over-produced. I was less good-humored about the controversies surrounding the program’s alleged anti-religious agenda. On the one hand, it’s nothing short of appalling that anyone, in this day and age, lives in such willful, fearful ignorance that they could feel so threatened by a simple science program. On the other hand, they’re right to be afraid. Because, for all the even-handed denials on the part of Cosmos’ creators, there IS a not-so-subtle agenda evident in the show’s narrative framework: Each episode pointedly chronicles the struggles of science and scientists against the forces of fear, ignorance, and repression. Those forces aren’t always religious, but they often are. Other times, they are political. Sometimes both or neither. But they exist in every age, up to and including our own. And Cosmos, by design, fearlessly takes them on, making it more than just a dazzling, inspiring, and informative look at the universe (which would have been enough), but also an ideological call-to-arms, championing such virtues as curiosity, exploration, and discovery. Which really shouldn’t be such a controversial stance to take…

LAST WEEK TONIGHT – I have not kept up with Last Week Tonight as avidly as I would like. But I saw enough of it last year to know that the bar for political commentary/satirical news shows has been raised, and raised incredibly high. Former Daily Show correspondent (and once-upon-a-time expected heir apparent to Jon Stewart) John Oliver hasn’t revolutionized the format so much as the tone. Taking full advantage of the freedom offered by HBO, Oliver unforgivingly skewers media, government, and even his audience, mocking the inconsistencies, hypocrisies, deceits, and, above all, the passivity and intellectual laziness exhibited by anyone claiming to take an interest in the world or its welfare, with his singularly British mix of bite, absurdity, and charm. Oliver doesn’t just want us laughing, he wants us angry – at ourselves, above all – about the state of things, and gleefully provokes us into participating in his inspired, activist jape. I don’t know that satire can save the world, but once a week – for half an hour, at least – I believe it’s possible.

GAME OF THRONES (Season 4) – Game of Thrones is so consistent in quality and cohesive in its storytelling, it’s difficult to praise one season over another, especially for those of us who haven’t read the books. That said, while most will probably have the shock and awe of Season 3’s “Red Wedding” forever seared into their consciousness, I found Season 4 to be far more wrenching, affecting, and memorable. No matter how many corruptions, cruelties, inequities, and injustices we witness, the series’ somehow never loses its ability to shock and upset us with reminders that Westeros is just as cruel, corrupt, and unjust as the world we live in. And episode 8, “The Mountain and the Viper,” might be the best and most disturbing episode of the series so far, with its stark (haha) rendering of the vagaries of human brutality, and its “pride-goeth-before the fall” reminder of just how easy it is to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory…

DOCTOR WHO (Season 8) – And, of course, I have to mention Doctor Who. What began as a shaky, uncertain regeneration – for both the Doctor and the series, itself – eventually solidified into one of Doctor Who’s strongest and most unique to date. I will forever miss Matt Smith (in the same way that I will always miss Tom Baker and Christopher Eccleston), but Peter Capaldi has done a superlative job, creating a Doctor that is uncommon, complicated, and compelling. While most have focused on his rough, gruff, Glasgow exterior, what has struck me most is the uncertain, childlike vulnerability that lurks behind it. He is unsure of himself, in a way that only a newly regenerated Time Lord can be, not only questioning who he is, but what it means, on a larger level, to be the Doctor. And the writing has kept pace with him, each episode offering obstacles and opponents that challenge his – and our – conceptions of how the Doctor should react and respond. But if Capaldi’s Doctor has emerged as the show’s unlikely heart, Jenna Coleman’s Clara has stepped up to the plate as its soul. Finally allowed to be a fully-formed, three dimensional character, Coleman’s Clara matches Capaldi’s Doctor in fire, cleverness, and heroism, often saving him from himself, as he saves the universe from various threats. She has become as much a partner as a companion, and their dysfunctional father-daughter chemistry has the potential to evolve into one of the most interesting and irresistible pairings in the series’ history…

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (Season 2) – Season 1 pulled off an amazing feat of subverted expectation by putting us in the shoes of our protagonist – an unlikely, white, middle-class prison inmate – and making us gradually grow to despise her, and love the initially intimidating inmates around her, by the season finale. Season 2 continues the story but, seemingly, without direction or purpose. With no prejudices or preconceptions left to tackle, the series is just spinning its narrative wheels.

III. LOSSLESS MUSIC

LE BUTCHERETTES, “Cry is for the Flies” – Not a surprise to anyone, as I have been overselling this band and this album to anyone who will listen (and many who would probably prefer not to) all year long. Teri Suarez’s uncompromising descent into the maelstrom of guilt, grief, rage, and self-doubt she has carried since the death of her father is not only one of the best albums of the year. It is a relentless, challenging sonic statement heralding her artistic maturation and cementing her status as a musical force to be reckoned with. Forget Best of the Year. It’s one of the Best of the Decade. Full review here.

