Houses are a particular paradox. We expect them to serve as long-term, if not permanent, shelter—the word “mortgage” even has the prefix mort, death, implying that the house will live longer than we will—but we also expect them to shift in response to our needs and desires. As Christopher Alexander writes in his treatise The Timeless Way of Building, “You want to be able to mess around with it and progressively change it to bring it into an adapted state with yourself, your family, the climate … to reflect the variety of human situations.”
That is exactly what we want—and we’ve gone about it in exactly the wrong way. We’ve ended up with overstuffed houses that attempt to anticipate every direction our lives could go, when what we need are flexible houses that can adapt to the lives we’re actually living.
But flexibility rarely comes up, as Brand points out in his book, in the fevered brouhaha of building and architectural consumption. And if we’re going to rethink how flexible our houses are, we need to do so at the level of our structures and the way they are built.
“Life is hard, we say. An oyster’s life is worse. She lives motionless, soundless, her own cold ugly shape her only dissipation.” If the oyster survives, the author darkly concludes, “it is for man to eat, because of man's own hunger.”
When food writer M.F.K. Fisher wrote these sombre reflections, her husband had lived with the anguish of Buerger’s disease for several years. He had suffered clots and gangrene in a leg which would eventually be amputated, and the debilitating pain he endured would seep, as suffering tends to do, radially outwards to touch each person he encountered. Pushed westward by the onset of war and fear for Dillwyn’s—or Tim, as he was commonly known—health, in 1938 the couple relocated from their Swiss home to Fisher’s native California, purchasing a small plot of land where he might be able to rest.
By the time those reflections on the oyster were published in 1941, Dillwyn Parrish was dead. Overwhelmed by his pain, he slipped out into the “90 acres of rocks and rattlesnakes”—this haven in the desert with warm, dry air, away from the ravages of war—and took his life. Fisher awoke to the sound of a single gunshot that morning. Just weeks later, Consider The Oyster was published: a series of funny, often unsettling, declarative essays on the oyster, and Fisher’s second book. This month, some 77 years after its original release, it will be republished with a foreword by food writer Felicity Cloake. In an age of Huel, home delivery meal kits, and Joe Wicks, what could the old-fashioned oyster possibly teach us?
On his third day in the United States, Lawrence Chu went looking for a job. It was 1964, and the 21-year-old had just emigrated from Hong Kong to San Francisco. He spoke little English, but he had one advantage: His father, a well-respected interior designer who had already been in the States for two years, knew one of the bosses of a popular restaurant.
Chu walked to the Trader Vic’s in San Francisco to speak with the company’s Chinese-American vice president, who pointed him toward a manager. And that’s how, on his third day in a new country, Chu got hired as a busboy.
“I’m not ashamed about being a busboy,” Chu, now 75, says of the start of his restaurant career. “Anything you start at the bottom.”
I throw two-handed, fists stacked at the base of the axe handle. My right foot is at the line, my left just behind, and I rock, my weight shifting forward, back, forward, back. This strength is mine. This body, mine. The target: concentric rings painted on 2X10 pine boards and drilled into the wall. It’s fifteen feet in front of me. Fifteen feet is the full rotation of an axe. When I started throwing axes I read articles by physicists about velocity and angle and centrifugal force. I read governing rules from the National Axe Throwing Federation and the World Axe Throwing League including etiquette, scoring, and foot faults. I watched countless instructional videos, the majority featuring dudes in fields, and one where the actor Jason Momoa nails a bullseye while drinking a very large beer.
I watched that last one many times.
Feet still staggered, I bring both hands back over my head. The blade is straight. I’m leaning back. My elbows are at my ears and I’m gripping the handle and everything in me—I don’t know how else to say this—sighs. The knots in my neck untie, brambles in my back untangle. This is what child’s pose used to feel like—the relaxation, the release—but yoga isn’t working for me right now. Neither is bourbon—I’ve been drinking too much—or sleeping—not much at all—or deep breaths or petting dogs or social media breaks or any of a thousand things we do to stay calm, don’t tell me to be calm. I am not fucking calm. I could explode this city with my rage.
I let go of the axe.
There's some debate about what Joan Didion meant when she wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Did she leave out two words? Did she mean to say, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live with ourselves”? Maybe she did. And maybe the statement is true — of course it is. But also we tell ourselves stories in order to connect; to carry on with some faith that it matters if we do. And in order to insist that “the past isn’t over,” in the words of Faulkner, who also wrote, “I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world.”
This would seem to be the case with Kathryn Harrison, who has mined the events of her life across genre. But say you haven’t read her before. Say her new memoir, On Sunset, is your introduction to the author. Too bad about these parents, you might think to yourself; too bad about the father gone entirely missing; and that mother — so vain and selfish and mean. And even so. Even so, you might also suppose, once you’ve finished the book, what a wonderful childhood: to grow up in that rambling old mansion on that famous Boulevard with those dear, funny old people (her mother’s parents), eccentric, doting, storytellers, both, and willing to tell the same astonishing stories over and over.
During Barack Obama’s tenure, it was Michelle Obama’s roots in the African American experience, in the history of the south that she understood innately as “knit into me”, that lent him crucial legitimacy among black voters. It resurfaces here, adding the profound warnings of past suffering to the observation that, as she sees the Trumps take over the White House, “the vibrant diversity … was gone, replaced by what felt like a dispiriting uniformity, the kind of overwhelmingly white and male tableau I’d encountered so many times”.
Becoming reads as Obama’s first intervention into this distressing new reality. It definitely does not read like it will be the last.
James Baldwin wrote, “No one can possibly know what is about to happen: it is happening, each time, for the first time, for the only time.” This went doubly for Michelle Obama, who decided against reading books by other first ladies when her husband was president. “I almost didn't want to know what was the same and what was different about any of us,” she writes in “Becoming,” her ardently anticipated, Oprah Book Club-selected, 400-page memoir. But of course something was different for Michelle and Barack Obama. Real different.
In Paradise Rot, a young university student named Jo has her first queer sexual experience in an apartment slowly filling up with creeping moss and fungi. At its simplest, this debut novel by the Oslo-based musician Jenny Hval is about a libidinal awakening. But the book, drawing elements from pulpy romance novels, the Book of Genesis, and magical realism, is also the origin story of a world born of queer desire. As Jo and her roommate Carral grow closer and closer, their damp apartment becomes ever more fertile, slowly transforming into an ecosystem unto itself. Their home is a warm bubble inside the cold fictional English town of Aybourne, and within that bubble, Jo slowly loses all sense of distance and separation from the object of her desire.
It’s not that Ayoola meant to kill quite so many men. She’s not a monster, she’d insist. Things just have a way of getting out of hand. Frankly, it would be cruel to blame her. Maybe you’re the monster?
Ayoola — lovely, dopey, incorrigibly murderous — is the chaos at the heart of “My Sister, the Serial Killer,” a much-anticipated first novel from the Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite. It’s Lagos noir — pulpy, peppery and sinister, served up in a comic deadpan courtesy of the narrator, Ayoola’s horrified sister Korede.