Don’t Die, by Bryan Johnson

Don’t Die, by Bryan Johnson (Kindle and self-published paperback, 247 pages)

A few months ago, Time magazine profiled Bryan Johnson with a headline “The Man Who Thinks He Can Live Forever.” It was the latest in a spate of publicity for the 46-year-old entrepreneur who, like Moses, climbed a mountain and descended with a bunch of new rules for everyone.

Since that life-altering trek to Mt. Kilimanjaro, Johnson divorced his wife, left his religion, got un-depressed and devoted his life to what he considers humanity’s most pressing challenge: vanquishing death. His days are now spent undergoing a series of interventions and protocols intended to elude, or at least forestall, death, and recruiting others to the cause.

“Don’t Die” is both Johnson’s motto and the name of his new book, which is free on Kindle (a paperback costs around $7). That in itself is evidence that Johnson is not “normal” in any sense of the word; anyone with his following on social media could find a traditional publisher and a respectable advance if they are willing to play ball with editors. But Johnson is determined to follow his own vision, however odd it seems to the rest of the world. He has said he’s not interested in what his contemporaries think of him, but what people who live centuries from now think of him. In other words, he don’t need no stinkin’ editors and he doesn’t care about his critics.

Consequently, Don’t Die is, at times, a bewildering mess with occasional forays into brilliance.

The book begins reasonably enough, with an introduction in which Johnson describes a bit of his journey. Then it descends into a fanciful dialogue among a series of characters built on the various facets of himself that journeyed up Mt. Kilimanjaro. These characters are largely self-explanatory through their crude names: Scribe, Model Builder, Authority Seeker, Farm Boy, Cognitive Bias, Relentless, Game Play, Dark Humor, Self Critical and so forth. (Why there is no consistency among these names — e.g., Game Player — why some nouns and some adjectives, I could not tell you.)

There are two other beings in the narrative: Blueprint, a newcomer to the group (and the real-life name of Johnson’s “don’t die” initiative) and Depression, a character/state that the rest of the group left on the mountain, which some regret doing.

Conversations with these versions of himself comprise most of the book, in ways that are occasionally interesting, and in other ways that make you want to throw your phone (or alternative viewing device) out the window.

For instance, in one, the “group” discusses the growth of automation, accompanied by “a slow erosion of human decision-making.” While most people would think of this in terms of, say, a robot filling a fast-food order, Johnson wants to hasten the world to a place where “mind-off” automation governs our bodily functions, as he believes our natural processes are inefficient and poorly designed. As such, he believes we need to “demote” the conscious mind as the decision-making entity in favor of autonomous systems that get feedback from all our body’s stakeholders about what our bodies need. For example, in this manner of thinking, our liver should have more say in what we consume (and what we do all day) than our impulsive mind.

Not only will this give us longer lives, but it will magnify human potential. As the character Blueprint says in the dialogue, “a world of autonomous selves will open up a proportional step change in freed-up energy, which will then allow the upleveling of the modern human mind to whatever we will one day be. The change will be as powerful as the one from ancient to modern human. One can only dare imagine what we will do and what our experience of existence may be.” He believes that as much progress as humans have made, we could still be, right now, living in a sort of “Cognitive Paleolithic” age and that the only way out is to rise above the modern mind, which he calls “frail, ambitious, bullying, timid, and riddled with bias and error.”

OK, so what about the not dying part, and why does Johnson call himself “Zero,” going so far as to use that as his pen name and social media handle?

In all this Philosophy 101-level discussion, Johnson does insert the protocols that he says are effectively de-aging parts of his body, things like the perfectly calibrated vegan diet of 2,250 calories “spread out over optimal times during the day” and not drinking fluids after 4 p.m. so he doesn’t wake up during the night.

The foodstuff he talks about on podcasts is all there — the “nutty pudding,” the dark chocolate, the olive oil, the “super veggie.” And he is, at times, winsomely self-deprecating and even funny, as when he describes a tin of food as “a slurry of seaweed chewed up and spat out by a dying bird” and he has Self Critical say, when looking at his plate, “I feel like the color has been drained from life.”

But using the soft, patient voice that Blueprint says is necessary to win over skeptics, he convinces the team that an algorithm can and should be designed to take over the myriad manual tasks of daily existence. And over the course of the book, he addresses — and takes down — many of the criticisms directed at him over the past year.

Johnson is at his best when he derides the human tendency to let its lower faculties lead at the expense of the higher. Speaking on the miraculous nature of human consciousness, Devil May Care delivers a soliloquy about how the base need of hunger can transform “the most dynamic form of intelligence in the known universe into a simple calorie-finding machine.”

And his arguments that the best and brightest should be pushing aggressively at the boundaries of the human lifespan are convincing. Most humans who have been born over the course of our existence didn’t make it past 20, he says. Age, or “life units,” is the “scarcest and most valuable currency that has ever existed,” along with freedom of choice. And when Scribe asked the various characters that are assembled what they would do if they knew this was the last day of their life, the Blueprint character had the most sensible answer: try to figure out how to thwart death.

Put this way, it seems that this should be what all of us should be doing every day. Which of course, is the central point that Johnson wants to get across. As for the “Zero” stuff, well, it remains kind of fuzzy why he thinks this is a good idea, but it derives from his thinking about first principles.

Don’t Die is Johnson’s long-form response to people who learn a little about him and dismiss him as a sun-avoiding, supplement-chugging, blood-transfusing nut. The book does help to explain Johnson in ways an hour-long podcast cannot, and if you stick with it, the dialogue format eventually makes sense and can even seem charming by the book’s end, although it’s downright torturous at the start. For people who just want some new-year inspiration about how to be healthier and live longer, there are far better books, such as Dr. Peter Attia’s Outlive, and the basics of Johnson’s protocols are more easily learned in the many audio and print interviews he does. C+

Album Reviews 24/01/18

Friko, Where We’ve Been, Where We Go From Here (ATO Records)

