The Fifth Season.

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season won the 2016 Hugo Prize for the best science-fiction novel of the year, and while I have had a lot of issues with Hugo winners, this one absolutely deserved the honor. Jemisin constructs a world that is thoroughly integrated with the plot, one that incorporates the theme of environmental degradation into its story, and uses a brilliant tripartite narrative that gradually comes together as the novel reaches the end, with a clever twist that I didn’t really see coming.

The Fifth Season is set on Earth of the very distant future, on a planet that experiences frequent seismic disruptions that cause “seasons” that threaten mass extinctions, like the way the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora caused the so-called year without a summer. These seasons last years, decades, occasionally even a century, and wipe out most of civilization each time, although humanity attempts to learn and improve its survival chances with every change. There’s only one (known) continent, the Stillness, sort-of ruled by the remnants of an empire, with people organized into autonomous communities called “comms.”

People have evolved in the interim as well, with some people born with a special power called “orogeny” that allows them to draw strength from the earth itself and move stone or even tectonic plates. These orogenes, known colloquially by the pejorative term “roggas,” are often used to quell minor earthquakes, but can also move mountains, literally. Most orogenes are brought to the main comm and trained to use their powers, but some never learn and are a danger to themselves and others, leading to widespread prejudice and even violence. There’s also a third type of human running around, the stone-eaters, although their role isn’t clear till very late in the story.

Jemisin gives us those three intertwined narratives, all truly centered around orogeny – their roles in society and the way they’re simultaneously valued and feared by others. One is told in the second person, and “you” are the orogene mother of two, and when the story starts, you find that your non-orogenic husband has beaten your son to death, probably because he figured out the boy also had this power. The second follows a young girl, Damaya, who’s discovered to have the same power and is brought by a Guardian to the central comm for training in a special academy for orogenes, which isn’t exactly Hogwarts. The third follows Syenite, an adult orogene who is forced to join up with Alabaster, who’s implied to be the most powerful orogene in the Stillness, for the purposes of breeding and giving birth to lots of orogenic babies. When they’re also asked to visit a coastal comm and help them with a problem in their harbor, things start to go very wrong, a series of events that precipitates the union of the three storylines as the book reaches its conclusion.

Outside of Ursula K. Leguin’s work, The Fifth Season is probably the most outright feminist sci-fi novel I’ve ever read – but not in an overt way at all. The characters aren’t feminists; it’s not clear such a designation would have any meaning in this society. The entire story explores the role of women in society, the possibility of them having power equal to or exceeding that of men, and the timeless questions of a woman’s agency in matters like having children. Environmental degradation does underpin the overall story – Jemisin’s Earth often appears to be trying to kill people, and the humans’ pagan religion treats the planet as an angry god – but it’s the women themselves who are the stars of the novel, and their challenges drive the plot forward.

I could have done without some of Jemisin’s explicit descriptions of sex – they just don’t add anything at all to the story – and some of the cruelty inflicted on children in the book, while more relevant to the plot, was tough to read too. Jemisin’s biggest strength as a writer is the pure storytelling; she’s conceived a world unlike any I’ve seen, remaking the post-apocalyptic earth into something less nightmarish, a testament to the human desire to live and to keep something of civilization going. The dialogue can be clunky, especially when any of the characters is forced to confront something unpleasant or makes a sudden realization. Alabaster is the only well-drawn male character (although that’s kind of a welcome change from novels that don’t have a single three-dimensional female character in sight). It’s such an incredibly compelling story, however, intricate yet internally consistent, around three women you will want to follow to the story’s end … and the sequel, since it turns out this is the start of a new trilogy, with the second book, The Obelisk Gate, already out.

Next up: One of the early Pulitzer winners, the out-of-print Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin, which I picked up used because there isn’t even a library copy in the entire state of Delaware.

La La Land.

My top 100 prospects ranking is rolling out this week, with prospects #40 to #21 in today’s post. Over at Paste, I reviewed the new edition of Citadels, a classic game from 2000 that plays 2-8, and comfortably plays five-plus – I’d say it’s best with at least four.

Imagine if Once were set in L.A., opened with a classic musical-film song and dance number, and starred two ridiculously beautiful people wearing nice clothes and singing happier songs?

Once didn’t get the love it deserved from the Oscars, although it later became a cult hit and a Tony Award-winning musical. La La Land is a lot more ambitious and bigger-budget than Once was, and it’s going to win a lot more Academy Awards, but at their hearts are quite similar stories about love affairs that just can’t last, set to music.

Of course, that’s a bit glib – La La Land is more than just that. It’s part homage to the bygone era of the big Hollywood musical. It’s a feast for the eyes, with vivid colors in the background and on Emma Stone. It’s a little bit parody, and then it folds a little back in on itself and plays along with its own gag. It’s also a really good time, which makes it a rarity among the Best Picture nominees this year. La La Land is an outright pleasure to watch, even with the half-and-half ending, and with so many movies draped in grief, regret, sorrow, and isolation this year, it stands out even more.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play Mia and Seb, two beautiful people struggling in their careers in LA – she an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop, he a jazz pianist playing Christmas music in a nightclub and then, in a sight gag that Stone turns into something much more, in a bad ’80s cover band. They meet more than once and don’t hit it off right away, but eventually the movie keeps pushing them together until there’s a spark, along with a song about how there’s no spark between them. Eventually, he gets a medium break, playing in a jazz-pop band led by his old frenemy Keith (played by John Legend), which forms the first wedge between the star-crossed lovers, although they manage to careen back and forth until the movie’s epilogue, five years later, where we see that, even in the movies, sometimes you just can’t have everything after all.

This is a musical, but not an old-time musical. If you just saw the opening scene, a huge ensemble dance number set in a traffic jam on a highway on-ramp, you’d expect something like the classics, where people just spontaneously start dancing while singing their dialogue. Instead, this is a regular movie with a handful of songs, and it isn’t until the end, when Emma Stone sings for her Oscar with “The Audition Song” (earning the movie one of its two Best Song nominations) near the very end, that we get another flashback to the halcyon days of Hollywood. Did critics who’ve said of La La Land that “they don’t make movies like this any more!” realize that Hollywood never made movies like this in the past?