BENJAMIN BOOKER, “Benjamin Booker” – A 25-year old, Florida-born, New Orleans transplant, Benjamin Booker burst out of the bayou in 2014 to become the most badass bluesman this side of the century. Starting with the stripped-down style and structure of Delta blues, attacking it with a punk ferocity, adding hearty helpings of grunge’s sludge and gravel, and occasionally slowing it down to engage in shoegazing introspection, Booker’s phenomenal rough-and-tumble debut simultaneously evokes Gun Club, the White Stripes, and Junior Kimbrough while also sounding entirely new. “Always Waiting” sounds like juke joint blues jumped up on Dexedrine, while the driving “Have You Seen My Son” slides into a thumping, acid rock jam, and the aching (and fantastically titled) “Spoon Out My Eyeballs” breaks your heart before erupting into a light-speed blues-punk coda. Balancing raspy howls with thick, soulful whispers, his guitar buzzing and crunching as effectively as it wails, it might be hyperbole to say that Booker’s reinventing the blues, but he’s certainly reinvigorating it.

TV ON THE RADIO, “Seeds” – Last year, TV on the Radio bounced back from the death of their bassist, Gerard Smith, with what might be their best album yet. Focused, intense, mournful, and soulful, “Seeds” boasts some of their most tightly structured, purposeful songs, while sacrificing none of their trademark ambience or evocative atmosphere. From the dejected groove of “Happy Idiot” to the heartrending acknowledgements of “Love Stained,” to the expansive, philosophical reassurances of “Ride,” to the weathered attempts at hope in the haunting “Trouble,” every song features a range of beautifully layered sonic stylings drawn from the band’s diverse musical influences, folding them into a poignant, textured chronicle of crisis, coping, and catharsis. Simultaneously a dirge and a new beginning, “Seeds” is a powerful document of a band struggling with their future…

WHITE LUNG, “Deep Fantasy” – Not since Western Addiction has a band so successfully resurrected the blunt-force attack of 1980’s hardcore, channeling it through today’s more melodic punk aesthetic. After two solid, eardrum battering efforts (2010’s “It’s the Evil” and 2012’s “Sorry”), “Deep Fantasy” finds magnetic frontwoman Mish Way and frenetic guitarist Kenneth William striking a sublime balance, trading command of each song, weaving new textures, structures, and counterpoints into their churning, sonic onslaught. William’s nimble, upper-register frenzy slices and dices its way through the Gatling gun assault of Hether Fortune’s and Anne-Marie Vassilou’s rhythm section, while Way’s voice hardly ever breaks, eschewing the raw-throated histrionics of hardcore in favor of a flat, disaffected snarl. Her biting restraint anchors the band’s theatrical chaos, playing as a novel stand of punk defiance in a world gone mad: “You will not make me lose control.”

THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS, “Brill Bruisers” – The New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman has described the supergroup’s latest effort as “a celebration album… After periods of difficulty, I am at a place where nothing in my life is dragging me down…” The result is a cascade of glorious, galvanizing music, and the New Pornographers’ most consistent – and consistently enjoyable – album since 2003’s “Electric Version.” Which is not to say the album is uniformly or gratingly cheerful. “Champions of Red Wine” is achingly wistful and melancholic, as is the brief, but affecting, “Another Drug Deal of the Heart.” But if tracks like “Dancehall Domine” and “You Tell Me Where” don’t bring you exultantly to your feet, you might be missing a music appreciation gene or two. Even the frequently meditative Dan Bejar gets into the groove with the eccentrically catchy “War on the East Coast.” In fact, the only truly sad note on “Brill Bruisers” is the fact that it marks the swansong of Pornographers’ percussionist and secret weapon, Kurt Dahle, who announced his departure after the album’s release. Dahle has been the high-energy, propulsive heartbeat of the band since “Mass Romantic,” and it’s hard to imagine their signature sound without him.