A hard one to classify, this Chicago indie band’s first album for ATO Records, although it was finished before they signed with the company. Vocalist/guitarist Niko Kapetan’s voice is awkward, shaking like a vintage glass tray on the mantel during an earthquake near your grandmother’s house, which makes this whole thing an acquired taste from the beginning, but these guys do come up with some interesting song structures. For instance, there’s “Where We’ve Been,” which starts out as a ’70s beach-time radio-pop thing, then begins to pulsate and crumble in waves of noise, then reassembles itself and ends in unplugged Bonnaroo folk. Kapetan’s Conor Oberst side comes out for “Crimson to Chrome,” a mid-tempo semi-rocker that flirts with no-wave (or post-punk, depending on your point of reference) relevance (nice loud guitar sound at the break, me likey). “Chemical” is pure shoegaze, and when you take it all together you realize the band is a coherent Brian Jonestown Massacre. Worth your time, absolutely. A

Nicky, by (PRAH Recordings)

Point of order, the Nicky Harris under scrutiny here is a composer, pianist and singer inspired by London’s queer performance scene, not the South Carolina dude who’s done some Vegas-begging records featuring his Elvis-like baritone. Ryuichi Sakamoto, Duval Timothy, Anohni and Perfume Genius are cited as similar artists, as are The Carpenters (!), but for general audience purposes, I’d say it’s more like a cross between Nick Cave and the Eels, or Ben Folds on downers. This person is obviously a good pianist; given the rather casual noises they allowed into the recordings, I assume most of the tunes that ended up on the record were first takes, which I have no problem with whatsoever. It’s made for a very intimate album filled with a certain warmth despite Harris’s creepy singing; hearing Harris tap their foot and pop off a few random spoken lines keeps things interesting to say the least. It’s a tour de force of something, even if I’m not exactly sure what. A

Playlist

A seriously abridged compendium of recent and future CD releases

• Friday, Jan. 19, will see buckets of new rock ’n’ roll CDs dumped into the stores by guys with trucks, that’s how it works, folks! I can safely predict that a few trucks will be filled to bursting with the new Green Day album, Saviors, when it comes out this Friday, so that 35-year-olds will buy them and relive the days of skateboarding and having no clue whatsoever what punk really means, good times, amirite folks? Yes, yes, I was there, when they first arrived on the scene, and all the old punks were like “OK, it’s official, punk is dead,” but I was in a cover band at the time, and the bass player wanted to do “Longview” (I guess because maybe he thought that somehow an 8-year-old who actually liked Green Day would somehow end up in one of the adults-only clubs we played at), so I had to learn the lyrics to that dumb song, and every time we played it I’d have to go wash out my ears with some Ramones or Buzzcocks just to keep my stomach calm. Anyhoo, FYI, when anyone asked me whether or not I actually liked Green Day, I’d always change the subject to sports (all the Boston teams were losers back then, sort of like they are now) so I wouldn’t have to admit that I was just singing the Green Day song for money from drunks, but in retrospect I forgive the band for destroying punk once and for all, because I actually did like one of the songs, I forget which — oh, “American Idiot,” that one. It’s sort of like ’80s Joan Jett but with guys singing, and, just like that, I’ve digressed. Since there’s no way punk could be destroyed any more than it is, I suppose I’ll trudge over to the YouTube and see what they’re yammering about now, in the opening song “The American Dream Is Killing Me.” Ack, why would anyone in a band even want to play this song, it’s just “Longview” except the guitars have about 50 overdubs, and, as usual it isn’t actually punk, it’s something for Nylon to write about and promptly forget forever. It basically sounds like Weezer trying to be Foo Fighters or something. All set with this, barf barf barf.

• If you put Versus and Sheryl Crow into a Mixmaster and flipped the switch, you’d have “Honey,” the leadoff single from the upcoming Packs album, Melt the Honey. This Canadian slacker-indie band, led by Madeline Link, has been compared to Best Coast, though I don’t know why; they tend to write generally hookless tunes and throw them out on their Bandcamp space without much ado, a practice I’m fine with overall, I suppose, but I’d almost rather subject myself to a Pavement LP (I’m kidding, there’s literally nothing worse than Pavement, as you probably know) than investigate this disposable nonsense, but for its part at least it isn’t shapeless musical tapioca like Broken Social Scene (sorry, did that sound grumpy? I can never tell).

• Today I learned that feminist-indie band Sleater-Kinney took its name from a road in Lacey, Washington. I also found out that they’ve still got it, because their new LP, Little Rope, is actually pretty good. You can listen to the whole thing on YouTube, if that’s your wont, and if you do, you’ll hear some sturdy, interesting, Wire-like art-rock on “Say It Like You Mean It,” and “Hell” will probably remind you of the No-Nos. Best stuff I’ve heard from them, anyway.

• We’ll wrap things up with a seriously casual shoegaze band from Bristol, U.K., The Fauns, whose new LP, How Lost, is their first in 10 years! The title track’s guitar line evokes Modern English’s “I Melt With You” and the lady’s singing is neck-deep in reverb. Yup, it’s a shoegaze band all right, end of mini-review!

Familia, by Lauren E. Rico

Familia, by Lauren E. Rico (Kensington, 368 pages)

I started reading Familia in a hotel room while waiting for my daughter to get ready to go to dinner – and promptly lost all desire to go out to dinner. (I mean, we went — she wasn’t about to buy “but I really like this book” as a reason not to).

Lauren E. Rico’s novel is a fast-paced story that covers a lot of bases: family, obviously, but also different cultures and how they form us, a bit of a mysterious crime, and coming to terms with a life that can change in so many significant and unexpected ways.

A DNA test brings together Gabriella and Isabella, the former young woman fully believing the results were a mistake and the latter having no doubt that they weren’t. Isabella, who has lived her whole life in Puerto Rico, used to have a sister, Marianna, and she disappeared when she was seven months old while in the care of their extremely inebriated father. Gabby, a magazine fact-checker who lives in New York City and was raised by now-deceased parents whom she loved deeply, does not believe it’s possible that the parents who raised her — Mack and Lucy — were not, perhaps, her birth parents.

Gabby embarks on a trip to Puerto Rico, for the sole purpose of writing a magazine story about what happens when DNA test results are wrong. She thinks it’s the perfect way to show her boss that she has talents beyond fact-checking and deserves a staff position as a writer.

It seemed a little unbelievable that Gabby is a fact checker — her job is literally to dig in and find facts — and yet she doesn’t make much of an effort to dig into the facts about her family history despite the DNA test results. I guess there’s that emotional component that would make it difficult to believe that your history is anything other than what you remember and what you’ve been made to believe.

