Cool Stuff to Read, See, & Hear

“Anathem” (Neal Stephenson)

I’m currently about halfway through Stephenson’s latest book and it is an amazing, rich, thought-provoking, deeply intellectual, and engrossingly emotional novel. The kind of novel that you want to live in for a good long while. Even though I have over 400 pages to go, I’m already a bit sad that it will end in such a short time! With all the hype and build up focusing on the semantics of the world, I was afraid it would be a bit like Clockwork Orange, creating a rich and varied world but with the language being a pretty high barrier to entry into that world. However, Anathem is nothing of the sort. Yes there are words and cultural signifiers that are alien and I’m glad that he included a lexicon of words so you can look up key terms, but as a whole, the book is remarkably accessible. While there are some brain-twisting sections (especially if you aren’t used to thinking about geometric or logic problems), they are so integral to the story and the characters that they are no more off-putting than a description of a room or a character’s emotional state. Stephenson is a master at incorporating lessons—on the creation of money (among many other things) in his Baroque Cycle, on cryptography in Cryptonomicon, or on geometry and metaphysics here—into his novels without being pedantic or boring.

Anathem is quickly becoming one of my favorite science fiction novels of all time and I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who likes their novels rich with ideas and intrigue and characters that feel like old friend, or who likes their world-making detailed, internally consistent. This is a book that will offer you a new world and make you look at ours in a new way.

“Burn After Reading [Theatrical Release]” (Focus Features)

I have to admit that I’ve missed the last several films by the Coen brothers, but am sure glad I saw this one. There is something very relaxed about this movie. Not so much in the content, but in the execution of the movie. I don’t mean relaxed in a lazy way, but relaxed in the way that a gymnast can make the most complex routine look effortless. The script is tight, nearly pitch perfect and treats the audience to one of the best comedy of errors made this decade: perfectly balancing the laughs with a dark undercurrent of tragic ridiculousness. In addition, the characters all zig toward stereotypes but then zag into complexity. Well, almost all of them. Of the main characters, Tilda Swinton’s never quite makes that zag, which is a shame because she’s an incredible actor. The actors, even Swinton (given her character’s limitations), are at the top of their game. Even the minor characters are invested with a fullness that I usually associate with British films more than most American ones.

One of my pet peeves about movies in general, is that characters often seem to come from some never-never land where they have never watched movies or television or read spy novels or romance novels or science fiction novels or . . . you get my point. Most characters in movies don’t carry around the models of reality that we all carry around in our heads. All those books and movies and popular musics and television shows that tell us the world is like this and people are like that. These modesl have an impact on how we behave. Not only on how we behave, but how we actually see the world. The characters in Burn After Reading seem to be making their lives up as they go, and are doing so in ways that reflect a whole set of mental models that include how one might act in a movie or on television. Don’t misunderstand, the movie is not a collection of post-modern references and the character’s never mention movies or tv shows. Instead, the Coen brothers present us with characters whose actions make sense only if they have been raised on a steady diet of popular media.

While I’m sure that Brad Pitt will get a lot of attention for his performance because he is so damn good at playing silly-funny and does it so rarely, and Frances McDormand is as wonderfully delightful as usual, for my money, George Clooney’s performance is the richest and most nuanced of the film. He’s not a very likable guy, but he undergoes a rather profound journey. In fact, his story is almost too serious at times in comparison to the overall tone of the movie. Almost. In the hands of a less accomplished actor, or less accomplished writers and directors, his character might have upset the balance and tone. In the hands of Clooney and the Coens, however, it all just works.

This is a movie that I look forward to watching again and is well worth seeing in the theater.

“Systems/Layers” (Rachel’s)

Along with the Clogs, the Rachel’s are one of my new favorite bands. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot more instrumental music and finding myself drawn to the images and emotions that I can find through music without words. There is a freedom of interpretation to programmatic music and the Rachel’s are evocative and full of humor, intrigue and suspense. I get images of foggy mornings, looking out on a winter scene through a window fogged with breath, a dark-haired woman smiling sadly. And that’s just one song listened to once. Every time I listen I see different images, feel different emotions.

Here is one of their songs from Systems/Layers set to some archival film:

So those are some of my recommendations. What are you reading, watching, listening to?

On this day..

One thought on “Cool Stuff to Read, See, & Hear

  1. Brad Pitt can be so funny, as long as he’s not taking himself too seriously… in any case, it’s about time someone made good use of his habitually spastic arm movements

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