Dunkirk.

Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception, Memento) and starring every good-looking British man under the age of 40, tells a fictionalized story of the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, France, in 1940, after German forces routed the combined allied troops and pinned them in on a small section of France’s northwest coast. Ordinary British citizens sailed their small vessels, including fishing boats and other pleasure craft, across the English channel and rescued an entire army – over 800 such boats evacuating over 330,000 troops. It would seem an impossible tale had it not actually happened.

Nolan’s script contains very little dialogue – I’m hard-pressed to recall a live-action film with less – and lets the tripartite story drive the film, with intertwined narratives focused on land (the evacuating soldiers, especially one who’s late to the beach and trying any which way to get out), sea (a father and son plus the son’s friend, sailing across the Channel to try to aid the rescue), and air (three Spitfire pilots battling the Germans). The connections seem tenuous at first, but the narratives all collide as the film progresses and their separate timelines begin to converge with the arrival of the small boats at the mole (causeway) at Dunkirk beach.

The script thus gives us little about most of the characters, and many are left unnamed within the film itself. One pilot is only seen with his mask on until his final scene near the end of the film. Kenneth Branagh, a favorite actor of mine who isn’t afraid to chew a little scenery when given the chance, is marvelously understated throughout as Commander Bolton. Oscar winner and Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance plays the civilian sailor Mr. Dawson with similar restraint, the embodiment of British stiff-upper-lip-ness in repeated crises as they sail toward France. Harry Styles – yes, Harry Freaking Styles – is one of the few young soldiers to stand out in spite of the paucity of dialogue, even overshadowing Fionn Whitehead, another acting neophyte who plays the fleeing soldier in the “land” narrative.

The script may be subtle, but the film isn’t; watching this in a theater was an extremely loud and incredibly close experience, with perspective shifts and wobbly camera shots that immerse the viewer in the action, often to an uncomfortable extent. (If you’re claustrophobic and/or have a fear of drowning, you might give this film a miss.) War movies often break the tension by shifting to planning scenes, away from the action, where old men in brass buttons plan the deaths of thousands by moving miniatures on a tabletop map, but Dunkirk never leaves the corridor from England, which we only see from Mr. Dawson’s boat, across to France, moving us from sky to sea to land and back but never pulling us far from soldiers in peril.

Nolan skirts some dangerous lines in the script, giving us Chekhov’s gun in the form of airplane fuel tanks, but writing his way out of obvious endings in two of the three main strands. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the conflict, with German aircraft bombing beach and ships even though these are retreating forces with little to no ability to defend themselves, yet there’s a clear effort here to keep the blood offscreen – one assumes because that would detract from the story Nolan is trying to tell and appeal to the baser instincts of those in the audience who mistakenly wandered into the theater while looking for the next Saw installment. The body count is high, even if they’re mostly redshirts, but the horror here has to come from the actors’ expressions and the constant sense of confinement, in ships’ holds, in a tiny airplane cockpit, or even on a wide-open beach that is a perfect shooting gallery for German dive-bombers. The one slight misstep, the thread that leads the ending’s one real nod to sentiment, essentially sacrifices a side character for the plot value of his death, but it’s the only time Nolan submits to that impulse and it at least has the good grace to stay out of the way of the remainder of the plot.

There’s an organic nature to the script that ultimately takes Dunkirk from good movie to great, as Nolan thinks more like a novelist than a screenwriter here. Knowing the history of the evacuation, Nolan creates sets of circumstances for each character or group, and then sees how they react to the stresses under which he places them. We get three pilots who have three differing reactions to disasters in the air. We see a wide variety of soldiers reduced to scrapping for places on ships, refusing to rescue others, or threatening to turn a soldier over to the enemy to make room on a boat. Mr. Dawson and his crew are tested repeatedly, and he becomes the stoic heart of the film, standing in for the hundreds upon hundreds of British men of all ages who risked their own lives to bring the boys home.

It’s early to forecast honors for any film, but I will throw out there right now that I think Dunkirk has to be the favorite for that SAG “best ensemble cast” award, or whatever it’s called, given in lieu of a proper “best picture” honor. Also, I was sure I saw an uncredited Una Stubbs – that’s Mrs. Hudson from Sherlock – on one of the boats, but IMDB tells me it’s an actress named Kim Hartman. But there is an uncredited appearance via voice only that I won’t spoil beyond saying every film is better for having this actor say a few words in it.

Broadchurch, season 3.

I’ve mentioned my love of the British TV series Broadchurch a few times – writing about season one and season two – particularly my admiration for the dialogue, which is some of the best I’ve ever seen on any show, incorporating enough realism to set the show well apart from the police procedurals that have poisoned the airwaves for the last few decades while still giving viewers enough insight into the characters to build emotional attachments. The show was originally written to be a one-and-done, eight-episode story, but returned for two more seasons, the third of which just aired this summer (and which everyone involved says is definitely the end of the show). If this is truly it, the writers and actors gave us more than a mere victory lap, but managed to incorporate an entirely new story and set of characters into the tapestry they created in a small seaside town already reeling from the child murder that started off the series. It’s on amazon as well as iTunes.

Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) are back, now working together as partners instead of the adversarial relationship that drove the first season (mostly Alec’s doing, as he had some Greg House-like qualities), investigating a new crime: the rape of Trish, a woman in her late 40s, recently separated from her husband, who was attacked at a friend’s 50th birthday party. Trish was drunk and then knocked unconscious, so she couldn’t identify the rapist, and the list of suspects is long, including her former husband, her friend’s husband, a taxi driver with a criminal past, and Trish’s boss. The case is immediately complicated by other factors that also drive wedges between friends and motivate different witnesses to come forward – and, as you might expect, other women emerge with similar stories of rape in the same area over previous years.