As Gabby explains to Isabella, “For what you’re saying to be true, I’d have to believe Mack and Lucy would have — could have — literally stolen a baby off the street. … This isn’t about not being able to believe that I’m your sister. It’s about being able to believe that I’m not their daughter. And I just … I can’t.”

The story mainly alternates between Gabby’s and Isabella’s points of view, but there’s a whole cast of interesting characters, and Rico gives most of them at least one chapter. This means the story is tied together from all sorts of perspectives, from Alberto’s — the book opens with him, coming to on a street, baby missing — to the detectives’ on the missing-baby case. It was a really fun way to see the mystery unravel, because, of course, nearly everyone has a secret. The narrative also switches between now and “that day,” the day the baby disappeared, offering another compelling angle.

There’s the mystery, and then there’s the juxtaposition of two young women who were raised very differently and have different kinds of intelligence; Gabby is more book smart while Isabella is more street smart. Rico shows this subtly but effectively, in scenes like this one, from Isabella’s point of view, as the women walk through one of the shabbier areas of Puerto Rico.

“When Gabby takes out her phone to snap a picture, all she can see is the mural — a spray-paint reproduction of the Mona Lisa draped in a Puerto Rican flag. All I can see are the two guys standing just out of the frame, conducting a little street-side retail.”

There’s definitely a “wealthy girl from NYC vs. poor girl from San Juan” piece of the narrative, and while I personally didn’t feel like it was overdone, I think someone who is of Puerto Rican descent or is more familiar with Latino culture would likely read the representations of Puerto Rico a lot differently than I did. A lot of the descriptions shine a negative light on the people and places of Puerto Rico, mainly San Juan and la Perla, and I can’t pretend to know how accurate they are. The author does include a note at the beginning of the novel explaining her own family history and that she is trying to honor her heritage and the stories she heard from her Cuban grandfather and Puerto Rican grandmother, along with her extensive DNA connections to the island and her own experiences visiting there (which she acknowledges were from a tourist point of view).

Familia is a quick read that manages to be both fun and a bit dark, but it’s also meaningful and has a lot of heart. A-

Album Reviews 24/01/11

Nigel J. Anderson, Material Science (Redwave Recordings)

I literally had to weed through a few dozen emails from public relations people trying to push metal bands on me before I found this one, and I’m covering it simply because it’s not a metal album (trying to cut down here, folks, which is tough, because metal albums have been hitting this desk like tribbles during mating season). Having never heard of this U.K. techno DJ, I was delightedly surprised to hear a bunch of bright, bouncy but not smarmy attempts at upfitting traditional deep house; I honestly would have been all over this if it were still 2004 and I were looking for some drive-time euphoria, but either way it’s super nice. “Material Science” brings a faux-steel-drum sample to the percussive fore of its afterparty groove, and man, it really works. Unfortunately, “Going Home” follows in a more goth-industrial vein, at which point I sort of abandoned any hope that this would be the sharply focused genre exercise I’d anticipated, although the next track, “Octopus,” recalls Above & Beyond, which I’m always up for. Despite Anderson’s obvious case of ADD, I’m giving it high marks owing to the fact that all the tunes are on point. A

Nnenna Freelon and Pierce Freelon, AnceStars (Redwave Recordings)

One of the slings or arrows I suffer on a yearly basis comes around this time of year, when all the public relations goblins request that I vote for one of their artists in the next Grammy Awards, not that I’m part of the cabal who has any say in all that; if I indeed were some sort of cog in the Grammy machine, I probably wouldn’t vote for any modern artist, just 80-year-old Al Jolson compilation albums. But this one’s interesting at least, a mother-son duo who are up for the Best Children’s Album Grammy, so, just for the heck of it, I listened to it and am dutifully reporting and blah blah blah. Lyrically it’s based on “the spirit world,” i.e. ancestors, in particular Nnenna’s husband (and Pierce’s father) the late Phil Freelon, the architect of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History. The title track is a lilting/bouncing number combining Afrobeat with Spyro Gyra, a pleasant thing altogether. Most of the rest is hip-hop-tinged urbanity suitable for Sesame Street audiences or feel-good moments in general. A

Playlist

A seriously abridged compendium of recent and future CD releases

• OK, wake up, everyone, we are back to a somewhat normal-sized slate of stuff for our next general-issue CD release Friday, on Jan. 12! Look at this, though, sad-face emoji, there are no new albums made by artists and bands I can make fun of, no Neil Young album, no Dolly Parton or Willie Nelson album, not even an album from King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, which is weird, because they’ve been putting out new albums every two weeks for the last few years, I can’t believe this. So I am forced to do research and perform random acts of journalistic investigation for your entertainment, so why don’t we start with The Vaccines, whose new album, Pick-Up Full Of Pink Carnations, is fast approaching! Ack, this doesn’t bode well, fam, the aggregate Metacritic score is already 62 percent and the album isn’t even out yet, which means that a lot of people have either pirated it or they’re just trolls, so why don’t I go check out this album and make your minds up for you, that’d be great. The band is an indie band from West London in the U.K., and their hobbies include playing with other bands on stage. They’ve had guest spots with Lyle Preslar of Minor Threat, Ryan Jarman of the Cribs, members of Savages and Paul Thomson of Franz Ferdinand, and, wait, in 2013 they performed in Florida as John Fogerty’s backing band, making them honorary Creedence Clearwater Revival dudes or something! And yadda yadda, let’s go listen to “Love To Walk Away,” a song from this new album, and hey, wait a minute, I don’t mind this at all! It’s kind of no-wave-ish, in other words loud and dumb, bordering on bands like Black Lips or even Half Japanese as far as sloppy sound engineering. There’s on-the-phone patch on the vocals, too. It’s a winner, let’s go see if the next album will disappoint me, eh wot, chaps and chapettes?

• I always question the motives of bands that start out playing one genre of music and then move on to a totally different thing, like how Pantera started out as a Whitesnake band or whatever and then became Megadeth, or like how The Horrors made the greatest album of all time and then decided to become completely worthless overall, never forget! Bring Me the Horizon are another such — you know, thingamajig, like, they started out as a deathcore band and now they’re regarded as something completely different, sort of along the lines of Imagine Dragons and such. The band’s new album, POST HUMAN: NeX Gen, includes a song titled “Code Mistake” that’s sort of Imagine Dragons-like but there’s a lot of yelling and stomping, you know, like Slipknot, but less well-behaved. It’s OK I suppose.

