Hyperion.

I reviewed the boardgame Orleans for Paste this week, and my latest Insider post breaks down the Aroldis Chapman trade, including my disdain for the Yankees’ decision to trade for someone with an unresolved domestic assault accusation attached to him.

I decided last year to start working my way through the list of winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel (there are now 64 winners, and I’m through 27) because I’m obsessed with lists, but more importantly, because it seemed like a good way to find the kind of big, immersive, ambitious novels I enjoy most, works that stick with me long after they’re done. The Left Hand of Darkness was one such discovery; To Say Nothing of the Dog was another; Among Others totally blew me away. There are duds, like Red Mars, but I’ll take a couple of those along the way when some of the winners are as amazing as Dan Simmons’ 1989 novel Hyperion, winner of the Hugo in 1989.

Hyperion is one of the most remarkable sci-fi books I’ve ever read – a highly literate, ambitious novel with an unusual structure and a delightful habit of defying reader expectations at multiple turns. Modeled after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and presaging the very similar structure used by David Mitchell in his nested novel Cloud Atlas, Hyperion follows seven pilgrims on a journey to the planet of the book’s title, where they go to meet the mysterious creature known as the Shrike, a trek from which most pilgrims do not return. The fate of their requests of the Shrike may connect to the fate of humanity, which has spread itself around the galaxy and spun off a splinter group of violent rebels called the Ousters as well as an independent entity powered by artificial intelligences that became sentient and seceded from man.

The meat of the novel is those pilgrims’ stories, each told in a different voice and different style (as in Mitchell’s novel), from the priest who reads from the diary of his friend who died on Hyperion to the private investigator whose story unfurls like a detective novel to the Consul whose paramour, Siri, is the original time traveler’s wife. Simmons infuses each of these characters, some of whom are, shall we say, less than entirely sympathetic, with depth and complexity, enough that any one of them could have carried an entire novel by him/herself. The story of the father who makes the journey with his infant daughter is just heartbreaking, and while Simmons probably pushes one sorrow button too many, his description of that father’s experience watching his daughter’s pain is stunning and never forced.

Simmons has also created, in one book, a literary universe the size and scope of that in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, one that Simmons revisited in three subsequent novels (about which I’ve gotten mixed reviews from all of you over the last ten days). His vision of a distant future is bleak in spots, but he hasn’t given up on humanity entirely, while his incorporation of unrealistic or impossible scientific advances (such as interstellar travel using “farcasters”) at least brings the veneer of realism – and many of these technologies are critical to the book’s stories. Simmons created a mind-boggling world, then put his characters through grueling life tests within it, showing us their reactions and their development in response to these trials.

However, Hyperion doesn’t deliver what I expected most from it: an ending. The journey is the story; the pilgrims do not reach the Shrike at the end of the book, and the resolutions of their various stories come in the sequel, Fall of Hyperion, which I understand departs from this book’s narrative technique. Simmons leaves so many questions unanswered, from Rachel’s fate to Hoyt’s real purpose to the Consul’s ability to achieve his goal, that even though Hyperion is an immensely satisfying work on its own, the ending felt too much like a cliffhanger to think of it as a completely self-contained work. “All Prologue” is fine and good up to a point, but giving us all back story and virtually no present works against the power of the book as a whole.

Next up: I’ve finished Michio Kaku’s Beyond Einstein, a 1995 book on the history of superstrings, and just started another Hugo winner, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls.

The Keepers of the House.

My thoughts on the Jeff Samardzija contract are up for Insiders. I’m still waiting for details on Hisashi Iwakuma’s reported contract before writing that one up.

Shirley Ann Grau’s novel The Keepers of the House, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1965, is an outstanding work of seething rage that manages to address themes of race and racial injustice by telling the story of a white family, of all things, in rural Alabama, from the late 19th century through the period just before the book’s publication. It is obvious to me why it won the award, and baffling to me that it has all but disappeared from reading lists, with no film adaptation or anything else to keep it alive.

The book nominally details seven generations of the Howland family, but the focus is primarily on two of them: the fifth William Howland and his granddaughter Abigail, who returns with her mother to live with her grandfather after her father abandons the family to fight in World War II, and ends up raised by her grandfather after her mother dies shortly after. William brought a young black woman named Margaret in to be the housekeeper after his own wife died in childbirth, and Margaret eventually became his mistress, bearing him three children, each of whom was sent away to schools in the north where their mixed heritage would not be held against them. While the relationship was commonly known in the area, the locals – depicted by and large as the sort of upstanding racists you might associate with the South of the 1950s – overlooked it as a quirk of those crazy Howlands.