Stone really owns this film in just about every way. Her character is better-developed, more three-dimensional, and shows real growth over the film. When Mia and Seb have their first quarrel as lovers, Mia holds her own in the argument, and Stone manages to portray inner turmoil on a face that’s outwardly composed until Seb finally insults her enough for her to leave. That’s Stone’s greatest achievement in the movie – her character is often put in situations where she’s turning from one emotion to another in a flash, and she can do this without making you aware that this is just someone acting.

The movie also uses her as a blank canvas of sorts, running her through an array of dresses in solid, vibrant colors that seemed to underscore the fact that, hey, we’re in California, where everything is sunny and bright and colorful all the time. It doesn’t hurt that she can get away with wearing all of those colors, or that her eyes seemed to be green in one scene and blue in another, but it ensures that your eyes are on her in nearly every scene.

Gosling, meanwhile, can turn on the charm when his character permits, but Seb is prone to this sort of insular, sulking behavior that I thought was as offputting as his strange amalgam of New York and Philly accents. And neither of these two is winning any awards for dancing, although, as always, we must give more credit to the woman for dancing backward and in heels.

Some of the L.A. jokes were a little too on the nose – the Prius gag, the gluten-free line – and the movie is funnier when it draws humor from situations rather than punchlines. When Seb is trying to explain jazz to Mia, and she answers with, “What about Kenny G?” it’s his reaction that drives the entire scene. He is totally beyond exasperated, like he wants to claw the skin off his face, yet is so passionate about the subject and obviously smitten with her that he tries to talk her down off the smooth-jazz ledge. It’s probably my favorite Gosling scene in the movie, especially since Seb’s ego returns to the center of his character towards the end of the film.

The movie ends with a dream sequence that shows an alternate reality five years on, what might have happened if things went … well, the other way, and I think here director and writer Damien Chazelle did two things: paid homage to classic musicals in more explicit fashion, and reminded the Academy just one more time to vote for him. I caught direct allusions to An American in Paris and Royal Wedding, and Funny Face, but I’m no expert on the genre and assume I missed many more. In that sense, it was the most engrossing part of the movie – you’re looking at the flip side of the movie’s internal reality, and also watching the two of them move through a rolling reference to Hollywood history.

I’ve seen four of the Best Picture nominees and hope to see as many as eight – I have zero interest in a Mel Gibson movie, and even less in that particular one – although I might only get Lion after the awards ceremony. Of the four I’ve seen, I think La La Land would get my vote. It just does more, and does more well, than Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea, both great movies but less ambitious than this one. I think any would be a worthy winner, but I rank things, and I currently have La La Land at #1.

Sherlock, season four.

New pieces elsewhere: Two-thirds of my annual farm systems rankings are up now, the middle tier 20-11 and the bottom tier, 30-21, both Insider-only, with the top ten to come on Friday. My latest boardgame review for Paste covers Kodama: The Tree Spirits, which is both clever and – I mean this in a good way – adorable.

I miss the version of Sherlock who used his head and solved crimes. It’s a shame that we didn’t get that guy much, if at all, in season four of the BBC series, because even when these three episodes were entertaining, which they frequently were, they felt like I was watching not just a different show but a different main character entirely.

I’ll still argue that a bad season of Sherlock would beat an average season of most other shows; it’s written on a higher plane than almost anything else I’ve seen, making big assumptions about the audience’s ability to follow both dialogue and plot, and if that means the writers, Mark Gattis and Stephen Moffat, go astray at times, it’s a risk I’ll gladly take as a viewer.

And in the second episode of season four – which comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray on the 24th – it all worked pretty well. Toby Jones plays Donald Trump – okay, they called him Culverton Smith – as a billionaire entrepreneur, philanthropist, and celebrity whom Holmes believes is a secret serial killer, concocting an incredibly elaborate scheme to catch him that’s worthy of the detective character’s rich history. It was over the top at a few points, but the resolution was vintage, including the way it tied in minor bits of earlier dialogue and action (e.g., the nurse who thought Holmes wrote the blog) and flipped in a bit of dark humor (about people stopping at three), which manages to infuse some life into the ending we know we have to get – viz., that Holmes isn’t going to die.

That same problem, however, is part of what wrecked the bombastic season (and possibly series) finale of season four, where we meet Holmes’ missing sister Eurus, who has been kept in a secret, secure, offshore prison for years, maybe decades, and discover that she is the distillation of the rational part of Sherlock’s personality. There’s so much absurdity in this episode that I could never suspend my disbelief sufficiently to get sucked into the plot, from her preternatural ability to ‘reprogram’ others to practical questions of how she got on and off the island so frequently to the drone scene early in the episode, which is incongruent with everything Eurus does afterwards. (One fun Easter egg in the episode, though – the island fortress is named Sherrinford, which was one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s potential names for Sherlock and later showed up in his notes as a name for a possible third Holmes brother.) It may all have been worth it to see Andrew Scott get off that helicopter in a flashback scene, playing Moriarty to the absolute hilt, but the solution to the ongoing problem Eurus presents to Holmes over the course of the entire episode was such a muddled mess I’m not even sure of the payoff.

If I take the long view, I think I can see where Gatiss and Moffatt were going with the arc over the three episodes, even if I didn’t fully agree with the decisions or plot details they chose. They needed to write Mary out of the series somehow, as she dies offscreen in the original stories, and her presence was a complication of the Holmes-Watson relationship at the heart of Conan Doyle’s work and this series. (And while the character here was quite well-written, her superspy background was so much stuff and nonsense.) The Eurus episode accomplished two other ends for Sherlock’s character: It reset the balance between him and Mycroft, whose superiority to his brother has now been undermined, while also giving Sherlock himself insight into his own severe rationalism as a defense mechanism to childhood trauma. The result, should the series continue, would at least allow them to write Sherlock with some more emotional complexity – no longer the “high-functioning sociopath” of the first and second series, but an evolved character who has been affected by the death and suffering around him, including one death he believes he caused, and who has come to recognize his dependence on the small number of people who have at least tried to be his friends.