Marika Hackman is a British singer who’s put out two albums of cover songs, and when she’s not doing that she’s sounding a lot like a disaffected 1980s pop diva, for example on her biggest song, “I’m Not Where You Are” from 2019. Not saying it’s bad, but it’s a bit opportunistic if you ask me. Her new album, Big Sigh, drops this Friday, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking about it at the moment, but regardless, the new single, “Slime,” reminds me of M83 a bit, which is more relevant than refrying ’80s-pop, at least in my opinion; as always, your mileage may vary, a scenario that’s out of my control.

• Finally we have Kali Uchis, an American singer from a Colombian family. Orquídeas is her second Latin-language album and fourth one overall; it features the single “No Lay Hay,” a bubble-pop type thing with an understated deep-house vibe. I found it sublimely acceptable.

Everywhere an Oink Oink, by David Mamet

Everywhere an Oink Oink, by David Mamet (Simon & Schuster, 225 pages)

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer famously described talent as hitting a mark no one else can reach, while genius hits a mark no one can see. Then there’s David Mamet, a man of both talent and genius, whose writing no one can follow. Not that he can’t write plays and scripts. But his new memoir is a rollicking hot mess.

Mamet is a Hollywood luminary whose screenwriting credits include The Verdict, The Untouchables and Wag the Dog, among other films. He has worked in entertainment for half a century, first as a playwright in New York before he was lured to California to work in movies, a move that he quips was a demotion.

Today, Mamet is both a Hollywood insider and outsider, although he is likely a little more outsidery than usual right now, given the title of the book — Everywhere an Oink Oink — and Mamet’s description of himself as “embittered.”

This is a man with tea to spill, and it’s delightfully acidic, at least the parts that we can comprehend.

Writing in staccato, Mamet seems to want to get stuff off his chest, the quicker the better. He has a dim view of many people in Hollywood — producers in particular — and the direction the industry has been headed in. (He really doesn’t like DEI, or diversity, equity and inclusion, programs, either.) He darts from topic to topic, eschews the socially accepted norms of capitalization, and drops names as if they were hot potatoes, though not ostentatiously. It was just an occupational hazard for him to rub elbows every day with A-list actors and D-grade producers.

His point, best as I can tell, is that the entertainment industry in the 20th century was fun and rewarding for those directors and writers who could “make it happen.” (Making it happen amounted to “getting the asses into the seats, keeping them there for two hours, and sending them out to tell their friends.”) Not so in the 21st. For that, he blames “Diversity Commissars” and “corporate degeneracy” for boring the audience out of theaters with their insistence on lecturing them.

“The hegemons, as they grow fat, become less sassy, and the confusion about objective (making money by supplying a need) caused by affluence attracts exploiters as the sun calls forth maggots from a dead dog.”

This is apparently the problem that most of Hollywood has had with Mamet — they acknowledge his genius, but then the thing in front of them, despite its occasional captivating and startlingly original phrasing, is so strange that ultimately they pass. He admits, “no one out there, in forty years, liked my scripts” — except for the actors, five directors and the audience. He was frequently told, “I so respect your work, I love everything you’ve ever written, except this.”

But somehow he managed to make a 40-year career there, enough to fill a book with anecdotes, like the time he sat next to Jane Fonda at a dinner and didn’t recognize her, the time he hugged Anne Heche (“and if she was Gay, she at least during that hug was bisexual”), and the time Dino De Laurentiis and Ridley Scott visited him in Martha’s Vineyard to talk him into writing the script for Hannibal. (He did, and they hated it, of course.)

There are also stories about people he doesn’t identify, such as the “Very Famous Singer” who required that everyone in the orchestra sign a statement vowing they would not look at her. (That is true, apparently, of many directors and stars; rank and file workers are warned to never catch their eye.)

The book is entertaining and revelatory in parts, a self-indulgent screed in others. It is illustrated with cartoons by the author.

And alas, there is little here to encourage aspiring screenwriters, of which he says, “The self-deluded feel they ‘have a script in them,’ not realizing that it’s in them, as they have neglected to write it down. Should they actually do so, they will hate it, as it will have nothing to do with how it felt when it was ‘in them.’

“They may then attempt to wrestle the thing closer to The Feeling they had, but they’ll never get it closer, as the feeling, which felt like an idea, was only a feeling — their attempts are like a chef saying he wanted to make the couscous taste like the First Day of School.”

If aspiring screenwriters do want some concrete advice, however, it’s to concentrate all your efforts on plot, not dialogue. He considers dialogue extremely unimportant and says that a good outline is the bulk of the work.

Perhaps the best aside in the memoir is in a chapter titled “Lime Rock,” in which he wanders into a fascinating description of the power of stories.

“From the time we cry, we make sounds to influence those around us. With the exceptions of joy, hurt, or surprise, this is, in fact, the sole reason anyone makes these sounds.

“And we all love to tell stories. They are, after all one means — their other excellences aside — for immobilizing a group (audience or dinner party). That is, for exercising power.”

The stories told here, however, are so poorly organized that their power dissipates, leaving the power with the reader who may choose to put the book down — or, in the parlance of theater, leave their seat.

“The study of history can be reduced to the simple phrase: ‘What the hell happened?’” Marmet eventually concludes. The same can be said of this book. C

Album Reviews 24/01/04

Save Ferris, “Xmas Blue” (self-released)

This one came in too late to be included in the pre-HannuChistmaKwanzaa column. This teaser single from a 2024 LP from the Orange Country, California, ska band comes with some interesting sidebars for us to go over, the first being the song’s background itself. It’s a girl-sung rootsy dancehall track that does have a Christmas-y feel to it; it’s not some sort of annoying ’90s-ska phone-in at all, but anyway, the lonely-at-the-holidays-steeped lyrics revolve around the trials of a friend of singer Monique Powell who “went through a hard divorce, and even two years later was still so obsessed with his ex-wife that it was borderline stalking.” Sucks that anyone has to be without a love connection any time of the year, but another thing to know is that this is the band’s first release under the newly launched music community platform We Are Giant, which, local musicians should note, helps give a social media edge to unknown bands who could use a boost, this by connecting more intimately with fans. Good for them, I say. A —Eric W. Saeger

Patrick Wolf, A Circling Sky (self-released)

