In Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle’s first novel, the protagonist, Sean, creates a game called Trace Italian. Here’s how it works: A player receives, by mail, a scenario set in a post-apocalyptic America. It ends with the question “What do you do?” The player must choose among such options as “Hide near the overpass,” “Head north to Nebraska” or “Start digging,” and mail it back. Then, Sean sends the description of what happens next on whatever path the player has chosen. Sean is obsessed with paths, mazes, routes, alternatives, and the book is structured around his central question, “How did I get here?” But if the game’s mechanism is multiple choice, Darnielle has answered E., All of the above. For those who haven’t encountered John Darnielle, Wolf’s flap copy helpfully notes that he’s “widely considered one of the best lyricists of his generation.” An A. Composer and B. Guitarist, Darnielle is probably most famous for being C. Vocalist for the Mountain Goats. And, while it may seem like being the singer-songwriter of a successful indie rock band with a fanatical following for more than 20 years is a straightforward explanation for how Darnielle came to be D. Novelist, as you read the book you’ll begin to question all linear pathways. Wolf in White Van is not a rock star’s book; it doesn’t read like a story written by someone with license to do whatever he wants, someone whose fans chant his lyrics and fall pin-drop silent during his between-song banter. Two days after the novel was published, it was longlisted for the National Book Award—not exactly trashing the proverbial hotel room. While Wolf in White Van isn’t perfect (it reads like a first book in numerous ways), it’s remarkably well crafted. I felt I was not in the callused hands of a guitarist but rather the gentle grip of one who has intently studied the novel, and cares deeply for its form. As a prolific songwriter, Darnielle has generated wonderfully strange metaphors (e.g., “Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania”). Wolf is clearly the product of that same fecund imagination. Darnielle skillfully limits Sean’s physical world, keeping the setting rich with detail and creating the claustrophobia of a constant search for answers. Wolf in White Van doesn’t unfold in a linear fashion, but rather at the pace of rumination, memory and revelation. By the end, as the catalytic event in Sean’s life is revealed, the reader discovers not only that A doesn’t lead merely to B, but that something much more mysterious has been happening all along. Photo courtesy of Everett
The story of Alan Turing deserves a major motion picture, if not several. Widely considered the father of the computer, Turing was also indispensable to the allied victory in World War II, when he cracked Germany’s theoretically unbreakable Enigma Code. But what makes Turing’s life truly film-worthy is the juxtaposition of the career and the man—his struggle to win the war, and his struggle to understand and inhabit the enigma of himself. For now, there is but one film about Turing to consider: The Imitation Game, which opens today. Norwegian director Morten Tyldum brings his crisp and engaging style to the project, as he did for his excellent 2011 thriller Headhunters , which became Norway’s highest grossing film ever. To portray a man so brilliant and also so odd, there could scarcely be a better choice than Benedict Cumberbatch, who, after turns as both Sherlock Holmes and Julian Assange, is all but typecast as characters who are exceptional but socially ungraceful. Cumberbatch excels at this partly because, despite being dashingly handsome, he does not look like a normal person. His portrayal of the arrogant and desperately lonely Turing is the primary reason to see The Imitation Game. As one would expect from a prestige film with Oscar aspirations, the supporting cast is also incredibly strong, including the marvelously austere Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones), Matthew Goode (A Single Man), Rory Kinnear (Skyfall), a personal favorite of mine Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Allen Leech (Downton Abbey) and Keira Knightley as one of Turing’s mathematical associates and closest confidant. But after Cumberbatch’s, the film’s standout performance belongs to extremely promising newcomer Alex Lawther, who is utterly convincing as a younger version of Cumberbatch’s Turing. Pasty and shy, he quakes under the assault of British boarding-school bullies, alternately flashing his haunting stare—painfully sensitive and crackling with intelligence—at the school chum he’s fallen in love with. The film addresses Turing’s homosexuality mostly in flashbacks, and then entirely as heart-aching puppy love. Turing’s adult sexuality surfaces only in a sanitary way; we don’t see him being gay, we just listen as it’s discussed. I can appreciate the filmmakers’ choice to keep this aspect of the story in a cerebral