On Body and Soul.

On Body and Soul (Testről és lélekről) is one of the five nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the tenth time a Hungarian submission has made the final cut since they began submitting films in 1965. A film that alternates shockingly brutal imagery with a lyrical, otherworldly story about two of the shyest people you could imagine, the movie is a starmaking performance for actress Alexandra Borbély, who won the Best European Actress award in 2017 for her work here. It’s exclusively available on Netflix.

Borbély plays Maria, the new health inspector at a Hungarian cattle slaughterhouse, replacing the unseen Bori, who left early for maternity leave and appears by implication to have been a fairly lenient inspector. Maria is shy, lacks the ability to read social cues, and often seems emotionless to the workers at the facility, who make halfhearted attempts to connect with her. The factory’s CFO, Endre (Géza Morcsányi, a playwright in his first film role), is also shy and awkward, a well-meaning man who has lost the use of his left arm and keeps most of his colleagues at arm’s length. We realize before they do that the two of them are sharing the same dreams night after night, where each is a deer in a snowy forest, a fact that only becomes apparent to them when a theft at the factory leads to psychiatric interviews with all of the possible culprits. The discovery changes both of them, driving Maria to try to figure out how to relate to another person, while Endre rediscovers the sense of empathy he seems to have lost through years of disappointment.

Director/writer Ildikó Enyedi is unafraid to jar the audience with images of cattle being chained, killed, and bled, although many of these images have parallels to the strange journey of Maria and Endre, especially Maria. She has many aspects of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome or who is somewhere on the autism spectrum, although her condition is never named; these facets of her personality include extreme organization and cleanliness, which makes her perfect for her job … as long as she doesn’t have to interact with other people. Borbély, who had some TV experience and just three or four previous film roles, is marvelous in every way in this role, giving Maria both the affect-less expressions and intonations of a person who can’t read social cues or sense emotions in others, as well as the innocence, trepidation, and wonder of a child seeing or experiencing things for the first time. The role requires her to walk a tight rope to avoid Rain Man-like caricature without giving Maria too much emotion or sensibility, as if a relationship could ‘cure’ her. Even when the story hits its dramatic climax near the end, Borbély does not veer outside the character’s boundaries, reacting at one point in a matter-of-fact way to something awful that it became a darkly humorous moment instead.

Enyedi’s script offers a meditation on loneliness, especially for people who were, perhaps, not made for this world, like Maria, or who have grown tired of its letdowns, like Endre. Even with this utterly improbable link between them, the two find it difficult to communicate with or understand each other, and that disconnect threatens to leave them lonelier than they were before they discovered their shared experience. The script does lose steam a little in the final quarter of the film, because the setup is so strong – two people with no apparent connection are simultaneously dreaming the same dream, in an otherwise rational world where such a thing should be impossible. Resolving that story in an interesting way, other than simply having Maria fall into Endre’s arms, is difficult, and Enyedi gets it about halfway right. The big twist is also a bit predictable, and yet honest at the same time, because one character’s reaction to pull away from the other is understandable in the context of the film. I thought this would end up happening, but I also couldn’t tell you a more realistic resolution, either.

On Body and Soul won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival, as did Spirited Away, A Separation, and the 2016 documentary Fire at Sea; like A Separation, it also took the Grand prize at the Sydney Film Festival, so in theory it should have a reasonable chance at the Oscar. Instead, the betting site GoldDerby gives it the worst odds of the five nominees, with A Fantastic Woman considered the favorite – although neither that nor Loveless has played anywhere but New York or Los Angeles so far. Having seen four of the five Best Actress nominees, however, I will say Borbély more than deserved a nomination – it’s not unheard of, with Isabelle Huppert getting a nod for the French-language film Elle just last year – and I’d vote for her over both Meryl Streep and Saoirse Ronan.

The Hidden Brain.

I’ve become a huge fan of the NPR prodcast The Hidden Brain, hosted by Shankar Vedantam, a journalist whose 2010 book The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives spawned the podcast and a regular radio program on NPR. Covering how our subconscious mind influences our decisions in ways that traditional economists would call ‘irrational’ but modern behavioral economists recognize as typical human behavior, Vedantam’s book is a great introduction to this increasingly important way of understanding how people act and think.

Vedantam walks the reader through these theories via concrete examples, much as he now does in the podcast – this week’s episode, “Why Now?” about the #MeToo movement and our society’s sudden decision to pay attention to these women, is among its best. Some of the stories in the book are shocking and/or hard to believe, but they’re true and serve to emphasize these seemingly counterintuitive concepts. He discusses a rape victim who had focused on remembering details about her attacker, and was 100% sure she’d correctly identified the man who raped her – but thirteen years after the man she identified was convicted of the crime, a DNA test showed she was wrong, and she then discovered a specific detail she’d overlooked at the time of the investigation because no one asked her the ‘right’ question. This is a conscientious, intelligent woman who was certain of her memories, and she still made a mistake.

