Sat, Mar 31, 2012
In a novel that's invigorating, though not always inviting, the book's own wicked sense of self-awareness carries it through.
If “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to “Women’s Fiction,” that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated? Certainly “The Marriage Plot,” Eugenides’s first novel since his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex,” was poised to receive tremendous literary interest regardless of subject matter, but the presence of a female protagonist, the gracefulness, the sometimes nostalgic tone and the relationship-heavy nature of the book only highlight the fact that many first-rate books by women and about women’s lives never find a way to escape “Women’s Fiction” and make the leap onto the upper shelf where certain books, most of them written by men (and, yes, some women — more about them later), are prominently displayed and admired.
“For a long time, I assumed that bow ties — not regular ties — were the usual thing for men to wear,” Charlotte Silver writes in her wistful memoir, “Charlotte au Chocolat.” Such were the perils of growing up in the same building as the Hasty Pudding Club, Harvard’s oldest social club, where for 20 years Silver’s mother, Deborah Hughes, along with a business partner, Mary-Catherine Deibel, ran the four-star restaurant Upstairs at the Pudding, housed on the club’s third floor.
Fri, Mar 30, 2012
The eighteenth century has bequeathed to us one work which embodies in itself the spirit of the century,—that is the Encyclopédie. There are, of course, other works of that epoch more perfect, or nearer that perfection which was always the aim of its great authors. These are, however, the works of individual authors, and they give us only the labors of each author separately, while the Encyclopédie gives us the picture of an age which was one of the most important in the history of the world.
When somebody says the word “office” I think immediately of the cubicle: that charmless little box of efficiency, a quality unconnected to sexuality in any way—one that is, at least to my mind, its opposite. Which is perhaps the point. As Julie Berebitsky points out in Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire, sexual relationships—consensual or not—have long been considered a threat to productivity and morale, eclipsing the mid-century trope of the secretary sitting on the boss’s knee. Employers labor to strip their offices of expressions of id, encouraging their sublimation elsewhere. (She said “strip”!) But all that this repression suggests is the persistence of what needed repressing in the first place.
The fringe of physics is not a sharp boundary with truth on one side and fantasy on the other. All of science is uncertain and subject to revision. The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove. The fringe is the unexplored territory where truth and fantasy are not yet disentangled.
Thu, Mar 29, 2012
I first heard about nuclear diving while I was getting my hair cut in downtown Manhattan. My stylist seemed out of place in an East Village salon, so I asked her where she lived. Brooklyn? Queens? Uptown?
“Upstate,” she answered. “I commute two hours each way a few times a week.”
I asked her why, and she stopped cutting.
“Well, my husband has kind of a weird job,” she said. “He’d rather not live around other people.”
I sat up in the chair. “What does he do?”
“He’s a nuclear diver.”
Wed, Mar 28, 2012
The newspaper that rules Britain.
Tue, Mar 27, 2012
Paul Breslin, Slate
We can’t make magicians out of scientists — we wouldn’t want to — but we can help scientists “think in the groove” — think like a magician. And we should.
Of course as a novelist it is convenient to think that by the nature of the job one is on the side of the good, supplying an urgent and general need. I can also imagine readers drawing comfort from the idea that their fiction habit is essential sustenance and not a luxury. But what is the nature of this need?
From slices of toast to smears of jus, countless millions of us now feel so compelled to snap our dinner it seems that our ability to sit down and just enjoy a meal is in danger of being lost.
When I began as a film critic, the word "genre" suggested a type of film that had highly developed traditions, possibilities and richness. Now it suggests a marketing decision.
Mon, Mar 26, 2012
All relationships change the brain — but most important are the intimate bonds that foster or fail us, altering the delicate circuits that shape memories, emotions and that ultimate souvenir, the self.
The main character in P. F. Kluge’s stingingly funny new novel, “The Master Blaster,” isn’t a person. It’s a location: Saipan, a very small island with a big, bizarre place in history. Saipan is one of the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific, north of the Solomons and west of the Marshalls. It was a site of brutal fighting during World War II, grimly commemorated by one cliff nicknamed Suicide and another called Banzai. Its neighbor is Tinian, the island from which the Enola Gay took off to bomb Hiroshima.
