Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A self-published sci-fi smash, a Mad Men fashion blog, and 3 more must-know entertainments

Illustration for article titled A self-published sci-fi smash, a Mad Men fashion blog, and 3 more must-know entertainments

NOT OPTIONAL takes a quick weekly look at five essential releases, some recent, some not.


Hugh Howey’s Wool
People who follow the book business or the movie business are probably already aware of Hugh Howey’s Wool. Simon & Schuster put out the paperback a month ago, but it was already a sensation: Author Hugh Howey self-published the five component sections for Kindle beginning in 2011, and turned it into an independent e-bestseller, the non-smutty equivalent of the Fifty Shades Of Grey phenomenon. But the paperback Wool, which collects five of Howey’s serial novellas, is significantly better written and less sensational than Fifty Shades; it’s more reminiscent of Justin Cronin’s The Passage, except without all the damn vampires. The story starts with a sheriff in a post-apocalyptic arcology making a series of discoveries about the outside world; his successor then has to deal with them, as the story gradually expands from a hermetic, creatively detailed, smoothly running environment to a much more expansive and complicated world. It’d be a shame to say more, as the story is largely about characters learning how small their boundaries are and how little they really know, but it’s executed so well, with such perfect pacing and careful, convincing detail, that it reads as breathlessly as an action novel. 20th Century Fox has the film rights and Ridley Scott is reportedly interested in directing, so reading Wool isn’t just entertainment, it’s research for would-be indie bestselling writers and film buffs looking to get ahead of the curve. [Tasha Robinson]

Gimmick Twitter accounts tend to be like everything else in life: terrible. It takes more than an attention-grabbing gimmick to create a Twitter feed worth frequenting, and playwright Alena Smith has come up with a doozy in @TweenHobo, a dreamy pre-teen migrant whose bio tersely reads, “I’m only twelve but I’m a hard twelve” and posits her eternal whereabouts as “Railroad to Bieberville.” The gist of Tween Hobo is right there in her name: The Twitter feed cross-pollinates the gritty, hardscrabble universe of hobos—a grubby, grungy realm of railroad yards, apoplectic railroad cops, grime-encrusted bindles, and tire fires—with the glamorous, frivolous world of boy-and-technology-crazed tween girls. As Tween Hobo, Smith strikes an exhausted, world-weary pose that meshes hilariously with girlish expressions of enthusiasm for the elegance of a Go-Gurt container and her hero Justin Bieber, who is to Tween Hobo what Patrick Swayze is to The Onion’s Jean Teasdale: muse, fantasy boyfriend, and everything else. Tween Hobo’s Twitter feed is the perfect fusion of sepia-toned and old-timey with shiny and newfangled, as evidenced by such wonderful old-new Tweets as, “My folks never learned me no netiquette.” There was a scare when a flurry of #RIPTweenHobo Tweets descended across the Internet recently, but it was ultimately just a Tom Sawyer-like hoax perpetrated so that Tween Hobo could experience her own funeral. [Nathan Rabin]

Orphan Black
Sometimes good TV shows turn up in the least expected places. Take, for instance, this BBC-financed, American-Canadian co-produced sci-fi series about a young woman who happens upon her exact double, then watches as her life gets very, very strange when the double steps in front of an oncoming train. Naturally—because this is what anyone would do—our heroine, Sarah, decides to step into the life of her double, Beth, and things only get weirder from there. None of this would work without an engaging character at the center, and Sarah is more than that. But it also wouldn’t work without an actress capable of making these characters—and Sarah pretending to be different versions of herself—distinct from each other. As Sarah, Beth, and other people, Tatiana Maslany is terrific fun, and she makes some of the harder-to-swallow plot conceits go down like a breeze. It’s not immediately clear how long Orphan Black can keep this up, but I’ve seen four episodes, and I’m more than hooked. [Todd VanDerWerff]

Tom + Lorenzo’s Mad Style recaps at tomandlorenzo.com
For a lot of people—particularly the type of people who visit this site—a big part of the excitement surrounding the return of a show like Mad Men is the promise of getting to obsessively talk about and analyze it with others, both online and off. Mad Men might be the most heavily analyzed and recapped show on the Internet, so fans have no shortage of discussion destinations on Monday morning—but for me, it all comes down to Wednesdays, when Mad Style posts at the venerable fashion blog TomandLorenzo.com. Mad Style may not be the only venue for picking apart the fashions worn on the show, but week after week it proves the most worthwhile and insightful dissemination of the history, symbolism, and implications of the show’s costuming. Even for those with little or no interest in fashion, the Mad Style posts offer a fun slant on the typical Mad Men recap. The image-heavy posts are treasure troves of tiny details you may have missed on first viewing—like the use of the color pink and bows on the waist to tie together Betty and Sandy in this week’s episode—and suggestions of what to look for in future episodes. (Longtime Mad Style readers know to sit up and take notice whenever a character wears a rose print, for example.) If you’re the type of viewer who thrills at revelations like the fact that Peggy’s outfit during her phone call to a priest this week is reminiscent of a Catholic-school uniform, then Mad Style is for you; even if you’re not, it provides an interesting new angle from which to view a show that’s seemingly been analyzed from every possible angle already. (Part one of the analysis for the season-six première is here. Part two is here.) [Genevieve Koski]

Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (as read by Ron Silver)
Philip Roth’s recent retirement—which we’ll assume is legitimate enough to take out of scare quotes, unlike Steven Soderbergh’s “retirement”—has many reflecting on the author’s fearsome, provocative voice and its attendant controversies. The actual sound of Roth’s voice is left to the individual to interpret—this is a phenomenon known as “reading”—but the audiobook version of Roth’s stunning 1997 bomb-hurler American Pastoral, read by the late Ron Silver, brings Roth’s prose across more forcefully than even the most bellicose internal voice could muster. Narrated by frequent Roth alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, American Pastoral details the sharp generational divide between Seymour “The Swede” Levov, a former high-school sports star turned successful businessman, and his teenager daughter Merry, who falls in with radicals in the late ’60s and goes on the run after reportedly setting off a bomb in protest of the Vietnam War. Silver doesn’t read the book in the measured tone of most audiobook veterans, but uses the opportunity to give a real performance—an urgent, breathless, and astonishing one-man show. Levov’s incomprehension and anger over the tragic course that his once-revered life has taken comes through strongly, as does the counter impression that he really doesn’t understand the moral certainty of his daughter’s way of thinking. In my experience with audiobooks, only Jeremy Irons’ reading of Nabokov’s Lolita comes close, and that’s almost too obvious a pairing. [Scott Tobias]