Another example that particularly stuck with me was how people react in the face of imminent danger or catastrophe. Just before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the sea receded from coastal areas, a typical feature before a tidal wave hits. Vedantam cites reports from multiple areas where people living in those regions “gathered to discuss the phenomenon” and “asked one another what was happening,” instead of running like hell for high ground. Similar reports came from the World Trade Center after 9/11. People in those instances didn’t rely on their instincts to flee, but sought confirmation from others nearby – if you don’t run, maybe I don’t need to run either. In this case, he points to the evolutionary history of man, where staying with the group was typically the safe move in the face of danger; if running were the dominant, successful strategy for survival, that would still be our instinct today. It even explains why multiple bystanders did not help Deletha Word, a woman who was nearly beaten to death in a road-rage incident on the packed Belle Isle bridge in Detroit in 1996 – if no one else helped her, why should I?

Vedantam’s writing and speaking style offers a perfect blend of colloquial storytelling and evidence-based arguments. He interviews transgender people who describe the changes attitudes they encounter between before and after their outward appearances changed. (One transgender man says, “I can even complete a whole sentence [post-transition] without being interrupted by a man.) And he looks at data on racial disparities in sentencing convicted criminals to death – including data that show darker-skinned blacks are more likely to receive a death sentence than lighter-skinned blacks.

The last chapter of The Hidden Brain came up last week on Twitter, where I retweeted a link to a story in the New York Times from the wife of a former NFL player, describing her husband’s apparent symptoms of serious brain trauma. One slightly bizarre response I received was that this was an “appeal to emotion” argument – I wasn’t arguing anything, just sharing a story I thought was well-written and worth reading – because it was a single datum rather than an extensive study. Vedantam points out, with examples and some research, that the human brain does much better at understanding the suffering of one than at understanding the suffering of many. He tells how the story of a dog named Hokget, lost in the Pacific on an abandoned ship, spurred people to donate thousands of dollars, with money coming from 39 states and four countries. ( An excerpt from this chapter is still online on The Week‘s site.) So why were people so quick to send money to save one dog when they’re so much less likely to send money when they hear of mass suffering, like genocide or disaster victims in Asia or Africa? Because, Vedantam argues, we process the suffering of an individual in a more “visceral” sense than we do the more abstract suffering of many – and he cites experimental data from psychologist Paul Slovic to back it up.

The Hidden Brain could have been twice as long and I would still have devoured it; Vedantam’s writing is much like his podcast narration, breezy yet never dumbed down, thoroughly explanatory without becoming dense or patronizing. If you enjoy books in the Thinking Fast and Slow or Everybody Lies vein, you’ll enjoy both this title and the podcast, which has become one of my go-to listens to power me through mindless chores around the house.

On Immunity.

Eula Biss’ brief 2014 book On Immunity: An Inoculation takes a novel angle on the subject of childhood vaccinations by weaving the science around the subject into her personal experiences as a first-time mother hearing all of the nonsense anti-vaccine arguments out there and finding herself bombarded with information. Biss makes it clear that she is pro-vaccine and pro-science, and that she did get her son vaccinated, but her essay-like style puts the reader on the ground with her as she’s navigating the uncertainties and fears that come with parenthood, which may also give some readers a new window on how new parents get bamboozled by the many charlatans and frauds out there telling them not to vaccinate.

When my daughter was born, vaccinating was never a question for us … but we were shocked to learn that they vaccinate newborns for hepatitis B, a viral infection that is probably best known as a sexually transmitted disease but that can also be transmitted through many other bodily fluids, including blood, so it’s possible for a child to get an infection through exposure from another kid in school or day care. We made the mistake of looking online for information on the hep B vaccine, and found the website for the so-called “National Vaccine Information Center,” a dangerous anti-science group that spreads misinformation about vaccines and, of course, presented horror stories from parents who claimed the hep B vaccine harmed or even killed their babies. (We vaccinated anyway.)

Biss’ recounting of her own meanderings through the world of vaccine information and bullshit felt very familiar to me, as she obviously understands science – her father is a doctor, and she refers to him frequently in the text – but also gives real credence to the fears of the new parent, and how overwhelming all of the information coming at new parents can feel. Biss hits all of the notable cranks, from the NVIC to Andrew Wakefield to Bob Sears (who has been accused of selling medical exemptions for California kids) to well-meaning but clueless parents who talk about “toxins” or “natural” or “organic” as if those terms really mean anything when it comes to health. She walks back through the history of vaccinations, to Edward Jenner’s experiments with cowpox and previous awareness in non-European societies of inoculation techniques, and the associated history of anti-vaxers, a group that once at least had a legitimate complaint because vaccines weren’t regulated for safety or efficacy; in 1901, two separate batches of vaccines caused deadly tetanus outbreaks in St. Louis and Camden, New Jersey. Now, such groups just capitalize on the public’s science ignorance – and fear – to make a few bucks from selling books or “alternative” therapies. (Note: There is no such thing as “alternative medicine.” If it works, it’s medicine.)