STIFF LITTLE FINGERS, “No Going Back” – After seven years of struggle, the departure of longtime bassist Bruce Foxton, and the return of founding bass player Ali McMordie, Belfast’s punk veterans Stiff Little Fingers finally managed to release “No Going Back” last year. Their first album in over a decade, it was well worth the wait: a full-blooded, energetic record, brimming with punk passion, but produced with professional rock ‘n’ roll polish. Often dismissively described as “the Irish Clash,” SLF was always both more musically accomplished and more sincere than their British cousins, and “No Going Back” is a testament to their ability and integrity. Bursting with stylish riffs, singalong choruses, and stinging lyrics straight from Jake Burns’ scrappy social conscience, the album shows off everything that made the band great, without ever becoming mired in the past. The band has grown and evolved musically, but (minus “Throwing It All Away” which is appallingly reminiscent of Starship) sacrificed none of their edge. “Looks to me like nothing’s changed,” Burns sneers on the caustic “Since Yesterday Was Here.” But it’s not entirely true. As their latest effort proves, some things have gotten better…

BUDOS BAND, “Burnt Offering” – Losing not an ounce of the funk/soul strut that has been their claim to fame, “Burnt Offering” finds The Budos Band incorporating the ominous tones of early-70’s Sabbath-esque doom-and-gloom rock into their sound. The blend is so seamless – to say nothing of superlative – it’s kind of a wonder no one attempted such a hybrid before. All at once hip-shaking and earthquaking, “Burnt Offerings” is deep, dark, heavy, and irresistibly infectious. Given the choice, this album would provide the soundtrack to my every move…

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:

WU-TANG CLAN, “A Better Tomorrow” – In light of the creative conflicts that surrounded its recording and release, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that “A Better Tomorrow” sounds so muddled and awkward. Despite the RZA’s increasingly lush, layered, and soulful production (we’re two decades and a long way from the sharp, punchy punctuations of “Enter the Wu-Tang”), the Clan never really seems to come together in any unified, cohesive way. Rather than dramatically diverse, the lyrical offerings seem disjointed, and even a bit half-hearted – perhaps the result of some members’ ambivalence towards the project and the artistic differences that have only grown during the Clan’s downtime. There are some great tracks – “Ruckus in B-Minor” and “Ron O’Neal” among them – but, for most of the album, they just can’t seem to get it together. Though it seems unlikely, “A Better Tomorrow” leaves one hoping that there might, in fact, be one. Because it would be a shame if the best hip-hop act of the past twenty years were to simply crumble away…

IV. BROKEN BOOKS

I’m a hard-sell on contemporary fiction, but thanks to various recommendations, I made quite a few forays into more recent, and even current, literary offerings in the last year. Most notably, I finally got around to reading Zadie Smith, who has ceased to be my favorite author that I’ve never read, and become, instead, one of my favorite authors of all time. But, though I read a lot of her in the last year, she didn’t publish anything, so I’ll have to discuss her brilliance elsewhere… Nonetheless, I did come across a few books from 2014 that really struck me…

girl

A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING by Eimear McBride – Despite making a number of “Best of the Year” lists, Eimear McBride’s debut novel has developed a reputation as a “difficult” book. And it is. But not because of the alleged “stream of consciousness” style that seems so off-putting to so many readers. What makes McBride’s novel difficult is that it is a harrowing, heartbreaking, 205-page emotional assault. Chronicling the coming of age of a young Irish girl and her relationship to her brain damaged older brother, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing brutally pummels you from page 1 and never lets up, immersing you in its vivid, relentless renderings of trial and trauma, conflict and confusion. Though certainly influenced by Joyce, McBride’s prose is not so much stream of consciousness as the broken, inchoate syntax of a wounded mind struggling to find coherence in a chaotic world, veering between sense and sensuality, comprehension and contempt. Masterfully crafted, her writing flows with a liquid logic, plunging into smeared emotions, erupting sporadically into poetry, and receding into tragic fragments. It’s a book you need to give yourself over to entirely, letting it carry you into its evocative, cathartic depths.

dept-of-speculation

DEPT. OF SPECULATION by Jennifer Offill – Far less divisive than McBride’s book, though no less interesting stylistically, is Jennifer Offill’s staccato self-portrait in the throes of domestic crisis, Dept. of Speculation. Much has been made recently of our contemporary culture’s inability to engage in deep, immersive reading, and intentionally or not, Offill has offered an answer. Dept. of Speculation is a novel written in fragments… Or maybe aphorisms… (Status updates…? Tweets…?) It seems almost designed to be digested in bits and bites, over quick cups of coffee, in the all-too-brief moments between the all-consuming obligations of our modern lives. Whether, and in what ways, her approach is inherently a good or bad thing is debatable; the real question is whether it’s effective. And while Offill’s book exhibits so many of the aspects I despise so much in post-modern literature – self-conscious, self-centered, self-satisfied – there’s no denying that it makes for an engaging, curiously affecting read. Somehow, her roughly sketched anecdotes, blunt self-examinations, and prayers to Rilke cohere into a cross-section of an intellect desperately groping to find method and meaning in its suffering.