That’s not strictly loyal to the original character, and in some sense – you can’t cure sociopathy, if that’s what Holmes really had – perhaps not realistic, but it is almost certainly essential to continuing to tell these stories. Another character derived from Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, descended into caricature over the last four seasons of his namesake series because the writers refused to have him evolve in any fashion (arguing, not without justification, that it would be unrealistic). This Holmes’ connections to the surrounding characters, including the surprisingly badass Mrs. Hudson, would have to break had he failed to develop emotionally, and seeing him treat his ‘friends’ with cruel indifference would have become unpleasant, if not outright unwatchable.

However, if the show does continue, can we put the gunplay and action sequences away now? Not only does it look silly – Holmes and Watson jumping out of the Baker Street window was the worst effects sequence in the series – but it’s wholly out of character, even if we are only considering the character Gatiss and Moffatt have created here. Where did Holmes learn to fight or shoot? His whole history is one of using his brain to avoid such things, to set traps for the culprits to out themselves as such, and that is the pleasure not just of the original stories but of all of the great novels and stories around classic detectives – Holmes, Poirot, Marple, Wimsey, Wolfe, and so on. I want a season five, but I want it to revolve around Holmes and Watson, with more of Lestrade and Molly (there’s a hell of a cliffhanger there) and Mrs. Hudson around. The interplay among those characters was part of the charm of the first two seasons, along with Holmes devising plots and connecting dots we couldn’t see till the end of each episode. I’d be quite happy with a return to that sort of story, but with the characters now changed by everything that’s happened to them from the death of Moriarty through the end of series four.

The Night Of.

I started HBO’s limited series The Night Of when it premiered in July, liked the first three episodes, got busy and just never got back around to it, because it’s the kind of series that demands your full attention, not scattered looks here and there. I finally binged the last three episodes over the past few days, racing to the end, and, well, as usual Alan Sepinwall got it right, although I think on balance I liked the series more than he did.

Co-written by Richard Price, who wrote several episodes of The Wire along with the incredible novel Lush Life and the solid Clockers, HBO’s The Night Of was adapted from a five-hour British TV series called Criminal Justice, keeping the same core elements but adding several critical details. The story centers on Naz (Riz Ahmed, nominated for a Golden Globe Award), a naive college student of Pakistani descent who “borrows” his father’s cab for a night out, ends up picking up a girl, partying and sleeping with her, only to find when he wakes up in her apartment that she’s been brutally stabbed to death. After a sequence that’s both gripping and a comedy of errors, he’s arrested and charged with the crime, which informs the remainder of the series. (If you don’t have HBO, you can watch the series on amazon.)

The Night Of splits across at least four intertwined plot threads that eventually coalesce in the eighth and final episode. Naz is first represented by eczema-riddled, $250/pop defense attorney John Stone (John Turturro, also nominated for a Golden Globe Award), later joined after various machinations by the young idealist Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan); they’re opposed by DA Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) and about-to-retire Detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp), with each side’s efforts forming one subplot. A third focuses on Naz’s experiences in prison, where he’s taken under the wing of convicted murderer Freddy Knight (Micheal K. Williams, a.k.a. Omar Little). A fourth focuses on the impact of Naz’s arrest on his family and the Muslim community, including the destruction it wreaks on his family’s finances, and the harassment they get from Muslims who fear that it will stir up further prejudice against them and from white supremacists who, frankly, need little provocation anyway.

Awards aside – this is going to lose everything to The People vs. O.J. Simpson at the Golden Globes – The Night Of is strong and compelling but flawed. The storylines don’t carry equal weight or even work that well when presented in counterpoint; the prison stuff felt very rushed and often lurid, while the investigative threads are deliberate, almost cautious, building tension because the stakes are high, and the truth of what happened that night doesn’t become clear until the last episode. If you look only at those two subplots – the prosecutors and the defense – The Night Of is a smart crime drama elevated by several brilliant characters. Interspersing prison scenes or the languid (if entirely plausible) vignettes of Naz’s family presents pacing issues that dragged the middle episodes for me.

And then there is the utter disaster of Chandra Kapoor’s character, who is completely undone by her utterly inexplicable and unrealistic choices in the seventh episode to shatter ethical boundaries between attorney and client, putting her career at risk (or right in the toilet) with no warning or internal justification. Karan nails this character up through that episode, effusing intelligence and confidence with her voice, her posture, and her facial expressions; this is a young lawyer on the come, a woman of integrity, destined for big cases where she owns the room and the cameras, so when the writers have her do two mind-blowingly stupid things as mere plot contrivances (i.e., so Stone can deliver the closing argument), they undo all the work they and Karan have done to build this character into a credible, three-dimensional person.

(Unrelated, but I was floored to find out Karan was born in the UK; her American accent isn’t just good, but precisely neutral. Ahmed is also British, but his character’s accent is very New York, and you can hear little moments where he’s emphasizing certain consonants to harden it. Doing a dead-neutral accent like Karan is a harder task.)

In the original series, the defendant was played by Ben Whishaw (The Lobster, The Hour), so the switch to a Muslim character and son of immigrants introduced an entirely new element to the series, one that the writers chose to explore on the outside of the courtroom but sort of dropped on the way to trial inside it. With white supremacists becoming more open in their hate and their actions, I feel like the treatment of the hostility toward Naz’s family and Muslims in general could have received more thorough handling in the family thread, perhaps with less of the pandering violence scenes from the prison.

Peyman Moaadi (A Separation) is great but underutilized as Naz’s father, reduced to a sad-sack character whose life is spinning beyond his control, and Williams chews up the screen most of the times he appears, playing a character (the criminal with a code) we’ve seen from him before. The series has a bunch of fun cameos, though, with J.D. Williams (Bodie from The Wire) appearing in several episodes, Trudie Styler (an actress best known as Sting’s wife) as a cougar who dated the murder victim’s stepfather, and Roscoe Orman (Gordon from Sesame Street) as the jury foreman. I didn’t recognize rappers Sticky Fingaz of Onyx or Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian, but both appeared as fellow inmates of Naz and Freddy at Rikers Island.