When Saipan became a United States Commonwealth in 1978, it took on a different kind of strategic advantage. The island was conveniently exempted from usual American tariffs, the minimum wage and immigration laws. And up sprung factories, exploiting low-paid immigrant workers.
I look longingly at the fist-fights in British newspapers and wish we could roll up our sleeves more often in this country. But that would require aggrieved authors to fight back, instead of quietly enduring critics’ abuse.
Sun, Mar 25, 2012
Becoming a writer isn’t like becoming a doctor or a civil engineer or a luncheonette that serves “the best coffee in town.” You don’t have to go through a seven-year accreditation process. If you want to call yourself a writer, all you need to do is finish writing something.
The difficulty with cold brew stems both from the higher fixed costs and the unpredictability of iced season.
Are New Yorkers — and city folk in general — really so busy and self-absorbed that we have no concern for others? Do we lack a moral compass? Is Rick Santorum right? For more than 50 years, “urban psychologists” have been faking seizures, dropping cash and breaking into cars in broad daylight to see if strangers would intervene. They’ve discovered two things. One is that people in rural areas do indeed get involved more readily than urbanites. But they’ve also concluded that this has very little to do with morality.
The title of Wolman's book is a bit misleading. The End of Money is not about the end of money, but the end of cash: it deals with the evolving technologies that enable us to pay and save without the need for coins and banknotes, and considers why this might be a good or a bad thing.
Sat, Mar 24, 2012
"Much that is great in literature is an acquired taste, and you have to acquire it in the first place. Our job as parents is essentially to pass on the enthusiasm we had for the things we loved. That's how we'll get them to fall in love with reading in the first place and, hopefully, to stay in love with it."
Nobody ever hated the contemporary world with as much intensity and conviction as J. G. Ballard. In five decades of unforgiving literary production, he drowned it, scorched it, flayed it with whirlwinds, deluged it with Martian sand, even transformed it into a crystalline jungle populated by jewel-skinned crocodiles, people and parrots. His characters have been sodomized in car crashes, driven crazy by scientific researchers, hounded by billboards and forced to observe atrocities looping endlessly on movie screens until even Zapruder’s exploding bullets seemed as mundane and predictable as elevator music. For Ballard, who died in 2009 at the age of 78, the true horrors of our collective future don’t concern what might happen hundreds of years from now in a spaceship; rather, they reverberate in the very ordinary now-ness of freeway overpasses, sports stadiums, high-rise apartment complexes and gated communities. In other words, don’t bother watching out for zombies or mutant beasts or whatever. The ones you really need to watch out for are those mall-walkers.
Fri, Mar 23, 2012
Time for a thought experiment: Are straight people born that way? When I put the question to a number of sexology colleagues, they thought it a good question -- indeed, a hard question.
Crash & Fly
Jennifer Marie Donahue, Neon
Thu, Mar 22, 2012
When you're at a party, do you suddenly feel the desperate urge to escape somewhere quiet such as a toilet cubicle and just sit there? Until I read Quiet, I thought it was just me. I'd see other partygoers grow increasingly effervescent as the night wore on and wonder why I felt so compelled to go home. I put it down to perhaps there not being enough iron in my diet. But it's not just me. It's a trait shared by introverts the world over. We feel this way because our brains are sensitive to overstimulation. I am genuinely astonished by this news. In fact, I read much of Susan Cain's book shaking my head in wonder and thinking: "So that's why I'm like that! It's because I'm an introvert! Now it's fine for me to turn down party invitations. I never have to go to another party again!"
Max Rivlin-Nadler, Salon
I was glad to have become sexually active after going off to college, to skip the awkward sneaking around that I associated with high school romance. But out of school and out of work, I had returned home to find my sex life seriously hampered by the weird fact that this was the same bedroom where my diapers were changed.
