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Things I'm watching, things I'm reading -- Summer 2019

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  1. A Novel:

    LONESOME DOVE by Larry McMurtry

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Selling books in 2019 is a sucker’s game. I imagine it wasn’t much better 20 years ago but it’s worse now. So how I expect to convince you to read an 850 page novel …. I don’t. I won’t. But I can share my pleasure in a writer in no rush to jump into the action. McMurtry is a master of depicting a town, a Texas town to be sure, to fill it with colourful, wonderful, loveable characters and in this story he does that and then takes them on quite the harrowing adventure. It’s the adventure part, which takes a good few hundred pages before it really kicks off, that is probably what makes this the author’s most famous book and he's written more than thirty!

It’s a western because there are cowboys and guns are involved. It’s a western because it’s set in that part of Texas where horses are regularly ridden and people tend to say git instead of get. But so much of what I love most about Larry McMurtry is he writes about “male” worlds and yet his focus is so often on the women in his stories. Women, men and the relations between (see THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, the first novel I read of his that I fell in love with and that was made into what I hear is a classic film that was also Jeff Bridges’ on screen debut; on that note, LONESOME DOVE was made into a miniseries; can’t say I hear people talking it up these days but it stars Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones so really, how bad could it be?). There’s always humour amidst the pathos in the McMurtry books I’ve read, and there’s something just generally fun about his writing while remaining artful.

Here’s a taste from right near the opening:

For a year or two Lonesome Dove had had a real doctor, but the young man had lacked good sense. A vaquero with a loose manner that everybody was getting ready to hang at the first excuse anyway passed out from drink one night and let a blister bug crawl in his ear. The bug couldn’t find its way out, but it could move around enough to upset the vaquero, who persuaded the young doctor to try and flush it. The young man was doing his best with some warm salt water, but the vaquero lost his temper and shot him. It was a fatal mistake on the vaquero’s part: someone blasted his horse out from under him as he was racing away, and the incensed citizenry, most of whom were nearby at the Dry Bean, passing the time, hung him immediately.

Unfortunately no medical man had taken an interest in the town since, and Augustus and Call, both of whom had coped with their share of wounds, got called on to do such surgery as was deemed essential. Dillard Brawley’s leg had presented no problem, except that Dillard screeched so loudly that he injured his vocal cords. He got around good on one leg, but the vocal cords had never fully recovered, which ultimately hurt his business. Dillard had always talked too much, but after the trouble with the centipedes, what he did was whisper too much. Customers couldn’t relax under their hot towels for trying to make out Dillard’s whispers. He hadn’t really been worth listening to, even when he had two legs, and in time many of his customers drifted off to the Mexican barber. Call even used the Mexican, and Call didn’t trust Mexicans or barbers.

2. A TV Series:

CHERNOBYL on HBO (Crave in Canada)


CHERNOBYL is a fictionalized account, based on factual detail (many of them), about what is generally referred to as the worst nuclear disaster in history. As Craig Maizin, the creator and writer of the series, explained, the impetus to write the thing was because, like everyone else, he knew that the explosion had happened, but he didn't know why.

Why you might want to watch the let’s be honest extremely bleak HBO mini series (other than the desire to be able to start and finish a streaming thing in five one-hour episodes - that’s barely a Game of Thrones battle sequence, no?), is because of the quality work involved in telling a story that is unendingly gripping.

If great visual storytelling (television or film) is as much based on great writing as top-shelf acting well man, this is the goods. And British actor Jared Harris … you may remember him from MAD MEN, you will definitely remember him after he wins his Emmy (one of 19(!) the show’s been nominated for). But what I think puts this incredible production over the top is similar to what made THE SOCIAL NETWORK a masterpiece - tremendous storytelling skills matched up against a director of visual prowess.

With THE SOCIAL NETWORK you had the very wordy, dialogue-heavy Aaron Sorkin dictating the verbose nature of the piece, but it was matching that with David Fincher’s eye (and ear!) that is what took that film to another level. With Chernobyl you have a script heavy with exposition, with fact and detail, all of which is fascinating (the ramification of the disaster alone, like 5 Hiroshima bombs). Matching that up with a director who knows how to fill a screen and use silence … brilliant. As Masha Gessen admits in her New Yorker piece (that is actually a long kvetch about what the series gets wrong), the show is so pin-point accurate in its depiction of the look of Russia at the time that “Clothes, objects, and light itself seem to come straight out of nineteen-eighties.”

CHERNOBYL’s director, Johan Renck, shares something else with David Fincher: he first came to fame as a director of music videos and commercials before going on to work on TV shows like oh, you know, THE WALKING DEAD and BREAKING BAD. Not surprisingly then, the production design and visual landscape of Chernobyl is as impressive as the great Emily Watson’s (not Emma Watson!) acting. Travelling through the highest halls of power in Russia at the time and under its most volatile nuclear reactor alongside the various players in this piece .. it must be seen to be experienced. Perhaps most to the point, at heart CHERNOBYL is really about what it means to live under a government that toys in truth and is ever misleading its people. The results, of course, are disastrous.


3. A magazine article:

CRISIS ON INFINITE COURTS — an in-depth look about why we found it so hard to watch Djokovic beat Federer at Wimbledon from theringer.com

The best sports writing isn’t about sports at all, of course. It’s about the humans that play those sports and, in this case, why we might laud one player and despise another.

In 2008, Roger Federer, the top ranked player in the ATP at the time, played a five-set match against Rafael Nadal, the ATP’s number two ranked player then. Nadal won 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10), 9-7 (no tie break at Wimbledon in the fifth set back then). To date many, myself very much included, consider it the greatest tennis match of all time. If you have even a passing knowledge of tennis, just go back and look at that score. What I remember most was turning to my wife somewhere deep in the 4th, or possibly the 5th set (we’d been watching for a good four hours by then) and just thinking, I hate that one of these two warriors will have to lose.

This was very much not the case this year at Wimbledon, though the match went just as deep, just as long and was most certainly either man’s game until the very end. In terms of the game’s quality of play it may even have surpassed the beloved 2008 classic.

This theringer.com piece, about Djokovic beating Federer is a dissection of what anyone watching or who cared felt — which is why it hurt so bad to see Federer lose, or rather why nobody(!) wanted Djokovic to win.

Let’s put our cards on the table here. If you’re reading this outside a very limited geographical area in Eastern Europe, there’s a good chance you were rooting for Federer today. There’s also a good chance you don’t like Djokovic much. Federer worship has become—sometimes tediously—a default position for both casual fans and the tennis cognoscenti, and Djokovic has never been widely loved within the game. To his own fans, his relative unpopularity has to do with American and western European chauvinism and the reluctance of privileged fans from traditional tennis countries to see a Serb gate-crash the glass tower of Nadal and Federer. To everyone else, it has to do with Djokovic being kind of smug and needy and stressful to watch, and the way he seems like he’s a little too desperate for you to like him, and the way he rips his shirt off when he’s furious, and the way he smirks and bellows and hams it up for the crowd in ways the crowd didn’t ask for and doesn’t especially want. Let’s say both sides have a point.

Jon Mendelsohn