After William dies, Margaret moves back to the black section of town with her family, and Abigail and her ambitious politician husband John Tolliver move into the Howland estate. When John runs for Governor of Alabama, a post he’s favored to win in a landslide, one unknown detail emerges about William and Margaret that derails his campaign and marriage while bringing the wrath of the town upon Abigail, thereby unlocking within her generations of outrage at the hypocrisy all around her, from the local whites who would tolerate such miscegenation up to a point to William and Margaret’s children who try to reject their black heritage.

The first three-fourths of Grau’s novel feel like many other novels in the subgenre of southern literature, telling a vast story of a family that once ruled a vast estate or accumulated great wealth but watched it fritter away via complacent or dissolute descendants. But Grau plants many seeds (no pun intended) in the early going to set up a dynamite climax (same) that gives Abigail two shots at revenge on her family’s tormentors, taking advantage of the unspoken dependence of the townfolk to enact a vicious vengeance. Abigail serves her revenge piping hot, and because of its genesis, it’s an extraordinarily satisfying conclusion for the reader.

It’s even more potent for Grau’s decision to tell the story with Abigail as the narrator. Imposing that fog over the family history – it’s passed down orally, so bits of it seem embellished, perhaps impossible – meant that images become clearer as the story approaches the material Abigail herself would have seen, and allows us to trace the development of her identity as a Howland, especially from the time when she goes to live on the family estate. In the time when Grau wrote Keepers, it was unthinkable to have a black character enact the sort of revenge Abigail gets – as it was, Grau ended up with a cross burned on her lawn after the book was published – so giving us a white woman who was raised in a house where black children were treated as cousins was probably the closest Grau could get. And in so doing, she never spared the white racists who smiled and said the right things but harbored the same centuries-old bigotry in their hearts.

Next up: I just finished Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks, a Nero Wolfe mystery, and have begun Stephanie Kallos’s highly lauded 2015 novel Language Arts.

Art Angels.

My column on my NL Rookie of the Year ballot is up for Insiders.

Grimes’ Art Angels (buy on amazon or iTunes) is the best album of 2015, and the best album I’ve heard since alt-J’s 2012 debut An Awesome Wave. Canadian singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Claire Boucher, who records under the pseudonym Grimes, has created a masterful indie-pop performance that transcends genres and incorporates wildly diverse sounds into a cohesive, intelligent offering that never lets up from the ninety-second opener to the final song’s declaration of independence.

Grimes’ third album, 2012’s Visions, brought her substantial critical acclaim, notably for the singles “Genesis” and “Oblivion,” which received plenty of airplay on alternative radio and led to multiple recommendations from many of you, but I couldn’t get past the juvenile sound of her high-register vocals and the electropop leanings of the music. Grimes has ditched GarageBand, which she used to record much of that last album, for more sophisticated digital audio workstation software, and it is reflected in the worldliness of the music itself. The maturation process from there to Art Angels was, by all accounts, arduous, including an entire album that Grimes scrapped, the one-off single “Go” (rejected by Rihanna’s people, because I guess her people are idiots), and the song “REALiTi,” which survived the trashing of the lost album and reappears here in a more polished form. This is the Grimes album with vision, delivering rather than promising, with marked increases in the sophistication of her music and her lyrics.

After that brief intro track, Grimes delivers the first of many surprises on the album with “California,” a sunny track that gives off the illusion of an acoustic or folk-rock song, but is largely electronic and hides a dark, cynical take on the record industry through a metonymical use of the state to represent the entertainment industry. (Grimes has spoken publicly before about how the mainstream record industry does not, in her view, treat indie artists well.) From that luminous track we downshift into the album’s darkest song, “Scream,” with all lyrics courtesy of the female Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, who raps entirely in Mandarin with a menacing, breathy delivery that matches the funereal music beneath her. If you’ve survived this hairpin turn, you’ve gotten the hang of Art Angels, which refuses to choose a single direction yet manages to squeeze a panoply of styles into a single tent.

Lead single “Flesh Without Blood” is the most traditional song on the record in both its structure and the melodic nature of the vocals, but would still jar listeners to straight pop stations if it came on after the latest four minutes’ hate from OneRepublic. “Kill v. Maim” and “Venus Fly” both show Grimes asserting her individuality and particular brand of feminism, with the former seeing her voice as high as it gets on the album, which is fine with me as I think she starts to sound very young at the top end of her range, although here it also seems like an allusion to J-pop traditions and is interspersed with the occasional death-metal scream. “Venus Fly” features vocals from Janelle Monáe, who will appear on your album if you just remember to include a self-addressed stamped envelope, in an articulate rant about how women in music are judged on their appearances, with a number of lines that sound like they should end in “boy” if you’ve been reared on vapid, modern pop music.