Fear is just as much a theme of On Immunity as science, and Biss, unlike many writers (myself included), has quite a bit of empathy for parents who hear (bogus) horror stories of vaccine “injuries” or who see that vaccines contain aluminum (in adjuvants, which make the vaccines more effective) and waver on vaccinating their kids. Failing to vaccinate puts your kids at risk, but also the community as a whole; Biss discusses herd immunity, which was first identified nearly a century ago, and the societal cost of failing to vaccinate, as well as the risk posed to vulnerable populations who can’t be vaccinated, such as newborns, the elderly, or the immune compromised. This understanding tone makes it a better read, I think, for folks who are on the fence about vaccinations; she was essentially preaching to the converted with me, while hardcore denialists won’t bother with the litany of facts she includes or the blithe knockdowns of anti-vax tropes.

Biss is a “professor of instruction” in Northwestern’s English Department and has garnered praise both for On Immunity and her 2009 essay collection Notes from No Man’s Land; she writes here like an essayist, with a strong first-person perspective that allows her to bring the reader inside her head, so to speak, as she became a mother and experienced all of the typical anxieties and moments of panic that come along with new parenthood. It makes the brief book both readable and engrossing, almost as if Biss wanted to slip in a little education – a dash of history, a pinch of immunology – along the way. And the resulting work may do as much or more to address new parents’ fears of vaccines, fears that are unfounded, irrational, but still quite common, as direct attacks on anti-vaxer falsehoods.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

I’d only read one Salman Rushdie novel prior to this month, tackling Midnight’s Children back in 2010; I found it a somewhat difficult read, but brimming with imagination, big themes, and incredible prose and wordplay. What I didn’t know until very recently was that he wrote a children’s novel called Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which appeared on the Guardian‘s list of the 100 greatest novels ever written. It’s quite wonderful, featuring more of the wordplay and creativity that marked Midnight’s Children, reminding me in many ways of The Phantom Tollbooth, one of the best children’s novels I’ve ever read (twice, in fact, once on my own and again to my daughter), and the works of Roald Dahl.

Haroun Khalifa is the young son of Rashid, a storyteller who suddenly loses his gift of narration when his wife leaves him, leaving the two of them without any means of support and Rashid without his identity. When Rashid fails to deliver at a speaking engagement, he and Haroun are whisked off to the Valley of K for his next assignment, speaking for the politician Snooty Buttoo – there are a lot of Butts in this book – only for Haroun to discover that his father has lost his ability to weave stories because Iff the Water Genie is trying to sever Rashid’s imagination. This leads Haroun to learn about the Sea of Stories, the plot by the evil Khattam-Shud to poison it and block its source, and the impending war between the Kingdoms of Chup and Gup that will determine the fate of the Sea.

Rushdie makes Haroun the hero of his own story in the tradition of children in literature who have to do something to save one or both of their parents. Haroun faces difficult choices and shows courage in the face of great odds, standing up to the various otherworldly creatures trying to steal his father’s gift or kill Haroun’s new friends from Gup or sew the lips of the Princess Batcheat shut. (He gets no help from the vacuous Prince Bolo, the antithesis of the typical prince-hero character, generally saying and doing the wrong thing or just showing no awareness of what’s happening around him.)

The text itself is replete with puns, references to Hindustani words or Indian historical figures, and even pop culture references. Iff and the Butts work for the Walrus, who employs technicians named the Eggheads, a reference I trust I don’t have to explain. Butt the Hoopoe certainly sounds like a nod to the British glam-rockers Mott the Hoople. Many names allude to characters in the stories of One Thousand and One Nights, including Haroun al-Rashid, a real-life Caliph of Baghdad who appears in many of those tales. General Kitab’s name means “book” in Arabic and Hindustani, and his army comprises numerous Pages. And the fish with multiple mouths, or maws, are referred to as Plentimaws … and there are Plentimaw fish in the Sea. (The book also has a brief appendix where Rushdie explains many of the character and place names.)

It’s also hard to avoid the likelihood that Rushdie wrote this as a reaction to the fatwa issued against him by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran after the publication of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses and the general controversy over a portion of the book that some Muslims deemed blasphemous. In the wake of its release, at least ten countries banned the book in some form, including his native India, while many U.S. bookstores declined to sell it. There were also multiple bombings of bookstores and newspapers in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom related to the book’s sale, while the Archbishop of Canterbury called for an expansion of England’s Blasphemy Act to cover offenses against Islam. (That law was repealed entirely in 2008.) Haroun may be just a children’s novel, but it’s probably also a parable about censorship and the threat to the marketplace of ideas, showing how a society might suffer in a world without stories.

Haroun is better for slightly older kids, because the vocabulary would likely be too demanding for children below fifth grade or so, although the story itself would mostly be appropriate – Haroun’s mother runs off with another man near the beginning, but eventually returns without any real comment – and easy for any child to follow. I could see younger kids being disturbed by the threats to sew the Princess’ mouth shut, although Rushdie softens that possibility by having other characters complain about how awful her singing voice is. It’s a book for younger readers, though, so Haroun saves the day, no mouths are sewn shut, and Rashid eventually regains his talent for weaving stories. The beauty of this book is the journey, the literal one Haroun takes to this other world – I haven’t even mentioned the earth’s second moon, Kahani, which you might not have noticed because it moves by a Process Too Complicated to Explain – and the one on which Rushdie takes the reader, with puns and gags flying so fast that you might miss them on your first read. It’s a delight and a testament to Rushdie’s boundless imagination.

