Welcome to Grantland Recommends, in which Grantland staff members share some of their favorite discoveries and obsessions of the month, whether new, old, or new again. This month we’re loving spy novels, nautical novels, high fantasy, and mannequins.
Juliet Litman: I’ve recently been wondering what it was like to hear The War of the Worlds radio broadcast back in 1938. The story goes that listeners across the country believed Earth was actually being invaded. The amount of hysteria that ensued is disputed, but the singularity of the radio event is not. In our culture-saturated world, it’s difficult to imagine a piece of entertainment that would provoke the same response. Even movies shrouded in secrecy before their release, like Cloverfield or the upcoming Tomorrowland film, are quickly demythologized. Not only do we face an overwhelming volume of entertainment on demand in 2014, but it all comes with ancillary material. You can almost always gather more information about who you’re watching or listening to in a matter of minutes. Can any of us fathom what it’d be like to encounter a story that can’t be explained or illuminated by a secondary source? I think the closest we can come right now is listening to the new podcast from WBEZ Chicago and the folks behind “This American Life,” Serial.
Serial is a weekly production that tells one true crime story over the course of a season (number of episodes unknown to me, and I don’t really need to know). It’s hosted by “This American Life” regular Sarah Koenig. She’s investigating the story of a murder in Maryland from 1999. A high school girl was found dead in January of that year, and her boyfriend at the time was convicted of the crime. He has been incarcerated since then, though he maintains his innocence. As Koenig explains in Episode 1, there are 22 minutes from the afternoon of the killing that remain up for debate, and she’s tracking down every lead to determine if the man who was convicted actually did it. There have been only two episodes so far (it’s definitely not too late to jump in!), and already my jaw has dropped a couple of times and I’ve talked to myself in my car about how unbelievable some of the details are.
The crux of the story and the conceit of the podcast are simple, which is part of the appeal. It’s easy to follow along as Koenig’s investigation takes turns that neither you nor she expects, which is really a testament to the Serial (and “This American Life”) team’s ability to craft a radio story. It’s as if they read In Cold Blood as a primer in narrative nonfiction, and then went on to mine all the good ideas from The Killing.
So far I’ve chosen not to Google the victim, her accused killer, or anyone else introduced in the story. Part of the idea here is that we are learning what happened very shortly after Koenig does, but I also suspect there would not be a glut of information — another particularly enjoyable aspect of this podcast experience. The crime itself occurred in 1999, before the Internet’s tentacles extended to the degree we’re familiar with. A cursory Google search mostly brings up stories about the podcast, not the crime itself. Ultimately, I’m choosing to trust the program and its producers. We just have to take on good faith that Koenig is presenting the story in a straightforward manner and accept her facts as truth. Trust has become a counterintuitive impulse when it comes to episodic entertainment, and choosing to do so is a worthy exercise in its own right. Listening to Serial is almost a relief because there’s not much discussion to have or questions to ask, except to wonder why this kind of podcast hasn’t come along sooner.
The next episode of Serial goes up live on Thursday. Check it out on iTunes.
Every Day Is for the Thief, by Teju Cole
John Lopez: Shamefully, it took the worst Ebola outbreak in the history of horrible Ebola outbreaks to force me to chip away at my ignorance about West Africa. First stop: Lagos, Nigeria, Africa’s largest city, by way of Teju Cole’s second book, Every Day Is for the Thief. This slim volume, an impressionistic account of Cole returning to Lagos after college in the U.S., almost comes across as a mournful Nigerian riff on Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, but that doesn’t do justice to Cole’s acuity for the particular sadnesses and beauties of modern Nigeria. Every page is filled with poetic insight as his light but penetrating prose bores down to the quintessence of the city and its myriad problems. Above all, the deceptively simple writing is just astonishingly good; Cole plumbs the depths of Lagos’s teeming humanity with almost casual profundity.
The Rich Gang Mixtape
Shea Serrano: The new Young Thug–Rich Homie Quan tape sounds like what it (probably) feels like to roll around in stardust if stardust were made of marshmallows, which it (probably) isn’t.
The new Young Thug–Rich Homie Quan tape sounds like if Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan had never heard real English before, like they only learned it by thumbing through a dictionary they found that had gotten very, very, very wet in the rain, and so instead of saying things like “together,” Young Thug says things like “tuh-goo-durth.”
The new Young Thug–Rich Homie Quan tape sounds like if the universe rolled itself up into a tight tube, like how you roll a newspaper or magazine when you’re about to swat a fly, except instead of using the universe roll to swat a fly, you eat it for dinner, and you’re probably wearing a Givenchy shirt while you sit there and eat by yourself and cry from happiness and also sadness.