The title track is a real sleeper, the kind of song Daft Punk tried and failed to craft on their Grammy-winning album Random Access Memories, between the funk-guitar riff and the layered synthesized drum lines, with lyrics that express her love for her adopted home city of Montréal. I might be alone in preferring the raw demo version of “REALiTi” we got back in the spring, where her vocals were more seductive even when she veered on the edge of falsetto; although the current version maintains the basic hook of the original, her vocals are honed to a finer point, excising the demo’s dreamlike quality.

Grimes’ lyrics have improved enormously over the last three years, with greater use of metaphor and new phrasings, with very few lines that clunk enough to detract from the songs as a whole. (“California” does have a line about how certain music “sounds just like my soul;” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a song lyric using the word “soul” in a secular or metaphorical sense that didn’t sound like something from a teenager’s poetry notebook.) She’s covering a ton of thematic ground here, but they’re all tied together under the banner of the experiences of a woman in a male-dominated industry that is rife with sexism, harassment, and superficial judgments. When the slightly saccharine closer, “Butterfly,” concludes with Grimes’ assertion that she’ll “never be your dream girl,” it’s clear she’s both refusing to bend herself to be what someone else wants and saying that the song’s target isn’t worthy of her time. It’s a compulsive listen without a dud to be found, with so many changes in musical direction that she grabs your attention from the start and holds it, rapt, until she tells you to kiss off in the closing track. It’s an album that demands repeated listening.

King of Tokyo.

Today’s offseason buyers’ guide post for Insiders covers the middle infield market, which at least has some fun trade possibilities.

I’ve owned the great, silly family boardgame King of Tokyo for over a year, but we always seemed to overlook it for other games I needed to review for Paste* or in favor of a longtime favorite of my daughter’s (like Splendor). We broke it out this weekend, however, and after a few more plays I can give it a fair review: It’s awesome, one of the best games we own that’s not just suitable for her to play (she’s nine), but which she can fully understand without making us feel like we’re playing something dumbed down for the kids.

* My latest review for them covers the app version of Camel Up; I have a review of the new edition of Mission: Red Planet coming up next week.

Designed by Magic: the Gathering creator Richard Garfield, King of Tokyo does have one major difference from most of the games I review here and for Paste: Players can be eliminated, and in fact one of the two victory conditions is to be the last player standing. That doesn’t always go over well with the young ‘un, especially since an eliminated player might have to sit around (or go watch Littlest Pet Shop) and wait for the game to finish. There’s also a way to win without elimination, just by becoming the first player to reach 20 victory points, which in our experience was the more common outcome.

Players in King of Tokyo – not to be confused with our variant, King of Totoro, or the perpetually-hungry King of Town – represent monsters fighting for control of Tokyo. Each player begins the game with 10 health points and zero victory points. Only one monster can control Tokyo at any given time, and once there, s/he becomes the target of attacks by all other players – and can, in turn, attack everyone else at once. Each player rolls six dice on his/her turn, which can result in combinations of points, healing, attacks, or energy cubes which become currency with which to purchase cards that grant additional powers or points. The dice have six sides: 1, 2, 3, attack (a paw mark), energy, or healing (a heart). On a turn, the player rolls all six, then may reroll one or more of the dice, and reroll one more time before settling on the six results. If the player gets at least three dice showing the same number on its face, s/he earns one victory point per die – so anywhere from three to six points on the turn. An attack die takes a health point away from an opponent: if you’re in Tokyo, all your opponents lose a health point, whereas if you’re not in Tokyo, the player who is loses a health point. Each heart you roll gets you back one health point, but only if you’re not in Tokyo.

If you’re in Tokyo and are sick and tired of those monsters attacking you, you can choose to cede Tokyo to any attacking monster right after you’ve been hit. But if you stick it out, you get two victory points for every one of your turns you begin in the city of Tokyo. Any player who moves into Tokyo gains one victory point for doing so, including the first player to occupy the city by rolling the first attack (paw) of the game. In games with five or six players, the second Tokyo space, for Tokyo Bay, also enters play, so two players can occupy the city at once, and their attacks on other players don’t affect each other.

The key to the game is the cards, unless someone has exceptionally good luck early with dice rolls. Cards can cost two to eight energy cubes, with three on the market at any given time, and offer all kinds of benefits – altering game rules, dealing quick damage to opponents, and so on. The right card or two can sway the balance of the game toward you … until someone else plays another card and sways it back. Some cards introduce additional elements to the game, such as “poison” tokens (the victim loses a health point per turn until s/he uses a heart die to remove it) or the Mimic card (which can copy any card any other player has in play, with a cost of one energy cube to change the target card at any time). It adds some complexity and strategy to the game so that it’s not quite so dice-dependent, but still has a random element from the huge deck of cards from which you’ll likely only see a handful during the game.

