DIGITAL MEDIA FROM THE INSIDE OUT: My focus is digital content -- production, distribution, collaboration, innovation, creativity. Some posts have appeared across the web (HuffPo, Tribeca's Future of Film, The Wrap, MIPblog, etc.). To receive these posts regularly via email, sign up for my newsletter here.


Wearable Apps: Event in SF

I'm excited to share news of an event coming up on March 27 in San Francisco -- a showcase for the latest new apps built expressly for wearable tech devices (such as 'smart glasses'). Wearable tech is the next frontier of mobile media, offering intriguing opportunities to create useful and delightful experiences with entirely new form factors. 

The developers you will meet and the work you will sample has been created within a new business accelerator targeting wearable tech applications, a collaboration between the Canadian Film Center's ideaBOOST program and Bay Area start-up Mind Pirate, two of my clients. 

It would be great to see you at the event  in San Francisco. To RSVP click . For further assistance, ping me or Alison Hoy at the CFC <> Feel free to forward this invitation to colleagues whom may be interested in wearables, as well.


Quantified ME

I’ve been fat, I’ve been skinny, a roller-coaster of weight gain and loss, more of the former in recent years as I struggled with the impact of colon surgery, a late-stage scoliosis diagnosis. I didn’t seem to be able to control my food intake, and I became convinced that cardio sufficient to lose weight was now impossible for me.

Woe is me, I was thinking, self-pityingly, just as I stumbled across a post by my friend Shelley Palmer, whose blog tracks electronic devices and trends. Indeed, his post did focus on fitness gizmos from Fitbit and Jawbone, which I certainly had heard about given my recent interest in ‘wearable tech.”

I don’t know exactly what grabbed me in Shelly’s post -- dozens of similar stories have appeared across the web as the wearable health industry has taken off. I suspect it was how a person I knew described how he used a calorie counting app and a fitness tracker to lose 58.3 pounds in 189 days, or .3 pounds per day. He elaborates:

It’s not magic; it’s math. 3,500 calories = 1 lb. Every 3,500 calories you eat that you don’t burn, you gain a pound. Every 3,500 calories you burn that you don’t eat, you lose a pound. While this is not strictly true, for reasons that don’t matter here, it is a great baseline to use for changing your lifestyle based upon information you get from monitoring, or quantifying, your calories in and calories out.

Inspired, I ran out to Best Buy that afternoon and left with a Fitbit Flex and a Withings Wifi Scale. I created accounts for both products, as well as MyFitnessPal, an iOS app, and figured out how to link them together.

I’m happy to report that in 51 days I’ve lost 20 pounds, or .4 pounds per day, and along the way I’ve regained control of my food and dramatically increased my exercise, so far without any painful consequences.

This happened, pretty much as Shelly described the quantified self – being able to quantify my calories in and calories burned, and especially knowing in real time when the balance is about to go South. I know if I need to step up my exercise. I know if I need to restrict my food. No, I don’t always obey. But now I have no excuse.

To make this work, I have been diligent about recording calories in the MyFitnessPal app – it syncs between my iPad, iPhone and desktop, so there’s no excuse. The app’s database is immense and fairly accurate, so long as my estimates on portion size are honest.

I’ve also been rigorous about my exercise. I spend at least 40 minutes in the pool, vigorous water aerobics or swimming most weekday mornings. To that, I’ve added a heart-pounding walk each day, seamlessly tracked by my Fitbit, which calculates calories burned, and sends that data to MyFitnessPal. By last weekend I had nearly reached 15,000 steps per day, more than 5 miles. A few months ago, I had trouble with one mile. (Physical therapy with a miracle worker helped me “awaken” specific muscles that had not been firing properly, and that seems to have made all the difference.)

Two days ago I bought a bike, my new bike in more than 20 years, and I’m adding that to the mix.

Final word – music makes all the difference in my energy and motivation to increase my distance. Back when I was a runner, I laboriously programmed audio tape mixes with songs that drove me up hills and poured it on when I needed it. In today’s world, I make custom playlists in Spotify in a fraction of the time using the BPM Database and the All8 BPM tool. Here’s one just made for quick walking called, aptly, 120BPM

I think I’ll go try it, now. 