Next up: I’m many books behind in my reviews, but right now I’m reading Kat Kinsman’s memoir Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves.

The Body Keeps the Score.

I’ve been open about my own mental health issues, such as this piece I wrote on being anxious throughout my childhood, but am fortunate in one respect in that my childhood was also relatively free of trauma. I grew up in a loving family, didn’t lose any close family members until I was a teenager – both of my grandmothers lived to their 100th birthdays – and never had to deal with the effects of divorce or abuse, to pick just two possible traumas that affect kids. Events I might recall as “traumatic” pale in comparison to what others grew up with.

I’ve only come to learn about trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in the last handful of years, due to several close friends who suffer from it and how its effects can often include problems I’ve dealt with, including anxiety, panic, depression. Somewhere along the way I heard about Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s seminal 2015 book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, which I have since learned is an incredibly influential and important book in the world of mental health professionals. Dr. van der Kolk has spent decades working with trauma victims and was one of the leading proponents of the hypothesis, later supported by fMRI and similar evidence, that trauma actually alters the brain in a physical sense rather than just a mental one, and that even minor events can still have traumatic effects on our brains, especially when they happen while we’re young.

Dr. van der Kolk spends the first part of The Body Keeps the Score discussing his own history in working with trauma victims and the difficulty he and other colleagues had in even gaining acceptance for the idea of the aftermath of trauma as a distinct medical disorder. PTSD was only recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a formal diagnosis in 1980, when it was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders‘s third edition (DSM-III), thanks to a surge in sufferers among soldiers who returned from fighting in Vietnam. Awareness of the condition dates back to ancient Greece, and is well-documented in medical and popular literature from the 1800s forward under terms like “shell shock” (whence our word “shell-shocked” derives), but people with PTSD prior to 1980 were treated as if they had a panoply of other, seemingly unrelated mental health disorders, which led to problems like overmedication and a lack of any progress back towards a normal life.

From there, the author discusses new evidence from the world of neuroscience to support his and others’ hypotheses that the brain of a trauma victim works differently than the brain of someone without PTSD. Different parts of the brain are activated in similar situations, although among trauma victims there can be varying responses, from panic to dissociation to shutdown. He also discusses the various ways we develop PTSD, often in excruciating details of childhood abuse or wartime atrocities, tying these underlying conditions to changes in methylation of genes that can even be passed on to offspring, a process known as “epigenetics,” that also explains how the brains of trauma victims end up operating on a different BIOS than those of others.

The prose here can feel a bit academic, perhaps the result of van der Kolk’s background but also that he’s a native Dutch speaker and writing in his second language. In part five, which constitutes nearly half of the book, the writing livens up as he delves into various methods of attacking trauma and retraining the brain not to panic, dissociate, or just peace out when the person is presented with a trigger. Some suggestions are obvious or well-known, like using yoga or EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which sounds like it shouldn’t work, but does help trauma victims), while others are novel and surprising, including participation in theater or similar role-playing activities, or using a computer program to try to ‘reprogram’ the brain not just in its fear response but all of the time. He includes EEG graphs that show patterns of attention in the brains of study participants where the trauma victims’ brain waves are less tightly connected and even diverge in the milliseconds after the subject was presented with information for the brain to process. Neurofeedback, which allows the user to regulate his/her own brain function with the help of software that displays EEG results, has shown promise for trauma victims and people with other mental health disorders to reestablish control over their brains’ betrayals. Dr. van der Kolk also goes into heart-rate variability training, self-leadership of the different parts of our personality (not quite dissociative identity disorder, but leaning that way), and the pros and cons of cognitive behavioral therapy or medication for PTSD sufferers.

If you or someone close to you is a trauma victim of any sort, even if it seems like a ‘minor’ trauma, The Body Keeps a Score will be an illuminating read that could help alter the course of your/your intimate’s treatment. Even just the final section, where he points out why things like CBT aren’t effective (discussing the trauma over and over doesn’t actually change the way the brain responds to it or other triggers) and gives numerous suggestions for other remedies, would be useful. If you can get through some of the more technical language earlier in the book, though, the entire read is worthwhile, especially as van der Kolk explains his own journey of understanding through decades of working with veterans, children, and other trauma victims to get to this comprehensive theory of how best to treat these people – often people who were considered untreatable by previous generations of psychiatrists.


Columbus (amazoniTunes) wouldn’t even have come to my attention had I not heard about it from the Grierson & Leitch podcast, where Tim Grierson mentioned it at the start of its theatrical run and gave it a very strong recommendation. It’s an indie film in name and in spirt, driven entirely by dialogue and scenery, and perhaps not everyone’s tastes – but it is very much to mine, with a wonderfully written script by director Kogonada that reminded me of the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro.