Unbeknownst to most, this 40-something British singer-songwriter is one of the most talented and idiosyncratic musicians of his generation, with a run of critically hailed albums, notably Lycanthropy in 2003 and Lupercalia in 2011, the latter of which saw him incorporating viola, Celtic harp, dulcimer, baritone ukulele, piano, harpsichord, analog synthesizers and re-sampled field recordings in his music and collaborating with the likes of Marianne Faithfull, Tilda Swinton, Patti Smith and others. Imagine what you’d get if Mark Oliver Everett from The Eels wanted to make tuneage for steampunk conventions and you’re pretty close, at least going by this set of B-sides and rarities, which includes the front-facing “Godrevy Point,” a gently apocalyptic track full of from-the-mountaintop reverb propelling the odd little collection of instruments on board. Nick Cave is another touchstone here, if that’s your bag. A —Eric W. Saeger

Playlist

A seriously abridged compendium of recent and future CD releases

• Nice, way to hurry things along, 2024, the first general-issue CD release Friday of the year is Jan. 5! It is an election year, fam, and at this rate it’ll be the last one before the whole system melts down, so it was sure nice knowing ya, but whatever, there are albums on trucks headed to stores, including a new one from British grime rapper Ghetts, On Purpose With Purpose. You hip American kids probably know him from his days with the grime collectives The NASTY Crew and The Movement, but nowadays — wait, what, you’ve never heard of NASTY Crew or The Movement or any grime collectives to begin with? I’m kidding, of course you haven’t, bands and artists from the U.K. might as well be from the planet Neptune for all American listeners care, even though garage-grime has been a lot more fun and cool than American hip-hop for, what, 10 years now? Twenty? But that’s OK, when did American hip-hoppers ever get anything wrong, aside from all the PR stunts they fell for, in other words, absolutely, don’t pay attention to grime, just because it’s better than U.S. corporate hip-hop in every single way. Wait, don’t get mad, here, forget I said anything, let me go check out this album and report my findings, for your reading pleasure! So, the LP starts out with “Daily Duppy,” comprising a dream-time beat and Ghetts’ impeccably enunciated British blatherings; it has a little trap-drumming going on there so American audiences can understand that it’s some sort of rap or hip-hop or whatnot, be sure to listen to it with a parent or guardian in case you have any questions.

LastWorld is a band whose music is targeted at “fans of Journey, Bon Jovi, Night Ranger, Alias & The Storm,” got that, guys?, and what that means is — wait, what does it mean, I’ve never heard of “Alias & The Storm,” am I being trolled (OK, I looked, there’s no such band, so they probably mean a band called Alias and another one called Storm, oh forget it)? Whatever, LastWorld, a two-piece consisting of Jim Shepard (all instruments) and David Cagle (all vocals) will release a new album titled Beautiful Illusion this Friday. The kickoff single, “Never Gonna Let You Go,” is a big bouquet of hair-rawk hooks that blends Journey, Bon Jovi, Night Ranger, and — wait, we already talked about this. Right? No, seriously, if you liked White Lion, a band that wrote all their songs to “Billboard specifications,” you’ll like this, probably.

Hannah Kaminer is an Americana group from Asheville, North Carolina. They want people to stop saying they’re an Americana band and instead tell all their friends that they’re a country music band, which I refuse to do because of my journalistic principles, and because I am a jerk most days. The band’s third studio album, Heavy On The Vine, is on the way, and you can check out the title track on YouTube. The song is an Americana take on the typical Mazzy Star B-side, with lots of slidey dobro, a synth that sounds like dobro, a fiddle, and a drummer on a drum set that has like three pieces to it. It’s very pretty and dreamy for a totally Americana song.

• And finally we have someone from Florida recording under the stage name Tegu, with a new album titled Forest Hills, which was recorded in one 24-hour block of lo-fi improvisational mayhem. It features an ingredients list consisting of, and I quote, “field recordings, tape loops, vocal haze, FX, and thrifted Yamaha keys.” Given that, you already know pretty much what it sounds like: breezy soundtrack-ish stuff, with hazy synths, bluebirds chirping, etc. It’s OK. —Eric W. Saeger

Best books of 2023

Books that earned “A”s from Hippo reviewers in 2023

Fiction

Life on Delay, by John Hendrickson

Hendrickson writes movingly of the small indignities of stuttering which stem from things that most people take for granted — the ability to place an order at a restaurant, to record a voicemail, or even introduce yourself to another person. … although the narrative is encased in difficulties which relatively few people experience, its broader theme is more universal: healing from childhood and family dysfunction.

Life on Delay … opens a window beautifully into human struggles that often go unseen. It is the rare sort of book with the potential to make us better human beings. —Jennifer Graham

Maame, by Jessica George

Maame covers all the bases of growing up with cultural barriers, without being heavy-handed or preachy. … [Maddie’s] story is often funny, and always heartfelt and engaging. —Meghan Siegler

I Have Some Questions for You, by Rebecca Makkai

When the protagonist of Rebecca Makkai’s gripping new novel is a teen, she arrives at a boarding school in New Hampshire knowing little about the school or the region.

… It would be reductive to call I Have Some Questions For You a thriller or a whodunit, although it has many components of both. … While it’s a page-turner … there are frequent mentions of real women who had violent, premature deaths, and the men responsible.

… Look for this one when the lists of the best books of 2023 emerge later this year. —J.G.

The Promise of a Normal Life, by Kaiser Gibson

The Promise of a Normal Life … is a quietly revealing character study that wields power in lyricism and detail. —J.G.

The Society of Shame, by Jane Roper

… it’s hard to imagine that there will be a smarter, sassier takedown of social media this year than The Society of Shame, Jane Roper’s merrily caustic novel about cancel culture.

… Roper is a gifted comic writer, who knows how to throw a punchline and to sustain a running gag, or two or 20. … But it is the social media cameos that make the novel so hilarious, the ever-changing, irreverent hashtags… —J.G.

After the Funeral and Other Stories, by Tessa Hadley

The 12 stories in this collection are achingly beautiful at times, and painful in places. … But women, in particular, will recognize the family dynamics for sure. —J.G.

The Last Ranger, by Peter Heller

As a writer, Heller has copious gifts of description. … But Heller’s novels are reliably gripping because they thrum quietly with tension, while slowly revealing the essence of characters who will stay with you for years. The Last Ranger … is an excellent companion for the dog days of summer, especially for anyone who is more comfortable outside than in. —J.G.