Despite all of those issues with the series, I found the core storyline – did Naz do it, and how would both sides assemble and present their cases to the jury – very compelling. The final episode doesn’t resort to cheap tricks or big gotcha moments; we get small, very human glimpses into most of the characters, even ones we don’t know that well like DA Weiss. The resolution of Naz’s story is poignant yet ambiguous, and Stone gets almost the same kind of half-and-half treatment. But I do think the cat was just a metaphor, nothing more.

Manchester by the Sea.

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Manchester by the Sea is a devastating portrayal of the aftermath of grief that can’t just go away with time, the lengths to which people will go to avoid it, and the inevitability of returning to it. Casey Affleck delivers a performance for the ages here, and Michelle Williams is brilliant in a secondary role that doesn’t give her a ton of screen time. And despite the film’s core subject matter, there’s a lot of humor in it, some silly, some dry, but more than enough to keep you from turning away from the film’s unrelenting sorrow.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, whom we meet first in his job in Quincy (correctly pronounced “quinzy”), Massachusetts, a working-class suburb just south of Boston, as a janitor and handyman for several buildings, where he’s put upon by numerous tenants and displays a sort of heroic stoicism in the face of condescension and stupidity. He gets a surprise phone call while shoveling snow and de-icing a sidewalk, a regular pastime for Boston-area residents, to learn his brother, Joe, has been hospitalized; by the time he arrives, his brother has died of a heart attack, which we find out was the result of congestive heart failure that hit Joe at a very young age. Lee finds out that Joe has appointed him guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son, Patrick, with the assumption that Lee would take over Joe’s house in Manchester-by-the-Sea and raise Patrick to adulthood, but this revelation – Lee had no idea that this was in Joe’s will – reopens a torrent of grief related to another, earlier tragedy for which Lee blames himself and led to his flight to the city.

This is a Casey Affleck solo album, and he delivers a virtuoso performance that never really answers whether Lee is truly a stoic or merely suffering so much internal pain that he’s become numb on the outside. Affleck has a hundred opportunities to slip outside of that hard exterior and lose the character, and never blinks. There’s pain in his eyes, especially in the scene where we see him explaining the earlier tragedy to police, and a tension in his jaw that lasts throughout the film, so that when he turns down even simple gestures of kindness from others, those characters could see him as impolite or morose and never tell which. The script makes excellent use of silences throughout the film, but those are a key component of Lee’s conversations with just about everyone around him, even in response to mundane questions, as if wondering what kind of day he’s having is just too painful to contemplate.

The one character with whom Lee has any reduction in his guard is Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, who has already won several awards for the best performance by a young actor in a film this year. We see through flashbacks that Lee was close to Patrick when the latter was still young, before Lee’s own tragedy and the departure of Patrick’s alcoholic mother from his life, but Lee’s ability to connect with Patrick is hampered by absence and time, and the spectre of that central tragedy in Lee’s past. Hedges is at his best when balancing the facade of the insouciant teenager, balancing two girlfriends who don’t know about each other, against his own grief at losing his father and one particular detail that encapsulates his grief.

Williams isn’t on screen much as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, although her character is central to the backstory and she delivers a monologue near the very end of the film (the one you see in the trailer and commercials) where she speaks through wracking sobs that sound unbelievably real. Her accent, like most of those other than Affleck’s, is over the top, but like Affleck she reflects intense pain through her eyes and through tightly drawn lips in her first reappearance at the funeral service, only to let the grief out in a barrage of tears in that (Oscar nomination clip?) scene. The change in her appearance from the past to the present is also significant and well-executed; in the present day, she’s remarried into at least some more money, with an expensive haircut and clothes and more makeup, but the makeover turns her into someone who’s overcompensating to forget her past, and perhaps unsure of how to reflect a rise in status in her looks.

There are little details around the edges of the film that could have been better, including a few scenes that director Kenneth Lonergan might have cut, such as the thirty-second discussion over the “bleeper” (the garage-door opener) that served no purpose other than to have Affleck and Hedges say that word with their Massachusetts accents. The police-station scene where Affleck goes over the earlier tragedy is marred by the score, which is too loud to begin with and didn’t need to be in that scene at all; the score as a whole detracts from the movie, as it was just too noticeable in a film that needs to be quiet. Also, when Patrick eats at the house of one of his girlfriends, he refers to a dish as “homemade carbonara” when it is clearly a red sauce, and that sort of mistake is just unforgiveable.

Affleck seems like a lock for a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor, and I’m not sure how anyone could deliver a better performance than this. I’ve mentioned the sexual harassment lawsuits against him in a recent links post, which could sink his support among Oscar voters, but on the merits alone he’s more than deserving, with a Golden Globe nomination already and several wins from local film critics’ associations. I imagine it’ll get nods for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, with Williams possibly grabbing one for Best Supporting Actress, although from reading expert views I get the sense like Viola Davis has that one sealed up for Fences. I don’t think it will beat Moonlight, but I think it’s actually a better film with a stronger script; both films use silence heavily to express sorrow, grief, or doubt, but Manchester does it more effectively.

Doomsday Book.

Connie Willis is one of the most decorated science fiction writers ever, with eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards, as well as induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Her 1998 novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, a Hugo winner, is one of my favorite sci-fi novels, a tight mash-up of a comedy of manners and a time travel story along with a send-up of a classic Brit Lit novel. That book was set in the same universe as her 1992 novel Doomsday Book, which won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for best sci-fi novel, and explores much darker subject matter: how we respond to unthinkable disaster and human suffering.

Willis has crafted rules around her fictional time travel that manage to give it sufficient plausibility so that suspending your disbelief isn’t really an issue. Her time travelers are historians heading into the past for research purposes (usually), and do so under tightly controlled conditions. Heading into the past to alter history isn’t permitted by spacetime itself; anyone heading through to create such a paradox simply won’t be allowed to enter the “net” of time travel. And there’s “slippage” in time, the difference between when you arrive and when you were trying to arrive, which the researchers attribute to spacetime’s attempts to avoid even minor incidents like having you appear out of nowhere in the middle of a crowd of people who’d think you were an alien or a witch.