The new Young Thug–Rich Homie Quan tape sounds like if you dove headfirst into very warm peanut butter, or maybe like if you were able to swim around inside of Mother Nature’s uterus for a good little bit, or maybe if you were slimed by Slimer from Ghostbusters, assuming that Slimer from Ghostbusters had a level of body heat commensurate with his glow.
The new Young Thug–Rich Homie Quan tape sounds like when you do that thing where you use your thumb and forefinger to pull your bottom lip up to your top teeth to whistle, except you don’t whistle; instead you pull your lip all the way up over your head and swallow, and now you’re inside your own digestive system and the whole thing is lined in velvet.
The new Young Thug–Rich Homie Quan tape sounds like if a very chill kangaroo picked you up and placed you inside its pouch and then the very chill kangaroo got into a hot tub and put on a pair of sunglasses and was like, “Isn’t this nice?” and you were like, “I’m sorry, what’d you say? Can you say that again?” because it’s (probably) kind of hard to hear when you’re inside of a very chill kangaroo’s pouch and (probably) even harder to hear when that particular very chill kangaroo is in a hot tub.
Also, Birdman is on the tape.
The Horatio Hornblower novels, by C.S. Forester
Brian Phillips: I, who was born on the level prairie and raised in a state with no coastline, have long suffered from a mild obsession with sailing ships: I mean the masted tall ships of the age of exploration, ships that crisscrossed the earth on wind power, charted far-flung islands, shattered each other with cannon balls, and froze into Antarctic ice. I have, at this moment, as my desktop background, a map of the voyages of Captain Cook. When the prime minister of Canada announced a few days ago that the recently discovered shipwreck near King William Island was that of the HMS Erebus — one of the two vessels that vanished in 1846 as part of the doomed Franklin expedition to seek the Northwest Passage, previous clues to whose disappearance had mostly come in the form of skeletons appearing in the sea ice — I knew the history of the ship. I knew the competing theories about what happened to its crew (Indians, cannibalism). I thought about the volcano that had been named after it five years earlier, near the South Pole.
I am, in other words, a perfect mark for nautical adventure books. I have read my Patrick O’Brian. Inquiries into the difference between the mizzen topgallant and the fore-topsail appear with some regularity in my Google search history. You are probably either inclined to like this stuff or you aren’t. If you’re the sort of person whose imagination at all bends toward Napoleonic-era naval heroics, then by all means go out and get the Horatio Hornblower novels by C.S. Forester. (I’m not sure, by the way, that this bent is as demographically predictable as you might think. When I bought Hornblower and the Atropos at an Oklahoma City Barnes & Noble a few days ago, the sale was rung up by a girl with light pink hair and a nose ring. “These books are the best,” she said. She recommends the BBC miniseries.)
Horatio Hornblower is a brilliant, fantastically uptight English naval officer fighting against Napoleon in the early 1800s. He has chronically low self-esteem, which means that he’s forever throwing himself (and, later, the ships he commands) into impossible dangers just to prove to himself that he’s not the coward and failure he thinks he is. After he triumphs, he generally finds a way to feel even more depressed. Unlike the O’Brian novels, which are crammed with historical detail, Forester’s books are tight, elegantly sprung action stories; O’Brian wants you to think his Aubrey-Maturin series was written by Jane Austen’s meaner twin brother, while Forester is after something lighter and swifter, more Sherlock Holmes and less Henry Fielding. Hornblower makes raids into France to burn down signaling stations, raises sunken treasure near the Turkish coast, starts a rebellion in Central America, escapes execution by Napoleon’s forces in Paris, becomes a spy, and falls in love with Wellington’s sister. It’s all a ton of fun, for everybody except Hornblower.
The books were written from the 1930s through the 1960s, but Forester dipped in and out of Hornblower’s life as he went — so, for instance, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, which treats the beginning of the character’s career, was written four year after Lord Hornblower, which depicts him as a middle-aged commander. You should ignore the series order listed on the current-issue paperbacks published by Back Bay Books and read them in the order in which they were written; otherwise you miss the gang’s-all-here fun of some of the later books, where you get to, say, go back in time to see how beloved characters met. But read them in any order, really. They’re the next best thing to actually disappearing at sea.
The CRPG Addict and Classic Video-Game Blogs
Sean McIndoe: It’s been a rough few months for computer- and video-game fans. Any mention of the gaming industry has been dominated by accusations of harassment, abuse, questionable ethics, and paranoid conspiracy theories. It’s all been enough to leave you longing for simpler days, back when games were just something you did for fun in your spare time.