Save What’s Left, by Elizabeth Castellano

This is not a tragedy … but pure comedy, a book-length stand-up routine with a punchline every few minutes.

… Castellano set out to write an anti-beach read, meaning one that slyly makes fun of typical beach reads while exaggerating the foibles of beach town life. She does this spectacularly. She also is a master of hilarious apropos-of-nothing asides….

Save What’s Left is a romp in the sun and sand…. It’s all fun, especially if you’ve ever loved a beach town, or thought about moving to one. —J.G.

Happiness Falls, by Angie Kim

A less skilled writer could have taken the bare bones of this story and turned out a Hollywood thriller. But Kim makes it next-level by incorporating research on happiness…. And the novel is deeply researched on the subject of people who are unable to speak, because of severe autism or other disorders.

Happiness Falls is both an engrossing mystery and a family drama with multiple layers of complexity.

Happiness Falls delivers, maybe not happiness, but a novel you can get lost in…. —J.G.

Mr. Texas, by Lawrence Wright

A Dallas native who lives in Austin, Wright has said he come up with the character of Sonny Lamb more than two decades ago, and what is now Mr. Texas had earlier lives as a failed screenplay, a failed HBO pilot and even a failed musical. Which is fine, because it’s now a first-rate novel.

This is no Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the classic 1939 film starring Jimmy Stewart, but it’s a version for our time, at least in book form. —J.G.

The Good Part, by Sophie Cousens

The Good Part is the perfect combination of thought-provoking and funny, and the characters are loveable and real. It’s a stellar example of what women’s fiction has the potential to be. —M.S.

Nonfiction

Dinner with the President, by Alex Prud’homme

… Prud’homme has figured out how to make American history fascinating: tell stories connecting it to food. If my old high school history textbook, The American Pageant, is still in use, Dinner with the President should replace it immediately. —J.G.

Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, by Claire Dederer

The question of what we should do with the art of problematic people has come up regularly in recent years, and nobody seems to have a good answer. Dederer … attempts to craft one in Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma…. … Dederer is like a dinner guest you don’t want to stop talking because she’s so well-read and interesting … and her writing is delightful and fresh. —J.G.

All the Beauty in the World, by Patrick Bringley

In conversations with visitors to the [Metropolitan Museum of Art], and with his coworkers, he brings us fully into the job [as a guard] with him, letting us see through the eyes of first-time and regular visitors the effect that the ancient art has on them. —J.G.

How to Survive History, by Cody Cassidy

It’s fanciful, of course, and a tad silly, but Cassidy comes to the task with a surprising gravitas and the right mix of ‘yes, this is kind of crazy’ but also ‘this is serious stuff, pay attention.’

… Cassidy owns ‘humor history’ and it’s top-notch for the genre. —J.G.

Better Living Through Birding, by Christian Cooper

Fame that erupts on social media is often fleeting and unearned. Christian Cooper is the rare exception–his is a story worth telling, and in this memoir he does so exceptionally well. —J.G.

The Heat Will Kill You First, by Jeff Goodell

… there’s no disputing that Goodell is an engaging writer at the top of his game. He’s like the love child of Ed Yong and James Patterson, with a little bit of Rachel Carson thrown in, which is to say he writes science-based, dystopian thrillers.

Goodell, a longtime writer for Rolling Stone, is a pro at the dialogue-rich narrative style that keeps readers turning pages. —J.G.

Elon Musk, by Walter Isaacson

Whether you admire or loathe him, Musk is one of the most consequential people on the planet, and Walter Isaacson, formerly head of Time and CNN, does a masterful job explaining why in his exhaustive new biography.

Isaacson’s prose is sparse; he lets his subjects and interviewees do the talking, and they all had plenty to say. —J.G.

Class, by Stephanie Land

Class, by Stephanie Land (Atria, 272 pages)

Stephanie Land’s dream of becoming a writer came through in a big way in 2019 when she published Maid, a memoir about working as a house cleaner for people who were clearly some of the worst human beings on the planet. The book landed at a time of increasing concern about income inequality, and the single mother’s stories about scrubbing other people’s toilets to pay the bills struck a chord; it was a New York Times bestseller, was adapted for a Netflix series and praised by former President Barack Obama as one of the best books of the year.

Land is now back with Class, subtitled “a memoir of motherhood, hunger and higher education.” Because of the success of Maid, it was immediately chosen for the Good Morning America book club and will no doubt enjoy commercial success. Unfortunately, it’s an Eeyore of a book, gloomy and resentful, which detracts from the social messages that Land wants to convey.

She begins in familiar territory, which can best be described as “He done me wrong.” The predominant “he” in this case is the father of her child, Jamie, who readers of Maid will remember had little interest in being a husband or father, and who, according to Land, is the cause of many of her struggles. At the beginning of the book, he has, for example, abruptly said that he will not be able to take their daughter, Emilia, for the summer, as had been arranged. This left Land scrambling to find the vast amounts of child care that she needs because (a) she has to work, fair enough, but also (b) she is enrolled in college, a longtime dream that is contributing to her financial problems in a big way: She will soon graduate $50,000 in debt.

On top of that, she’s planning on getting a master of fine arts. “Writing,” she says, “the real writing that mattered, was meant to be done without cartoons blaring in the background and someone asking for pancakes.”
There’s nothing wrong with ambition, except for the fact that Land’s young daughter seems to be standing in the way of everything her mother wants to do. She’s 5 and is the most sympathetic character in this book. She has a father who’s constantly canceling on her — saying he can’t see her because he has to work — and a mother who keeps leaving her with babysitters or because she has to work. Children tend to love their parents no matter what, and so Emilia is not resentful like her mother, even as she gets sent to detention for being late to school, and has people fail to pick her up when Land forgets it’s an early release day.

Meanwhile, Land has many bones to pick here, not just the grievances she has with her ex, starting with her family. Her mother, she writes, resigned from parenting when Land was 21, moving to Europe to be with a new love. Her father, Land says, was not helpful at all when she called him to say she needed help paying for child care, asking if he would ask his sister to pay or contribute. The aunt is another Bad Person. “In my early twenties, she got upset over people not being grateful enough for the gifts she bought for Christmas,” Land writes. “Ever since, we received a few pairs of socks from her instead. In her defense, they were nice socks.”

