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Critic's 'Ghost List' Has Books, Music And A TV Show That Deserve A Second Look

Dec 13, 2017
Originally published on December 22, 2017 9:06 am

I don't believe in ghosts, but sometimes when I walk through my house I think I hear the forlorn cries of all the books, movies and TV shows that I've loved over the past few months but never got around to talking about. And so, every December, I try to silence those cries with my annual "Ghost List" of favorites I've ignored — a group that in 2017 ranges in spirit from cosmic surrealism to ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy.

National Treasure, Hulu

This riveting British TV series could hardly be more of our moment. It stars the monumental Scottish actor Robbie Coltrane (of Cracker and Harry Potter fame) as Paul Finchley, a beloved comedian who's accused of sexually assaulting young women.

But is Paul really guilty, or simply the target of a zeitgeisty witch hunt? The show is great at capturing the situation's emotional cost — especially to Paul's protective wife, superbly played by Julie Walters, and his adoring, self-destructive adult daughter, a tremendous Andrea Riseborough.

As Paul juggles his public and private personas, National Treasure leaves us asking how well we truly know our loved ones — let alone our cultural heroes.

True Stories: The Collected Non-Fiction by Helen Garner

The slipperiness of the self is the terrain of perhaps my favorite Australian writer, Helen Garner, a journalist, novelist and screenwriter who's the Down Under equivalent of Mary McCarthy or Joan Didion. You get a feast of her work in this extraordinary collection.

A great storyteller, Garner casts her ruthlessly penetrating eye on a vast range of tales about murder, marriage, sexual harassment, aging — she feels freed by turning 70 — and her own moments of personal cowardice. Scarily forthright and addictively readable, this book is a model of how to be unblinkingly honest about the world — and ourselves.

His Girl Friday

In contrast, dishonesty has a field day in Howard Hawks' fast, funny, gleefully cynical 1940 newspaper comedy just out in a glorious new high-definition restoration from Criterion. At the peak of his wit and good looks, Cary Grant stars as Walter Burns, an amoral big city editor who tries to finagle his equally hard-nosed star reporter and ex-wife, Hildy Johnson (that's Rosalind Russell) into dumping her boringly nice insurance man fiancé and covering a murderer's execution. Brash and bursting with jokes, His Girl Friday is one of the greatest American movies — and, in its freedom and high spirits, one of the most American.

Six Four: A Novel by Hideo Yokoyama

Things are more muted in Hideo Yokoyama's profoundly odd and fascinating crime novel, which sold over a million copies in its native Japan. Its hero is Yoshinobu Mikami, a provincial police detective who wants to crack an unsolved 14-year-old murder, but faces obstacles, including his own daughter going missing.

Although Six Four builds to a nifty ending, it has more things on its mind than just catching the killer. This offbeat police procedural offers an unforgettable portrait of bureaucratic Japan and reaches for something more metaphysical in the sense that the meaning of things remains elusive, even when the crime is solved.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

Elusiveness takes a terrifyingly creepy form in this dazzling short novel by the Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin. Its heroine, Amanda, is a Buenos Aires native who's traveling in the countryside with her young daughter when Something happens — something really bad.

We learn what, drip by dread-inducing drip. Along the way, Schweblin plunges us into a fallen world of parental fears, toxic landscapes, spiritual collapse and some very mysterious worms. Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, Fever Dream will have you looking over your shoulder.

Twin Peaks (Music from the Limited Event Series)

Fever Dream makes the perfect bridge to my favorite work of any kind this year — David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return, the most radically disorienting show ever put on television.

Since you will have heard a lot about it already, what I want to recommend is the soundtrack brought out by Rhino. Nobody is better at creating mood than Lynch, who can find the sinister corners of the most innocent pop songs. He loves using music to take us into wildly contradictory emotional places.

This album does just that, moving from Twin Peaks' legendary opening theme to Booker T. and The MG's bluesy, organ-led "Green Onions," which the show played deadpan as you watched a man simply sweep a bar room floor for nearly three minutes.

In an interview, Lynch once told me, "You know, John, getting lost is beautiful." I loved getting lost in this album, which includes great new material like the dreamy "No Stars" by Rebekah Del Rio. It's a song that, befitting a ghost list, will haunt you.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. This is the time of year when our culture critics make lists of the best things they've read or listened to or seen. Our critic-at-large John Powers has a different kind of list, one he calls his Ghost List - the things he liked but neglected to review.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: I don't believe in ghosts. But sometimes, when I walk through my house, I think I hear the forlorn cries of all the books, movies and TV shows that I've loved over the past few months but never got around to talking about. And so every December, I try to silence them with my annual Ghost List of favorites I've ignored, a group that in 2017 ranges in spirit from cosmic surrealism to a ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy.

The British TV series "National Treasure" could hardly be more of our moment. Shown on Hulu, it stars the monumental Scottish actor Robbie Coltrane of "Cracker" and "Harry Potter" fame as Paul Finchley, a beloved comedian who's accused of sexually assaulting young women. But is he really guilty or simply the target of a zeitgeist-y (ph) witch hunt? The show was great at capturing the situation's emotional cost, especially to Paul's protective wife, superbly played by Julie Walters, and his adoring, self-destructive adult daughter, a tremendous Andrea Riseborough. As Paul juggles his public and private personas, "National Treasure" leaves us asking how well we truly know our loved ones, let alone our cultural heroes.