Me

ME, MYSELF, AND WHY by Jennifer Ouellette – Bringing self-interest down to earth, Jennifer Ouellette’s Me, Myself, and Why circumnavigates the latest advances in the science of identity, examining the ways in which we formulate our ideas of ourselves. From the information coded in our genomes, to the questionable merit of personality metrics, to the virtual selves we create in cyberspace, and even the ways in which hallucinogens affect our perceptions of individuality, Ouellette thoroughly and entertainingly investigates and questions some of our most instinctive notions of who we are and what makes us that way. And if you really want to have your hair blown back, I recommend reading Ouellette’s book back-to-back with Bruce Hood’s 2012 offering, The Self Illusion, which covers some of the same ground, but delves more deeply into the science of its subject, revealing our unified concept of selfhood to be little more than a cognitive construct assembled from discrete internal processes. You’ll never see yourself the same way again.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:

ETHICS WITHOUT MORALS by Joel Marcks – It’s not really fair to call Marcks’ book a disappointment. It’s a scholarly, insightful, well-written, expertly argued, and best of all, deeply personal deconstruction of morality that offers a rational and realistic conception of ethics as an alternative. A reformed Kantian who had a philosophical epiphany late in life, Marcks attacks his subject energetically and exhaustively. Even, dare I say, exhaustingly. And that’s the thing… If you’re a disillusioned Kantian – or, really, a disillusioned moralist of any kind – looking for a new ethical framework, I imagine Marcks’ book is pretty revelatory and inspiring. But for those of us with our philosophical roots firmly planted in Nietzsche, existentialism, and naturalism, reading Marcks’ book can be a frustrating, wearying effort. Glad as we may be that he’s come around, we watch him take the long way to get there, building arguments of great length and breadth to arrive at common sense, rational positions where we’ve been impatiently waiting. It’s not that it isn’t a worthwhile book, or that it’s lacking in compelling ideas. It’s just that those ideas aren’t always quite as groundbreaking as he seems to think they are.

CROSSED, VOL. 1 by Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows

by Matt J. Popham

crossed

Garth Ennis has never gone easy on his readers.

From the moment he caught the comic book world’s attention, ratcheting up the visceral and emotional intensity of Vertigo’s already dark and disturbing Hellblazer, his relentless, full-throttle approach has earned him a double-edged reputation as one of mainstream comics’ master purveyors of shock and awe. Not for the faint of heart, or weak of stomach, Ennis puts the “graphic” in graphic novels. Yet even by his standards, Crossed, a stark and savage tale of a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by an unknown virus that transforms humanity into hyper-aggressive, sadistic berserkers, pushes the envelope. Written by Ennis and illustrated by Jacen Burrows, its unflinching and, sometimes, blackly comic depictions of previously unimaginable acts of brutality and perversity have sparked outrage and condemnation, even among many of Ennis’ and Burrows’ longtime fans. When the series debuted in 2008, one could almost hear the sound of hundreds of copies of Issue #1 – which infamously features a full-page, detailed rendering of a couple being viciously gang-raped while their five-year old daughter is torn limb from limb – being thrown against the wall with great force. To call it “divisive” would be granting it a better reputation than it actually has. But Crossed and its grim and grisly execution (to say nothing of its executions) may, if one can stand it, be deserving of a closer look…

Vol. 1 collects the first ten issues into a complete narrative arc, following a ragtag group of uninfected survivors as they trek northwards on foot towards the less populous (and, therefore, they reason, somewhat safer) Alaska, vigilantly determined to sidestep any confrontations with the Crossed (as the infected are called, due to the cross-shaped rash that spreads across their faces) along the way. While the basic plot is readily reminiscent of numerous zombie films, from Dawn of the Dead to 28 Days Later, as in most of Ennis’ work, Crossed’s narrative functions primarily as a framework for exploring character. For all the buckets of blood and blasphemy that marked his celebrated Hellblazer run, Ennis effectively opened up (sometimes literally)the hardened and unflappable John Constantine – first with lung cancer, and then with Kit Ryan – providing the most recognizably human portrayal of the character in the series’ history. When DC Comics’ “No Man’s Land” crossover hit the streets of Ennis’ ultraviolent Hitman, he was content to keep his rogue’s gallery of crooks and killers holed-up in a bar relating personal stories. Similarly, Crossed’s familiar plot tropes and ad nauseum barbarity are designed to test our characters’ limits, and our own, in the hopes of revealing something about them and us. Encountering horror after horror as they journey across the devastated American landscape, each member of Crossed’s motley crew grapples with their respective ideas of what, if anything, makes them – and, by extension, humanity – worth saving. Forging reluctant and uneasy bonds, they gradually become a dysfunctional and dwindling family, fighting desperately for a future that is, at best, as bleak and unforgiving as their frigid destination.