A month ago I blogged about initial reactions to my new Google Glass wearable computing device, mostly the back story about why I decided to dive into this new world and my initial experiences. 

Well, I've been wearing Glass for about a month now, capturing still images and videos and entertaining my friends. Brilliant of Google to get people like me to pay them for the privilege of evangelizing their product, but hey, it's been fun being the first kid on the block with a new toy. 

My experience with the device was limited to image and video capture, primarily because connectivity is so difficult, especially as I use an iPhone not an Android device. Other problems remain, and I'm sure others will solve them. I'll also leave until another time my comments on the social dimension of this new class of wearable devices, except to say that my encounters wearing Glass produced more curiosity and astonishment than fear or snearing. Subterfuge is not that easy with a glowing cube attached to your forehead.

So herein I offer my first month with the Google Glass camera, a frenetic period with lots of travel, conferences, meetings, and of course the year-end holidays. I reduced my month into five minutes, along the way remembering how to user iMovie and why media editors have a right to be crazy. 

The image quality is, to my eye, pretty damned good for an amateur like me. What's great is the sponteneity of image capture -- especially after Google introduced its "blink" function that allows you to take a still image by blinking, without needing to power up the device. You don't have to find the camera in your pocket, open the app, aim and frame. You just blink. Like one of my friends said, "it's creepy." 

The hands-free essence of the wearable camera turns your body into a steadycam or a dolly, like the shot of my hand holding catfood while following the cat, and the 360-degree pivots that are so fun when you wear the camera. It's a more fragile version of the GoPro, a product I've never used beyond trade show demos. 

The worst thing about Glass' camera is the lack of an actual viewfinder. I couldn't frame shots as easily as I do with my cameraphone. As a result, you'll notice that many of my shots slice off the tops of heads because the camera is positioned slightly above the normal field of vision. 

Now that I'm used to wearing the damned things, I'm going to try to shoot interviews at CES and see if I can create a movie with more content. 


2013 Movies that Got Me Going

‘Twas a very good year for pictures, despite all the noise about the coming cinematic apocalypse, an argument that generally revolves around Hollywood’s addiction to movie franchises and comic book heroes. A) This is not new, Hollywood is about lowest common denominator, always has been; and B) Who cares? Mass appeal movies will be with us always, and rarely have they appealed to me, so let’s move on to those films that got me going this year.

1. American Hustle. Out of the park, Russell hits it out of the f***ing park with a masterful tour-de-force instant film classic. Plucking story elements from the late 70's Abscam sting, Russell and and co-writer Eric Singer embroider a complex tale populated by true American originals, fueled by insatiable greed for money or respect, or both. Everyone is on both sides, some more than others. Jeremy Renner's Camden mayor may be willing to accept a bribe, but he was a victim. Not true for any the remaining principals, a triangle of love, lust, betrayal and ingenuity. All actors a great; Lawrence is astonishing. Russell's directing style is propulsive, with one killer scene piled atop another, and then another. The music and costumes are perfect, and the acting, c'est magnifique. My favorite picture in a year of some strong contenders.

2. 12 Years a Slave. Unflinching, brutal, unsentimental. We see a particularly galling case of a freeman captured into the life of a slave, but his story is but one in a vast and systematic dehumanizing machine that lives in the soul of our nation, in case you wonder why we are still having trouble with many in the South still hating black people. And so it's only fair that the key representative of the system is a psychotic, capricious and truly evil drunk named Edwin Epps. His evil is no more singular than the particular problem of our protagonist. It's not a question of nice and not nice, fair and not fair. It's a question of evil.

3. The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) Sorrentino has slayed me before (Il Divo), and he's done it again here with this homage to La Dolce Vita in a Rome that makes you cry it's so beautiful. The people, including our protagonist, played by the divine Toni Servillo, are monsters. They sleepwalk thru empty lives to the deadening rhythms of deception and toxic levels of self-obsession. Fortunately for us, they do so in some of the most beautiful places on the planet. The parties serve as a kind of nightmarish palette-cleansing between sequential courses featuring different key players in journalist/novelist Jep Gambardella's life -- his midget editor, his new lover who is daughter to a gangsterish disco owner, a mysterious tour guide of empty palazzo rooms, his best friend who has a giraffe, a Mother Teresa-like nun, a corrupt cardinal, an anonymous next door neighbor, who turns out to be a white-collar criminal who gets hauled away by the law.... and on and on. ‘Tis a tad long, but, like a fever dream, worth it for the pictures.