John Cho delivers the best performance I’ve ever seen from him in a turn that should answer any question remaining about whether he can lead a film, starring as Jin, an American-born Korean translator who has left his job in Seoul to come to Columbus, Indiana, because his architecture professor father has fallen gravely ill. Once there, he encounters Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a recent college graduate who is a bit stuck in neutral, still living at home with her recovering addict mother (Michelle Forbes), working a low-paying library job rather than pursuing her passion for architecture. The two forge a quick, intense friendship, unburdened by romantic or sexual tension, as they talk through their respective problems while touring the Indiana town’s major architectural sights.

(I was totally unaware of this town’s existence, but Columbus, Indiana, is actually a bit of a mecca for architecture fans, with a number of modernist buildings and other public art works, many the result of a foundation started by J. Irwin Miller in 1954 to help fund such efforts by paying the fees for noted architects to help design public buildings in the city. Wikipedia tells me that the American Institute of Architects named Columbus the country’s sixth most important city for architecture in 1991.)

Jin has been estranged from his father for years, and never had much connection with his father, who never speaks in the film but appears in Jin’s and his assistant Eleanor’s memories as a cold, demanding academic with a particular genius in his field. Casey has a chance to leave Columbus to study architecture, with help from Eleanor, but doesn’t want to leave her mother for fear she’ll relapse – and, perhaps, from the natural fear we all have of starting our adult lives in earnest. Their fast friendship comes across as very real, with the vicissitudes of any relationship where you suddenly spend a lot of time with someone you don’t know well, and their deep conversations are often set against stunning backdrops of the great buildings of Columbus or of other landscapes in the town, underscoring Casey’s reluctance to leave even as she’s showing Jin her passion for the subject. (She identifies several buildings by where they rank on her list of her favorite buildings in the town.)

Rory Culkin appears a few times as Casey’s friend Gabriel, an amusing sendup of the college student who’s just learned about hermeneutics and tries to introduce the jargon into regular conversation while also probably trying to get into Casey’s pants. (Spoiler alert: He fails.) The sparse script spills over into an equally scarce cast, most of whom deliver even if in limited roles, other than Parker Posey, who overplays Eleanor as a condescending materteral figure in a film defined by its understatement. The minor subplot of Jin having a crush on Eleanor when he was much younger, and possibly still harboring some of those feelings, felt similarly out of place, not least because I expected this older, worldlier Jin to see through Eleanor’s pretense.

I’m an avowed Ishiguro fan, for his stories, his intense understanding of human nature, and his gorgeous yet economical prose, all of which are in evidence here as well in Kogonada’s script. Jin and Casey speak in a slightly stilted style, a half-grade more formal than the rhythm of normal speech, but it matches the setting of buildings that seem similarly unreal, and the dialogue is thoughtful rather than clipped, with each character offering insight into the other’s emotions and the traumas that have come to define them. Columbus is just a beautiful, heartfelt film from start to finish, powered in particular by Cho’s performance, sadly overlooked already in awards voting but worthy of far more consideration than it’s getting.

The Florida Project.

The Florida Project is the best movie I have seen so far in 2017. Granted, it’s December 3rd, and there are many movies left to be seen, but I will go out on a limb and guess that when I’ve seen all the likelies I will still end up with this bold, empathetic film at or very near the top of my list. The movie takes a look at a small bit of the American underclass, delivering a slice-of-life story that becomes so much more because of the living, breathing characters that populate it and the script’s obvious regard for its denizens.

The title is a play on words of sorts; it takes place in the Magic Castle, one of the welfare motels around Walt Disney World, a place where residents pay by the week and often must vacate the premises for one night, moving to a neighboring flophouse, because the apartment’s management won’t let anyone stay long enough to establish residency. (I presume Florida has a consecutive-days threshold where a transient guest becomes a tenant and acquires additional rights.) The property manager is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who plays an important role in the lives of the two central characters, single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), as they live through a period of a few weeks at the start of Moonee’s summer break from school.

The movie shifts focus frequently, but the bulk of the story is told from the eyes of the kids, Moonee, her friend Scout, and new friend Jancy, with whom the first two get acquainted when they are caught spitting on Jancy’s mother’s car – because that’s the sort of thing you do all day when there’s no school, little money, and lots of time to fill. The three head off on daily adventures in the neighborhood, which is mostly filled with other low-end housing complexes and tacky stores selling Disney paraphernalia, finding trouble when it doesn’t find them first.

