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Allen Adams

Allen Adams

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I love crossword puzzles. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve found real joy in solving those black-and-white grids. From the daily newspaper to collections in books to online sources, I’ve been a cruciverbalist for most of my life.

But I’m far from the only person out there with a devotion to the joyous wordplay that comes with crosswords, spending a portion of just about every day working my way across and down, filling in the blanks and feeling the satisfaction of a finished puzzle. Millions of people engage with crosswords every day, though we all have our routines – some solve at breakfast, others as a break during the day; some solve on their commutes, others in the evening to bring their day to an end. Maybe it’s intellectual engagement they seek. Perhaps a competitive thrill. Regardless, it ultimately boils down to love of the game.

Adrienne Raphel loves crosswords as well. She loves them so much, in fact, that she went ahead and wrote a book about them. “Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them” (Penguin Press, $27) is a thoughtful and in-depth look at a hobby that has been occupying minds for over a century. Through a combination of historical research and first-person experience, Raphel takes the reader on an engaging and entertaining stroll across and down the cross-world.

Every movie begins with an idea, a seed that one hopes will ultimately grow into something appealing. Sometimes, that idea is a plot point or an aesthetic concept. Sometimes, it involves a character and/or the actor who plays said character. And sometimes, it’s … something else.

Take “Coffee & Kareem,” a new streaming offering that hit Netflix on April 3. Near as I can figure, this movie exists because someone thought that was a funny title and decided to reverse-engineer a film from there. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the end result was not good.

What we have here is a lukewarm and forgettable cup of movie, one that carries the slapdash algorithmically-generated vibe that often marks the less-successful of the streaming service’s original offerings. There’s relatively little humor to be found in the ostensible comedy, and what you do find is so utterly awash in flop sweat as to be rendered ineffective. The film is tonally confused and not nearly as clever as it wants you to think it is.

There are few better feelings than the sensation that comes with the dawning realization that the book you are reading isn’t just good, but great. No matter how much hype you’ve seen, no matter how many recommendations you’ve received, it all comes out in the reading. When the language captivates you and the narrative enthralls you and the themes provoke you … that’s a great book.

Emily St. John Mandel’s “The Glass Hotel” (Knopf, $26.95) offers up just such greatness.

It’s a mesmerizing puzzle box of a book, one whose many interconnected parts are in seemingly constant motion, both through space and time. That sense of propulsive perpetuity creates an almost insatiable hunger in the reader; we simply can’t stop. There’s a rhythm to the steady movement that borders on the hypnotic, sweeping us away at speeds that vary from snail-paced to breakneck – all in service to an incredible story.

When I first heard about “The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball's Afterlife” (University of Nebraska Press, $27.95) by Brad Balukjian, my reaction was pure and basic: “God, that’s a f---ing good idea.”

Even after a decade-plus of literary reviews, I can count on one hand the times that I was legitimately envious of the idea behind a book. Not necessarily the best books or the most interesting books, but the ones with an underlying premise that spoke directly to me.

“The Wax Pack” is one of those.

Balukjian, a lifelong baseball fan, undertook a simple, yet deeply fascinating adventure. He bought a pack of Topps baseball cards from 1986, the year he got into collecting. He popped the decades-old gum into his mouth and flipped through the 15 cards, regaling himself with ghosts of seasons past. And then, he packed up his life and embarked on an epic road trip, a cross-country voyage in which he hoped to make contact with the players he found when he peeled the paper from the titular wax pack.

The result is something unexpected, a thoughtful exploration of fandom that also serves as a glimpse of the different directions a faded athlete might go. And in the process of delving into this sports-loving memory hole, Balukjian himself becomes more present, undertaking an effort to look back at his own history.

Documentary filmmaking is at its most effective when it finds a way to both educate and entertain. Bringing real people and places to the big screen in service to a message is important, but the reality is that if an audience isn’t engaged – isn’t entertained – that message may well go unheard, no matter how important it is or how skillfully relayed.

It has been a long time since I saw a documentary that so successfully struck that balance as “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.” Currently streaming on Netflix, the film – directed by James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham – tells the story of a summer camp for the disabled back in the early 1970s and the huge impact some of those campers would ultimately have in the decades-long fight for civil rights for the disabled.

It’s no surprise that the film is good – it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and actually won the Audience Award – but I wasn’t prepared for HOW good it was going to be. This is a razor sharp, poignant and wickedly funny film, one that delves deep into a part of our nation’s history that is likely unfamiliar to many. It has as colorful a cast of characters as you could hope to find, as well as a message of struggle and speaking truth to power that resonates just as fully today as it did when the story it tells unfolded.

Sunday, 29 March 2020 15:41

Boom or bust - ‘Anthropocene Rag’

Speculative fiction often offers a glimpse at new beginnings that spring forth from cataclysmic endings. The entire subgenre of dystopian fiction is built largely on the premise. We’re fascinated by the idea of what might rise anew in the aftermath of the collapsing old.