The writers spent months working with rape counselors and investigators, learning about such cases and how they’re handled by authorities, giving the writing of season 3 an intense, often uncomfortable (by design) realism throughout the eight episodes. Trish’s reactions, unwillingness to discuss details, guilt and self-loathing, and the varied reactions of other victims all give Broadchurch a level of pathos absent from the SVU style of storytelling – 44 minutes to rush through a story, requiring every victim to be reduced to two dimensions so we can get back to the chase – and depict the complexities of investigating cases like this.

The big surprise of the season is Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker, also known as the next Dr. Who), who spent the first two seasons as a mousy, thin character paralyzed by grief and shock, appearing as a rape counselor who is assigned to Trish. Beth’s strength only appeared in flashes in the previous season, but she takes on a much more central role in season 3, both for her work advising and counseling Trish and also as a now-divorced other of two, still grieving her son’s death, and trying to cope with an ex-husband who can’t move on with his own life. I might have had doubts about Whittaker as the lead character on the long-running sci-fi series had I not seen the breadth of her abilities in the final season of this show, as the writing this year and her involvement in two major storylines allowed her to show off a range of emotions, notably the harder edge on display in scenes with her ex-husband or her resolve in dealing with the police when she’s asked to violate the ethical rules of her new job.

The central mystery of season 3 is somewhat less compelling than that of season 1, primarily because the identity of the rapist becomes subordinate to the web of relationships and deceptions uncovered during the investigation. Watching Hardy and Miller work, and now to truly work together as partners with complementary skills who have developed strong respect for each other, is easily the season’s biggest highlight – the very unromantic chemistry between these two, and Miller’s unflagging attempts to draw Hardy’s emotional core out, allow two tremendous actors to show their stuff while also giving the viewer an atypical male/female partnership. Hardy is less House-like this year, as his relationship with his daughter becomes more central and less afterthought, and the writing makes him more socially inept than absent. If season 1 Hardy was just misanthropic, season 3 Hardy is more clueless. He can’t pick up some simple social cues and doesn’t take compliments well or give them any more easily, but now it leads to amusement rather than Ellie wanting to throttle him – often justifiably, given how badly he treated her when they first worked together.

If there’s a hiccup anywhere in this final season of Broadchurch, it’s that they worked a little too hard to make all of the suspects in the rape case a little too creepy. Toxic masculinity plays a role here, and the writers did well to separate out its various aspects and spread them across multiple characters, but there are also at least three men who are called into the station who look or act too … well, too suspect. It’s as if the writers and actors were trying to throw viewers off the scent by making everybody seem guilty. And if you remember the twist in season one, you might see the twist in season three coming too.

If you haven’t started from the beginning, I don’t think you’ll appreciate the full impact of season 3 given how much screen time is devoted to the aftershocks from the first murder, so I would recommend starting with season 1 and watching all 24 episodes in order. It’s some of the finest TV writing I have ever seen, never sacrificing story for dialogue but instead using realistic, thorough dialogue to help give the story more depth than you’ll find in most other television series.

Evicted.

I have two new Insider posts on the Verlander trade and the Justin Upton trade.

Princeton sociology professor and ethnographer Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a stunning work of first-person research that examines a major socioeconomic problem from the ground level, rather than the top-down, data-driven approach I expected from a book in his genre. Desmond spent several months living among the inner-city underclass in several neighborhoods in Milwaukee in 2008 and 2009, shadowing tenants and landlords, witnessing evictions and forced moves, accompanying residents to rehab, AA meetings, even to court, recording what amounted to over 5000 pages of transcribed notes and conversations, to produce this devastating and utterly human portrait of people who simply do not exist to the house-secure classes.

Desmond’s aim here is clear: eviction is more than just a temporary loss of shelter, but a massive disruption to the economic and psychological well-being of entire families, a process that can lead to job loss, substance abuse, and crime, and a scarlet letter on a person’s record that can make it harder to obtain future housing and employment. The vulnerable class of the working or semi-working poor are victimized repeatedly by a system that takes the majority of their income, often over 75% of it, to cover rent for substandard housing, then punishes them if they fall behind and are evicted in a process that overwhelmingly favors the landlords. Tenants are often afraid to assert their rights, if they have any, or to report building code or maintenance violations for fear of retaliation. Once evicted, families may end up having to pay exorbitant fees to place their limited possessions in storage, with no access to their things, until the almost inevitable time when they can’t afford the monthly cost and lose what little they had.

Desmond accompanies several single residents and entire families on their journey through multiple evictions and the Lodge, a homeless shelter readers will know all too well before the book is complete. The access these people gave him is remarkable, as he captures their words at some of their most vulnerable and depressed moments, often witnessing their stuff being carted out to the curb in trash bags by Eagle Movers, who apparently maintain a truck (or two?) just for the purpose of serving landlords who are evicting residents. He also relates a firsthand account of housing discrimination – and explains in an afterword how the Fair Housing Authority did nothing with his formal complaint. (And that was under a Democratic administration; I doubt it’s any better today.) He also spends significant time with two slumlords – although he refuses to refer to either as such – to give their perspective, usually in their own words, even explaining how one, Sherrena, was “proud” of her landlord status and her collection of properties, even though Desmond makes it very clear that she is a nightmare landlord whose failure to maintain safe conditions in her buildings should probably have landed her in court.