Ennis’ interest in character even extends – significantly – to the Crossed, who are studied closely by both our authors and characters, emerging as something more than the simple zombies one might expect from the genre. Though overcome by a merciless, unquenchable bloodlust, they are far from being mindless avatars of appetite or rage. They retain the encyclopedic memory and learned skills they possessed before they “crossed over” and, though it’s often subsumed in the overwhelming rush of their monstrous cravings, they evince some capacity for thought, strategy, and decision-making. The survivors frequently speak of them as pure evil, even speculating that the plague could be some form of divine retribution heralding the end times. Given their grotesque and sadistic nature, it’s hard not to view them as demonic and their affliction as something preternatural. But while Ennis and Burrows never explain the origins of the epidemic, it’s revealing – though, no doubt, off-putting and offensive to some – that they inject a pitch-black absurdity into their depictions of the diseased, keeping them decidedly down-to-earth. Though their ferocious assaults and the human suffering they inflict are never played for laughs, there’s something clownish about the Crossed when we see them in their element. Their violent excesses are hideous and terrifying, but also – like most things when taken to an extreme – faintly ridiculous.

Even more revealing is the fact that perhaps the most horrific act we witness in Vol. 1 is not perpetrated by the Crossed, at all, but by our two lead characters. Our narrator, Stan, spends the first few issues closely observing Cindy, the de facto leader of Crossed’s small band of “clean” humans, and she quickly wins his – and our – respect. A smart, decisive, and supremely capable survivor, she protects her young son as fiercely as she fires the rifle she keeps slung over her shoulder. But Ennis, aware of both human complexity and the hollowness of hero-worship, refuses to let us settle comfortably into our admiration. Cindy’s toughness also translates into a kind of callousness, the cost of having weathered her share of harsh experiences, even before the world went to hell. Walking a fragile line between cool-headed and cold-hearted, she is a leader only because those around her are drawn to her competence. Her son is her only real priority and, except on rare occasions, she shows little interest in anyone else beyond offering brusque “my-way-or-the-highway” ultimatums. At the end of Issue #3, the steel of her resolve is cruelly tested and she makes a decision that most readers would find impossible to support. Stan’s complicity in the act only makes it that much more difficult to stomach. And while there’s little room for regret or repentance in Crossed’s austere universe, the burden of their choice eventually leads them to an act of recognition that is essential to their evolution as characters and cuts right to the heart of Crossed’s thematic intent.

On the rash-riven face of it, it’s easy – too easy – to look upon the Crossed, in their extreme aggression and savagery, as Satanic harbingers of Revelation, when the real revelation is the horrors that normal humans prove capable of carrying out in the name of their survival, self-interest, and salvation throughout the series. The deliberate juxtaposition of the Crossed’s hot-blooded frenzy with the cold, rationalized violence of the survivors only underscores their shared characteristics while exposing the slipperiness of the survivors’ perceived moral high ground. Crossed is not a typical zombie apocalypse parable about a group of survivors struggling, in the midst of chaotic and desperate circumstances, to hold onto their humanity. Crossed is about a small group of allegedly “clean” humans slowly coming to the realization that the Crossed are humanity. Each of us carries some measure of their perversity, their depravity, their brutality deep within. There is something inherently dark and savage in our nature, and refusing to recognize that fact only makes us more vulnerable to perpetuating the very horrors we condemn.

In much the same way, it’s easy – too easy – to dismiss Ennis’ and Burrows’ gruesome strategies as purposeless provocations, pushing the envelope merely to push their readers’ buttons, putting us through hell for the hell of it. At the beginning of Crossed’s brief prologue issue, Stan laments that “nothing shocks us anymore,” but to interpret that as some sort of authorial declaration endorsing shock for shock’s sake is to give the book a shallow read. Yes, many of the images and acts we are confronted with in Crossed’s pages are jarring, sickening, and terrifying. There would be something wrong with us if we reacted to them in any other way. One of the things that makes Crossed such an intense and compelling read, in fact, is our trepidation in turning every page, fearful of what we might see next. But the grim proceedings and graphic illustrations are only agencies of a more penetrating vision. Crossed is not a book about shock value. It’s a book about people struggling to relate in a world overrun with human horrors. Its real horrific impact is rooted, not in its explicit images of cannibalism, rape, and murder, but in the realization that our humanity is not what elevates us above our most abhorrent specimens, but what inextricably links us with them. Apt as it may be to sum up with overworked aphorisms about fighting monsters and gazing into the abyss, even more fitting, perhaps, (and certainly less wearisome) is this bit of wisdom from one of comics’ finest: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway

by Matt J. Popham

DeathAfternoonCover

“Why the fuck would anyone want to read a book about bullfighting?”