The game plays two to six, although we’ve found playing with two doesn’t work very well, with a recommended age range from eight years old up, which is in our experience quite fair, and would even be fine for gameplayers under eight if they can handle something like Ticket to Ride. A full game with the three of us lasts 20-25 minutes; I would guess a game of six players would take longer than the 30 minute time suggested on the box, but maybe with that many players you’re just beating the tar out of each other early and reducing the player count. It’s a must for any collection where the typical game group includes a mix of kids and grown-ups, and maybe even without the kids if the grown-ups like to drink and play.

Inherent Vice.

I was oh for two with Thomas Pynchon books and figured that was enough to assume I just didn’t like his writing style, but two strong recommendations from friends for his 2009 novel Inherent Vice: A Novel, and seeing it available for $6 at a local B&N, were enough for me to give it a short. As much as I disliked Gravity’s Rainbow and just didn’t get The Crying of Lot 49, I loved Inherent Vice, which is a laugh-out-loud funny detective story and homage to/sendup of noir fiction, replete with the cultural allusions that mark all of Pynchon’s work, but in this case in a package that you can actually read, understand, and enjoy.

Doc Sportello is the detective, a private investigator in LA in the early 1970s, working out of the standard shabby office with the standard fetching secretary out front, but replacing the alcohol usage of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade with pot – and a lot of it, to the point where reality and hallucination start to blend for Doc and for the reader. The case walks in off the street, a woman who thinks her dead husband may not be dead after all, and as is par for the course in classic detective fiction, the superficial case opens the door to a broader conspiracy that involves crooked cops, organized crime, and a lot more pot. (That last part may not be standard for the genre.) Doc ends up knocked unconscious, accused of a crime he didn’t commit, in trouble with three or four different groups, and making a lot of wisecracks when his head is clear enough to permit it.

Nobody in Doc’s circle of friends and associates is remotely normal except perhaps his sort-of girlfriend Penny, who works in the local DA’s office and isn’t shy about using him as a chip to get something she wants from the feds. Doc’s attorney, Sauncho, is actually a marine lawyer whose comprehension of criminal law is about as clear as the marine layer, and who is obsessed with a ship of unclear provenance, the Golden Fang, that turns out to be significant in Doc’s case. His friend Denis – you pronounce it to rhyme with “penis” – is so THC- and other drug-addled that he provides some of the book’s funniest moments, one involving a waterbed, one involving a lost slice of pizza, and the other involving a television set. There’s a crazy former client, Doc’s ex-girlfriend (who is also tied up in the main case), the “masseuses,” the ridiculously-named feds (Flatweed and Borderline, or F&B like food and beverage?) …

…and the cop-antagonist, “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, who simultaneously bows to and blows up the stereotypical cop from all hard-boiled detective fiction, the thickheaded guy who gets in the way, hates the PI, always tries to arrest the PI for something, and ends up getting the collar thanks to the PI’s hard work. Bigfoot is big and thickheaded and doesn’t particularly care for Doc, but he’s far from the dumb or useless cop we typically get in the genre – he’s a character of some complexity, more so than any other character but Doc.

While the crimes at the center of the book are involved and take some time for Doc to sort out, to the extent that he does actually sort much of it out, Pynchon chose not to employ the labyrinthine prose and highly allusive style that made Gravity’s Rainbow, for me, an unreadable mess. You may not entirely follow Doc’s thinking or his actions, but that’s only when he can’t, because he’s stoned. That much mind-alteration can make users paranoid, and Doc is paranoid … but they’re really after him, too, and his paranoia tends to serve him pretty well. Pynchon does nothing to clearly distinguish the hallucinatory sequences from reality, but it’s also not that hard to tell when the haze has set in, and Doc gets some time on the page to sort these out himself in case you’re still confused.

Inherent Vice speaks to me because I love the genre that Pynchon is both satirizing and honoring; Doc is hard-boiled to an extent, except that he’s walking around in huarache sandals and, for reasons I can’t begin to explain, gives his hair a sort of perm at the start of the book that takes much of any hard edge off the character. But more than anything else, Pynchon has finally taken the humor that his adherents have long found in his books and put it in a format that the rest of us can appreciate. The book is flat-out funny in multiple ways – situational humor, clever banter, the absurdity of most of what Denis does, and even comedy around sex that comes off as, if not exactly highbrow, less lowbrow than most attempts at sexual humor too. Stoner humor doesn’t always hit the mark because much of it just makes the stoner out to be stupid, but stupid alone isn’t funny. It has to be a certain kind of stupid – in the stoner’s case an absurd twist on it, much in the way that Andy on Parks & Recreation was funny because his lack of intelligence manifested itself in these wildly illogical paths in his mind. Marijuana use isn’t funny, kids; it’s hilarious.