By spending so much time with poor residents, Desmond also makes it clear what critical needs are not addressed when most of someone’s income – often income from disability payments – goes to cover the rent. Going without food, or without enough food, is an obvious outcome. But such tenants often have no heat or hot water, or sometimes can’t cover the gas or electric bills. Medical care is often entirely out of the question. Buying a new pair of shoes for a child, a mundane event for even middle-class families, is an enormous achievement. One of the few success stories in the book, Scott, a former nurse who lost everything when he became addicted to painkillers, has to borrow from his parents to cover the cost to get into a rehab program and begin taking methadone. Many other people Desmond follows don’t have even that bare safety net of a parent or relative to help cover a payment – or, in the case of one single mother, her safety net repeatedly refuses to help.

Desmond saves his prescriptions and recommendations for the epilogue, choosing instead to let the individual narratives tell the reader the overarching story of a system that traps these American untouchables in a cycle of poverty from which it is very difficult to escape. It’s easy to say, as so many politicians like to do, that the solution to poverty is to make poor adults go to work. That facile, elitist answer ignores the realities of work for the underclass: Available jobs barely pay enough to cover the rent, evictions and other related actions (police are often involved, with Milwaukee employing sheriffs specifically for this purpose) can count against someone on a job application, and missing time to try to find new living space can cost such a person his/her job. Affordable – or “affordable” – housing is often located far from work, with poor public transit options in many or most cities. We get repeated examples of people evicted because of the actions of someone else. One woman is evicted because the police were called to her apartment by a neighbor because her partner was beating her. Another loses what sounds like a perfect apartment because her young son got in a fight and her babysitter asked neighbors if they had any weed. And landlords get away with this because tenants don’t fight back, enforcement of what few rights they have is scarce, and there’s a line of people waiting to get into every apartment the evicted vacate.

In that epilogue, Desmond offers ideas and potential solutions, including universal housing vouchers that can be used anywhere, without discrimination, the way that recipients use food stamps. He speaks of reasonable housing as a fundamental human right, which is how western European governments and societies view it, arguing that “the pursuit of happiness” is impossible without adequate shelter. Desmond also pushes solutions that are, at best, antithetical to the capitalist underpinnings of our society, including broader rent control, without sufficient consideration of the economic consequences of such policies (rent control programs can stifle construction and push landlords to convert rental properties to non-rental ones). He seems to advocate for more public housing, but doesn’t discuss how we can expand the housing stock without repeating the problems of previous housing projects, many of which became unsafe and were razed within 20 years of their construction. His proposed solutions should spark discussion of how to solve the American housing crisis – or, at least, a discussion that there is a housing crisis at all – but seem like they will trade current problems for new ones rather than creating comprehensive solutions that at least consider how the market will react to major policy shifts. That’s a minor issue in a remarkable work that is dedicated more to exposing these problems to the wider audience, to bringing people in distress out of the shadows and into the public consciousness, because without that there won’t even be a conversation about how best to help them in an economy that still places a high value on the rights of private property owners.

I listened to the audio version of Evicted, which is narrated by actor Dion Graham, whose voice will be familiar to fans of The Wire. Graham does a masterful job of bringing the various characters to life with just subtle changes in tone – and treats these people, who are largely less educated and less articulate than, say, Graham himself is, with respect. It would be easy to caricature these underprivileged tenants, but Graham’s renditions infuse them with the quiet dignity they deserve, so that the listener may feel sorrow or pity for them, but not scorn.

Next up: Thomas Stribling’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Store. I’m about 60 pages in, and while the story is moving along, the casual racism in the writing – Stribling was from Alabama, set the novel in Florence, and has it taking place shortly after the Civil War – is appalling.

Kingdomino.

Bruno Cathala’s Kingdomino won the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award this year, beating out Reiner Knizia’s Quest for El Dorado and the cooperative game Magic Maze, a result that I thought was a bit of a surprise given how little publicity Kingdomino had received prior to the win. It’s about as light a game as I can think of among winners of the prize, but incredibly fun and quick to play, striking a nice balance between crafting a game where kids can still compete and one where adults won’t be bored.

Each player starts with a single square tile and a castle on it, and will build out his/her “kingdom” from two-square rectangular tiles drawn over the course of the game. Like dominoes, these pieces have two separate images on each half, representing six different terrain types, some with crowns and some without. You must place each tile so that at least one of the terrains matches one tile it’s touching. (The start tile is “wild” and matches all six types.) Players will draw 12 tiles during the game and must not allow their kingdom to grow beyond a 5×5 grid; the castle doesn’t have to be in the center, but the kingdom can’t exceed five tiles in any direction. If you can’t place a tile legally, then you discard it and won’t get points for it.

The scoring is simple: You count up the number of contiguous squares of each terrain type and multiply that number by the number of crowns in that contiguous area. So a five-square water area with two crowns on it would score ten points. You can potentially have a huge area without crowns and score nothing – especially with the yellow wheat fields, the terrain type least likely to have a crown: there are 26 wheat squares in the game, but only five of them have crowns. Seven squares have two crowns and one mine square has three crowns, so those become highly coveted.

The tiles go to players in a draft where the order changes in each round. At the start of the game, you shuffle enough tiles so that you have 12 per player (there are 48 total, so a four-player game uses all of them) and then divide them into stacks, three for three players and four for two or four players. In each round, you reveal new tiles and order them on the board based on the numbers on their backs – one tile per player for three or four player games, two per player in a two-player game. The order for the first round is random, but after that, it’s determined by the previous round’s choices: If you took the lowest-numbered (top) tile of the ones available in that round, you get to choose first among the next set of three or four tiles. (In a two-player game, each player chooses two tiles per round.) That means the person who chose or ended up with the highest-numbered tile – probably the most valuable one for points – ends up with the last “choice” in the next round, which isn’t a choice at all because you’re stuck with whatever’s left. That internal balancing mechanism tends to keep anyone from running away with the game by racking up too many crowns.