Judith McPherson, the plucky heroine of Grace McCleen’s debut novel, “The Land of Decoration,” is a smart but extremely literal-minded 10-year-old English schoolgirl. She grows up, as Ms. McCleen did, in the midst of Christian fundamentalists. She has been raised with the guarantee that Armageddon is near.
Waiting tables has never paid my bills, a fact which I prefer to hide from my colleagues with deep sighs about the price of just about everything. But through the managerially-induced eye rolls, the horrific tippers, the empty-table boredom, and the mild injustices of everyday service industry work lies my dirty secret: I could quit any time I want. I went to pick up my last paycheck from the French restaurant and ended up with two shifts a week. My name is Jackie and I am addicted to waitressing.
Wed, Mar 21, 2012
But before any Hollywood premiere, it's worth asking whether Everett actually has it right. Answering that question is not straightforward, in part because it hinges on a bit of grammar that no one except linguists ever thinks about. It's also made tricky by the fact that Everett is the foremost expert on this language, called Pirahã, and one of only a handful of outsiders who can speak it, making it tough for others to weigh in and leading his critics to wonder aloud if he has somehow rigged the results.
Don’t miss the irony here: Automated platforms are now “writing” news reports about companies that make their money from automated trading. These reports are eventually fed back into the financial system, helping the algorithms to spot even more lucrative deals. Essentially, this is journalism done by robots and for robots. The only upside here is that humans get to keep all the cash.
We need new ways of thinking about censorship. The first step is the most essential. Only when we have the courage to admit that we are afraid can we begin the task of extending our freedoms.
Tue, Mar 20, 2012
Before you even begin taking the SAT, it's already worn you down.
In today’s world of Apple, Google and Facebook, the name may not ring any bells for most readers, but for decades — from the 1920s through the 1980s — Bell Labs, the research and development wing of AT&T, was the most innovative scientific organization in the world. As Jon Gertner argues in his riveting new book, “The Idea Factory,” it was where the future was invented.
The biological light, or bioluminescence, in the waves is the product of tiny marine life-forms called phytoplankton—and now scientists think they know how some of these sea beasts create their brilliant blue glow.
Food and drink are no longer enough. Increasingly, restaurants also provide customers with a puzzle—why do they have such baffling names?
Mon, Mar 19, 2012
Most of us would agree that King Tut and the other mummified ancient Egyptians are dead, and that you and I are alive. Somewhere in between these two states lies the moment of death. But where is that?
Signature dish. There's something old-school and stolidly Escoffier about that phrase, suggesting carpeted dining rooms and soaring toques, curly moustaches and copperplate menus. It carries a uniquely cheffy vanity.
Beware the person who claims they have fundamentally changed our understanding of the universe, but doesn’t seem to grasp this distinction, and further doesn’t understand the heavy burden of proof that rests upon their shoulders for claiming the impossible to be true.
Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.
Sun, Mar 18, 2012
I'm sad whenever I hear (as one often does; it's an endlessly recycled fear) that teenage girls' magazines these days are all sex and materialism: hard-edged, hard-eyed and inappropriately adult. The latest worrier is Joan Bakewell, who spoke at the Bath literature festival a couple of weeks ago about teen mags being "coarsening trash on a huge scale". I thought I'd better have a look.
And at the risk of disagreeing with the great Dame Joan, who is up there with Jo March and Minnie the Minx in my heroines' pantheon, I found it the most charming, innocent, healthy, nostalgic little world I could imagine.
I am always baffled when anyone announces they don't bother bashing the pans about if they are the only person who needs to eat. My conclusion is they're not greedy enough.
For more than 40 years, scientists have used radio telescopes to probe starry regions trillions of miles away for sounds of alien life. But only in the past five years or so have they been able to reliably record monthslong stretches of audio in the wildernesses of Earth. Last March, a group of ecologists and engineers taking advantage of advances in collecting, storing and analyzing vast quantities of digital data declared a new field of science: soundscape ecology. Other disciplines have long observed how various sounds affect people and individual animal species, but no one, they argued in the journal Bioscience, has yet studied the interconnected sounds of whole ecosystems.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt the push and pull of growing up biracial in America. In the Mexican side of my family I was known as the white one. Even though I spoke Spanish, it was the formal kind learned from classrooms and reading, rather than the one you pick up by bartering with local shop owners over the price of firm avocados, or arguing with parents over a ridiculous curfew. On the other side, my cousins called me a “Wexican,” a white Mexican despite my similarly toned skin.