Making the book so readable means that the things Pynchon has always done well, like cultural references, are suddenly accessible to the rest of us. Pynchon loves to make up names – silly character names (Japonica Fenway, Puck Beaverton, Trillium Fortnight, the loan shark Adrian Prussia who happens to have the initials that stand for Accounts Payable), but also band names (Spotted Dick), radio stations, songs, movies (Godzilligan’s Island), and so on, and they get sillier as the novel goes on. Many names refer to plants (trillium, flatweed, japonica, charlock, smilax), although if there’s a broader significance to that than that marijuana is also a plant, I missed it. Doc is obsessed with the actor John Garfield, who played hard-boiled characters and refused to name names when called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which also comes up when Dalton Trumbo’s name is broached; the whole post-McCarthy era looms large as then-President Nixon was trying again to crack down on “subversive” elements, which is a small part of the novel’s main plot line. We even get Doc’s parents, which you never get in a detective novel, worrying about their son’s career and bachelorhood and providing one last bit of comic relief before the novel closes.

I’ve since seen some contemporary reviews of the book that were disappointed that it wasn’t vintage Pynchon, and one that cited a lack of suspense (that reviewer had to be unfamiliar with the tropes of hard-boiled detective fiction), but I haven’t read a novel in some time that hit on this many cylinders for me. It’s phenomenally funny, very smart, and yet at its core is a very well-crafted detective story. Maybe I will have to try some more Pynchon after all.

Next up: Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

All the Light We Cannot See.

Anthony Doerr’s World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, defies the standards for that prize in its complete lack of American characters or themes, but the work itself overcame the prize rules’ stated preference for a work “dealing with American life” with exquisite plotting and searing character portraits. The novel seems ripe for sentiment – I can only imagine what Hollywood will do to the conclusion – but Doerr manages to dance on the line separating emotion from mawkishness without crossing it, building up to a single moment lasting no more than two pages that brings his two protagonists together in one of the most memorable scenes I’ve read in years. (It’s only out in hardcover in the U.S. but is available in paperback in the U.K.)

Doerr gives us two narrative threads for most of the book, adding a third a bit later on to help tie the first two together, with each of the pair of primary subplots featuring one of his two main characters: Marie-Laure, a blind 12-year-old girl who flees Paris with her father, a locksmith at the French Museum of Natural History, when the Nazis invade in 1940; and Werner, a German orphan who saves himself from a life in the mines by showing an early aptitude for working with electronics, especially radio transmitters. Marie and her father, who may have been entrusted with a priceless jewel from the museum’s collection, end up in Saint-Malo, a walled city on the northern coast of Brittany that was badly damaged by Allies near the end of World War II; when her father is taken prisoner by the Nazis on questionable pretenses, her care falls to her shell-shocked great-uncle Étienne, who has a sizable radio transmitter in his home’s hidden top floor. Werner ends up in a draconian military academy before a little age-modification lands him a spot in a roving military unit that’s assigned to locate and snuff out Resistance radio transmitters within occupied Europe. When Marie and her great-uncle join the Resistance and begin such transmissions, it’s obvious that Werner’s unit will end up in Saint-Malo to try to find the source … but she’s also sought by the Nazi treasure-hunter von Rumpel, who believes her father took the genuine diamond and is desperate to retrieve it before he runs out of time.

The story comes to the reader in very short bursts, too short to be called chapters, with interludes toward the very end of the war interspersed throughout the longer sections that lead from 1934 (when Marie-Laure and Werner are still little children) to the war’s outbreak, eventually catching up to the second timeline in the interludes where all three subplots collide in Saint-Malo. Flashbacks are themselves a tired technique, but the brevity of each passage gives the novel the quick-reading feel of an epistolary work, and in this case there’s value in forewarning the reader of the tension of the final denouement while also tipping us off that certain secondary characters might not be around for it.

Doerr relies a bit too much on coincidence to deepen the tie between Werner and Marie, a detail that in some ways overshadows the generosity of spirit in their single encounter, where Werner takes multiple actions that save Marie’s life. However, he avoids so many other hackneyed devices both in the path to that scene and in that meeting itself that still manages to explore new emotional territory, looking into the possibility of kindness within the heart of darkness in ways I’ve only seen before in fictionalized parent-child relationships. (All the Light is also one of the only contemporary novels for adults I’ve read recently that has very little sex or profanity, both of which are frequent and overused crutches in modern adult fiction.)

Marie-Laure is a bit romanticized, the innocent girl waiting for one of various men – her father, her uncle, and eventually Werner – to save her, but Werner is a fully-formed character with ambition and remorse, driven by emotional and physical needs to succeed at his task yet haunted by knowledge of the results of his triangulations and scarred repeatedly by assaults on the shreds of his innocence. He is the moral center of the book, this teenaged Nazi soldier through whom Doerr shows us the horrors of war via an unusual and new lens.