In Doomsday Book, a young woman in Oxford’s history department named Kivrin is heading back to 1320 England to examine village life of the time and as a prelude to a future research trip back to the Black Death, which began in England in 1348. Unfortunately, as soon as she steps through the net into the past, the main technician who organized the drop, Badri, falls horribly ill with a new strain of influenza, touching off an epidemic in modern-day Oxford … with Kivrin unfortunately falling sick as she arrives in the past. Something has gone wrong with the drop, but Badri is near death and unable to tell anyone why or to explain how they will retrieve Kivrin at the scheduled rendezvous time and place. Kivrin, meanwhile, ends up involved in a separate epidemic, as the plague arrives in the village where she’s staying, and since she’s been vaccinated she is the only person there with immunity to the disease. Her response, as the only person in her time and place who understands the nature of the plague, and the responses of those in the modern time are the real focus of the book, from those thinking first and foremost about the victims to those stuck in the mindset of adhering to policy or those unable to give up their own goals even when it puts others at grave risk.

Willis is an outstanding writer in every aspect of the term, from plot to pacing to character development, but two things particularly stand out in Doomsday Book. One is her ability to still weave humor into a story that is incredibly dark and full of tragedy, with many deaths of named characters in both timelines. William Gaddson, an undergraduate who is rather successful with the young ladies but whose overbearing mother thinks he’s a fragile, innocent boy who studies too hard, provides regular comic relief and even plays a real role in the plot. The American bell choir stuck inside the quarantine zone is almost absurd in its zeal to put on a show regardless of conditions. The assistant Finch’s obsession with “lavatory paper” is similar in its “oh my God is he still on about that” nature.

One of the first symptoms of this influenza strain is mental confusion, and Willis manages to impart that to the reader without actually confusing the reader about what’s happening. That is, when the character at the center of the action gets sick and begins to suffer the confusion, Willis gets that across in ways that don’t cause the reader to lose understanding of what’s happening. I found I realized some things weren’t making sense, so the character’s confusion was tangible, but I also could follow what was happening as an observer (since it’s written entirely in the third person) rather than just getting lost myself. That balance is a neat trick and takes a skilled writer to pull off.

Doomsday Book touches on some significant themes, notably some of the characters’ difficulty in reconciling their belief in God with the horrors of the epidemics before them and the deaths of friends and family members. Some fall to disbelief, others to superstition or belief that it’s God’s vengeance. Those who remain after the epidemics have ended, however, seem to all have come to some appreciation of the kindness and mercy of others, even those facing their own deaths, in the face of unimaginable fear and difficulty. Kivrin’s final encounter with a dying plague victim provides the most moving, insightful scene of the book, even though both characters see the situation from almost perfectly opposed perspectives.

As with To Say Nothing of the Dog and Willis’ shorter novel Bellwether, which I read in June and loved but never had time to review, I couldn’t put Doomsday Book down, reading its nearly 600 pages in just over a week. I’ll have to get to her most recent novel in the Oxford universe, the 2010 two-part novel Blackout/All Clear, which also swept the major awards and runs over 1,000 pages in total.

Next up: I read Philip José Farmer’s Hugo winner To Your Scattered Bodies Go this week and hated just about everything about it. I’m about to start Laurent Binet’s World War II novel HHhH today, which has to be better.

Everybody Wants Some!!

My first GenCon wrap-up post for Paste covers the top ten new boardgames at this year’s convention.

I wasn’t sure about seeing Everybody Wants Some!! (amazoniTunes), Richard Linklater’s 2016 movie about a college baseball team set in 1980, because baseball-themed films are generally quite terrible and I was concerned this might be a big bro-movie too. The indispensable Grierson & Leitch podcast convinced me to see it anyway when both critics put it on their top six movies of 2016 to date, and when Will Leitch said it’s only tangentially a baseball movie anyway (which is true). As it turns out, the movie is more of a slice-of-life portrait than any kind of baseball story, and it’s witty and endearing, full of memorable lines and characters, without getting too sentimental or losing its pacing.

There’s little plot to speak of in Everybody Wants Some!!, so Linklater has to keep the dialogue moving to keep the movie from dragging, but the script must have looked liked the one from His Girl Friday given how little silence there is anywhere in the film. (If no one is talking, it’s because there’s music playing, and if there’s music playing, there’s probably someone singing or rapping along with it.) We start with the arrival of Jacob (Blake Jenner), a freshman pitcher who was second-team All-State as a Texas high schooler, at the two off-campus houses where Southeast Texas State University’s baseball team resides, which also serves as a rapid-fire introduction to most of Jacob’s new teammates, led by the garrulous intellectual Finn (Glen Powell) and frat-boyish bro McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin, former ASU baseball player and a dead ringer for Angel Eyes from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in this film). Within a few minutes, Jacob is in the car with four of his teammates – Finn, Dale (J. Quinton Johnson, the only African-American player on the team), Roper (Ryan Guzman), and another freshman, slow-witted catcher Plummer (Temple Baker) – heading out on the prowl while doing a Bohemian Rhapsody-esque take on “Rapper’s Delight.” Their brief cruise puts Jacob in contact with Beverly (Zoey Deutch), the film’s only substantial female character; his brief courtship of Beverly is the closest thing the movie has to an actual narrative, a meet-cute subplot that takes up maybe 10% of the movie.