Luckily, those simpler days are out there, thanks to a strange but oddly fascinating blogging subculture I’ve been hooked on recently: classic gaming enthusiasts who track down decades-old games and play through them start to finish, writing detailed, multipart reviews along the way.
This guy plays old adventure games. This one prefers role-playing and strategy. The best of the bunch is The CRPG Addict, whose goal is to play every computer role-playing game ever created. Not the best games, mind you, or the most famous, or the most influential. He’s playing every single one of them, in chronological order, working his way down a massive list that begins in 1975. As of today, he’s made it up to 1990. No, he’ll never catch up to the present day, but that’s not the point.
I didn’t play many computer games in my youth because I was far too busy with sports and parties and girls and just generally being a cool and popular kid. But if you’re of a certain age, the blogs are a fun look back at a forgotten era. And it’s hard not to admire the enthusiasm on display, even if the posts are sometimes a little on the long side and contain occasional asides that not everyone will understand and The CRPG Addict is totally wrong about Dungeon Master which was an awesome game that redefined the genre with its real-time gameplay and who cares if it didn’t have NPCs or an economy it SHOULD BE WAY HIGHER ON HIS RANKINGS LIST DAMMIT.
[Realizes he may have just blown his cover.]
Uh … so, yeah, the blogs. They’re pretty cool, and worth checking out. And as an added bonus, you can read them without anyone harassing you online.
The Honorable Woman
Andrew Sharp: Everyone knows how this goes. A friend tells you about a show that you just have to watch, and you can just run right through the checklist from there:
- “I watched all [X] episodes within a week. It was incredible. You’ll get so addicted.”
- “It’s just like [other great show that everyone got addicted to], but maybe better.”
- “It may take a little while to get into it, but just stick with it.”
- “The acting is phenomenal. [Big name actor/actress] is unreal.”
- “It’s like a really good novel.”
- “It’s about [some illicit world that’s just mysterious enough so that anything could seem realistic].”
So, yes: I watched 10 episodes of The Honorable Woman in a week. It’s a little like Homeland, but a lot smarter. It’s about Israel and the Palestinian territories, and all the spies and politicians and NGO’s in between. Maggie Gyllenhaal is incredible in it, an Irish actor named Stephen Rea is just as good, annnnd … YEP, it unfolds like a really good novel. I’ve been badgering friends and family about the show for the past few weeks.
Anyway, if you’ve made it to this point in our roundup, you’ve probably got about five other recommended shows you’ve been meaning to get to, so I won’t push this too hard. Just know that The Honorable Woman is on-demand if you have the Sundance Channel — I didn’t realize I had SundanceTV, but I do, and maybe you do, too! — and it’s a single-season miniseries, and it definitely rewards the 10 or so hours you might invest in it. My brain is still broken after the final few episodes.
We’ve all got plenty of options in The Longform Televison Era,™ but the more I think about it, the more I think The Honorable Woman might be the best thing I’ve seen anywhere for the past four or five years. Check it out. Maybe soon you’ll be harassing your friends just like me.
Finch, Back to Oblivion
Zach Dionne: Early-’00s alt-rock band Finch were only ever lumped in with emo because they happened when emo happened. Singer Nate Barcalow was more crooner than whiner, and the rest of the band’s love for the unexpected skewed them more, I guess, “mathcore”? “Post-hardcore”? Labels are dumb; I just wanted to take this opportunity to say Finch ruled. They made What It Is to Burn, a 2002 classic, and a pleasantly weird 2005 follow-up, Say Hello to Sunshine. They did a couple of EPs and tours after, but mostly they seemed (and were) broken up.
Fast-forward to last week, when I get an email saying Finch are back?! Back to Oblivion, their third album, their first in nine years, is a thing that exists. It would be disingenuous to say I’ve been able to process this news yet. I don’t know if Finch can crack through the amber they’re nostalgia-locked inside and reach from my teenager brain to my adult brain. But I’m excited they’re at least taking a shot, and that they still sound like the adventurous, emotional-but-not-emo band that got me through high school.
Matt Hinton: I’m always a little behind on scripted TV during football season, but the last show I was really into this year (a rich, fantastic year for TV) before hunkering down for the fall was The Divide, a stray mutt of a show that was created for AMC in 2012 by the guy who wrote the screenplay for The Bridges of Madison County and the guy who plays the president on Scandal. Somehow, it wound up airing two years later on an even more obscure sister channel, WE tv, alongside reruns of Law & Order and a reality show about Toni Braxton’s family, I think?1 Obviously, not an ideal landing spot for a show that wears its ambition on its sleeve.