The struggles of the adults in their lives play out right in front of them, including the central struggle, paying the rent. Much of what happens in The Florida Project mirrors the problems Matthew Desmond covered in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: paying the rent means working, which means someone has to watch the kids, which either costs money or means leaning on neighbors, friends, even strangers, so some people don’t work. Halley is an unemployed stripper whom we see selling knockoff perfumes to tourists for cash and who eventually (and inevitably) starts turning tricks to pay the rent, which precipitates the crisis that turns this movie into a routine slice-of-life piece into a story with an arc and a conclusion. Her background is never discussed, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume she’s a victim of something traumatic, especially given her disproportionate responses to even minor disappointments. Halley feels like a fictional incarnation of Sen. Orrin Hatch’s “people who won’t help themselves,” but while she’s unsympathetic on the screen, it’s also quite easy to see how she could feel thoroughly trapped by her environment. There’s no path for her out of poverty, and she’s basically one mistake away from losing her home and/or her kid.

Moonee is the real heart of this movie, and Prince, who was six at the time of filming, gives one of the best performances of the year. She’s mischievous, vivacious, and perceptive, adept at manipulating adults and navigating their world, often tumbling out adult words that you don’t expect to hear from a six-year-old’s mouth. She’s the ringleader of the three kids, and is almost totally unflappable, even when crises seem to unfold around her; when they cause real trouble, she’s the one trying to come up with the cover story. You can see glimpses of the impact this life is having on her, but she’s also still at an age where she’s resilient to setbacks, and her bond with Bobby, while seldom directly referenced, is one of the best emotional threads in the story. (Prince, who reminds me a bit of English actress Honeysuckle Weeks, and her two young co-stars did an adorable interview about making the film with Variety.)

Dafoe also delivers the best performance I’ve seen from him, even though Bobby is probably a bit too good to be true – he’s likely poorly paid, constantly dealing with tenants who are late on the rent or causing trouble, and often doesn’t have the money to undertake needed repairs, but he’s still got a heart of gold, especially where Moonee is concerned. The scene where he sees a non-resident adult talking to a group of the project’s kids as they play is one of the film’s most gripping moments, giving insight into Bobby’s character and setting his temperament apart from the more labile personalities living in the building.

Director/co-writer Sean Baker employs some subtle perspective shifts, some just varying the distance to the characters, but getting particular value from dropping the camera to the kids’ level even when the adults are the center of the scene. The Florida Project would be utterly joyless to watch without the kids – even though it would be true to life – and Baker uses the kids’ storyline both to provide some needed relief from the depressing reality of Halley’s life and to show how the wonder of childhood isn’t tied to wealth or possessions, but to time and that sense of adventure. That contrast between Moonee’s view of the world and Halley’s parallels the other, unspoken contrast between the story in this movie and the fantasy world in the shadow of which the film occurs. The Magic Castle may not quite be the Unhappiest Place on Earth, but it feels close when we see it through Halley’s eyes. The movie ends on a perfect note, as well, as the climax itself, which was not just inevitable but which I would say was the only possible outcome of what had come before in the script, gives way to an utterly priceless concluding sequence. Yes, we know it’s temporary, and we all know what will come afterward, but for that one last moment, we see the characters leave the world behind and run for joy.

7 Wonders app.

7 Wonders has been one of my top 2 all-time boardgames since I first played the tabletop version back in 2011 (here’s my original review), and after a bit of a layoff – which happens given all the new games I need to try for Paste and Vulture – I got back into it this summer and found it hasn’t lost a thing for me. It’s just a brilliantly designed, fast-playing game that rewards long-term thinking, has a lot of interaction among players, and leaves players with very little downtime. All that was missing was an app version of the game, which had been promised at least as far back as early 2015 but seemed stuck in perpetual beta.

Well, I have good news: The 7 Wonders app is here, for iPads at least, with an Android version due next month, and it is great – if you already know the game, at least. The AI players are solid, the app itself is easy and intuitive to use, and there’s a lot of info crammed on the screen. I have some questions about whether this would be so intuitive to someone who’s never played the game, given what isn’t shown on the screen, and feel like there is room for some added features before the developers deliver the promised Leaders and Cities expansions.

7 Wonders is a card-drafting game with set collection elements, working much more quickly than most card collecting games do. There are three rounds, and in each round, players will get to buy (or just take) six cards to place on their tableaux. The unique mechanic of 7 Wonders is that you start each round with a hand of seven cards, choose one to play, and then pass the remainder of your hand to an adjacent player. Once you’ve played a few times, you know what cards are in each age, but you can never know what cards will be available to you in a specific game. In a game with six or seven players, the cards you pass will never come back to you; in a game with fewer, you’ll at least get something back from your original hand, but you can’t predict what it’ll be.

The cards themselves typically cost resources to acquire, but unlike many resource collection games, 7 Wonders doesn’t come with bags upon bags of little wood and stone tokens. Instead, you get resources every round from cards you’ve played that produce those, and you can buy resources from your two neighbors for 2 coins per unit – if the neighbors actually produce them. Many cards also give you the right to play specific cards for free in later ages, which can be a very powerful way to rack up points without producing a ton of resources yourself.

There are multiple avenues for scoring points, and while there’s a lot of debate over an ideal strategy, I find they’re all fairly balanced, and often the best strategy is just the one that no one else is pursuing. You can gain military points if you have more military symbols than each of your neighbors at the end of each age. You can rack up science points by acquiring green cards with three different symbols in sets. Blue cards simply give victory points. You can also discard cards to build stages of your Wonder, usually three different stages, each of which confers some benefit in resources, points, gold, or sometimes extra actions. And the purple guild cards in the third age can lead to huge bonuses.