Next up: Roger Zelazny’s Hugo winner Lord of Light.

Every Open Eye.

CHVRCHES’ 2013 debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, was my #2 album of 2013, an upbeat electro-pop album that put five songs on my top 100 for that year and turned singer Lauren Mayberry into a minor star. The singles leading up to their second album Every Open Eye (iTunes), released on Friday, showed tremendous promise that this disc would be more of the same but better, and it is undeniably so; the album is a direct descendant of Prince’s Purple Rain with its layered synthesizers and R&B-influenced rhythms, to say nothing of the album’s unending stream of great pop hooks.

Every Open Eye begins with the two lead singles, “Never Ending Circles” and “Leave a Trace,” both among the best tracks of the year, showcasing the group’s signature sounds while adding more complex production and instrumentation behind Mayberry’s vocals. She sings like a 5’10” power hitter – her voice is strong for its size – and while lyrics aren’t quite a strength they’re also clearly improved from the first album. Indeed, the opening quintet of tracks all seem like they could have been authored by Prince in his synth-R&B heyday, which is unsurprising from a band that once included a cover of “I Would Die 4 U” in its setlists and drew inspiration from the 1980s without quaffing too deeply on the new wave music of that era. When CHVRCHES does put a keyboard line at the front of a track, as on “Make Them Gold,” that line still makes way for Mayberry to provide the primary melody, in this case in the song that most directly reminded me of the Purple Rain soundtrack.

The most remarkable part of Every Open Eye is the sheer variety of melodic lines the trio carve out of what would appear to be a single block of marble: the eight strong tracks (of eleven) are all variations on a central musical motif, yet they’ve crafted distinct tracks with small changes in the layering of their synth lines and with Mayberry shifting registers or altering a few notes in each chorus. I might have thought they’d run out of room for growth within this particular sound after one album, but through two albums they’ve shown no signs whatsoever of doing so. You won’t mistake a CHVRCHES song for anyone else, but the way the group can carve uplifting chanters like “Bury It” and driving angst-filled songs like “Empty Threat” from the same stone is their greatest strength.

The slips on EOE mirror those from the band’s debut: when Mayberry isn’t singing, or when the group slows the tempo. Mayberry only takes one song off from singing, here on the soulful “High Enough to Carry You Over,” but without her vocal power or charisma it falls horribly flat. That charisma is also notably absent on the slowest tracks on the album, “Down Side of Me” and the dismal closer “Afterglow,” which deviate from the formula that has made CHVRCHES cross-over successes even with their inherently British sound (including Mayberry’s Scottish brogue). The deluxe edition of Every Open Eye includes three bonus tracks, including “Get Away” (#46 on my top songs of 2014) from the re-scoring of the film Drive; the forgettable “Follow You,” sung by Martin Doherty; and “Bow Down,” which sounds more like a B-side due to the lack of a strong central melody.

I imagine the first couplet on the album, “Throw me no more bones/and I will tell you no lies,” was a nod to their debut’s title and an indication that they wanted to shift direction with this release, but they truly haven’t done so: EOE is the clear successor to their first record, but an evolution rather than a change in direction, and that’s the best possible outcome for listeners. For the second time in their short careers, CHVRCHES have churned out one of the year’s best albums, a little light on experimentation but incredibly deep in compelling hooks.

Do You Feel OK?

Superhumanoids first crossed my radar last year with their two-song release “Hey Big Bang” and “Come Say Hello,” dreamy electro-pop tracks that showcased lead singer Sarah Chernoff’s potent soprano voice. I’d missed their 2013 album Exhibitionists, which had a similar sound but lacked the stronger hooks from their 2014 EP; the promise of those two songs had me eagerly anticipating their second full-length album, Do You Feel OK?, which more than fulfilled expectations with a half-dozen single-worthy tracks that keep Chernoff front and center without skimping on the underlying melodies.

Superhumanoids’ sound draws on the electro-pop and new wave sounds of the 1980s but avoids sounding retro or derivative with distinctly modern production and more emphasis on layered music tracks below the vocals. The lead single, “Anxious in Venice,” is a glorious introduction to the album, bringing a new intensity that replaces the languorous feel of their previous work, and as a result has garnered some airplay on Sirius XM. Chernoff’s vocals rule the day, as they do on most tracks here, but it’s the throbbing beat behind her vocals that makes the song such a standout, bringing a funk or even disco element to the track that we haven’t heard from Superhumanoids before. Second single “Norwegian Black Metal” has the song title of the year for me, starting with a sample of Chernoff that sounds like she’s doing a bird call, shifting into a mid-tempo track that is more dream-pop than “Anxious,” restoring the ethereal quality that’s more part of their signature, but again with greater intensity and the introduction of a vocal melody that we’ll hear repeated through the rest of the album (on the line “what’s the delay?”).