I played the game for the first time at GenCon, when I happened upon the mini-tournament (which only had about a half-dozen players) Blue Orange was holding for the game, and two players who’d lost their round invited me to play and offered to teach me as we went. Once you know what you’re doing, an entire game takes about 15-20 minutes. We played a three-player variant, although I didn’t realize it at the time, where instead of removing 12 tiles for a 3-player game, we played with all 48, and in each round revealed four tiles; each of us chose one, and the fourth was discarded. The rules also describe a two-player variant using all 48 tiles, expanding the kingdom size to 7×7. There’s also a variant rule for any number of players where you get 5 bonus points if you never discard a tile – in other words, if you fill every square of your 5×5 grid.

The game lists the age range as 8+, but I don’t see any reason a child of 6 or 7 couldn’t play along – it’s color matching at heart, with some spatial relations stuff and a little strategy around the crowns (just tell your kid “crowns are good” and s/he’ll probably be fine). It’s also quick enough to play any time or to reel off a few games in a row, unlike most of the best family-level strategy games I recommend. There’s a standalone sequel, Queendomino, coming this fall, adding more features to the game to make it a little more challenging, but I recommend Kingdomino because it’s so elegantly simple. You can teach it to anyone in a few minutes, and it brings replay value because the order of the tiles determines the flow of the game. It’ll be a regular in our game rotation for weeknight plays for a long time.

The Handmaiden.

A psychological and erotic thriller built around a classic con story, the South Korean film The Handmaiden made a number of critics’ top ten lists for 2016, but wasn’t even submitted by the Korean Film Council for consideration for the 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film even after the film was generally praised on release at Cannes that year. Directed by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Thirst), The Handmaiden manages to combine a double-cross story worthy of Hitchcock, a drawing-room mystery worthy of Charlotte Heyer, and erotica worthy of Cinemax into a single, stunningly shot film that still manages to compel even as Park’s train wobbles off the tracks in its final third. It’s free on amazon prime and can be rented via iTunes.

Adapted from the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden is told in three parts, beginning with the story of Sook-hee, a peasant thief who is recruited by the con artist “Count” Fujiwara to become handmaiden to a wealthy heiress and convince the ingenue to marry the fake count so he can then dump her in an insane asylum and make off with her money. Sook-hee agrees after negotiating a better cut of the proceeds for herself, only to fall in love with her mark, Hideko, and lose her commitment to the con. No one’s motives are truly clear here, and Lady Hideko’s uncle isn’t merely the reclusive rare book collector he appears to be; once the first part of the con is revealed, the narrative shifts back to the beginning and shows much of the same material with missing details restored. Everything you see in part one has a purpose, even if it takes most of the film to discover it.

The con drives the plot, but the power of The Handmaiden resides in the scenery and the lead performances. The film is gorgeously shot, from the uncle’s mansion to the Japanese gardens even to the night scenes among the trees, with Park manipulating light and dark or introducing bursts of color to enact quick shifts in tone. There are very obvious parallels to Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and there are scenes in the gardens on the estate where you’d expect to see the girl from Fragonard’s The Swing swaying to and fro.

Kim Tae-ri, making her feature film debut as Sook-hee, nails the urchin’s mixture of overconfidence and naivete, while Ha Jung-woo is perfect as the suave, unctuously charming con man Fujiwara. (The two are both in the upcoming South Korean drama 1987, about the student protests that year that brought down South Korea’s military regime.) Kim Min-hee won several awards for her portrayal of Hideko, perhaps the most thankless role of the three because so much of the script requires her to act numb, although the character gains complexity once the depravity of her uncle becomes apparent in part two; her role just seems less demanding, other than the makeup and hair she’s required to wear while Hideko delivers readings of the books in her uncle’s collection.

The film would almost certainly have received an NC-17 rating here for the two sex scenes between Sook-hee and Hideko, which some critics have tabbed “soft porn” but which would probably escape remark if they involved a hetero pairing. If there’s something objectionable here, it’s the scenes’ length, or some of the dialogue, perhaps badly translated, from Sook-hee that I think was supposed to show that she’s just as naive as Hideko. (Waters herself defended the scenes, saying the women are appropriating a very male pornographic tradition and that queer audiences welcomed them.) Establishing the attraction between the two women as genuine is critical for the credibility of the overall story, and while the second scene is probably too long by half, skipping them entirely would have left the film worse off. The movie’s conclusion, however, brings the off-screen violence from implication to reality with a needlessly grisly torture scene that would have survived just as well without showing us any severed fingers; I haven’t read the novel but I believe that scene was Park’s invention.

I doubt any film would have topped The Salesman for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, given the political circumstances around the latter’s nomination, but I would rank The Handmaiden above the four other nominees. You can argue it’s pornographic, but I think those scenes are both transgressive and true to the original author’s intent; the violence is far more disturbing and less essential to the plot. And the plot is reason enough to watch the film – it’s an old con done up in a new way, with double dealing and secret schemes, by actors who fully inhabit the devious characters they’re portraying. It’s easily among my top ten movies of last year.

Blackout and All Clear.

