A roundup of things consumed by our contributors.
A late contender for one of my favorite books of the year (superlatives to be continued soon), Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? (Liveright) bears a coy (but beautiful) cover, and a title worthy of harsh judgment. Yet within, we obtain fine inquiry into the inception of the universe, on par with Sagan and Tyson at their shepherding best, if not with the specificity of Hawking. I am a Big Bang enthusiast always wondering who can take me higher, like the Creed song of old sayeth. Holt is an admirable guide through mythology and physics alike, often in unison, and often preceding one after the other. Even for a hands-to-the-sky atheist such as myself, Holt and his astute and varied interview subjects tend to arrive at variations on the notion that as of now we cannot now the exact cause of our splooging forth against the galaxy’s walls. And so for Holt, the bravery and poetry alike stem from the pursuit and the will to cast a very wide net. He is a true wit, and an old world rabblerouser of the most open and eager of ilks. In a genre which can often either get too preachy, too vague, or too exclusively mathematical, Holt successfully strikes an accord between what we often want and what our surroundings tell us is most likely the case. An ideal companion for the increasingly unforgiving grit of winter winds.
And while it is not at all apropos for a 2012 Indexing, let alone an end-of-year wrap up: I continue to be amazed by the works of Claire Denis, after having this week seen her 1999 film Beau Travail for the first time. Travail feels like one of the true masterpieces of that decade: a simultaneously sexy and gritty adaptation of Billy Budd, recalibrated onto a pack of French Legionnaires training in Djibouti. Great performances and an interesting script shine, but the star is Denis, who is so precise in her editing and composition of shots that the result is a true symphony. It’s The Hurt Locker meets The Master, yet unique to each, and very much its own startling thrill.
I spent last weekend in Massachusetts, a trip that involved two seven-hour-long bus rides and a pair of two-hour-long ferry trips. So yeah, I did a lot of reading. Admittedly, I was kind of playing catch-up for my “favorite books of 2012 released in 2012” list, so this was a welcome stretch of time indeed.
It didn’t hurt that Nantucket’s Nantucket Book Works and Mitchell’s Book Corner are both terrific shops — I picked up a number of books for myself, along with some holiday gift shopping. I am, perhaps, most excited to read John McPhee’s The Crofter and the Laird, which could be the most Scottish-sounding book ever.
On to two highlights of the trip, reading-wise…
T. Fleischmann’s Syzygy, Beauty is billed as “An Essay” on the front cover. And while art (and, in a broader sense, aesthetics) is touched on, Fleischmann’s tone is far from dry. Instead, this is a stark meditation on identity, gender, and creation. Put the biggest emphasis on the last of those: creation in the physical sense, in the artistic sense, and as a kind of revamping of the self. This is a short book, but it’s liable to get into your head in a variety of ways.
Elena Passarello’s Let Me Clear My Throat is also fantastic. It’s a collection of essays on the human voice — which means that Passarello can cover everything from the Wilhelm Scream to the aging of Frank Sinatra’s voice to her own experience as an actress delivering the word “Eww.” Passarello intersperses these passages with monologues that highlight certain characteristics of the voice. I’m not sure I loved the extended ventriloquism metaphor that closed out the book, but overall, I was impressed.
I also watched Lincoln, which (no shocker here) impressed the hell out of me. It also made me want to see James Spader and John Hawkes co-star in a buddy comedy, but hey…
I read two devastating longform journalism pieces this week. Maybe it’s the Christmas and holiday season that editors decide to break out their heartbreakers. The first was the New Yorker piece on homeless and gay teens, called “Netherland.” I was devastated by their circumstances, but also how they could tell dreams might be fading away. The second was the New York mag piece on a Stamford, CT fire last Christmas. One of the victims had studied fire for major companies and fire safety was one of his top priorities.