This style of music – one that crosses a number of subgenres, but ultimately is synth-heavy electronic pop, with a slower tempo than dance music – can become repetitive over an entire album, which was a little true of Exhibitionists but is not the case at all on Do You Feel OK?. Shifting tempos helps, as “Dull Boy” drifts back into that dreamier (or perhaps stoner) territory after the first few songs have all had quicker paces, as does varying electronic drum lines and mixing up melodic elements across the various tracks. “Touch Me” is one of the most upbeat tracks and gets Chernoff soaring; her voice is main separator between Superhumanoids and other similar acts like CHVRCHES, led by another female vocalist whose voice is endearing but less powerful. She’s also very much the driver of the disturbing “Oh Me I,” a sweet-sounding track with the repeated couplet, “Everything implies/that we’re all going to die.” And suddenly I don’t feel OK.

There are experimental moments on the album, including the trip-hop crescendo-filled “Blinking Screens” (very successful) and the vaguely soul-influenced “Death Rattle” (less so), which also helps counteract the potential monotony that I find on so many electronic albums. Do You Feel OK? seems to be slipping under the general radar this month in the torrent of great alternative releases (CHVRCHES, Wavves, Telekinesis, Disclosure, New Order, Beirut, the Libertines, and more), but this album deserves far wider listening than it’s getting.

A Bell for Adano.

John Hersey is probably best remembered today, to the extent that he’s remembered at all, for “Hiroshima,” his mammoth piece for the New Yorker that took up all of the periodical’s August 31st, 1946 issue, and was later republished as a standalone book. A year before that remarkable piece of non-fiction, first-person journalism, however, Hersey won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his satirical war novel A Bell for Adano, a spiritual precursor to Catch-22, one that allows the absurdity of military life and bureaucracy to satirize itself while also humanizing the American occupation of Italy through one character, Major Joppolo, who becomes the wartime mayor of the Italian town of Adano.

Adano has lost much in the war; the people are starving and thirsty, and the ousted Fascist mayor was a corrupt coward. But no loss seems to matter as much as the loss of the town’s 700-year-old bell, recently taken by Mussolini’s government and melted down to make more munitions. As Major Joppolo attempts to restore order to Adano, reestablishing basic services and some semblance of the rule of law, he also makes it his main mission to find the town a new bell, one that has some historical significance and will have the “right tone.” Of course, other military officials think he’s crazy, and the General overseeing that part of the occupation, based on George S. Patton, is a single-minded tyrant. The scene in Patton where the titular character shoots a local merchant’s donkey appears here, and, like much of the book, is based on an actual incident; the shooting and Major Joppolo’s response to it sets up an obvious if poetic conclusion to the story that also creates some comedic pressure for the Major to find that bell before his time in Adano runs out.

While Joseph Heller’s book spares nothing and no one in its farcical look at the pointlessness of war and the human machines we build up to wage it, Hersey grounds his story in reality and lets the book’s rich humor come from very believable personal interactions, from the concupiscent Captain Purvis’s unending attempts to seduce Italian woman with whom he can’t communicate, to naval Lieutenant Livingston, whose snobbish first impressions of Major Joppolo give way when the latter employs a little bit of flattery. The return of Mayor Nasta and his subsequent arrest are almost slapstick comic moments. The memo that describes Joppolo’s countermanding of General Marvin’s order stopping all carts from entering Adano takes the most circuitous route imaginable to the latter’s desk as various underlings try to “lose” it before it does any harm. Some parts of the book were just laugh-out-loud funny, and most of it was smile-inducing, other than the occasional intervention of the details of the war, or the strongly sentimental notions connecting Joppolo and the citizens of Adano.

So why hasn’t A Bell for Adano endured as a work of American literature, especially war literature, when it’s based on true stories from the occupation (Major Joppolo himself was modeled on an actual American officer), is funny, and would be easily accessible to high school readers? I’ve long been appalled at how little of the American canon we present to American students; many great authors are omitted from even honors or AP reading lists even though books like Adano could be read and covered inside of a week. Perhaps it’s just been overshadowed by later works – it may have inspired Heller’s novel, but Heller’s book was funnier, more vicious, and covered far more ground – but it’s worth pushing it back on to the modern bookshelf.

Next up: Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.

NYC eats, August 2015.

I’ve got two posts up for Insiders today, one on sustainable breakthroughs so far in 2015 and one on this weekend’s Metropolitan Classic high school tournament.

I had quite a run of food in the city (that’s New York for all you non-New Yorkers; the qualifier simply isn’t required for the rest of us, nor is capitalization) over the weekend, between a pizza pilgrimage, an artisan coffee roaster, and a restaurant crawl with the O.G. Top Chef Harold Dieterle.