Connie Willis’ time-travel novels are a marvel; she’s created an alternate universe where time travel isn’t just possible, but plausible, because it’s intrinsic to her plots but not to the characters or the setting. The first full-length novel, The Doomsday Book, sent a character back to the period of the Black Death at the same time that a pandemic hit Oxford in 2060, where the time-traveling historians reside. The second, To Say Nothing of the Dog, was a comedy of manners that parodied a Brit Lit classic. Her 2010 diptych Blackout/All Clear is a magnum opus in scope and length, a single novel published in two parts because the combination runs over 1100 pages, sending three historians back into World War II only to have everything go awry for them. The duo swept the major sci-fi novel awards (Hugo, Nebula, and Locus) despite some reviews that criticized the books’ length. I adore Willis’ writing and character development, so while the books are long – it took me just over two weeks to finish the pair – my only regret at their length was that I was dying to get to the resolution.

Willis’ time-travel universe keeps that physical impossibility to something of a minimum. Historians travel backwards in time for research purposes, and of course are charged with staying out of the way of history lest they find they alter it. Spacetime itself has a defense mechanism, however; it won’t allow time travelers to land at a point in history where their mere presence may change its course – so, no, you can’t go back and kill baby Hitler, even in fiction. Those who try end up displaced in time or location from their target, and the gap is called “slippage.” Meanwhile, returning through a portal, called a drop, to 2060 is also complicated – the drops must not be seen by “contemps” from that time period, and if the location isn’t secure, the drop won’t open and the historian can’t return home until the next rendezvous. It’s an elegant, concise way to introduce time travel and all of its attendant problems into serious literature that would otherwise collapse under the weight of the details.

Unlike Willis’ previous two novels in this setting, nearly all of Blackout/All Clear takes place in the past. Once the historians start to step through the portal into World War II at the start of the first book, we don’t get back to Oxford until well into All Clear; this is a novel of three historians stuck in World War II, simultaneously trying to find a way back to their present and to avoid doing anything that might alter history … which could in turn mean that time travel is never invented, creating a paradox with unforeseeable consequences (none of them good, though). Michael Davies wants to research heroes, but ends up in the evacuation at Dunkirk. Polly Churchill wants to research the conditions and behavior of people who sheltered in Tube (subway) stations during the Blitz, but ends up in a shelter below a church and falls into an amateur theatrical troupe. Merope Ward wants to research the lives of evacuated children in the English countryside, only to find herself saving one of her ward’s lives and bringing some of the children back to London to an uncertain fate during the bombings. The three all realize soon enough that something’s amiss, between the slippage and the failure of their drops to reopen, and start to look for each other in London to seek a way out before the paradoxes of time travel overtake them.

Willis’ prose captures the cadence and flow of great British authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries, even though she’s an American author writing today, with the clarity and wit of a Wodehouse and a bit of the descriptiveness of Dickens (but not too much). She also creates wonderful characters, a few of whom, like department head Mr. Dunworthy or young Colin Templer, we’ve seen before. Merope, who goes by Eileen in the past, and Polly are a little bit too similar to each other, although some slight personality distinctions emerge in the second book, but the characters around the core trio are wonderfully diverse and well filled-out, from the actor Sir Godfrey to the aging fisherman Commander Harold to the imps Alf and Binnie who plague Merope’s existence. Willis has given her world depth and texture by populating it with believable, three-dimensional characters, even unlikable ones, so that reading her novels, especially this two-part tome, becomes an immersive experience. I was very much reminded of watching the Foyle’s War TV series, which is set almost entirely in World War II and even has one episode that occurs in part in a bomb shelter; Willis recreated that setting in words to the point where I could lose myself in the story.

Blackout itself isn’t much of a standalone novel because it ends mid-story; there is absolutely zero resolution at its end, not even so much as an answer to the question of why these historians have gotten stuck when their colleagues had gone to other points in history and returned without major incident. If you’re going to read one, you’re committing to read both, and that does mean that you’ll be in the past with the trio of trapped heroes for a long time. I’m completely comfortable with that – I will happily spend all day in Connie Willis’ words if my schedule permits.

Next up: I’ve read a few books since this pairing, but just started another Hugo winner, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which definitely sounds like something other than a critically acclaimed sci-fi novel.

Grocery.

If you’re here, you almost certainly know I’m a fan of Michael Ruhlman’s work, whether it’s his narrative non-fiction books like The Making of a Chef or his indispensable cookbooks like Ruhlman’s Twenty, Ratio, or Egg. He’s also become a potent voice in the drive to get American consumers, who know more about food than ever before but seem to cook it less for themselves, to reconnect with the sources of their food for the good of our health and our planet. He brings those concerns to his non-fiction work for the first time in his newest book, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, a work that simultaneously a paean to the American grocery store and a lament over the importance that processed foods play in our diet (and, perhaps, many of our first-world health problems).

Ruhlman does this by revisiting a regional grocery chain from his youth, Heinen’s, which has survived as an independent business when national chains have been snapped up by multinationals. Heinen’s is still run by the grandchildren of its founder, but they take a progressive view of the business and have shown agility larger chains haven’t by being quick to offer organic produce, prepared foods, and craft beers to consumers. The overarching structure of Grocery begins with a brief history of the grocery store – I remember A&P, but had no idea it was once the biggest company in the world – an then takes us department by department, explaining not just what’s in them but how the food (or not-food) gets to the store and how the markets profit off them.

