Another break in the schedule: More short reviews

Because we gotta keep it real, keep it fresh, 100 words or fewer, yo, not counting shorties w/ one or two letters:

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach (Norton, 2006)
Children who have uncanny memories of “past lives.” Ectoplasm photographed spewing out of a psychic’s nose. “Spirit voices” caught on tape at the scene of a tragedy. Are these proof that a few feisty souls fly among us? Or are they the scientifically explainable product of overactive minds or charlatans? Mary Roach, the author of Stiff, goes on a deeply researched, wickedly droll hunt for answers. She’s a funny, engaging tour guide, though the book does drag in spots. But it’s hard not to enjoy an author whose prose is peppered with phrases like “…the discarnate Lady Prudentia was trying to communicate with him via his spell-checker.”
–Lisa Parrish

Brightblack Morning Light, Brightblack Morning Light (Matador, 2006)
BML have a neo-hippy aesthetic and mindset steeped in slow soul-blues gospel straight out of Muscle Shoals. The songs amble along, but never lose their plot or purpose, driven lazily by a Fender Rhodes groove set up by Rachael “Rabob” Hughes and bluesy wah-wah-inflected guitar from Nathan “Nabob” Shineywater. Breathy, incomprehensible vocals ride over this mix, anchored by slinky percussion. Spookily marvelous touches glide in and out: blatting horns, fluttering flutes, splashy cymbal crescendos. I have no idea what any of it means, really, but it’s all about the mood — darkly confident, spiritual, earthy, expansive.
–Tim Wager

all hail queen helen

The Queen, dir. Steven Frears (2006)
This is, hands down, my movie of the year, something I didn’t expect from a film about the week following Princess Di’s death. The fever-pitch tension comes from struggles between the Royals and the fledgling Blair regime over how the nation should respond. Helen Mirren, as Elizabeth II, epitomizes mid-century British restraint and private grief (or the lack thereof); Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair, set to modernize the monarchy, has a better sense of the people’s need to memorialize “their” Princess. Both characters budge and emerge transformed, but Blair’s recognition of the painfulness of pragmatism reminds us how utopian his idealism once was. The film is flawless — even if the originals aren’t.
Bryan Waterman

ho ho ho

The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum (Knopf, 1996)
Nissenbaum, an eminent American historian, recounts the “invention” of the “Old Dutch” holiday in early 19c New York City. Proceeding from a reexamination of Clement Clark Moore’s famous poem, the book suggests that when he “sprang from [his] bed to see what was the matter” the poem’s speaker expected a housebreaking: working-class “Callithumpian Bands” made a racket each Christmastime as they upended the social order and demanded the bosses’ best (the figgy pudding they wouldn’t leave without). How we came from such class-conscious street pageantry to the sentimentalized commercialism we still suffer today is a hell of a ride even the Grinch would enjoy. File under: smartipants stocking stuffers.
Bryan Waterman

Indoor heating
We have to wait a few more decades for global warming to eliminate winter entirely, which means lately it’s been cold out — and the cold wants in. My apartment building is heated the old-fashioned way, with steam in pipes controlled by a central boiler. Result: too hot most of the time, so we keep the windows cracked and waste heat. Also, my room doesn’t have a real window, so it gets very hot at night, and dry. OTOH, my office has some new-fangled heating system that has decided not to work at all. So I spent the day periodically standing up and rubbing myself all over, prompting a few stares from colleagues. Overall verdict: nice in theory, but the execution needs work.
–Dave B

3 responses to “Another break in the schedule: More short reviews”

  1. Stephanie Wells says:

    Dave, that is the best review of all time. I look forward to the summer version, re: AC.

  2. MB says:

    I completely agree with your assessment of The Queen. The movie far surpassed my expectations. Three things I find myself thinking about a day after having seen the film:

    1) The inclusions of the stag and stalking–if a little heavy-handed–were also brilliant. Not only did they prove an interesting metaphor and foil for how the press and royalty treated Diana, their inclusion also called to mind how many times I’ve seen people of the queen’s generation fixate on an object other than the one at hand as a way for them to sort out their grief or confusion.
    2) I appreciate that the filmmaker’s didn’t let Diana steal the show. The use of news clips and photos from her life proved to be an uderstated way of recalling her life and also served as a reminder that for most of us, all we knew about her came from the press..
    3) The film was also a great reminder about how goodness usually comes in imperfect packages: the calling up of Winston Churchill early on, the tracing of Diana’s tulmultuous life, and the exacting account of the queen’s and Tony Blair’s decisions in the days after Diana’s death, all point to the notion that leadership–and an ability to put goodness into the world–often comes from flawed and imperfect people..

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