The app version of 7 Wonders looks fantastic, and the developers have managed to get all the relevant info for you on to one screen, with most of the real estate occupied by your tableau and your hand, and with two smaller sections on the left and right sides to show what your neighbors have. Because card play is simultaneous, when you drag a card from your hand (bottom of the screen) to your tableau, your opponents’ moves happen at the same time, and you’re immediately given your new hand of cards.

Each card in your hand will be outlined in green, yellow, or red, with an indication in the lower left of the cost to play it. Green-outlined cards are either free to play or are already covered by resources you produce or cards you have. A check mark in the lower left says you’ve covered the cost; a chain link symbol means you have a card that gives you this one for free. Yellow outlines indicate you’ll have to pay at least one coin to buy resources from neighbors to play the card. Cards you can’t play are outlined in red, and if you try to play them anyway, you’ll get a Not Enough Resources message. You can click and hold any card to see a text explanation of its effects, including cards your neighbors have played. You can also see your neighbors’ current military strength, money, and wonders (including whether they’re completed) at all times.

The app moves fast – I can rip through a game against AI players in about five minutes – which might be confusing to new players. There isn’t a speed setting, although you can turn on an option to require move validation, which would at least make it feel slower. It would be incredibly useful if you could click and hold a card to play and see what its point or gold value would be at that moment, even though it could change later in the age or the game. The game-end scoring screen shows you how many points each player got from each scoring method, but switching back to the game at that point shows you the cards without further explaining the scoring breakdown, which I think would also be useful for new players.

I found the AI players to be sufficiently challenging, and surprisingly agile – they clearly respond to what you’re doing on the military side, which requires you to react in turn – but after a handful of plays over the last 24 hours, I’m finding my winning percentage approaching 50% already. I have won with military, with blue bonus cards, and with racking up guild points, but have yet to win with science – although once I lost to an AI player with 48 science points, which I think is a good sign I just wasn’t paying attention. (If you’re curious, that’s three cards with one science symbol, three cards with another symbol, the wild-card scientists’ guild, and two cards with the third science symbol.)

The app has online play and what appeared, on day one, to be an active lobby of players, although today on day two I haven’t been able to connect via the app. You need at least 3 players, on or offline; the 2-player variant isn’t included here, although I’ve never loved that rules tweak anyway. It is not available for smaller screens like iPhones, and while I’m sure that’s disappointing to a lot of users, I can understand why given how much information is required and how busy the screen gets by Age III even on the iPad. I’m completely hooked at the moment, and unless/until I start killing the AI players regularly this is going to be one of my go-to boardgame apps. I’ll update this post when the Android version is out, but if you have an iPad, go get this app.

Wise Children.

Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 1984, and then won a special Best of the James Tait Black award in 2012 as the best of the 90-odd winners of the annual honor in its history, beating out such widely acknowledged classics as Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter (which was shortlisted), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Robert Graves’ Claudius duology, and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I read it in April of 2016 and found it impenetrable, between her recursive prose and her seamless mixture of unreality into the realistic narrative, without any core characters to whom I could relate or with whom I could empathize. It’s been only a year and a half since I read it and I’d have a hard time telling you what it was about.

Her last novel, Wise Children, is completely different in everything but prose style – but here the almost Proustian prolixity is far more effective, as it reflects the effusive, vivacious personality of the narrator, Dora Chance. Dora and Nora are twins, the illegitimate offspring of the stage actor Melchior Hazard (I trust you’ve noticed these surnames already), who grow up in and around the theatre and whose lives intersect regularly with those of their biological father, their uncle Peregrine who pretends to be their father when he’s not wandering the globe, and Melchior’s various wives and other children, the latter of whom also come in pairs. The book is a bawdy, boozy, life-affirming comedy, told by Dora as she, her sister, and Melchior’s first wife, the Lady Atalanta, prepare to attend Melchior’s one hundredth birthday party.

Carter employs a ton of wordplay in the book, with double meanings, allusions, and rhyming. Referring to a little closet where a lost cask is found at one point, she has Dora call it “the place where the missus could stow away the master if the master came home plastered.” Her prose is musical, and the puns can be auditory or visual (Peregine calling his nieces “copperknobs,” a deviation from the British slang term for a redhead “coppernob,” and then referring to them getting the “key to the door” when they turn eighteen). I’m sure I only caught a fraction of the references to Shakespeare, English poetry, Greek mythology, and more.

The narrative itself is also unorthodox; it’s written like a memoir, but Dora can’t exactly walk a straight line (unsurprising, given her self-professed alcohol intake) when delving into the past, and her reliability is questionable – or Carter is employing a little magical realism, especially when Peregrine is involved. Much of the comedy is situational, as Carter weaves a web of love/hate relationships among the various half-siblings, parents, uncles, and associates, complete with mistaken identities and the Chances taking advantage of others’ inability to tell them apart. There’s a lot of booze, a lot of sex, and a fair amount of confusion over who is actually the father of each set of twins – much of that fostered by Melchior himself, as his interest in fatherhood is directly tied to its utility in his stage career.

