Passing glances: How to link to a book, what Hedy Lamarr did in the war, on discovering Dawn Powell’s diaries

Henrik Ibsen, during a period in which he kept a scorpion in a glass on his desk (somehow it seems perfect that Ibsen would keep a scorpion on his desk), noticed that the insect would sometimes become agitated. If he dropped a small piece of fruit in the glass, the scorpion would sting it and then settle down. The conclusion, drawn either by Ibsen in a journal or by the biographer who reported this, was that an occasional discharge of venom helps restore one’s equanimity, or something to that effect. Allow me to try it here.

In reading Charles McGrath’s article on Anthony Powell in the 11/12/18 New Yorker, I came across a fine sentence, Continue reading


What’s it all about, Charlie? Making sense of ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’


Decisions: it’s what’s for breakfast. (Screencap via Netflix)

Much of what we’ve seen in previous releases of Black Mirror, an anthology series offered by Netflix, is supposed to make us uncomfortable and does. In “Nosedive,” the eagerness of the central character to participate in a social-ranking system that seems destined to slap her down becomes more and more distressing to watch. In “Metalhead,” our anxiety grows as we watch a woman trying to evade what seems at first to be a very persistent robotic guard dog, which eventually seems more like one of the bringers of an apocalypse. We tune in to these episodes to see what fresh horror—or, far less often, what fresh delight—creator Charlie Brooker and his executive producer, Annabel Jones, can envision for our technological future. In the show’s latest iteration, an interactive movie called Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (I’ll call it BM:B for short), we get a lot of the discomfort we expect, but this time the story takes place in the past, and some of our uneasiness may be unintentional—though I doubt it. Continue reading

Passing glances: Amazon, coincidences, and war

In a private forum on the Authors Guild website, a contributor recently posted a link to a New York Times opinion piece bearing the provocative headline “New York Should Say No to Amazon.” The op-ed began by reminding readers, “This week, word leaked that Amazon may be close to finalizing a deal to set up a major operation in Long Island City, Queens” (the link is in the original), and it went on to subject Amazon itself as well as its possible New York expansion to withering criticism. The forum contributor said he had previously favored the deal but now wasn’t so sure, and he asked for other responses. Because the moves, literal and otherwise, of major tech companies are a pressing concern in New York and elsewhere, I’m reposting here the response I wrote for the forum: Continue reading

Reading notes: On Sam Mendes and long-form TV

The 9/24/18 issue of The New Yorker contains an excellent profile of director Sam Mendes by John Lahr, called “Showman” in the printed edition. It reports this, which I had never noticed:

Much to his union’s chagrin, Mendes refuses to benefit from the hard-fought battle for “possessory credit”—you won’t find “A film by Sam Mendes” in the credits for any of his movies. A film, he said, “is written by someone else, shot by someone else. It’s not all me. It’s because of me.”

That comes off as a little less modest than Mendes may have thought, but it’s hard to judge how it sounded when he said it. In any case, it’s clear that he doesn’t think a film comes to exist solely because of him.

Something else that struck me was this: Continue reading

Memory and humility: Two notes on Brett Kavanaugh

One: During the confirmation hearings for the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, disagreements arose over what would seem to be basic facts, such as whether Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Blasey Ford at a party or whether Kavanaugh even attended a party where Ford was present. One thing that’s important to keep in mind while wrestling with questions of what really happened and what it means is that memory can be an unreliable witness. Continue reading

Passing glances: Where Leonard Bernstein meets R.E.M.

This blog has been on vacation. If I had a greater sense of responsibility, I would’ve hung a sign over the image at the top of the landing page saying, “Gone fission—back sooner or later,” but making that look right would’ve taken some work, which is just what I’ve been trying to avoid lately. Are we still on vacation? The Magic 8 Ball prognosticator says, “Ask again later.” Meanwhile, there’s this.

Over the weekend I found myself thinking of how R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe gave a shout-out to Leonard Bernstein amid the rapid-fire, seemingly random patter of the band’s song “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” released in 1987. Continue reading

‘The Americans’: Playing the game of Great Power politics in the 80s

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings in a somewhat stylized promotional image for The Americans.

Killer looks: Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings in a somewhat stylized promotional image for The Americans. (Photo: via FX)

The Americans, an FX drama about two undercover Soviet agents living with their two children near Washington, D.C., in the 1980s, is hurtling toward the conclusion of its sixth and final season. Though it has always kept its hand in the action and intrigue of the spy game, its recent seasons have become more moody, brooding, punctuated with anxious silences—one acquaintance of mine felt it lost its mojo and stopped watching—yet the action has recently picked up again as the show maneuvers its pieces toward a resolution. Continue reading