The popularity of that fundamental concept, however, means that the resulting literary work is often wildly variant in terms of quality. Yes, it’s easy to write about the end and what comes after, but it’s exceedingly difficult to do well.

With his new book “Anthropocene Rag” (Tor, $14.99), Alex Irvine does it well.

It’s a sprawling portrait of a future United States where a natural disaster contributed directly to a technological one, the effects of both compounding exponentially in a manner that completely alters civilization as we know it. A small group of people, struggling to carve out a place in this harsh, unforgiving and mercurial world, is offered a unique opportunity. Each is left to wonder not only why they were chosen, but who ultimately has done the choosing?

Told in a deliberately haphazard fashion, leaping from perspective to perspective, “Anthropocene Rag” follows these unlikely pilgrims on their quest across a broken American landscape, one defined in ways overt and subtle by its past even as it has been subsumed by the wave of the future. There’s a new frontier – one that is ever-shifting and unpredictable.

To many, the more granular aspects of wine might seem inaccessible. The finer details picked up by the oenophiles among us are largely lost on those on the outside looking in. And make no mistake, there are A LOT of finer details … and only the select few who fully grasp all of those details can achieve the title of master sommelier.

But what if your passion for wine isn’t enough? What if there are other forces at work, personal and professional responsibilities that are at odds with your singular goal?

That’s the conflict at the center of “Uncorked,” the new drama from Netflix. Written and directed by Prentice Penny, it’s the story of one young man whose love of wine inspires him to try and pursue an oenophile’s education, much to the chagrin of the father who wants him to take over the family business.

This sort of father/son conflict is pretty standard fare for family drama, but this film explores it without ever devolving into boilerplate. Sure, there’s a formula at work here, but thanks to some smart choices and a handful of really compelling performances, the movie never succumbs to cliché. Instead, we get a heartfelt and extremely watchable drama – one to which you’ll have no problem raising a glass.

At first glance, the disciplines of science and philosophy would seem to be mostly distinct. To put it simply, science is about considering how the world works, while philosophy is about considering why the world works the way it does. Again, an oversimplified explanation, but close enough.

What the two share, however, is that deep-seated desire to unpack the secrets of the universe. And in some cases, the line of demarcation can become considerably more difficult to find.

In “The Dream Universe: How Fundamental Physics Lost Its Way” (Doubleday, $26.95), author David Lindley posits that in the bleeding edge world of theoretical physics, that line is all but erased. He walks the reader through a quick-hit history of science and how our conception of what “science” even is has evolved from the philosophical beginnings of the Greeks, growing into something observationally and experimentally based over the centuries, only to relatively recently push so far into the theoretical realm as to circle back round to its thought-driven underpinnings.

That might sound a bit heavy, but Lindley has a real gift for narrative; it’s rare for science writing – even pop science aimed at a broad audience – to be this readable and engaging. Lindley pushes us through the history of science via a handful of touchstone figures, giving us a crash course of sorts. From the early work of Galileo up through the pure-math musings of today’s physics giants, we’re along for the ride.

Just because a town is small doesn’t mean it is lacking in shadows or secrets. With proximity comes familiarity … and familiarity breeds contempt.

That’s why small-town noir works so well – the trappings of the genre work beautifully even removed from sprawling urban landscapes. A ramshackle desert town, an isolated Midwestern farming community or a hardscrabble coastal fishing village – they’re all ripe for receiving the noir treatment.

So it is with “Blow the Man Down,” newly streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The movie – set in the fictional town of Easter Cove, Maine, and filmed largely on location within the state – marks the feature debut of the writing/directing team of Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy.

It’s the story of a small town and the murkiness that exists in the depths beneath the seemingly placid surface. The film explores the idea that in these small places, the divide between the person we present to the world and the person we actually are can be shockingly vast. There are plenty of secrets packed into the cracks; even the most upstanding of citizens may have unsettling skeletons in their closets. And when that veneer of respectability and gentility is cracked, true (and often unpleasant) natures are unleashed.

I’m on record as being a big proponent of coming of age stories. For whatever reason, I find tales of young people crossing the various Rubicons that come with growing up to be endlessly fascinating. There’s a universality to them; while the details may change, the fundamental underpinnings are simple and constant.

That said, while I personally enjoy them all, there’s no denying that, as with any genre, there are good ones and bad ones.

My guess was that “Big Time Adolescence,” the new film streaming on Hulu, would trend more toward the latter category. Instead, the feature debut from writer/directory Jason Foley surprised me. It’s a thoughtful and heartfelt meditation on the connections we make when we’re young and the people with whom we choose to make them … not to mention the relative wisdom (or lack thereof) inherent to those choices. While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it also manages to avoid the saccharine pitfalls that often undermine these kinds of stories.

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