From there we follow the boys – and the film makes it clear that these are boys who just look like men – from one party to the next, with only a little bit of action on the field, and a few hilarious scenes at the house (including the stoner/hippie Willoughby trying to exchange thoughts telepathically with Dale, Jacob, and Plummer). There’s no real direction but “forward,” so the film ends up driven by its characters and dialogue, the latter of which sparkles whenever Finn or Dale takes center stage, Finn for his rapid-fire delivery and vocabulary full of $20 words, Dale for his note-perfect delivery and spot-on facial expressions. The only character of the dozen or so we meet who misses the mark is Jay Niles, played by Huston Street’s brother Juston, a bombastic, tightly wound pitcher who claims he throws 95, was drafted by the Blue Jays, and calls himself “Raw Dog” … because he’s the raw dog. It’s all caricature, no nuance in a cast of characters who otherwise have some two-dimensionality.

Linklater captures the time and place of Everybody Wants Some!! perfectly between the music, the clothes, the hair, and the dialogue, and takes advantage of it in ways that he couldn’t if the movie were set closer to today. There’s some mild hazing of the freshmen, at least one part of which would be completely unacceptable today, and the boys’ attitudes towards women are definitely a product of their time. The sexual liberation of the 1970s is still in full swing with no thought of STDs, let alone the virus that changed the landscape in the following decade. The script takes full advantage of the liberties of its milieu, giving us comic moments that would be unsettling (or just offensive) in a contemporary setting.

Five or ten years from now, we’ll look at Everybody Wants Some!! as the starting point of the careers of a number of these actors, especially Powell and Johnson, each of whom grabs hold of the viewer’s attention whenever they get the opportunity. Johnson manages to be hammy the way a college kid plays for laughs without ever seeming to be “acting” so, and he gets extra points for writing the music for the rap song that airs with the closing credits. (He told me on Twitter that the actors each wrote their own verses.) Powell takes dialogue that would sound ridiculous out of just about any character’s mouth and infuses it with charisma that manage to make it just believable enough to fly in a film where no one else talks in a way remotely resembling his hifalutin speech. I wish Deutch had had more to do than to stand around and look cute; she gets two little moments to act, and the one at the costume party near the end of the film showed some comic chops that might have come in handy elsewhere in the movie.

Doing that would have gone against the ethic of Everybody Wants Some!!, though, since at heart this is a smart “bro” movie, one that neither celebrates the idiocy of young men nor mocks them for the same. Instead it celebrates camaraderie with a heavy dose of nostalgia, hitting that moment right before you realize that your life choices might be limited, that the dream you’ve always chased might not come true, and that there are also new possibilities you hadn’t previously imagined. Linklater’s script is never maudlin, even in moments where the characters almost acknowledge that their baseball careers are probably stopping here on campus, and the humor doesn’t stop long enough for the mood to turn bittersweet. It’s a bunch of guys who are living in the moment and having a good time in that brief span of post-adolescence where you have yet to hit adult maturity, and while I didn’t see myself in any of these characters, it still evoked that memory of being part of a big group of people with nothing more in mind than having fun.

Monteverde Chicago.

Fellow Top Chef fans will remember Sarah Grueneberg from season 9, where she was the runner-up to Paul Qui, who dominated the season like few other contestants have done, overshadowing her own skill set – especially when it came to fresh pastas. Chef Grueneberg left Chicago’s Spiaggia about a year ago to open her own place, Monteverde, in Chicago’s West Loop, and I finally got to try it out Friday night (and chat with Sarah herself) while in town for the Under Armour game. It could not have been any more impressive, not just for the pasta but for the quality of everything that went on every plate.

The menu is short but covers a lot of ground, from small plates to a half dozen pastas (three traditional dishes and three of their own creation) to a few substantial mains, and they accommodated me as a solo diner with some smaller portions so I could try more things. I started with the fiore di zucca, fried squash blossoms, a special right now since they’re in season and a very traditional Italian delicacy. The squash blossoms are extremely delicate and usually must be cooked within a day of their harvest; they’re stuffed with ricotta, battered, and fried, in this case with a tempura-like coating and served with a grilled vegetable relish and bright pea hummus underneath it. One was plenty – they’re so rich – but a plate typically contains three for the table. I rarely get to eat these so there was no question I was ordering it, and it met expectations largely because of the ricotta. I assume Monteverde makes their own but if not they’re using some of the best around because the texture is just perfect.

The single best dish I had on the night was the tomato salad, which is Monteverde’s riff on an insalata caprese, here using several kinds of tomatoes, some whole and some blanched and salted; apricot slices; burrata, which is mozzarella wrapped around a filling of cream that was decadent; basil; and za’atar seasoning. The tomatoes were singing – bright, sweet, just a hint of acidity, like they’d been picked an hour before. The best restaurants I’ve ever been to around the U.S. have all had one thing in common: they care about produce enough to get items like these tomatoes. And yes, the burrata was incredible, but it ended up playing second fiddle to the tomatoes.

That salad is one of the piattini or small plates on the menu, along with two other items I tried. The grilled artichoke crostini comes with fontina fonduta (fontina cheese melted with milk and/or cream and Parmiggiano Reggiano to make it into a sauce), more ricotta, a sweet Italian onion called cipolla di tropea, and shaved summer truffle. I had just one piece but the balance was perfect across the various elements because I could still appreciate the quality of the bread underneath, which had a creamy texture on the interior but the hard crust of good old-world recipes.

The other small plate I tried, specifically at Chef Sarah’s suggestion, was the fegattini calabrese, wok-fired chicken livers – yes, wok-fired – with tomato, peperoncino, corn, fava beans, shallot, and polenta ‘fries’ around the outside. Sarah said customers compare it to an upscale chicken parmesan, which fits with the tomato/chicken combination, but I also found it reminded me of the Ecuadorian dish lomo saltado, where steak is served in a stir-fried dish with French fries cooked in the same pot or skillet. It’s a true one-pot meal, with your protein, starch, and lots of vegetables within it, hearty like a winter stew, bringing richness from the livers and unexpected sweetness from the corn and the polenta.