Ouch. It is that kind of zinger that makes us want to put Land at arm’s length as she continues with her story of woe, lest she find something bad about us to write in her next memoir. In Land’s world, most everyone is unhelpful and unpleasant, from the guidance counselor at the University of Montana-Missoula to the judge who considers her request for a child support modification and deems her “voluntarily underemployed.”

As in Maid, Land seeks to roll back the assorted indignations of the working poor, those who, for whatever reason, are at the mercy of student loans and credit card payments, with every dollar allotted, and then some, and little more than peanut butter and grape jam in the pantry. Along the way, she wants to take away the stigma of single mothers not being “enough” for their children without a partner. And she writes movingly of trying to date with a child: “Having a kid and trying to date felt equivalent to hanging a wedding dress in my closet and bringing it out to show a person when they picked me up for the first time. Men no longer saw me as a lighthearted dating prospect. They looked at me and I could almost see the reflection of white picket fences and family dinners at five thirty in their eyes.”

But as Land rolls through her days of struggling to take care of her daughter while working and going to school (and at this point, she’s starting to shop around stories that would eventually comprise Maid), it can be difficult to sustain sympathy for her as she gets pregnant again (without being able to identify the father) and applies for another credit card. The people close to her who dare to question her choices get knifed. When one woman, who is giving Land a ride home because her car has died, says, “I’m worried you’re not making good decisions here,” Land writes about “concern trolling,” which she said wasn’t actual concern but “an opportunity to act as if they knew better than me.”

At one point, Emilia, whose tender heart has been broken by her father multiple times, says to her occasional male babysitter and her mother’s roommate, “Are you going to be my new dad?” The answer is no, but she will learn that she’s going to be a big sister, right about the time her mom learns that she’s no longer eligible for food stamps because Emilia has turned 6 (the SNAP formula says Land was able to work full-time then even though the school day was six hours). Not surprisingly, the child asks who the father of her soon-to-be little sister is. Land replies, “There’s no dad, or he’s not around anyway. The baby is just ours.”

That’s a sweet sentiment, which seems to set the little family up for happiness in the future. And despite the ongoing fight with her ex over child support, which seems to be the primary conflict the book is built around, we know how this story ends, or at least we do if we follow Land on social media. No longer a victim of men and circumstance, she is hailed as a voice of the underclass, a champion of those who are being trampled on by late-stage capitalism and predatory colleges and lenders. Nothing wrong with that — but the question remains: is this book, and her writing generally, substantially better for her $50,000 college debt? We’ll never know, nor are we allowed to ask. B-

Album Reviews 23/12/28

Morbid Saint, Swallowed By Hell (HR Records)

Still a lot of metal in the pipeline, folks, so let’s look at some of it, specifically from this Wisconsin band. This one comes to us “more than 30 years after their second LP, ‘Destruction System,’ was recorded but not finished, only to be officially published recently.” And so they’ve been very not-busy of late, these fellas, but the only thing that resulted from their hilariously long hiatus is that, well darn, they’ve gotten pretty good, to be honest. If you’ve ever really loved Slayer you’ll like this for sure; singer Pat Lind is still on board, tabling Tom Araya dead-ringer soundalike bellowing. The title track is rooted in Aughts-era black metal, which I’m sure you’ll want playing in your baby’s nursery; “Bloody Floors” is power metal, and such and so. They’ve got a great sound if you like this kind of thing. A

Mary Tominy, Untame The Tiger (Merge Records)

This Washington, D.C., lady has been a fixture in the indie-rawk world for 30 years, playing with such bands as garage-pop power trio Ex Hex and post-punk troupe Autoclave. Although her voice is still a bit awkward, she’s refined her style to a really noticeable degree; if you stick with album opener “No Thirds,” you’ll encounter some really stunning symphonics that put her in the same ballpark as Natalie Merchant. It’s jangly, vaguely hopeful and easily accessible. “Summer” comes off like a Versus A-side, which means it has no commercial hope whatsoever, not that that’s a bad thing of course, but in the meantime she does add something of a Sheryl Crow break to it. “Looking For The Sun” is pretty trippy, for sure; imagine Chrissie Hynde going through a ’70s Donovan phase, is how I’d put it. Overall she’s aging like a fine wine that won’t appeal to all palates, not that she cares about that by now, I’m sure. A

Playlist

A seriously abridged compendium of recent and future CD releases

• Yay, groan, New Year’s Eve is on the way, one of my least favorite days of the year, when my Grinch heart has to endure people looking all happy awaiting the mass amateur drinking contest that is the reason for the season, and we marrieds stay up until midnight, pretending to be relevant for whatever reason, watching all the Dua Lipas and Ricky Martins as they honk their Who-Flonkas and bash their Who-Bombas, and then they’ll sing and sing and sing, and then comes the thing I hate worst of all, watching Ryan Seacrest and Anderson Cooper doing their potted houseplant imitations while wearing actual ties in order to “check in” on concerts from Poppy and Taylor Swift and the Beibs or whatnot, which is of course your kids’ cue to run to their rooms in order to avoid catching a bad case of “Responsible Adult Cooties,” where they’ll listen to death metal and crunk and text their little friends about things you really don’t want to know about. I have no idea why we celebrate New Year’s Day; I mean, it’s the last gasp of the holidays that started on Halloween with everyone dressing up as sexytime monsters and rolls of paper towels or whatever they do, so really, what’s to celebrate? It’s just going to be freezing and slushy for the next few months, and all that New Year’s alcohol will be long worn-off by February. But let’s put that aside for a second while I take a look at the (I’m so sure) tons of new albums coming out on Dec. 29. If there are two I’ll be lucky to get through this column, maybe by riffing on a few other things, like the fact that I couldn’t find actual candy canes for my HannuKwanzzMas tree literally anywhere for a day or so. Right, right, what do we have here, literally no albums except for stompy German band Lord Of The Lost, whose stupidly titled covers album, Weapons Of Mass Seduction, is on its way! These goth-metal frauds like to dress up like the glittery, certifiably crazy dude in The Cell, and in this one they cover songs from Billy Idol, Bronski Beat, Judas Priest and — well, you know, Sia, because those bands always have to do stuff like that. The teaser single is a Rammstein-ized version of Cutting Crew’s “I Just Died In Your Arms” that’s just as bad as you’re imagining it, like they have a girl singer who has all the nuance and originality of a McDonald’s french fry, and the male singer just sings the same nonsense an octave lower than her, and there are ’80s synths in there. Ack, let’s move on, if there’s any place to move on to.