Heinen’s early forays into non-traditional areas for grocers mirrors the industry’s movement as a whole, sometimes foreshadowing changes (like prepared foods, which accounts for between 4 and 8 percent of sales for each Heinen’s store) elsewhere, sometimes lagging, as with organics. Ruhlman specifically cites the changes wrought by Whole Foods, which, depending on your point of view, either found unserved demand for organic items and higher-quality ingredients or created that demand by offering the goods and marketing themselves well; and Wal-mart, which became the country’s main food retailer the day they sold their first box of Cheerios. The industry-wide shifts have allowed medium-sized chains to add value by offering specialty products, like the Lava Lakes lamb Heinen’s offers (with Ruhlman enduring an interesting adventure on the sheep farm to tell us about it) or some artisanal cheeses from makers who could never service a large national account.

Ruhlman’s always at his best when he’s writing first-person accounts, and that’s true even here, as he spends days with various Heinen’s executives and suppliers, as well as going shopping with one of his personal doctors, Dr. Sukol, who has very strong opinions on what is and is not food. That particular chapter is one of several that points out just how much sugar is in processed foods – more on that phrase in a moment – and how eating these “not food” products, in Dr. Sukol’s eyes, may be compromising our health. She says something that has become a sort of mantra for Ruhlman – that food is not “healthy;” we are “healthy,” and food can be nutritious or it can be harmful to our health (or, I’d add, sometimes both). Some of her opinions are based in sound science and others on working hypotheses (e.g., that glyphosate residues harm our intestinal microbiomes, because that chemical targets the shikimate pathway found in microbial metabolism but not in humans). She buys organic to avoid glyphosate and antibiotics, but doesn’t believe GM foods are harmful in and of themselves. She also says something is not food if you look at the ingredients and couldn’t buy them all individually in a grocery store; by that definition, to pick one example, almond milk is not food, even though the unsweetened version is nutritious and is a godsend to people who can’t drink milk.

Heinen’s also employs a full-time doctor to oversee its “wellness” section, and in my view this is where the author could have cast a more skeptical eye, because this “Dr. Todd” sells a lot of bullshit. He’s light on the science, throwing appeals to nature at Ruhlman in between advocacy of useless supplements like turmeric (the tricky chemistry of which means it does nothing useful in the body despite positive results in the test tube). Heinen’s, like all grocery stores – including Whole Foods – makes millions off selling bottled panaceas, nearly all of which do nothing and get by the consumer with vague promises of “promoting” health but no scientific evidence that they do anything at all. Ruhlman does indeed mention their uselessness and his own skepticism of a supplement-based diet, but I would probably have been thrown out of Heinen’s for pointing out all of the woo that Dr. Todd was spinning.

I enjoy when Ruhlman lets a little snark penetrate his thoughtful tone, like when he was behind a shopper at the grocery store who was buying fat-free “half and half,” a product that, ontologically speaking, cannot exist. It’s okay to disdain such abominable food choices – but Ruhlman emphasizes that corporate marketing has contributed to consumer confusion over what’s good for us and even what certain products might contain. (The entire discussion reminded me of bread vendors who made high-fiber breads by adding wood pulp, which almost certainly wasn’t what consumers thought they were consuming.) And the media have contributed to this by jumping on single studies that appear to identify single culprits for all our food-related health woes, first fat, then cholesterol (poor eggs), then salt, and now – although this one may have some legs – sugar, which appears in products under a variety of pseudonyms, including evaporated cane juice, dextrose, maltodextrin, brown rice syrup, or tapioca syrup. They’re all sugar, and by separating them out in the ingredients, manufacturers can avoid telling you that the #1 component of a product is sugar.

Grocery tends to stick to the very common and widely accepted distinction of processed foods, what Ruhlman describes as being in the center of the store, and the other foods, like meat, dairy, and produce, that are found around the store’s perimeter. (If you’ve heard the advice to shop the edges of the grocery store, those are the departments where you’ll spend your cash.) And I may be overly pedantic on this, but almost everything we eat is processed somehow. Take yogurt: First, it’s processed by bacteria, fermenting milk into yogurt. And second, it’s further processed by man, at least to put it in plastic, but often to add sweeteners, fruits, sometimes gels or gums, and other ingredients. (True Greek yogurt is strained of whey and lacks additional thickeners, but many brands sell “Greek” yogurt that is thickened with pectin or other agents.) The meat you buy at the butcher counter is processed too – a process Ruhlman details, explaining how more of the butchering is done at central locations today rather than in-store as it was a few decades ago. Very little of what we eat is truly “unprocessed.” And there are processed foods in the middle of the store that are quite nutritious – oats, nuts, seeds, whole grains, alternative milks (if unsweetened), maybe even dark chocolate. So don’t tell people to avoid “processed foods,” but tell them, as this book encourages, to read the labels and try to understand what you’re buying.

If everyone in America read Grocery, it would cause a cataclysmic shift in our food system. There would still be a market for Oreos and Frosted Flakes, for fast food and donuts and bad coffee, but the book points out how consumer demand can reshape the food production chain, and how retailers can reshape neighborhoods in turn by bringing better food choices to “food deserts,” underserved populations without easy access to quality food. It’s a potent call to action, as well-written as you’d expect from the author of Soul of a Chef, that should change your approach to feeding yourself and your family.

Commonwealth.

I’ve been a devotee of the fiction of Ann Patchett since reading her magnum opus, Bel Canto, an ensemble story that takes inspiration from the 1997 incident when Tupac Amaru fighters took over the Japanese embassy in Peru and held 72 people hostage for four months. Patchett built from that story to create a deep, rich web of complex characters and wrote a literary fugue that she later said was her attempt to recreate Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. (I’m not a fan of that book, so I’d say there’s no comparison.)