4. Dallas Buyers Club. What the hell happened to McConaughey in the last couple of years? He's turned into one helluva an actor, with two of my favorite performances of the year (MUD was the other). This is a fact-based tale of a ne'er-do-well scamp/drunk who contracts AIDS and fights the medical establishment back in the day, coming to terms with his own homophobia and becoming a kind of weird folk hero. Much has been made of the actor's weight loss (substantial), like a reverse of DeNiro in Raging Bull. By the finale, I got choked up, even knowing all the while I was being manipulated. Willingly when it's done this well.

5. Her. Eerily calibrated to this time in history, a time when technology is recasting our sense of identity and relationship, HER is a gentle what-if near-future-fi love letter of caution and melancholy. The persistent tone here is sadness, laced with hope against hope that somebody out there loves us. Deeply spiritual, without a tinge of religiosity, HER navigates the inner chambers of the heart with delicacy and precision, terms which should also be applied to the wonderful performances by Phoenix, Adams, and yes, Johansson as the voice of Samantha, the intelligent operating system who (seems to) love and leave our hero in a romantic movie of a unique sort. I left feeling and thinking. Pretty good.

6. Fruitvale Station. If ever there was a movie for which Godard's famous quip was perfect, it's Fruitvale Station, which delivers the truth at 24 frames per second. Here we have an ordinary lower-middle-class black guy, hardly perfect, but good to his family, trying hard to keep a job and get away from the drug scene. Wrong place, wrong time in a Shakespearean sense, that "if only" kind of fatalism that breaks the heart open so you can see it beating, thereby revealing more about the watcher than the watched. 

7. Captain Phillips. A suspenseful action picture with more than a plot, Captain Phillips gives Tom Hanks the chance to show how really good an actor he really is, and brings us along for the ride. By the end we understand a lot more about world politics with nary a moment of finger-wagging, and we have empathy for everyone involved in the conflict, however inevitable the ending has to be. First rate filmmaking, but then, what else have we come to expect from Greengrass, who takes what would in the hands of others be a kind of Baroquely manneristic style, and uses it to make us gasp and think at the same time.

8. Gravity. Gasp-worthy effects. Amazing suspense. Complete character transference:  I cannot think of a movie that so powerfully pulls each audience member into the world being created. Certainly in part it is because of the breakthrough CGI. But even more, we identify with Bullock -- what would I do? Oh my gosh, watch out!! We are there with her. And thus, we have all flown in space. Thank you Mr. Cuarón. Oh, yes: Iffy science (why is Bullock's character repairing a space wing, anyway? She's a doctor!).

9. Nebraska. Payne never patronizes these sad, somewhat pathetic mid-country citizens. He lets their story build and gently sweep us along with a bittersweet awareness of the inevitability of regret and redemption in our own lives. Dern's Woody Grant is more than demented from old age and hard-drinking: he's relentless, not just to collect his "winnings" that he thinks he's won in the mail, but something much deeper. The scene when we find out why, played with his son David, will break your heart if you pay close attention to the soft-spoken revelation. Dern reaches a career high, but the surprise is Will Forte as David. As he plays it, David is still trying to win his Dad's approval, even in the face of all odds, his own form of relentlessness which, as it turns out, closes the circle.

10. Mud. One of the best scripts in a long time, and a cast that manages, with a few exceptions, to inhabit this world of poor river folk on the edge of disaster with power and grace. The exception is a badly cast Witherspoon, who just doesn't play poor white trash with much believability or conviction. McConaughey continues his remarkable career re-invention with a charismatic turn as the doomed romantic on the run from the relatives of a bad guy he killed in some sort of misguided defense of the woman he loves, or let's say, the gal he can't get out of his blood. The core of the movie, however, is the coming of age journey of two boys who stumble across the whole operatic story on a day when they thought they were simply exploring the river that is the center of their world. Sheridan and Lofland are exceptional child actors, and Jeff Nichols is a truly great director. 