It’s a fair question. One that, by all appearances, was not lost on Ernest Hemingway when he sat down to write Death in the Afternoon over four decades ago, but probably seems even more pertinent to contemporary readers. In these kinder, gentler times, the overwhelming majority of people probably view bullfights in much the same way they view dog fights or electoral primaries: as cruel atrocities whose spectators are little more than savages, and whose practitioners are nothing less than criminals. The prospect of reading about them seems only slightly less repugnant – and a good deal less captivating – than actually watching them. Those happy, amoral few unoffended by the practice would still likely wonder why an in-depth analysis – even one composed by one of the Western world’s foremost literary icons – would be of interest to anyone other than an avid enthusiast. If, in fact, any such enthusiasts still exist. It’s the 21st Century, after all… Even the Spanish are starting to have doubts! It’s one thing to discuss bullfighting as a literary device in The Sun Also Rises, but a non-fiction book that explores the traditions and techniques of the toreos…? Sounds about as culturally relevant as a Gutenberg press operations manual… All of which may account for Death in the Afternoon’s relative obscurity, today. (Of course, there is also the decline of the average reader’s level of intellectual inquiry to consider, but that’s another matter for another time…) Regardless, it would be both a literary injustice, and a disservice to the self, to dismiss Death in the Afternoon out-of-hand simply because of a few knee-jerk prejudices.

It is much more than a book about bullfighting.

Don’t get me wrong. It IS that. First and foremost. And it is beautifully that. But for Hemingway, bullfighting was not a sport. It was an art. His approach, therefore, is not that of a mere fan, but that of an aesthetic critic, theorist, and historian, whose knowledge of, and love for, his subject is palpable on every page. He was, of course, aware of the ethical debate, which was already in full swing when the book was published in 1931, but while he confronts the issue head-on, he wisely avoids any attempt at mounting a moral defense:

I suppose from a modern, moral point of view, that is, a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is certainly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death, and I should not try to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found true about it. To do this, I must be altogether frank, or try to be, and if those who read this decide with disgust that it is written by someone who lacks their, the readers’, fineness of feeling, I can only plead that this may be true.

But he also goes on to say that, “a serious book about such an unmoral subject may have some value,” and, from the first few pages, that value is self-evident. Leaving loftier judgments to his alleged betters, Hemingway concerns himself with bullfighting’s artistic qualities: its primal power, its show of athletic grace, and its expression of something profound and universal about bravery and death. Propelled by a professorial passion that enlivens even his most obsessive examinations of its mechanics and minutiae, he deciphers bullfighting’s language and symbolism, displaying a comprehensive understanding of its workings, and offering penetrating insights into its deeper meanings and larger significance, in the hopes of imparting to his readers an understanding of the confrontation’s cathartic impact and tragic weight. (It’s an uncomfortable concept for many in our modern culture, the fact that brutality does not negate artistry, and an unintentional, peripheral effect of the book is to leave the reader pondering our frequent struggles to reconcile the artistically admirable with the morally reprehensible…) While it’s unlikely that those already opposed and appalled will be converted to even a reserved appreciation, it’s impossible to come away without at least acknowledging that there is a great deal more style, skill, and substance involved than most people probably imagine. Regardless, Hemingway’s analysis has applications well beyond the bullring. Any intensive critical study of any art will unavoidably tap into fundamental concepts and core principles universal to all the arts, and probing and perceptive readers will find, in Hemingway’s deconstructions, an invaluable investigation, not just into bullfighting, but into the nature of artistry as a whole.

Not that Death in the Afternoon is, in any way, a dry, scholarly tome. A storyteller by nature, Hemingway frames and illustrates his conceptual explications, critical appraisals, and aesthetic appreciations with relevant and engaging narratives throughout. Many of these are anecdotal – recollections of personal experiences at bullfights – while others are stories of historic fights that have taken on a near-mythic quality over the years, evolving into something resembling folktales. Some of the best and most fascinating sections of the book are those in which Hemingway profiles bullfighting’s greatest legends – Belmonte, Maera, Joselito, El Gallo – any of whom were colorful and charismatic enough to have been characters in one of his stories or novels. His vivid portraiture reveals the ways in which their unique personalities and personal histories informed their individual techniques as matadors, and explores how their contributions shaped, for better or worse, the art and practice of bullfighting as a whole. Their tales of courage and cowardice, triumph and tragedy are presented with Hemingway’s signature literary flare and, regardless of one’s personal feelings about bullfighting, they are undeniably compelling.