Her latest novel, Commonwealth, is the only other novel she’s written that tries to tell the same sort of broad tapestry of a story, with at least five and as many as ten well-defined, realistic characters in a book that plays with time as she reconstructs the history of two families. The book starts with a christening party and a drunken kiss between a husband and a wife who are married to other people, a kiss that begets an affair that begets divorces, marriages, a death, and six children becoming stepsiblings and forging bonds that will last for decades.

This isn’t Bel Canto in format, however; that book had epic scope but was told in linear fashion. Commonwealth jumps around in time based on what details Patchett wants to reveal, a gambit that started as disorienting but improved as the story went on because each section reveals something about one or more characters that proves useful in the next. I still might have preferred a linear timeline here, largely because that makes it easier for me to immerse myself in a story, but Patchett is such a skilled storyteller that she can make the future into prologue and still have it all tie together.

Although the four adults involved in the two marriages that become an affair, two divorces, and another marriage set the plot in motion, this book is much more about the kids involved than anyone else: two sisters from one marriage, then four kids, two of each sex, from the other. They’re not an easy mix at any point, but because Bert and Beverly, the couple who kissed and eventually divorce their spouses to marry each other, are kind of half-assed parents, the six kids end up partners in crime, the older ones mostly taking care of the younger, but also getting into all sorts of trouble, some trivial, some tragic.

Each story focuses on different kids, but Albie, the second-youngest of the six children, is easily the most interesting, I think because Patchett has written him as someone who today would be considered “on the spectrum” of autism but who in this book’s time period would never have been diagnosed. He’s just weird in the eyes of his siblings, who hand him Benadryl tablets and tell him they’re candy so he won’t be such a pain, and grows into a self-medicating, risk-loving teenager who can’t stay in school or keep a job and really doesn’t find any stability until at least his 20s. But as he gets older and the family situation keeps changing, some of his bonds with siblings, especially his stepsister Franny (the second best-developed character in the book), become the novel’s true center.

There’s also a bit of fun metafiction within Commonwealth, where Franny, who feels as I do about books (hand me a supply of books and then just leave me alone for a few weeks), meets a literary idol of hers, Leon Posen, and eventually becomes his lover and sort of amanuensis. Leon eventually takes her stories of her childhood and writes them into a novel, Commonwealth, that restarts his literary career, becomes a bestseller, and narrowly misses winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That last bit may prove prescient; the book is considered one of the favorites to win this year’s award, which will be announced on Monday, April 10th, but is probably less likely to win than Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

Patchett’s prose is as lush as her characters, and here she marries the two with a story worthy of her words; when she hasn’t succeeded, it’s been in books with weak stories, like Run or Taft. Commonwealth is a huge success, however, a story of and for everyone, one that is simultaneously about nothing and about everything. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and Patchett gives us a whole new unhappy family to enjoy.

The Underground Railroad.

Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award for that year and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the first book to win both awards. The last three Carnegie Medal for Fiction winners have gone on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well, making Whitehead’s book the current favorite for that honor as well, and it would certainly fit both in the quality of the work itself and the kind of American themes the Pulitzer committee is charged with identifying.

Whitehead’s alternative history has an actual railroad operating underground, in secret, ferrying slaves to freedom in the north with the help of abolitionist whites, with southern plantation owners and slave-hunters trying to ferret out its locations and operators. This becomes the route for Cora, a slave on a brutal plantation in Georgia who has been abandoned by her mother (who fled the plantation without a word) and finds the farm’s ownership going from bad to worse, as she attempts to find freedom in the north despite impossible odds and the threat of torture and death if she’s caught and returned to her owner.

Cora herself is one of the great strengths of the novel, as Whitehead has created one of the most memorable and compelling female protagonists in American fiction. It’s easy for a writer to craft a fictional slave who captures the sympathy of readers; Whitehead’s success is in crafting one who captures our empathy. Cora is strength in futility, a tightly wound ball of fear, rage, and grief who makes her dash out of a desire for freedom and a quest for a connection to the family she’s lost. She’s neither broken by the dehumanizing experiences she had as a slave, nor unbroken as we might expect of a fictional heroine. There’s enough reason in Cora’s character to doubt that she’ll succeed in reaching her goal.

The other strength of The Underground Railroad is the setting, which goes beyond the mere reimagining of the titular escape route as a physical entity. Cora lands in South Carolina and then North Carolina, each of which has come up with its own “solution” to the slave question rather than continuing to employ slaves as in the true antebellum south – but, of course, South Carolina’s superficial paradise has a sinister plan beneath the surface, while North Carolina chose to end slavery in vile fashion that has some unfortunate parallels in our modern climate. She eventually ends up in Indiana, where a house of free blacks simply proves too successful to stand even in the face of whites who oppose slavery and would likely feign horror if anyone called them racists. None of these places after Georgia is based in historical reality; each is the product of an imagination that can take a metaphor and create a realistic setting that puts ideas into buildings, people, and actions. It’s fictional but not fanciful, and each location is a world unto itself that could easily have hosted an entire novel and would generate hours of discussion about the meanings beneath the details.

Cora is hunted throughout the book by the amoral, mercenary slave-hunter Ridgeway, who refers to any slave as “it” and travels with the most motley crew of associates imaginable. But Ridgeway himself is utterly two-dimensional, maybe one-dimensional, and instead seemed to me to be a clear attempt by Whitehead to make Cora’s fear of recapture and memories of oppression incarnate. She cannot escape her past until and unless she escapes Ridgeway for good. That doesn’t make him an interesting character, but in a book that seems to urge us to fight the national tendency to forget the sins of our fathers, it makes him an invaluable one.