11. Meet Llewyn Davis. I'm a sucker for the period, the music, and the Coens, so yes, I liked this movie a lot, especially when Llewyn (played in a breakout role by Oscar Isaac) is singing. There's a purity and melancholy in his voice and look that make the whole package believable. And a bit depressing. The Coens have done something difficult, which is to create a sense of longing and nostalgia for a loser. Davis is not Dylan. He's the non-Dylan -- one of the hundreds of wannabee folkies with a guitar and some yearning, playing in second-rate coffee houses for tips. And we learn (spoiler) that he deserved to stay there, not only because is he second-rate, but because he's so contrarian and mean. Mean to his sister, girlfriend, best friend, strangers, really, to everyone but the damned cat, who steals the show in what has to be a nod to YouTube. You think you've seen cat videos, we'll show you.

12. Stories We Tell. Polley's story is interesting enough, but the brilliance of the movie is in the telling, her remarkably agile shaping of the documentary form into a kind of psychological forensics exercise. She's a geologist of the mind, revealing in successive and contradictory moments just how flawed our memories turn out to be. We believe what we want to believe. We believe the truth of others. We believe what we need to believe to survive. Until one member of the family decides to uncover the "real" truth. I thought several times of Mike Leigh's great "Secrets and Lies" and wondered, how did Polley do this?

Honorary Mention to a quartet of flicks that look at contemporary youth. Oh my!

The Bling Ring. Welcome to modern life, the way we live now. Yes, even though the materialistic and fame-obsessed LA teens that populate this "based on a true story" story seem extreme. But clearly, we're meant to look at ourselves and see how the dominant features of our everyday culture provide fertile ground into which these bad seed were able to sprout and grow. That, and perhaps the worst security systems in the world. It's fun and horrifying to go along for the ride, voyeurs in a game we cannot quite believe. This is not a great movie, but it was a lot of fun and was, at least, about more than the rash of potty-mouth buddy movies intended to document and appeal to this demographic. Coppola has a deft touch, and she knows these kids.

Spring Breakers. Lower middle class versions of the Bling Ring Gang, the girls in this hallucenogenic trip of a movie just wanna have fun. Instead, they go gun crazy during Spring Break in Florida, hooked on the erotic adrenaline rush of power (and a whole lot of drugs and booze). Plotwise, this here is a stretch, though you cannot fault the actresses, who shake their tail feathers mightily to make us believe, as does the scary creepy white-trash Gangsta impersonation delivered by James Franco. Korine's washed out Florida pastel palette, hip-hoppish jittery-editing style and disoriented camera conspire to deliver a woozy terrorist postcard to the civilized who don't want to admit that yes, maybe this could be the future.

This is the End. I so didn't expect to like this, so much so that it took a particularly unsavory airplane menu of pictures before I even tried this live-action cartoon, hatched in the ganja-marinated minds of Rogan and his posse. At once a satire of Hollywood's contemporary brat pack and disaster movies, Rogan and his gang pull it off, probably out of sheer energy. For a coda, watch Rogan and company roast James Franco on Comedy Central. Same vibe. Call it social-media comedy. We're invited into what appears to be an unmediated look at celebrity life. Like "Person-to-Person," only Rogan takes over Murrow's role.

Don Jon. Jon Martello is Tony Manero, only he whacks off instead of disco dances. He's a working class wop with a dead end job, a noisy stereotype of a family, a gang of gumbahs he hangs with at the bar where he scores with the ladies, which they rank numerically. What saves the first half of the pic is the razor editing and the cold-eyed depiction of how he (we) use porn -- to get lost, as Jon puts it. When the story, and our hero, shift gears, we stop buying, but for a debut, Gordon-Levitt does a damn good job. Performances are all fine, if to type... meaning, it's hard to take your eyes off Johansson, who is a great bitch, and G-L compels, as well.


Books: My 2013 reviews

Yes, I read a lot, averaging about one per week in the past few years. I’m now aided in this process by audiobooks in the car and Kindle downloads on flights, but that’s just circumstance. I finished the entire shelf of Perry Mason novels by third grade. I read the every book on the New York Times best-seller list in 1963, as well as finishing up Dickens and Dostoyevsky. I ran out of shelves in my little library, just in time for eBooks. I have a backlog.