This book appeared on the Guardian‘s list of the top 100 novels of all time, rather than Nights at the Circus, and although that opinion seems contrarian I’d have to agree with it. This is more accessible, funnier, and far more engaging. I’d challenge anyone who reads this to not adore the Chances, who make effrontery their primary coping mechanism in a world that would often rather forget their existence, and who turn the randomness of life into a series of opportunities. It wouldn’t make my top 100 novels list, but it is an incredibly fun, erudite book that regularly had me laughing out loud.

Next up: I’ve got 100 pages to go in Dan Vyleta’s Smoke.

Everybody Lies.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz made his name by using the enormous trove of data from Google search inquiries – that is, what users all over the world type in the search box – to measure things that researchers would typically measure solely by voluntary responses to surveys. And, as Stephens-Davidowitz says in the title of his first book, Everybody Lies, those surveys are not that reliable. It turns out, to pick one of the most notable results of his work (described in this book), that only 2-3% of men self-report as gay when asked in surveys, but the actual rate is probably twice that, based on the data he mined from online searches.

Stephens-Davidowitz ended up working for a year-plus at Google as a data scientist before leaving to become an editorial writer at the New York Times and author, so the book is bit more than just a collection of anecdotes like later entries in the Freakonomics series. Here, the author is more focused on the potential uses and risks of this enormous new quantity of data that, of course, is being collected on us every time we search on Google, click on Facebook, or look for something on a pornography site. (Yep, he got search data from Pornhub too.)

The core idea here is twofold: there are new data, and these new data allow us to ask questions we couldn’t answer before, or simply couldn’t answer well. People won’t discuss certain topics with researchers, or even answer surveys truthfully, but they will spill everything to Google. Witness the derisive term “Dr. Google” for people who search for their symptoms online, where they may end up with information from fraudsters or junk science sites like Natural News or Mercola, rather than seeing a doctor. What if, however, you looked at people who reveal through their searches that they have something like pancreatic cancer, and then looked at the symptoms those same people were Googling several weeks or months before their diagnosis? Such an approach could allow researchers to identify symptoms that positively correlate with hard-to-detect diseases, and to know the chances of false positives, or even find intermediate variables that alter the probability the patient has the disease. You could even build expert systems that really would work like Dr. Google – if I have these five symptoms, but not these three, should I see a real doctor?

Sex, like medical topics, is another subject people don’t like to discuss with strangers, and it happens to sell books too, so Stephens-Davidowitz spent quite a bit of time looking into what people search for when they’re searching about sex, whether it’s pornography, dating sites, or questions about sex and sexuality. The Pornhub data trove reveals quite a bit about sexual orientations, along with some searches I personally found a bit disturbing. Even more disturbing, however, is just how many Americans secretly harbor racist views, which Stephens-Davidowitz deduces from internet searches for certain racial slurs, and even shows how polls underestimated Donald Trump’s appeal to the racist white masses by demonstrating from search data how many of these people are out there. Few racists reveal themselves as such to surveys or researchers, and such people may even lie about their voting preferences or plans – saying they were undecided when they planned to vote for Trump, for instance. If Democrats had bothered to get and analyze this data, which is freely available, would they have changed their strategies in swing states?

Some of Stephens-Davidowitz’s queries here are less earth-shattering and seem more like ways to demonstrate the power of the tool. He looks at whether violent movies actually correlate to an increase in violent crime (spoiler: not really), and what first-date words or phrases might indicate a strong chance for a second date. But he also uses some of these queries to talk about new or revived study techniques, like A/B testing, or to show how such huge quantities of data can lead to spurious correlations, a problem known as “the curse of dimensionality,” such as in studies that claim a specific gene causes a specific disease or physical condition that then aren’t replicated by other researchers.

Stephens-Davidowitz closes with some consideration of the inherent risks of having this much information about us available both to corporations like Google, Facebook, and … um … Pornhub, as well as the risks of having it in the hands of the government, especially with the convenient excuse of “homeland security” always available to the government to explain any sort of overreach. Take the example in the news this week that a neighbor of Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook mass murderer, warned police that he was threatening to do just such a thing, only to be told that the police couldn’t do anything because his mother owned the guns legally. What if he’d searched for this online? For ways to kill a lot of people in a short period of time, or to build a bomb, or to invade a building? Should the FBI be knocking on the doors of anyone who searches for such things? Some people would say yes, if it might prevent Sandy Hook or Las Vegas or San Bernardino or the Pulse Orlando or Columbine or Virginia Tech or Luby’s or Binghamton or the Navy Yard. Some people will consider this an unreasonable abridgement of our civil liberties. Big Data forces the conversation to move to new places because authorities can learn more about us than ever before – and we’re the ones giving them the information.

Next up: J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.