The slipperiness of the self is the terrain of perhaps my favorite Australian writer, Helen Garner, a journalist, novelist and screenwriter who's the Down Under equivalent of Mary McCarthy or Joan Didion. You get a feast of her work in "True Stories: The Collected Non-Fiction" (ph), a low-cost e-book from Text Publishing that's also due out in print this spring.

A great storyteller, Garner casts her ruthlessly penetrating eye on a vast range of tales about murder, marriage, sexual harassment, aging - she feels freed by turning 70 - and her own moments of personal cowardice. Scarily forthright and addictively readable, this book's 800 pages are a model of how to be unblinkingly honest about the world and ourselves.

In contrast, dishonesty has a field day in "His Girl Friday," Howard Hawks' fast, funny, gleefully cynical 1940 newspaper comedy, just out in a glorious new hi-def restoration from Criterion. At the peak of his wit and good looks, Cary Grant stars as Walter Burns, an amoral big-city editor who tries to finagle his equally hard-nosed star reporter and ex-wife, Hildy Johnson - that's Rosalind Russell - into dumping her boringly nice insurance-man fiance and covering a murderer's execution. Here, Walter takes the two to lunch, where the fiance, played by Ralph Bellamy, asks Hildy about quitting journalism to marry him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIS GIRL FRIDAY")

RALPH BELLAMY: (As Bruce Baldwin) Hildy, are you sure you want to quit?

ROSALIND RUSSELL: (As Hildy Johnson) Now, Bruce, what do you mean?

BELLAMY: (As Bruce Baldwin) What I mean - if there's any doubt about it or if there's anything that - naw, this is your chance to have a home and to be, like you said, a human being. And I'm going to make you take that chance.

CARY GRANT: (As Walter Burns) Certainly. Why, I wouldn't let her stay. No, no. She deserves all this happiness, Bruce, all the things I couldn't give her. Yeah, all she ever wanted was a home.

BELLAMY: (As Bruce Baldwin) Well, I'll certainly try to give her one.

GRANT: (As Walter Burns) I know you will, Bruce. Where you going to live?

BELLAMY: (As Bruce Baldwin) Albany.

GRANT: (As Walter Burns) Albany, huh? Got a family up there, then?

BELLAMY: (As Bruce Baldwin) No, just my mother.

GRANT: (As Walter Burns) Just a mother - oh, you're going to live with your mother?

BELLAMY: (As Bruce Baldwin) Well, just for the first year.

GRANT: (As Walter Burns) Oh, well, that will be nice - yes, yes, a home with mother - in Albany, too.

POWERS: "His Girl Friday" is one of the greatest American movies, and in its freedom and high spirits, one of the most American. Things are more muted in "Six Four," a profoundly odd and fascinating crime novel by Hideo Yokoyama, which sold over a million copies in its native Japan. Its hero is Yoshinobu Mikami, a provincial police detective who wants to crack an unsolved 14-year-old murder but faces obstacles, including his own daughter going missing.

Although "Six Four" builds to a nifty ending, it has more things on its mind than just catching that killer. This offbeat police procedural offers an unforgettable portrait of bureaucratic Japan. And it reaches for something more metaphysical in its sense that the meaning of things remains elusive, even when the crime is solved.

Elusiveness takes a terrifyingly creepy form in "Fever Dream," a dazzling short novel by the Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin. Its heroine, Amanda, is a Buenos Aires native who's travelling in the countryside with her young daughter when something happens - something really bad. We learn what drip by dread-inducing drip. Along the way, Schweblin throws us into a fallen world of parental fears, toxic landscapes, spiritual collapse and some very mysterious worms. Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, "Fever Dream" will have you looking over your shoulder.

That makes it the perfect bridge to my favorite work of any kind this year, David Lynch's "Twin Peaks: The Return," the most radically disorienting show ever put on television. Since you will have heard a lot about it already, what I want to recommend is the soundtrack brought out by Rhino. Nobody is better at creating mood than Lynch, who can find the sinister corners of the most innocent pop songs. He loves using music to take us into wildly contradictory emotional places.

This album does just that. Moving from "Twin Peaks'" legendary opening theme to Booker T. and the MGs' bluesy, organ-lead "Green Onions," which the show played deadpan as you watched a man simply sweep a barroom floor for nearly three minutes. In an interview, Lynch once told me, you know, John, getting lost is beautiful. I love getting lost in this album, which includes great new material like the dreamy "No Stars" by Rebekah Del Rio. It's a song that, befitting a Ghost List, will haunt you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO STARS")

REBEKAH DEL RIO: (Singing) My dream is to go to that place - you know the one - where it all began on a starry night, on a starry night.

GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. Look for his Ghost List on our website, freshair.npr.org. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Spike Lee, who has expanded and updated his 1986 film "She's Gotta Have It" into a new 10-part Netflix series of the same name about the character Nola Darling.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT")

DEWANDA WISE: (As Nola Darling) You know I don't believe in labels, but as a sex-positive, polyamorous pansexual, words like monogamy and family have never even seemed like a remote possibility.

GROSS: I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.