Books have been with me, often instead of friends, since I was five, when I learned to read. An Army brat, I learned that books were more available and reliable than people. Tragic in one way. Liberating in another.

Thus, herein, I share my reviews of books with my highest ratings on Goodreads, where I post regularly. I have made no effort to provide a list of the best books published this year. For that, please go elsewhere. What you get is my take on what I enjoyed the most, a characteristic mix of mysteries, non-fiction, and literary fiction. I guess I just love stories, every possible kind. (Here’s the complete list for 2013.)

The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, #4) by Robert Caro

Caro is a great storyteller, and what a story he has to tell in this fourth volume of the massive biography of Lyndon Johnson. From the 1960 Presidential race through LBJ's transition to the Presidency following JFK's assassination, there is a wealth of dramatic incident, all based upon the author's legendary historical research. I've been a fan of Caro's since his debut book on Robert Moses, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and have a minor obsession about LBJ, having lived in Texas during some of the period covered in this book (I was in Junior High, if you must know). The vivid power struggle between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy is but one of the elements of the book which kept me gripped and turning pages. It was also revelatory to make comparisons on the iron grip of the Congress held by conservatives (in both parties) which LBJ faced in passing his domestic agenda -- it's not all that different today with progress impeded by die-hard conservatives, mostly from the South, except of course, most are in the GOP, and have been since Johnson's policies drove them out of the Democratic Party. One more volume to go, and you can bet I'll be reading it, as well.

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by R. J. Smith

I saw James Brown perform twice, once at a high school prom on a riverboat in Memphis, Tennessee (1965) and once in a club in Aspen, Colorado (1980). In the first instance, like a lot of white kids, I wanted so very much to dig him, a kind of cultural expression of the same impulse that led to our support of the civil rights movement. We could dance too, maybe not as well, but there was solidarity from heel to ass to head. By the time of the latter encounter, his star, somewhat tarnished by an inscrutable association with Richard Nixon and "black capitalism", was in decline. Didn't stop him (and me) from getting on a table and flinging sweat all over the room, ears abustin' and joy abounding. This book brings it back, and much much more, a well-told story, a good biography. Brown clawed his way from poverty to a global iconic status few have matched, with an uncanny sense of how to grab and keep the spotlight, fueled by an innate and revolutionary understanding of music, rhythm and popular sentiment. He spotted and often crossed a transgressive line. Eager for respect, he often played the fool. He was mean to those with whom he worked and the women he loved. He used his fame, sometimes well, frequently poorly. He was an addict who had crusaded against drugs. Utterly fascinating book whose author clearly loves the man, the legend, and especially the music. But as much as I enjoyed reading about that, it ain't nuthin' compared to listening, which is what I'm doing now -- all of the hits and much more, convenient on Spotify. Check that out too!

The Redeemer: A Harry Hole Novel (4) and Phantom (Harry Hole, #9) by Jo Nesbø

Nesbø has earned his way into the top ranks of police procedurals, taking the time-worn conventions of crime, detection and detectives to a new level. Were it not for the foreignness of people and place names (Norwegian, of course), his Harry Hole novels would slide easily into the long and noble history of the best of the genre. I love Harry : damaged, idealistic, relentless, compassionate, brutal.  

‘The Redeemer’, which I think was only recently released in translation, is the fourth in the series, well before Harry has self-immolated and left the force and decamped to Asia (spoiler), but all of the signs are there ... his on-again, off-again sobriety and struggles with drink, his willful disobedience of superiors, his dogged commitment and intelligent improvisation. The coda(s) contain some surprises, putting the whole corruption motif that suffuses this series into bas-relief. Who's the bad guy, anyway? It's never easy to tell in a world of grayness and moral bet-hedging.

Fast-forward to ‘Phantom’ (Episode 9), where we find Harry coming back to Oslo to save the son of his ex-lover Rakel, whose lives were endangered during the denouement of ‘The Snowman’. The kid has gotten lost in the city's drug culture that’s formed around "Violin," a synthetic form of heroin that is being manufactured in. As always, Nesbø delivers an extremely satisfying plot, with peaks and valleys of action tied to the unfolding of the mystery, which is as much about people as events. Modern Norwegian society is also a character, like all good policiers.