The nature of the rest of the book makes the other characters, most of whom are white, less than two-dimensional as well, although again it seems that Whitehead is using these people as stand-ins for ideas. The well-meaning whites in South Carolina are particularly striking because they are so opaque, and because they tell themselves they’re doing the Right Things, even when what they’re doing is ultimately both wrong and springs from a sentiment that is itself thoroughly wrong. The couple who harbor Cora in North Carolina present different sides of the white person who knows slavery is wrong, but chooses to look the other way, to decline to get involved, or to just generally protect his/her own well-being rather than helping others in more desperate straits. Creating so many underdeveloped side characters is generally a major flaw in a novel, but the genius here is in creating characters from ideas without them becoming totally one-note.

I have no idea if The Underground Railroad should or will win the Pulitzer, since I haven’t read any other 2016 books yet aside from the one I’m reading now, Francine Prose’s Mister Monkey. I can say that few books of recent vintage have disturbed me the way Whitehead’s book has; the world he’s created manages to be abhorrent and magnetic at once, a world you’d never want to live in but that you can’t help but want to see. And it’s so full of ideas without ever devolving into sermon, imploring us to remember our past and accept that we will never fully escape it. The book’s final chapter is less conclusion than peroration, showing us the difficulty of becoming free of our history and depicting just one narrow path to get there.

Sing Street.

Sing Street is a coming-of-age story, set in the 1980s, that also serves as an homage to the distinctive pop and new-wave sounds of the first half of that decade along with the new medium of the music video. Written and directed by John Carney, who wrote and directed the wonderful 2007 film Once (now a Tony Award-winning musical), Sing Street uses largely unknown actors and original music that manages to evoke classic ’80s pop tunes without directly ripping them off, and includes all kinds of little visual cues to remind those of us who grew up in that era of the atmosphere of the time. The film earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Musical or Comedy (it’s both), but didn’t earn a Best Song nomination, and was totally overlooked by the Oscars. I named it my #10 movie of 2016 on my post last weekend. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and available to rent on amazon and iTunes.

The film follows Conor, the youngest of three children of squabbling Robert (Aidan Gillen, a.k.a. Mayor Carcetti from The Wire) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy, a.k.a. Mrs. S from Orphan Black), as he’s moved from a posh private school to a free school run by the Christian Brothers called Synge Street, named for the Dublin street on which it’s located. (The street and school are both real.) Conor’s bullied right away by the tough kids in the new school, but spots an attractive girl standing across the street – complete with ’80s big hair – and lies about being in a band to try to impress her, asking her to be in their first video. Then he has to make a band, which becomes Sing Street, and launches the remainder of the story, along with the film’s wonderful soundtrack.

Each Sing Street song is a thematic copy of something that’s popular at the moment, like Duran Duran’s “Rio” or Hall & Oates’ “Maneater.” If you remember the ’80s act Danny Wilson, who had a minor hit in the U.S. in 1988 called “Mary’s Prayer,” their lead singer Gary Clark wrote most of the music for Sing Street, and has a clear knack for this sort of knockoff – the song that sounds like some other song, but has enough of a hook to work on its own, with new and often quite clever lyrics. I’m far from the only person who thought “Drive It Like You Stole It” was robbed of an Oscar nomination – neither Sting’s version of the same song he’s been rewriting since “They Dance Alone” or that awful Timberlake song where he trolls the entire world deserved a spot over this one – but you could make a case for “Up” or closer “Brown Shoes” too.

The story itself is a little light, and we’re mostly just following the two main characters, Conor and Raphina, as they start to grow up a little, make some mistakes, and develop a sort of teenage crush. Everyone else is comic relief, including Conor’s manic, frustrated musician brother Brendan (played by American actor Jack Reynor, who’s great except for his bad Irish accent); Mark McKenna as rabbit-obsessed multi-instrumentalist wizard Eamon; and even class bully Barry, who has a predictably awful home life but gets his little moment in the sun. And Carney works in several ’80s music-video tropes, including shots of the main couple running out of a concert hall or the two of them running down the alley in the half-light, as well as clips of the band filming amateur music videos that imitate the stuff they’ve seen on TV.

Carney himself has said he regrets the ending, joking that he wishes he’d killed the two protagonists off, but I found his comments puzzling because, before I saw his comments, I didn’t think the ending was so unambiguously happy. Other than the clear reference to “Rio,” except for Conor getting poured on as opposed to Simon LeBon basking in sunshine, the ending seemed open-ended and doubtful to me. There’s no real reason to believe good things are going to happen to either character in what would hypothetically follow the final sequence. It’s an escape, because the film itself (and the music videos that inspired it) is an escape, but the characters are only escaping from, not escaping to. To compare it to the other great musical of 2016, La La Land, there’s probably no chance Conor and Raphina are staying together for long. They’re two kids in something like love, doing something rash and impetuous that probably won’t work out, but so what?

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo has a star-making turn as Conor, playing him with little flashes of the charisma of a lead singer, but primarily as a shy, slightly nerdy kid who’s barely coming into his own over the course of the film. He was 16 when it was filmed and won’t turn 18 until this October, if you want to wonder what you’ve done with your life. Lucy Boynton has less to do as Raphina, but she manages to pull off a solid combination of insecurity and superficial haughtiness, while also proving to be quite the chameleon as the costume and makeup folks run her through a series of looks that are unquestionably ’80s and best left there. (She’s also going to appear in the upcoming film version of Murder on the Orient Express.) Walsh-Peelo is the one I’d like to see some more, though, since he sang his own vocals and has a certain presence even behind his character’s meekness.

For more on how Carney & company created the convincing sounds of a band of teenagers who’ve just started playing together, I recommend this piece from MIX magazine.