Chicken livers with tomato, shallot, fava beans, corn, and polenta "fries" at @monteverdechi

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

Choosing one pasta dish at a restaurant known already for its pastas was not simple, but sitting at the bar I could see the two chefs making the pasta dishes to order, including the “twin” ravioli, where each piece contains two pockets with fillings, one with eggplant, pinenuts, and more ricotta, the other with lamb sausage, yogurt (very little), and charred onion. They’re served in a piquant red sauce with olive oil and a crushed pepper mix, although there’s just enough sauce to coat the top of the dumplings. The pasta itself remains the focus of the dish, as it’s an incredibly strong dough (they use whole eggs and egg yolks) that the pasta chefs roll out very thin for the dumplings; I’ve made pasta at home a bunch and I doubt I’ve gotten close to this kind of dough strength before, because if I rolled anything that thin it would tear. Of the two fillings, I preferred the lamb sausage and onion, which sort of gave the dish an inside-out pasta and meatballs connotation.

I tweeted some pics while I was at the restaurant and several of you said I had to try the cannoli (but to leave the gun). Monteverde makes its cannolis in-house and fills them to order with sweetened ricotta, dipping one end in dark chocolate bits and the other in bright-green Sicilian pistachios, with a painted swipe of chocolate sauce and some bitter orange bits (candied, I think) on the plate. I grew up strongly disliking cannolis, because most Italian bakeries on Long Island didn’t make their own shells, which meant they had all the texture and flavor of fried wonton strips, and used lower-quality ricotta that gave the filling a cheesy flavor rather than a sweet one. Monteverde does it all from scratch and it shows, and the part with the chocolate bits brought me back to eating straciatella (chocolate chip) gelato in my last trip to Italy in 1999.

Ricotta cannoli with pistachios on one end and dark chocolate on the other @monteverdechi

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

As you’d expect Monteverde has a long wine list, but I’m not much of an oenophile and went for their cocktail menu instead. They do a take on one of my all-time favorite cocktails, the negroni, using mezcal in place of the gin and Luxardo bitter in place of traditional Campari (although Luxardo and Campari are very similar, with Luxardo bringing a more bitter and less sweet profile). It was a good way to riff on a classic, preserving the essential features, with the bitter flavors out front, with a subtle change underneath I doubt I would have identified as mezcal if I hadn’t known ahead of time.

So, I had a pretty good meal at Monteverde and while I did receive some special treatment I would have said the same things about the food anyway. I can’t imagine anyone who enjoys high-quality food, let alone high-quality Italian food, walking away unsatisfied. There’s enough diversity on the menu for just about anybody (I think you could be gluten-free here pretty easily, in fact) and every dish I had was just one bright flavor after another. I’ll certainly be going back.

The rest of my trip to Chicago featured places I’ve been before; I had coffee at Intelligentsia, as I always do when I’m in Chicago, and then stopped the Tortas Frontera location at O’Hare on my rebooked flight out (my original flight on Southwest out of Midway was cancelled). Frontera is one of the best airport food options in the country, with tortas, a pressed Mexican sandwich on spongy telera bread, made to order inside of ten minutes. I tried a new option this time, the vegetarian torta with mushrooms, black beans, arugula, and goat cheese, because I had to atone for my gluttony the night before. I’ve never had a bad sandwich at Tortas Frontera but I do find their sandwiches with meat a little heavy, whereas this turned out to be just right, especially since my flight was delayed over two hours by thunderstorms and I was on the plane for close to five hours in total.

Anomalisa.

Anomalisa is the best depiction of depression that I’ve come across in any medium of fiction, even though it’s, of all things, made with puppets and stop-motion animation. It uses one incredibly effective gimmick to show us the main character’s illness without resorting to lengthy explanations, and then is carried forward by the three voice actors’ performances in a story that is at times heartbreaking yet often deliberately silly. (It’s also available on iTunes.)

Michael Stone, voiced by David Thewlis (a.k.a., Remus Lupin), is a successful author and public speaker on the topic of customer service, and he’s just landed in Cincinnati to give a talk on the topic. He’s also battling what we learn is a very longstanding case of depression, which is shown to us via his senses: He sees all other people as having the same face, and all their voices as identical as well. Male, female, child, adult, whatever, they all look and sound alike to him. (All of these characters are voiced by character actor Tom Noonan, who just moderates his pitch slightly for age and gender, nothing more.) Many of the people he meets are comically annoying, from the cab driver who gets him to the hotel to the bellman who just won’t leave, followed by a disastrous reunion with the girlfriend he left without explanation ten years earlier.

Later that night, he hears a different voice for the first time in years, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a very insecure woman who drove in from out of town with her friend just to hear Michael’s talk. Michael pursues her, discovering that she’s lonely in her own way, and … things move from there, but I wouldn’t say they “progress,” so much as they stumble, because Michael is still depressed and Lisa – whom he dubs “Anomalisa” when she refers to herself as a sort of anomaly – is not the cure.

I have been there, so to speak, not for the length of time that Michael has apparently been depressed but for long enough stretches to recognize what he’s enduring, and I’ve described it as a sort of fog. Colors seem less bright, everything is darker, edges are less crisp, and memories are always less clear. You don’t even necessarily know what’s wrong until you’re out of it and realize that your perception of the world and everyone in it was warped by your condition. I never suffered from the sort of modified Fregoli delusion that writer Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) gives Michael, but it works perfectly as a metaphor for depression in general. Your brain perceives the world without its details, so everything becomes less interesting or able to hold your attention, and you become overwhelmed with a feeling of sameness. (I assume the name Anomalisa also alludes to anomie, a sociological term that can refer to the loss of direction or purpose an individual might feel due to a sense of alienation or disconnect from society. Michael also stays at the Hotel Fregoli for another bit of Kaufman wordplay.)

Anomalisa also avoids showing depression as a one-dimensional disorder. Michael is depressed, but he can still function. He got on the plane. He’s given these speeches before and even written a best-selling book. He has fans. He’s supposed to be quite good-looking (for a puppet). Depressed is not dead. You can be depressed, or anxious, or even bipolar, and still lead a functional life – just not a fulfilled one. And for whatever reason, Zoloft, a very widely prescribed anti-depressant, doesn’t appear to have helped Michael. His foggy status could be a combination of the depression and the side effect of SSRIs that they tend to take the edges off your emotions, for better or for worse; at one point he mentions being unable to cry, something I’ve experienced on escitalopram (Lexapro) as well.