Yet, as captivating as his stories are, as romantic and picturesque as his descriptions of Spain and each region’s cultural traditions, as impressive and enlightening as his bullfighting acumen may be, an uncharacteristic insecurity runs like a current through Death in the Afternoon’s twenty chapters. When it comes to bullfights, Hemingway knows his stuff, and he knows that he knows. In that, he is never less than confident and self-assured. But perhaps because Death in the Afternoon was his first foray into non-fiction, or perhaps because its controversial subject was so near and dear to his heart, there is a marked uncertainty in his approach, suggesting an (all things considered, not altogether baseless) worry that his readers will find the book dull. At every turn, the question, “Why the fuck would anyone want to read a book about bullfighting?” seems to plague him. But, far from being a weakness, this novel anxiety (pun intended) actually serves as a font of inspiration, resulting in a number of inventive structural and stylistic choices, as Hemingway spontaneously alters his approach to his topic, or swerves away from it altogether, that only make Death in the Afternoon that much more enjoyable, entertaining, and rewarding to read. At one point, he conjures up an amusingly unimpressed elderly woman to serve as a chorus/reader surrogate, only to become increasingly annoyed with her underwhelmed needling; at another point, believing that fiction is all his readers will accept from him, he halts the book to offer a short story about the aftermath of a battle, which – because Hemingway was a real writer with an understanding of his craft – nonetheless maintains a strong thematic connection to his larger subject. Perhaps most invaluably, he frequently makes use of these tangents and digressions to discuss the art of writing and his own creative approach, generously doling out keen insights, considered advice, and withering critiques. Almost as many pages, in fact, are devoted to the craft of writing as bullfighting, making Death in the Afternoon the closest thing to a literary treatise Hemingway ever composed. Most pleasantly surprising, this curiously nervous approach imbues Hemingway’s authorial voice with an atypical, but affecting, warmth. The stark, hardened prose for which he is known softens here into an unadorned, forthright sincerity, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is as close as one can possibly get to the experience of actually conversing with him. There are moments of affability, playfulness, humility and even vulnerability, as his emotional investment in his subject, and his eagerness to share it, are presented largely without artifice, giving us startlingly clear glimpses of Hemingway the man, rather than Hemingway the author, and resulting in some of his most personal and revealing writing.

When the day comes that the practice of bullfighting finally disappears altogether from the cultural landscape, it seems unfortunately likely that Death in the Afternoon will disappear with it. As books on bullfighting go, it is certainly one of the best ever written, but its value far exceeds its relationship to its subject. A book of charmingly unpredictable formal eccentricity, it succeeds, by turns, as an aesthetic study, a chronicle of legends, a travelogue of Spain, a philosophical meditation, a creative writing workshop, and a psychological window into its author and his distinctive worldview. Yes, it is a book about bullfighting. But it is also a book about art, passion, creativity, courage, and death. In short, Death in the Afternoon is a book about life, and one of the most uniquely personal literary offerings from one of the world’s most renowned artists. Why the fuck would anyone NOT want to read that…?

Lenin by Lars Lih

by Matt J. Popham

lenin

Hannah Arendt wrote in 1963 that Lenin had not yet found his definitive biographer. More than fifty years later, that still seems to be the case. Certainly the glut of reactionary tomes that emerged in the decades following the fall of the Soviet Union – despite their often impressive length, breadth, and detail – provide no decisive portrait, even if their authors seem eager to sit in final judgment. The historical revelations of some of Lenin’s more severe aspects that have come to light since the communist collapse complicate any attempts at hagiography. And even those biographers attempting “balance” often seem more ambivalent than truly objective. Perhaps overshadowed by his legacy, Lenin has remained, for almost a century, an inscrutable, irreconcilable figure.

Lars Lih’s LENIN – part of Reaktion Books’ Critical Lives series – is both too broad and too brief to really be considered a biography, but it does provide an invaluable scholarly service and, in the process, accomplishes what so many historical accounts have failed to do: it successfully formulates an essential Lenin (in both senses), refreshingly free of the incongruities and assumptions so often imposed on him by contemporary historians. Through a penetrating and detailed analysis of Lenin’s political life, Lih maps a connective ideological vision that simultaneously distills Lenin’s character while reconciling many of his perceived inconsistencies. The book divides Lenin’s revolutionary career into three decades, charting the evolution – or, more often and more to the point, lack thereof – of his political thought. Citing numerous examples from Lenin’s personal and political writings and associations, including lesser known essays and polemics often overlooked by Lenin biographers, Lih makes a convincing case for a Lenin who was more complex, consistent, committed, and more hopeful – sometimes even to a fault – than previously portrayed.

