Monday, March 30, 2009

A week in the life...

Here's what I've been reading, watching, and listening to over the past week.

READING: Jayne Anne Phillips's "Lark and Termite," which was personally recommended to me by Yvonne Zipp, who is one of the best professional book reviewers in the business thanks to her keen insight and black-belt writing chops. (You can read Yvonne’s critique of the book here.) I’ve yet to make enough headway into the story to piece together exactly what “Lark and Termite” is about (if possible, I tend to avoid reading the synopsis on book jacket). The chapters alternate between an American soldier’s horrific experiences in Korea in 1950, and the story of “Lark,” an adopted teenager, and her mute and crippled step-brother, “Termite,” in 1957. Can’t wait to discover how these disparate narratives will dovetail later in the book. Very compelling so far.

The next book I'm going to track down is “Late Nights on Air" by Elizabeth Hay. Neil Peart, the drummer of Rush (and a fine author himself), sold me on it with this review of it on his website. While you're there, do read Neil's latest fine essay.

WATCHING: My wife and I enjoyed "Duplicity," writer-director Tony Gilroy’s followup to “Michael Clayton,” for both its twisty plot about corporate espionage and the zingy dialogue between Clive Owen and Julia Roberts. Can’t help but think that George Clooney would have better suited to the role, though, given his chemistry with Roberts in “Ocean’s 11.” But since “Duplicity” hews close to the tone of “Ocean’s 11,” Clooney may have felt he would be repeating himself were he to re-team with Gilroy on this project. Let’s give a shout out to cinematographer Robert Elswit, who filmed "Michael Clayton" and won the Oscar for "There Will Be Blood," for his handsome lensing on the film. Elswit is the sort of cinematographer capable of making even Murmansk airport look scenic.

Though I’m not usually a fan of TV procedurals, my wife and I have put ABC’s “Castle” on Season Pass on our DVR. Nathan Fillion (r.), formerly captain of the “Firefly" and hitherto known as the poor-man's Jason Bateman, has finally found another TV series worthy of his dour charisma. The premise: Fillion plays Richard Castle, a bestselling crime novelist who finagles his way into a police department to research his next novel. The electricity between the wise-cracking Fillion and Stana Katic, who plays the no-nonsense cop he’s shadowing, threatens to short circuit the wiring in my television.

My absolute favorite series at the moment is "Friday Night Lights." It's unlike anything else on television, which likely accounts for its paltry viewership. For starters, its small-town setting in the fictional berg of Dillon, Texas, is a refreshing alternative to all the other TV shows set in a major US city. Moreover, the show is more interested in exploring the aspirations of working-class Americans than serving up the soap operatics of "Gossip Girl." The central couple in the show, a football coach and his wife, are -- refreshingly for a TV drama -- happily married even if they have to work though various situations. It's a feel-good show, ultimately, and I feel great surges of jubilation in just about every episode. The third season, currently airing, is the best one yet. Despite fears that the series would be axed, NBC has just renewed it through 2011! Hoorah!

LISTENING TO: I only received my copy of “Kingdom of Rust,” the first album by Doves in four years, from the record company a few days ago. Even though I’ve listened to the album about three times, I haven’t been able to have a leisurely listen and really appreciate it, yet. After all, Doves wrap their unforgettable tunes in so many layers of sound textures that you'll spend many nights in a darkened room with headphones trying to unravel them all. That said, wow! There’s not much particularly new or groundbreaking in the trio's sound, but it’s a great consolidation of their sonic strengths and the melodies are terrific. Listen out for tracks such as “10:03,“ “The Great Denier,” and, especially, “Compulsion.” Likely their best yet.

In the past five years, many bands and artists from Mali have broken out of the "world music" ghetto into mainstream success (among them, Tinariwen, Ali and Vieux Farka Toure, Toumani Diabate, Rokia Traore), but none more so than Amadou & Mariam, the blind couple from Bamako. Fresh from playing last year's Lollapalooza, they'll be touring the US as Coldplay's support act. The duo's new album, "Welcome To Mali," was produced by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz, The Good, the Bad, and The Queen), and the record delves into reggae, hip-hop, and Western electronica. The crossover sounds have been controversial among African music purists, but its paid off for the duo -- the album has been embraced by everyone from Tim Rice-Oxley of Keane to the reviewers at Pitchfork. "Welcome to Mali" has enough joie d'vivre to put a smile on the face of a GM stockholder.

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