The film’s concluding sequence is somewhat jarring after the languorous pace of everything up to and including Michael’s encounter with Lisa, although it’s a logical series of events – it’s simply missing a few pieces, notably a last conversation between those two before Michael returns to Los Angeles, his miserable wife, and attention-starved son. Kaufman’s better at beginnings than endings; Being John Malkovich is a brilliant idea that crashes into the wall on the final lap, although I thought Eternal Sunshine ended well by returning to the beginning. Here, his script finishes with one final, beautiful flourish, a glimmer of hope in Lisa’s words and a visual trick you might miss if you’re not looking for it, that salvaged the slightly incongruous editing at the end.

If you’ve ever struggled to understand depression, perhaps because a friend or loved one has it, watch Anomalisa. All three voice actors are superb, especially Leigh, whose intonation reveals her character’s insecurity long before we understand her reasons for it. Kaufman’s script gives the disease an authentic, uncomfortable (quite so, at times) treatment for the serious, multi-dimensional story mental illness deserves. It’s a sad film, but never humorless, and left me wanting to see more.

In the Light of What We Know.

My ranking of the top 25 MLB players under age 25 is up for Insiders, and I held a Klawchat today.

Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, In the Light of What We Know, is one of the most intellectual, erudite, epic novels I’ve ever read. Rahman, born in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh and raised in England, shows the polymathic range of David Foster Wallace, the facility with language of Graham Greene, and the scope of Anthony Powell, crafting a story that takes place on three continents, across a war, a financial collapse, in slums and drawing rooms, all to delve into the mystery of one man’s search for an unknown solution.

The nameless narrator of In the Light of What We Know is its Nick Jenkins, a man largely apart from the action, yet our sole lens into the story whose occasional forays into the narrative have stark consequences. The main character is his friend Zafar, Sylheti-born like Rahman, raised in England yet always aware of his separate status from both the white English aristocracy but even from others of South Asian descent who were raised in different circumstances. Zafar has been off the grid – or merely off the narrator’s radar – for about seven years when he shows up on the latter’s doorstep, looking haggard, with a long story to tell that forms the basis of the novel. The tale he unfolds comes in nonlinear chunks with frequent interruptions and asides by the narrator, and it is up to the reader to piece things together.

Zafar himself is also a polymath, a genius at mathematics with a particular obsession for Gödel’s incompleteness theorems (which state, in short, that arithmetic is not a complete system, so there will be statements within it that cannot be proved within the system itself) who makes his first mark on the world in financial analysis. The narrator ends up with a job in derivatives trading thanks to a good word from Zafar, eventually building a portfolio of credit default swaps and CMOs that, of course, proved highly profitable until one day it wasn’t. Zafar, meanwhile, walks away from one career after another, following his peripatetic mind to law school, back to south Asia to work in human rights in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and eventually the post-Taliban Kabul, with many stops intertwined with his affair with the patrician Emily Hampton-Wyvern, for whom Zafar falls hard enough that he can never quite recover.

As Zafar, who resists his friend’s entreaties to turn these recollections into a formal memoir, recounts his life story in these disparate soliloquies, the picture of the man emerges first in sketch, then in greyscale, but never quite in full-color focus. He remains scarred by certain key instances from his childhood: the derailed train he was supposed to be on, the shame over his ‘unpronounceable’ (read: non-English) given name, his poverty in England, a cringe-comic scene in the Hampton-Wyvern’s drawing room. Zafar’s development isn’t so much arrested as undefined; he yearns for the completeness in his life that mathematicians believed they had found in arithmetic before Gödel blew it up. Finding repeated disappointments, inexplicable tragedies, and systemic racism wherever he travels, he walks away from one successful career, launches a second, only to find himself back in Kabul with Emily after their first split, a second meeting that leads to an engagement, a revelation, and the closest thing the novel has to a plot climax.

The narrator is in the story a few times, notably in the betrayal of his friendship that seems to be at least one reason, if not the sole one, that Zafar has shown up on his friend’s doorstep in September, 2008, just as the markets are collapsing, the narrator has been fired (perhaps scapegoated) for his firm’s losses, and the narrator’s wife has moved out. This involvement makes it clear the narrator is not as disinterested as he appeared to be, although Rahman doesn’t give us reason to question his reliability; instead, however, it may drive the questions he has the narrator pose to Zafar – or not pose – to tease out the latter’s multi-threaded story.

When the novel does reach its conclusion in Kabul, Zafar learns multiple things that once again upset his precarious mental state, leading to the novel’s one shocking turn as well as the end of Zafar’s stay with his narrator, even though he hasn’t finished so many of the threads of his story. (What exactly happened during his return to Bangladesh at age 12, after the train wreck, is never revealed.) Instead, Rahman deals us the devatasting one-two punch of a the narrator’s own realization of the impact of his betrayal on top of Zafar’s discovery that he lacked the agency he believed he had in his work and life.

Rahman makes implicit and explicit references to more fields of study than I could count, from number theory to quantum physics, from Graham Greene (whose novels The End of the Affair and The Quiet American, both amazing works of literature, pop up frequently here) to Kierkegaard, from carpentry to classical art. The author infuses Zafar with much of this knowledge and the odd mixture of passions or obsessions, including dropping him into the Hampton-Wyvern’s drawing room as the outsider observing their absurd, stiff-upper-lip lives with a mixture of bemusement and resentment to subtle comedic effect. Elsewhere in the novel, however, Rahman uses Zafar’s breadth and depth of knowledge to allow him to manipulate conversations or see through subterfuges in ways that draw secondary characters out of themselves, often by unnerving them with his probing questions, producing dialogue of a caliber I’ve scarcely seen in contemporary or classic fiction. It’s a tour de force of a novel, an arduous read that simultaneously pays homage to the western canon while upending it entirely from its very non-western vantage point.

In the Light of What We Know won the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction in 2014, putting Rahman in company with Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and E.M. Forster.

Next up: The Collected Stories of John Cheever, the most recent Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner I have yet to read.