The Woods by Harlan Coben

Coben is one of those guys who have managed to fill up a shelf of his own at the library without managing to attract my interest, except when his mystery "Tell No One" was adapted for the screen in France a few years ago to great effect. There must be something there, I thought, and I picked up this audiobook. I find mysteries the perfect auto-companion in traffic-clogged L.A, and this did not disappoint. I've picked up several others, and I can now tell you, there is a fairly predictable set of Coben elements. What is amazing is how unevenly the formula seems to work. In this rather longer version of the Coben plot machine, we have a nice clockwork involving a seemingly dead murder case from the past (check), a mysterious gang of super-effective bad guys from whom escape seems impossible because they know everything (check); an Asian guy with lethal martial arts skills (check); ambiguous police ethics (check), a rich family obsessed with teaching Our Hero a lesson (check); a family foundation and a lot of legal shenanigans (check); and a deep and abiding love (check). On top of that, we also have a protagonist as county prosecutor in northern New Jersey (setting: check) and a pretty good legal thriller with a moral center. Kind of a suspense/potboiler in a way, but I enjoyed. Not so much the second and third time around -- q.v. my other Coben reviews.

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen

Hiaasen was made for audiobook listening in the car, unless you hate the idea that other drivers might see you as you guffaw out loud. They can't hear you laugh, but they can see you. Around and about Los Angeles in the past few weeks, I was that guy laughing in traffic next to you, and I was crazy with delight. As usual with Hiaasen, we meet a cavalcade of crazies -- his heroes are just as likely to be missing one or two screws as his villains. To wit: former Key West detective Andrew Yancy, defrocked and demoted to restaurant inspector on account of stuffing a portable vacuum cleaner up the arse of the husband of his girlfriend in the middle of Mallory Square. And then wonders why that's a problem. Or the antagonist, a pudgy housewife type who holds a funeral for her late lamented husband's arm, the only bodily remnant available. The arm is a great character, too, but that would require a spoiler, which I won't do here. Suffice it to say, this is another entertaining charmer from the best satirist writing in America, well, at least in Florida.

Strip and Silence by Thomas Perry

I've crossed the threshold into serious obsession over Thomas Perry, especially the Tantor audiobooks featuring a great reader, Michael Kramer (No, I don't believe that he’s THAT Michael Kramer). Thomas Perry is just a killer of a writer: tense, clean prose that delivers a freight-train of a plot, or maybe a formula one race car, complete with twists and turns.  There’s always a large cast of characters positioned along the good-guy/bad-guy axis, a scale that features much more gray than either black or white.

In ‘Strip’, a Bulgarian immigrant semi-crook runs a chain of nocturnal establishments on both sides of the hill in L.A. -- regular dance clubs in Hollywood, strip clubs in the Valley. What starts with the misidentification of a crook who has robbed him during a bank deposit, leads to the unfolding of a classic Perry switchback plot involving cops, major domo's, drug dealers, strippers, thugs, club hoppers, petty thieves, the requisite psycho's, and of course, the mysterious man whose identify was mistaken in the first place and is the closest thing we get to a protagonist. I got added pleasure listening to this in the car as I drove, often uncannily, at or near the various L.A. locations in the story. A new form of interactive fiction: my car was controlling the plot, maybe?

In ‘Silence’ it doesn't hurt that the characters are extremely attractive, amoral, and smart ... so much fun to watch them play. The protagonists (one man, an ex-cop PI; one woman, a former restaurateur on the lam) are liars, though managing a form of morality in love for their families. Really, I've not enjoyed a new suspense author discovery as much as I have these Perry novels since Michael Connelly. I really, really like 'em.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Chabon's near his peak as a novelist who can simultaneously deliver a merciless satire (in this case, uber-hipster interracial Berkeley) while making you care about his wonderful cast of sweet and crazy characters who stumble thru life with their hearts in their hands and their community in their hearts. What a great feeling to laugh out loud, repeatedly, while reading in bed. And to turn pages compulsively because you just can't wait to see how it all turns out. Chabon's assured pace lets the story build, incident after incident, woven together by the unforgiving hand of the past reaching into every moment to claim restitution, dare one say to exact pre-death karma, but that's certainly how it feels. I love the detail from a past that includes the Black Panther Party, velour track suits, big hair, vinyl records, jazz and blues, Tarantino groupies, confused teen sexuality, midwifery, analog amplification technology and so much more. This is a movie waiting for an audience of at least one: me.