That’s just a guess based on the commercials, which I watched on mute.
The Divide openly invites comparisons to The Wire by (a) exploring the intersection of race, crime, and politics in a major East Coast city that is not New York (in this case, Philadelphia), and (b) featuring Clarke Peters, Reg E. Cathey, and Chris Bauer in central roles. (Isiah Whitlock also pops up in the pilot, briefly, but doesn’t stick around.) And make no mistake, The Divide falls well short of those pretensions. It holds up better as pulp. The most favorable comparison is probably to The Killing, which was still attempting in its own ham-fisted way to unspool the various threads of a murder mystery amid the backdrop of high-level corruption for AMC when The Divide was initially shelved. The Divide, while occasionally dour and preposterous in its own right, is more competent navigating the ambiguities of a corrupt justice system, more relevant in its treatment of class and (especially) race, and more harrowing when the shit hits the fan.
Unlike The Killing, the first season of The Divide also ends on a cliffhanger that actually works. So although it will not rock your perspective on, like, life, it will leave you looking forward to Season 2, which is a thing that is going to happen because every so often the world is randomly just.
John Coltrane, Offering: Live at Temple University
Steve McPherson: Time has a way of smoothing the rough edges from the life stories of iconic artists, but even as hagiographies go, the story of John Coltrane’s artistic evolution has become a Platonic ideal. There were no ill-fated crossovers before his untimely death in July 1967, no retrospective sense of uncertainty during his steady climb from bop to post-bop to modal jazz to sheets of sound to someplace past the outer limits of conventional music. What began with rigorous study stemming from a desire to completely inhabit blisteringly fast chord changes turned spiritual as Coltrane worked to unmoor pure expression from the constraints of harmony.
Recorded in Coltrane’s hometown of Philadelphia just eight months before he died of liver cancer, the music on the newly released Offering: Live at Temple University is not for the faint of heart. As on other late recordings like Live in Japan or Live in Seattle, Coltrane seems to be on the verge of passing into an ethereal state, his coruscating improvisations ripping through the ceiling and ascending straight to heaven. At a few points he abandons the saxophone entirely and begins to sing a wordless chant as he beats his chest in a steady rhythm. In short, if you’ve never listened to John Coltrane before, this is not an ideal place to start.
But if you’ve spent time with him, if you’ve been through Blue Train and Giant Steps and A Love Supreme and Live at Birdland, you know he was always pushing toward something with a devotion and sincerity that few artists bother with now. There was never anything mawkish or sentimental about Coltrane’s music. There was only the sound, and the revelations weren’t beyond it but deeper inside it. Offering is not the answer that Coltrane was ceaselessly seeking, but it may be the closest he ever got, a fitting eulogy for the man about whom poet A.B. Spellman wrote, “o john death will / not contain you death / will not contain you.”
The Curious Art of Origami
Louisa Thomas: Origami is an art that, in a rude sense, can seem like a stunt. One piece of paper, no scissors, no glue? No problem: Here’s a crane, a moose, a praying mantis, a cuckoo clock. In the past few decades, origami artists have begun looking at folding paper as a mathematical problem, led by Robert Lang, a PhD from Caltech who used to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They’ve come up with new algorithms, new techniques, and new types of paper to create endlessly complicated new forms. There is now basically nothing that Robert Lang can’t make from a single sheet of paper. His mosquito is one of the pieces on display right now at The Curious Art of Origami, an exhibit that is part of the AxS Festival in Pasadena. (So is the mosquito’s incredible “crease pattern,” the linear representation of Lang’s folds.) The architecture is so intricate and the folds he uses to make the spindly legs and sucker are so small that the seams almost disappear. There is only one possible response to it: wow.
I went to The Curious Art of Origami wanting to say “wow.“ But while I was there, something more stunning than a complex shape caught my eye: a soft hump of white paper. Near the front, there was a long, soft crease that pooled on either end, like the impression of a dumbbell. Below the crease, the paper was bent into a kind of broad, curving trapezoid, which was, at the bottom, pinched into a little tunnel: a nose. Suddenly, the hump was a body, and the front was a head — the head of a sleeping bear. I am telling you, it was unmistakable. But I didn’t say “wow.” This wasn’t a stunt — it wasn’t a paper animal. Giang Dinh’s Dreaming Bear wasn’t even an animal. It was sleep, and it was beautiful.
The Polish Officer, by Alan Furst
Jason Concepcion: I’ve always liked the idea of the spy novel a bit more than reading one. But about a year ago, fiending for something in the genre, I asked resident espionage freak Chris Ryan for a recommend, and he gave me Tears of Autumn, by Charles McCarry, which I quit after 100 or so pages because I just found the plot too insane, and The Polish Officer, by Alan Furst. Furst quickly became one of my favorite authors.