Pizza first … I’ve heard for years about Paulie Gee’s, a small pizzeria in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that’s only open in the evenings and can easily run two-hour waits. They’re considered one of the best pizza joints in the country, including a spot on that 2013 Food and Wine list that I’ve been using as a sort of travel guide. (I’ve now eaten at 25 of the 47 that are still open, including all but one of the NYC entries.) By going solo I was able to get right in and sit at the bar, which had a rather convenient reading light right by my seat. The pizza is thin-crust, cooked in an Italian-built wood-fired oven, with various preset options ranging from the traditional to the bizarre. I went with a mostly traditional option of fresh mozzarella, arugula, and prosciutto, but – and I know I won’t get a good reaction from the crowd with this – the pizza was overcooked. The edges were too charred, and there were small parts of the center of the dough that were burned underneath. I have no complaints with the toppings and it probably would have been outstanding had it come out of the oven as little as 20 seconds sooner. Fortunately for me, they’re planning to open a second location in Hampden near Baltimore, so I’ll get to try them again.

The coffee spot was Blue Bottle, a roaster based in San Francisco with a couple of outlets in the city, and that is some damn good espresso. They offer a number of varietals in pour-overs, but as I was pressed for time both mornings (and particularly desperate for caffeine on the second morning), I went with espresso, which they make with blends rather than single-origins. Their roasts are light (“third-wave”) so you can still taste the flavors of the beans.

Harold Dieterle, the winner of the first season of Top Chef, is a huge Mets fan and reader of my stuff, so we’ve been in touch for a while and trying to get together for a food crawl in Manhattan, which finally happened on Friday night. The first stop was Cata, a tapas place on the Lower East Side where the alcohol consumption began – they specialize in gin and tonics, and I got one with Fever Tree tonic and lavender – and we had a handful of small plates. I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’d had jamón iberico, the Spanish version of prosciutto made from black Iberian pigs, often fed just on acorns. It’s less salty than prosciutto and the meat has a luxurious, buttery character with a distinct nutty flavor. It’s carved to order from a leg that’s sitting on the bar counter and costs $29 for a plate. We tried a handful of other tapas, best of which were the smoked oysters, the patatas bravas (fried potatoes, but not really French fries) served with an aerated aioli, and the marinated anchovy toasts.

Danny Meyer’s restaurant empire continues to grow, as the entrepreneur best known for creating Shake Shack is behind the new place called Untitled at the Whitney Museum. Head chef Michael Anthony (not the guy from Chickenfoot, although that would be cool) has created a vegetable-focused but not vegetarian menu that changes very frequently to reflect whatever’s most in season. We had at least a half-dozen dishes, some of which were gifts from the kitchen (for Harold, not for me), and the standouts included a tomato/melon “sashimi” that highlighted the spectacular tomatoes with just a little salt and I presume olive oil; a plate of grilled pole beans with squid and toasted hazelnuts, presenting a vegetable I rarely see in a way I hadn’t tried before; nectarine “toasts,” again taking a central item from the produce section and making it the runaway star; pork fritters, opulent little balls of shredded pork shoulder just barely breaded and fried, served over a corn relish; and duck sausage with mustard sauce, which turned out to be the second-best duck dish I had on the evening. The only dish I didn’t love was one of their most famous, the smashed cucumbers with black sesame seeds and soba noodles, which ended up lost in the sea of liquid underneath it, a hazard of working with high-quality in-season cukes. The space itself is very cool, with high ceilings and long pendant lights, plus lots of glass looking out on Gansevoort. Chef Anthony came out to chat and is an incredibly nice guy who’s a fairly serious Reds fan.

The last spot, and the most decadent, was Cosme, a Mexican-inspired upscale restaurant that, according to Harold, has one of the best duck dishes in the city: Duck carnitas, a whole braised duck leg served in a cast-iron skillet with thinly sliced onions and radishes, served with blue-corn tortillas, salsa verde, chile de arbol salsa (I tried it; it’s hot), and lime wedges. The duck shreds like smoked pork shoulder, but has a softer, smoother texture, and it stays moist between the braising and the way it’s served under the browned skin. It’s more than enough to share, but it’s also a steep $59. Whether that’s worth it depends on your budget, but I will say it’s probably the best duck dish I’ve ever had in a restaurant.

We also had Chef Enrique Olvera’s now-famous dessert, a pavlova he calls “Husk Meringue with Corn Mousse,” with burned and powdered corn husks in the giant meringue, which is served cracked in half so that the corn mousse (made with mascarpone) appears to be spilling out of the center. You can see pictures of both dishes in the glowing NY Times review from February. If Olvera’s name rings a bell, he appeared as a judge in one of the Mexico City episodes of the last season of Top Chef.