Ably demolishing the dominant, “textbook” image of the dour, calculating autocrat who cynically exploited Marxist ideology to further his own ends, Lih instead reveals a dedicated, almost naïve, optimist determined to realize his vision of a heroic revolutionary scenario in which the agrarian peasant would be led by the proletarian worker. A man whose piercing intelligence and profound understanding of Marxist theory often made him impatient, arrogant, and inflexible when that vision was opposed or questioned. A man whose unwavering commitment corrupted into desperation in the wake of the Revolution, as the harsh realities of Russia, politics, and power exposed his vision’s inherent flaws – a desperation which, at times, led to drastic actions and loathsome compromises that Lenin, at his best, disliked, and at his worst, rationalized as necessary evils in pursuit of the greater good. In short, a man whose occasionally imperious nature sometimes got the better of his genuine political idealism.

Despite its brevity, it would be inaccurate and unjust to describe Lih’s book as a summary or overview. A political science professor with a specialization in Soviet history and Marxist thought, his comprehensive knowledge and meticulous research are evident on every page. Lih, however, assumes a familiarity with Lenin and the Russian Revolution on the part of his readers, and in his efforts to focus on Lenin’s relationships to certain people and events, often glosses over the people and events, themselves, in a way that might leave those unfamiliar with the subject hungry for more detail. (In this circumstance, it would be advisable to begin with a more in-depth biography or history, then chase it with Lih’s study as a tonic.) Similarly, it would be unfair to say Lih re-contextualizes Lenin, when in fact, that’s what most of Lenin’s previous biographers have done: retroactively viewed him through the emotionally warped glass of a post-Cold War historical perspective. What Lih has done is actually contextualize Lenin – put him back in his own time, allowing him a late 19th/early 20th century revolutionary’s view of Marx and communism, typical of the days before the spectre of totalitarianism cast its shadow over the Western world. By performing a full and thorough inventory of Lenin’s life and work, placing his thoughts and actions in their proper place and perspective, Lih may not be Lenin’s definitive biographer, but he has furnished us with a definitive Lenin. And that is no small feat.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

by Matt J. Popham

Book Review Gone Girl

If Patricia Highsmith were to hate-fuck a young Martin Amis and spawn a razorsharp, poison -quilled succubus, her name might be Gillian Flynn. Or, at least, that’s the feeling one gets being sucked into the sinister, venomous, and, yes, thoroughly enjoyable downward spiral that is GONE GIRL. Flynn’s third novel was a breakout bestseller and one of the “It” books of 2012, but don’t hold that against her. Because to spend too much time championing the novel’s masterfully calculated narrative mechanics and full-throttle page-turnability is to undervalue its artfulness and wit.

A dark delight, GONE GIRL launches itself from a deceptively simple suspense-thriller springboard – on the morning of Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears under suspicious circumstances – then hits the ground running, propelled by a double-barreled, and deeply dubious, he-said/she-said narration, through which Nick and Amy, by turns, examine not only the components, complexities, and possible culprits in Amy’s abduction, but also the harmony and heartbreak of their tumultuous romantic history. Saying anything more would detract from the thrill-ride of serpentine, psychological twists and riveting, Jim Thompson-esque turns, but for all of GONE GIRL’s visceral genre trappings, the hollow at the center of its Mystery-of-the-Missing-Wife storyline echoes with a deeper, broader resonance: This is a book about vacancy. About the empty spaces in our lives, and the bitter, brittle facades we build to mask them. Whether it’s the uninhabited houses that line the streets of the Dunne’s Midwestern, middle-class subdivision, or the affected outward image each character projects to try and obscure their deepest, darkest flaws, whether it’s the simplified, sensationalistic media coverage of Amy’s byzantine abduction, or the void at the heart of the Dunnes’ collapsing marriage, Flynn populates her novel with empty shells, hollow husks, and desolate souls, painting a merciless portrait of a sick society crumbling under its obsession with the superficial. Though she cleverly wraps her caustic criticisms in an irresistible confection of addictive intrigue, whiplash reversals, breakneck pacing, playful prose, and compelling characters, beneath the intoxicating entertainment, lurks a piercing, probing, disturbing dissection of identity, marriage, and contemporary culture that permeates your system like a poison. A “cookie full of arsenic,” GONE GIRL, once devoured, will leave you feeling both slightly sick and supremely satisfied.