A Delicate Truth by John LeCarré

Recent LeCarré-- by which I mean of course the lengthening list of novels he has written since the demise of the Cold War, his great narrative engine -- has drawn fire from critics who seem to believe that his idealism is too shrill. They take issue with plots centered around a parade of bad Western players, particularly American institutional villains like drug companies, banks, and corporate thugs of various sorts. They decry the loss of LeCarré’s unique contribution to the canon, namely the ambiguous gray nether-world of moral ambiguity within which spies on both sides of the Cold War found themselves inhabiting. Today's stories are too black-and-white! I for one am grateful to LeCarré for elevating his critique to the level of art, which is what he does here, well, at least the kind of art that kept me up into the wee hours flicking page after page to find out what would happen. The subject is a botched anti-terrorism episode engineered by a non-governmental cabal of right wing money and ambitious corporate security types living at the edge of the British and US governments. Seems ripped from the pages of the news to me, hardly an exaggeration. What makes it all so compelling are the characters, people with whom LeCarré has had decades of experience -- men (mostly) who navigate the halls of Whitehall and Westminster and the towers of Canary Wharf by means of lies, murder, cover-up and money. What makes it exceptional is the sheer skill with which, even at 89, this writer masters the tools of his craft.

Three Seconds by Roslund Anders

Taut - that's the word blurb writers use to describe suspense thrillers. This is so taut, the string nearly breaks. Also appropriate: ingenious, as in, ingenious plotting. Trains running on parallel tracks, at one point three or four, all barreling along to a tunnel that they must get through. Masterful plotting is what gets us there, though by the last 50 pages, the driver is wanting to verify what you already know. Still. I'd pay for ingenious.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

‘Life After Life’ delivers a kind of alternate-reality fictional take on the 20th century life of a British family with issues -- think of the movie 'Memento' and you'll get it half right, the other half being classic British family-drama fiction. Her beautiful writing and fully realized characters, tinged with moral dilemmas all over the place, save this from being a slightly hot mess, to be expected perhaps when a writer of her skill and stature tries to pull off such a high-wire act.

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

A sweeping epic of New York left-wing Jewish life in the last half of the 20th century, Lethem creates an amusing, acerbic, knowing story in which a large cast (not all Jewish) navigate the touchstones of political and cultural life through a very specific lens. It's a lens I'm quite fond of, though it kind of ran out of steam 2/3 of the way through, in part because the prolix prose wears upon ones ears when trapped in a car with this stuff. This book didn’t come anywhere nearly as close to my heart as his divine Motherless Brooklyn, or even Chronic City, two great earlier works, but I give him extra points for ambition, which is clearly to pick up where Bellow, and especially Roth, left off.

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

I have loved Ms. Home's voice and fearless dive into contemporary psyches ever since I first began reading her short stories. Here again, she delivers the authentic first-person POV of a person of a different gender than herself as she tells the story, Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving, of a man in the throes of a horrendous mid-life crises. Spoiler: the fulcrum of the story is a fatal car accident triggered by his hostile older brother in which people in the other car are killed and the brother is hospitalized, though not for long. He self-discharges and goes home to find our protagonist in bed with the wife, whereupon he bludgeons her with a lamp. Complications, as they say, ensue, as if that wasn't complicated enough. This is a story of family, weird extensions and encounters that redefine family as this uncertain central character, a second-rate academic with an obsession for Richard Nixon, navigates the unfamiliar waters of deep emotional connection. There are the brothers' kids, already troubled, and the offspring of the car accident victim. There are the women he meets online. And parents all over the place. And African chieftains and Julie Nixon Eisenhower. There's a charming, shaggy-dog quality to the unfolding of the story, and a few preposterous plot points, but while in each scene, her language is always precise and taut, the voice clear and usually funny, and the gaze into the matters of the heart unblinking.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Chilling, stunning, nearly unbelievable: the story of Scientology told herein leaves one gasping. How could this have happened? The book, so well-written it hurts, tells us how a young L. Ron Hubbard stumbles from one scam and lie to another until he hits finally upon the idea of a "religion," and then proceeds to command a worldwide audience with the original Dianetics craze, and one of the most successful "self-help" books in history. We learn, mainly through the eyes of Paul Haggis, the fiilm and TV writer-director whose 35-year relationship with the "church" ended in a very public way, just how paranoid, powerful, rich and crazy the cult became, especially under Hubbard's successor David Miscavage. My own awareness of Scientology is episodic -- I remember the Ramparts Magazine story in the 70’s, tales of terrorizing critics and locking up those who wanted to leave. I became aware of the relentless recruiting and wealth aggregation by simply living in two of its main centers, DC and LA. And then the crazy Tom Cruise and Hollywood stuff, well, by then it had become very public. What I found most amazing was the early days of the movement. I need to go back and watch THE MASTER again. Very telling.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwen

Of the mysteries McEwan spins, by far the greatest has to do with matters of the heart (and the body), the espionage aspect being a self-admitted bus-and-truck version of the kind of Cold War tale so well told by LeCarre. Indeed, the novelist has fun gently satirizing such genre conventions as the mechanics of trade craft, betrayals by double- and triple-agents, soulless bureaucratic snafu's and the angst that comes to those who lead a double life. Where he really excels, as always, are the mechanics of falling in and out of love and the atmospherics and tone of the Cold War settings in and around London. Not easy being a spy when the government is falling apart and everyone is smoking dope and screwing like bunnies. McEwen delivers his pleasures seemingly effortlessly, and even with heavy and obvious foreshadowing, the final reveal carries an especially yummy aha moment.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

I love David Mitchell's sentences, tone, ambition and talent. My bookish infatuation started when I stumbled across The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), thanks to my friend Alison. It's a historical novel set within the Dutch enclave of Edo-era Japan, but is like no other period piece I'd ever read. Then I devoured Cloud Atlas, and I was a goner. I loved that book so much, I gave copies as Christmas gifts two years ago and attended the movie its first night (liked, not loved the adaptation). I started Black Swan Green months ago, got interrupted, and it took a while to get back into it. This is a tiny gem, not an epic: essentially a coming-of-age story in a small English village. Not unlike Rowling's recent The Casual Vacancy, only better written and more focused on a single family. Not a lot happens of great note, unless you count divorce, infidelity, theft, bullying, teenaged lust, and revenge. Felt like updated Austen, actually.

The Nightmare: A Novel by Lars Kepler

THE NIGHTMARE is, without a doubt, a mystery, a suspenseful mystery triggered by a police investigation, but it is also a social-issue novel, fiercely uncovering the international traffic in illegal arms sales. This is a complicated story with multiple twists and turns, with the authors (yes, there are two writing together under a pen name) diving deeply into the history and psychology of many characters who are caught up in a nightmarish killing spree that is, ironically, centered around the villain's mind game centered on his victims' nightmares. There is a lot of over the top action, which began to wear on me ... how many times can the superhero hired killer track, kill, escape and kill again? And there are certain leaps of faith needed, especially for me, around the villain. But I was willing to cut some slack because the hero, a Finnish-born Swedish detective who was also the hero of THE HYPNOTIST and THE FIRE WITNESS (which I will finish soon) is everything you want in a hero. And because of the frequently lyrical depiction of relationships between the large cast of the broken and the brave.

Lionel Asbo: The State of England by Martin Amis

I can't for the life of me understand how I could have read so many books without diving into Martin Amis, whose reputation I've known for years. I loved Lionel Asbo -- the book, not the character, as he is an unrepentant thug, boor, slob, creep, and evidently, for Amis, a stand-in for everything that's wrong with England these days. A working class hero, indeed: this is what the poor would do if they got rich: basically the same thing as the rich, only without manners. I add a shout-out to the audiobook narrator Alex Jennings, who really performs all roles with intense brio and cheer, not to mention what to this Yank's tin ear, replicate the sounds of class-based English accents, replete with slang and short-hand. I doubt it would have made as big an impact on the page. I confess to be a bit confused by the ending. Who DID let in the dogs? Maybe we're not supposed to know.