Furst is, in a sense, a one-trick pony, whose one trick is so engrossing that you just want to see it again and again and again. He writes stories about the parts of World War II that never get covered in those ubiquitous basic-cable WWII documentaries — just when you feel like the greatest human conflagration of all time has been strip-mined of stories and surprises. The NKVD. The Spanish Civil War. Poland caught between the Nazi hammer and the Soviet anvil after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Paris before the fall. I feel like I learned more about Stalin’s purges from Furst’s 1991 book Dark Star than from any actual history book.
If you’re game, start with The Polish Officer. The opening set piece is one of the most riveting bits of writing I can remember — the last train out of Warsaw carrying the slim hopes of an independent nation secreted inside, the city groaning under German bombs, everyone aboard desperate to escape to anywhere, fighter planes, red tape, and bandits between them and the border. You’ll wonder why no one has made it into a movie.
Emily Yoshida: Somebody on Twitter last week asked me what is the one thing that is always able to make me laugh no matter what. The first thing I thought of was Oh! Mikey, a recurring bit from a weird-ass late-night mid-’00s Japanese sketch show (and later its own show), enacted entirely with mannequins. Please only watch the subtitled version. You’re welcome.
The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss
Ben Lindbergh: This month marks the release of the first book since 2011 by an aggressively bearded author of a beloved fantasy series who’s notorious for setting optimistic publication targets and then missing them by miles. No, not that one: I’m referring to Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Kingkiller Chronicle, whose fans continue to pine for a still-TBA Book 3. Each book spans one day in the series’ present timeline, during which our protagonist, Kvothe, narrates the events of his past to a traveling scribe called The Chronicler. Kvothe is a legend, but he’s keeping a low profile as an innkeeper and is widely believed to be dead. How and why he went off the grid is one of the series’ many mysteries.
After a young Kvothe’s parents are killed by an evil entity that must not be named, he attends a university, where he learns to master magic, makes friends, falls in love, and alternately impresses and runs afoul of the instructors. It sounds familiar — the university is half Hogwarts, half Roke Island — but the borrowed elements feel fresh thanks to Rothfuss’s pleasing prose. The more lore I bombard you with, the less likely you’ll be to begin, but don’t be intimidated: What magic there is follows strict, quasi-scientific laws, and you won’t need a map or an appendix to keep the settings and characters straight.
The Slow Regard of Silent Things is in some sense a distraction: It’s not the long-awaited conclusion to Kvothe’s tale, but a shorter offshoot of the main series that stars Auri, a pixieish character from the first two books. By recommending Slow Regard, I’m really recommending that you read the earlier installments and then return to this novella-length side story, which you’ll have to do to get your Rothfuss fix. While you’re plowing through the series’ 2,000-plus published pages, you won’t mind waiting who knows how long for The Winds of Winter.
Crossing Jordan: Music From the NBC Television Series
Charles P. Pierce: Back in 2003, they released a soundtrack record for Crossing Jordan, the Boston coroner TV series that was Jill Hennessy’s next move after her inexcusable death on Law & Order. It is mostly covers, and most of them are positively glorious. (The great T Bone Burnett gets credit for being a one-man eHarmony for matching artists with material.) Cassandra Wilson is all over Jimi Hendrix’s “Wind Cries Mary,” and Alison Krauss brings a dimension to the Blind Faith ballad “Can’t Find My Way Home” that even Steve Winwood couldn’t find. The Holmes Brothers get all steely-eyed and prophetic on “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond.” But the absolute highlight of the set is Richard Thompson’s staggering take on Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.”
Donovan’s relatively lightweight hippie-mystic piffle mysteriously seems to bring out the best in everyone who tries it out. It was a Donovan tune that was the basis for the Allman Brothers epic “Mountain Jam” from Eat a Peach, and that instrumental covered two entire sides of an album. On Al Kooper’s old Super Session album, Kooper and Stephen Stills did a very tasty version of “Witch,” and the Donovan original was best used by Gus Van Sant in To Die For, when he ran the closing credits over the song as the sister of the murdered man skated merrily over the frozen river that entombed the body of her murderous sister-in-law. But this version is utterly breathtaking, and why somebody didn’t think to match this singer with this song decades ago is beyond me. Thompson’s slowly uncoiling vocal is dead serious; on this, he is the singer that Jim Morrison always pretended to be. The chaotic instrumental breaks sound like Crazy Horse on a very good night.
As I recall, Crossing Jordan was fairly forgettable. Its music is not.