realm, but Turing’s sexuality, and the tragic and entirely unjust consequences of it, are so important to his story that I can’t help wishing there was more of it here. The film also suffers from conventional, crowd-pleasing tropes—moments like when Turing’s team of codebreakers, from whom he’s systematically alienated because of his essentially autistic awkwardness, one by one rise from their desks and promise to quit if Turing is fired. I can’t help craving subtler and more nuanced fare, but I realize this film is trying to appeal to a broad audience and that such moments are emotionally stirring, if trite. The film’s loftiest aim is to paint the portrait of a man alone. Scarred by a love forbidden by society, Turing is also isolated by the power of his own mind. At its essence, the film is an expression of this paradox. Adapted from mathematician and gay activist Andrew Hodges’s book Alan Turing: The Enigma and renamed for one of Turing’s papers, The Imitation Game speaks to the nature of human identity. Turing speculated that a machine could think like a person, and in all likelihood someday pass for one. (On a sci-fi sidenote, he also predicted with certainty that machines will someday take control.) And he famously designed the Turing test, a series of questions to determine whether you are communicating with a man or a machine. In the film, his efforts to build an intelligent computer become an almost Frankensteinian quest for reclaiming lost love and lost self. As his machine strives to imitate a man, so does the damaged Turing. These pensive themes are the heart of the film, but they are enclosed in an exciting wartime story of espionage. Tyldum’s tight direction and much of the dialogue merge the personal with the larger plot quite well, especially considering the complexity of the themes. And yet the merger isn’t complete: The ghost of Turing is inside but not completely one with the machine of the film. Though The Imitation Game is well worth seeing, my fingers are crossed for more movies about this extraordinary man. Photo courtesy of Everett
Does the date November 20, 1984, ring any bells for you? Probably not, but perhaps someday we’ll recognize it as the beginning of all our tomorrows. On that day 30 years ago, several scientists founded the SETI Institute, a nonprofit organization that monitors artificially generated radio signals from deep space. SETI, which stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, remains an active player in astrobiological studies, public outreach and science education to this day. But until we finally make first contact, we’ll have to make do with some movies about it! Here are my picks for films about our search for life beyond the stars. Contact I would be remiss not to start with Contact (1997). Based on the novel by Carl Sagan, one of SETI’s crucial funders, the movie follows SETI scientist Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) as she finds evidence of extraterrestrial life, and is eventually chosen to make first contact. It’s not only about the search for alien life, but also the search for life’s meaning—and whether it’s found in science or religion. I’m a sucker for a well-rounded female lead, and Ellie fits the bill; whether she’s trying to convince a boardroom about the importance of taking chances in the name of human progress or having a face-to-face meeting with an actual alien, Ellie always manages to keep her cool and rationality. The film’s theme of striving for the truth is also at the heart of SETI’s mission; indeed, the symbol for this search, SETI’s famous satellite array (pictured, cheesily) figures prominently in the movie’s plot. The organization itself praised Contact as “more accurate in its depiction of SETI than any Hollywood film in history.” The Arrival Before Charlie Sheen was an obnoxious media obsession, he played an obnoxious scientist searching for alien life in 1996’s The Arrival. The movie revolves around SETI scientist Zane Zaminsky (Sheen), who, upon reporting very promising evidence of alien life to his supervisor, quickly gets sacked and then blacklisted for his discoveries. His paranoia turns out to be justified as conspiracies snowball out of control and people start dying. The movie also manages to find another great use for those huge SETI satellites: the backdrop of the final alien chase. While I can’t say this is the greatest science-based action film ever made, it does present an interesting take on global warming; [spoiler alert] it involves aliens secretly terraforming our planet and getting rid of all humans in the process. The movie falls into a lot of clichés, such as the nosy child neighbor teaming up with the bullheaded know-it-all, but it’s fun to watch the conspiracy theories unfold and guess who’s secretly an alien. Explorers Explorers deals in extraterrestrial signals, sent not to SETI’s satellites but through the recurring dreams of a sci-fi loving kid named Ben, played by