• Ack, ack, it’s another metal band, called Dominum, with their new one, Hey Living People, but you know who’ll want to know about this is famous local author and friend of the Hippo Dan Szczesny, because the leader of this euro-trash band used to be in the symphonic-metal band Visions of Atlantis. This band’s trip is sort of like a zombie-centric version of Abney Park, with zombie stuff instead of steampunk stuff. “Patient Zero” is awesome if you like bad acting and (actually good) sympho-metal.

• Ten years ago Irish indie-folkie Ciaran Lavery didn’t get enough attention for his album Not Nearly Dark, so he has re-rubbed the whole thing under the title Not Nearly Dark (10 Years Later). It’s stupid that the Bonnaroo crowd didn’t get into him, he’s like a cross between Jeff Buckley and Rod Stewart, so snooze on him this time, that’d be great.

• We’ll end the last column of 2023 (good riddance, am I right?) with Mexican oi band Malcría! This one is tough and loud and punkish, and it’s titled Fantasías Histéricas, which even I could roughly translate.

Eat, Poop, Die, by Joe Roman

Eat, Poop, Die, by Joe Roman (Little, Brown Spark, 253 pages)

One of the most fascinating and underrated places on the planet is Surtsey, an island off the southern coast of Iceland born in the 1960s. This land mass, the product of a volcanic eruption, was hoisted above water as if offered on a platter by Poseiden himself, offering scientists the chance to study how life develops on an inhospitable slab of rock.

It turns out that despite the grandest theories of theologians and biologists, life — on this rock, anyway — needed something humble, and kind of gross, for it to emerge and take root. It needed excrement. It was nitrogen deposited on Surtsey via the waste of visiting seabirds that began the alchemy that led to vegetation growing on the island, leading to more animals colonizing the virgin island.

The story of Surtsey and its remarkable development over the past half century begins Eat, Poop, Die, Joe Roman’s surprisingly engaging study of how the most basic of functions contributes to the world’s ecology. The book’s crude title and attendant jokes (“Perfect bathroom reading” reads one commendation on Roman’s website) detract from the seriousness of the work, and its elegance. That said, it takes some work to get the average reader interested in how excrement and rotting corpses power the planet, so perhaps a little levity (including a sideways photo of the author on the book jacket) was necessary.

Roman, a scholar at the Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont, can tell you more about whale poop than you want to know: for example, “In addition to being rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, the concentration of iron in whale poop is more than ten million times greater than in the surrounding seawater in the Southern Ocean.”

Whales’ nutrient-rich excrement helps nourish microscopic animals, and when whales die and their carcasses sink to the ocean floor, they create a habitat called “whale fall” which is ecologically important because, as Roman writes, “The abyssal seafloor is a vast nutrient-poor desert.” When whales are hunted to near extinction, or stranded on beaches and their corpses blown up with explosives, the natural order is disrupted in a way that is no less destructive because it is invisible to humans.

Similarly, Roman looks at the surprising connection between salmon and forest growth in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. What do fish have to do with trees? A lot, it turns out, when the fish are the favorite meal of bears who live in those forests, as well as other creatures that eat salmon, such as eagles, mink, coyotes and wolves.

Scientists are able to determine where nitrogen in plant life originates by a chemical signature that varies by flora and fauna. And there are researchers whose jobs involve comparing the trees next to streams full of salmon with trees that grow next to salmon-less rivers. Spoiler alert: The salmon-adjacent trees “grew faster and taller — which was good for the salmon, as more shade and large woody debris provided cooler summer temperatures and river structure that aided in salmon reproduction and growth.”

The reason, scientists speculate, is the marine-derived nitrogen in the fish gets distributed in the forest through bear excrement. “The salmon life cycle and the massive pulse of nutrients the fish deliver are crucial aspects of forest ecosystems. The trees, streams, and salmon are all connected.”

Roman writes not just from a desk but from deep in the field. For his chapter on salmon he visits a salmon research station in Alaska; he travels to Surtsey, and to Yellowstone National Park to observe how the reintroduction of wolves changed the ecosystem there. As one sign in the park explains it, “Although wolves do not directly affect all life around them, their effects possibly tumble down the entire food chain. This hypothesis is called a ‘trophic cascade.’”

And don’t count the buffalo out — they have roles as groundskeepers, with their excrement depositing nitrogen and phosphorus into the soil. As bison disappeared on the prairies, so did their natural fertilization. Roman interviews a Native American who calls bison “eco-engineers” because in addition to the nutrients they leave behind, they plow the fields with their hooves. This is not a book for reading while you’re eating lunch, as I learned when coming across something called the Bristol Stool Chart, an illustrated scale of the variety of human feces, used by medical practitioners. And of course, human excrement is addressed here; mammals defecate about 1 percent of their body weight every day, with humans making about two trillion pounds of waste each year, much of which is not contributing in a positive way to the planet’s ecology. But some is — I learned, with some dismay, that some people fertilize their gardens with their own urine. (It’s called “pee-cycling,” and yes, Roman tried it, although fist bump to his family who wouldn’t let him set up the system at home or use it in their garden. Instead his urine went to a pee-cycling center in Brattleboro, Vermont.)

But the bulk of the book is about non-human animals and the largely unnoticed role their bodily functions serve in our world. While Roman is careful to note that some of the theories he writes about are unproven, he makes a convincing case that when animal populations shrink, we’d best pay attention, because there are costs other than not being able to see a certain species anymore. In centuries past, for example, John James Audubon famously described migrating pigeons as blocking out the sun; others have described rivers so dense with salmon that you could walk across the water on top of the fish.

Roman believes that replenishing depleted populations is “one of the best nature-based tools we have to face the climate crisis. Wild animals, through their movements and behaviors — their eating, pooping and dying — can help rebuild ecosystems, recycle and redistribute nutrients, keep the planet a little cooler, and address the biodiversity crisis.” We need to “rewild the world,” he says, in a conclusion that is more of an op-ed than a science book. Having established himself as an authority on poop, who are we to argue? It’s a fine book for animal lovers, climate warriors and science geeks, but otherwise may struggle to find an audience. B

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