This is Staff Picks, a monthly rundown of what the Empire and Capital City Weekly staff is reading, watching, listening to and playing.
While the weather has taken a turn for the better in the last few weeks, we’re still finding time to (rip and) tear our way through assorted media.
Here’s what we enjoyed in May.
What we’re reading
Peter Segall: “The Passage of Power” by Robert Caro (Nonfiction, Series)
It’s not a new book, nor is it necessarily relevant at the moment but a few years ago I started reading Robert Caro’s “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” series and recently picked up the fourth title in the series, “The Passage of Power.”
I was drawn to the series not by an interest in Johnson, but from what I’d heard about the books and Caro as an author. Caro has published a massive tome covering portions of Johnson’s life about once a decade, each one is about a thousand pages, and the detail of each volume is truly impressive.
“The Passage of Power,” published in 2012, is the latest in the series and covers Johnson time as Vice President in the Kennedy administration. None of Caro’s books in the series have yet covered Lyndon Johnson’s time as president, but rather his path to get there.
Caro argues even from a very young age Johnson was determined to be president, almost pathologically so, and that every step in his career was a calculated advancement towards that goal. “The Passage of Power” follows Johnson as Vice President, a position widely regarded in Washington as a do-nothing job, but is as Caro says, is “one heartbeat away.”
Michael S. Lockett: “Three Parts Dead” by Max Gladstone, Tor Books (Fiction, Series)
“Three Parts Dead” marks the beginning of the Craft Sequence series of books, a series of fantasy novels that read like the love child of a legal thriller and modern fantasy. If you’d have told me that I’d be so compelled by a bunch of books dealing with contractual obligations, legal risk assessment and corporate negotiations, I’d have called you a liar to your face, but when you mix in Gladstone’s wry storytelling style and deft, subtle world-building with just enough glimpses of the familiar underpinning a fantasy world peopled by god-killers and industrial priests and high-powered lawyers riding magic carpets, I ate it up. There are six books in the series at this time, so you ought to be well able to vanish into it for |a while.
What we’re listening to
Ben Hohenstatt : “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” by Fiona Apple (Album):
This album rules. It’s raw, confessional, wonderfully performed and manages to feel both epic and intimate. With all that said, this album’s myth also needs to be punctured a little. It is not a work totally detached from pop culture as it’s sometimes described. It’s an album that was either influenced by or at points sounds comparable to works by John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Brian Wilson, Merrill Garbus and others. Heck, at times Fiona Apple’s vocal delivery sounds more than a little indebted to Michael Jackson, it’s tough to get much poppier. But “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” uses those blocks to build something that is sometimes simultaneously catchy and devastating. It’s an utterly alive album and without a doubt will wind up being remembered as being among the best of the decade.
Michael S. Lockett: “Imaginary Appalachia” by Colter Wall (Album)
This EP was Colter Wall’s premier album, a mix of folk blues and Americana. The young Canadian artist rapidly rose to prominence within the community for the backwoods Southern sound. Personally, it reminds me of long trips through the highways of the Deep South, of the sound of cicadas and the damp rotting heat among the long grass and the deep shadows among the trees. It’s not a long album but it’s a superb one for sitting and listening to if you have the time of day for the folk blues.
What we’re watching
Ben Hohenstatt: “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” (Series, Showtime):
This extremely dark comedy set in the early ‘90s stars Kirsten Dunst as a water park employee whose husband meets an untimely demise in an extremely Florida way. She subsequently becomes embroiled in a multi-level marketing company with a figurehead who draws heavily from the philosophies of Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard but looks a lot like Mark Twain. It’s tone is shades of the Coen Brothers, or in its weirdest moments, David Lynch. The characters are at times super silly, and the comedy can be slapstick, but whenever things get cartoony, the characters remind you they feel pain it when a proverbial anvil falls on them. One of the best things I’ve watched in a long time.
Michael S. Lockett: “For All Mankind” (Series, Apple TV+)
Alternate history space dramas are a combination of so many things I like in one place that I squealed with joy when I saw the trailer for this months ago. The show met and exceeded my expectations. Telling the story of an alternate timeline where the Soviet Union beats the United States to the moon and the space race just got fiercer, it shows the rush to get American women into space, and to build a permanent base on the moon, all against the backdrop of the prematurely ended Vietnam War and the mutated Civil Rights movement. The weird social pressures of the time, the racism and homophobia of the age and the military and government’s involvement in NASA, ostensibly a pure scientific organization, all compliment a solid cast of actors, including Joel Kinnamen as a loudmouthed Navy combat pilot turned astronaut and an outstanding Chris Bauer as Deke Slayton, NASA’s first Chief of the Astronaut Office. The show’s been renewed for a second season.
It is an Apple TV + exclusive, which is… inconvenient, since, who has that? But I binged through it with a friend. There was a lot of Googling about space related topics. I learned many things.
What we’re playing
Michael S. Lockett: “Doom Eternal” (Windows, PlayStation 4, Stadia, Xbox One)
“Doom Eternal” is the latest in a pedigree that reaches effectively to the beginning of home gaming. It is not a complex game. You’re the Doomguy, a faceless character whose sole defining attributes are being too angry to die and wanting to slaughter your way through the denizens of hell in the most flesh-tearingly, meat-splatteringly, gristle-rippingly manner possible. It is not a complicated premise. It is a very satisfyingly executed one.
Following on the success of 2016’s “Doom” remake, the mechanics are a combination of old school, relying on health packs and armor pickups, and new wave, with powerups and alternate weapon modes, all of which force you to play with blistering speed and aggression lest ye be beset on all sides and drowned in waves of the damned. Playing the game from Bethesda feels like being a fighter jet made of burning chainsaws. It looks good, it handles great and by the gods does it earn that Mature rating.