Ethan Hawke. When Ben realizes he’s being beamed blueprints in his sleep, he rallies the help of his hyper-genius friend Wolfgang (River Phoenix) and a good-natured tough guy Darren (Jason Presson) to scrap together a spaceship. And when they do find aliens, they aren’t nearly the ones they imagined. I have fond childhood memories of watching this movie, but Explorers holds up even without the nostalgia filter. There are great pop culture references throughout, such as the kids’ Springsteen-inspired spacecraft Thunder Road and the frenetic TV- and rock lyrics–quoting aliens. The film is also genuinely funny, filled with offbeat moments such as the over-the-top B movie Starkiller at the drive-in and a gum-chewing guard dog. Despite being a kids’ movie, the film’s overall message is fairly introspective—the aliens admit they were initially afraid to make contact because of the violent images they’ve seen in Earth’s broadcasts. As Contact also warns, if we want to receive extraterrestrial signals, we should be more careful of the ones we’re sending out. Photo courtesy of Everett
We live in a time when humor is a welcome break from the serious, everyday worries of technology, money, aging and diet. Here are seven books guaranteed to make you laugh and maybe see things just a little differently. In her first memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, cartoonist Roz Chast shares what it’s like to be the only child of aging parents. The story, told in a series of photographs and Chast’s famously anxious drawings, has its share of odd moments, such as when Chast finds drawers crammed with jar lids and a pile of coupons for bank giveaways of toasters and blenders. This is a book to be savored, both funny and sweet, about being there for your parents as they move through their 70s, 80s and 90s. Neil Patrick Harris isn’t content to tell you about growing up with incredibly supportive parents or about the wild success of How I Met Your Mother. In Choose Your Own Autobiography, he styles his life story after the old Choose Your Own Adventure stories, letting YOU decide where to go. Brilliantly funny, this book is an insider’s view of Harris’s life featuring you in the role of NPH. Live his life from birth to landing that first job as Doogie Howser all the way to hosting award shows. Or, you know, jump straight to Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. Reader, I texted him. In the laugh- (or snort-) out-loud Texts From Jane Eyre, humorist Mallory Ortberg gives some of our literary favorites a smart phone to see what might happen. What would Jane Eyre say if she could text and to whom would she send her witticisms? What about Hermione Granger? Edgar Allan Poe? Not only is Texts From Jane Eyre bookishly hilarious, it somehow manages to bring these beloved characters to life all over again. In Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book, Diane Muldrow, longtime editor of Little Golden Books, is ready to share everything she has learned working on that beloved series. With that iconic golden binding it may look like a kid’s book, but Everything I Need to Know includes tips for managing money and enjoying your wedding, perhaps putting it in a class with Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Except all of Muldrow’s lessons (and illustrations) are taken from actual Little Golden Books—over 60 of them! A winsome guide to life and a treasure for your coffee table, this book will bring a big smile to your face. Reading Yes Please is like sitting down with Amy Poehler and talking about her life, from growing up “safe” to her cell phone trying to kill her. She is personable and, of course, wickedly funny: “Believe me, blond hair can take you really far, especially with the older men. It can really distract from the face. I am convinced I could have had sex with both Tony Bennett and John McCain if we weren’t each happily married at the time we all met.” You will laugh and you may cry, but you are sure to come out of Yes Please knowing a lot more about Amy. David Sedaris is a comic genius, and the short essays in his latest collection, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, recount his father’s dinner attire of a T-shirt and underpants, dentist visits in France and wondering if his doctor is really a doctor or if that’s just his first name. If you are not yet familiar with Sedaris and his deadpan, spot-on stylings, this is a great place to start. In Food: A Love Story, comedian Jim Gaffigan refers to himself as “a little fat” and advises us never to read a food book written by a skinny person. Done and done! Jim’s abiding love of food (though he professes to favor sleeping over eating) will have you in stitches, as will his advice on fast food restaurants and where to dine while traveling. Gaffigan admits he’s pretty much always hungry and will eat anything—well, except kale, seafood, salads and stuff that leaves you wishing you’d ordered something else.