Cooking, however, taught me to channel my frustrations by creating foods through the addition of sour cream, cilantro, cayenne pepper and tender meat. I could make a food that doesn’t have to be Mexican or American.
Sat, Mar 17, 2012
Yet if today’s museums are successful cultural caterers with wide-ranging menus, no matter where we find them, their fare manages to taste more and more the same.
Kael retired in 1991; she lived for ten more years. Ebert continues today as arguably the most influential film critic in the country. Things are different now. Contemporary American culture, more attentive to celebrity lifestyles and box office receipts, is less hospitable to serious conversation about movies. But we can still look back.
The book is about Manguso's friend Harris, who, in a psychological breakdown, threw himself in front of a train. Or rather, it turns from that incident to her feelings about the loss of her friend and the closely threaded space between them. It is a slender, understated book about loving someone and, with the fracture of an unexpected death, being left behind.
This is not a book that will comfort unquestioning believers. Why should it? For them, blind belief is its own comfort. For the rest of us, Davies provides a richness of patient reasoning, and yet another chance to marvel at the universe in which we seem so lucky to maintain precarious and limited leasehold.
Fri, Mar 16, 2012
An understated master of the form whose occasionally devastating debut story collection "Among the Missing" was a National Book Award finalist in 2001, Chaon has returned to the format with more quietly haunting stories of isolation and disconnection that stick with you like faded images from a disturbing dream.
In his introduction, Steacy, a photographer himself, describes it as "a collection of essays by photographers about moments that never became a picture". He writes: "Here, the process of making a photograph has been reversed. Instead of looking out into the world through a camera lens, these essays look directly into the mind's eye to reveal where photographs come from in their barest and most primitive form – the original idea."
The stories also show that there are many reasons not to take a photograph.
My advice is to make the wiser, cheaper choice, one that will prove more helpful to your kids in the long run: Pay nothing to Britannica and teach your young ones to use Google and Wikipedia.
Thu, Mar 15, 2012
What happened when one of the world’s most unusual, and beloved, computer programmers disappeared.
Yet 75 years after his death, H.P. Lovecraft is more widely known than ever. While far from a household name, interest in Lovecraft and his “Cthulhu Mythos” has burgeoned in the last 30 years, with new books, films, games, graphic novels, and even albums based on the writer’s work released annually. And curiously, enthusiasm for a man who wrote of eldritch gods and antediluvian cults has found fertile ground in that pinnacle of modern technology, the internet.
Wed, Mar 14, 2012
The year is 1962, and ad exec Martin K. Speckter has a punctuation problem.
I'm going to show you two kinds of nothing.
The days when a celebrated chef might wait until the end of a distinguished career and spend years polishing the prose of the single volume that would represent his life’s work are gone. Recipes are product, and today’s successful cookbook authors are demons at providing it — usually, with the assistance of an army of writer-cooks.
A friend of mine once met a delegation of revered Japanese chefs. There was a wizened gentleman among them who was clearly the leader. He spoke little, but the other star chefs deferred to him, paid him obvious respect. My friend finally asked, quietly, “So, what does the old guy do?” The response: “He has mastered rice.”
Is a good book by definition one that we did finish? Or are there occasions when we might choose to leave off a book before the end, or even only half way through, and nevertheless feel that it was good, even excellent, that we were glad we read what we read, but don’t feel the need to finish it?
Tue, Mar 13, 2012
Nothing seemed especially different about Bookman's Alley. It still can be found in a low-slung brick building behind Sherman Avenue that, with "Harry Potter"-like surrealism, looks smaller than it is, stretching room to room to room long after that seemed possible. Carlson's Nordic blues still twinkled, a white curtain of hair still hung from his head and a Southwestern-style blanket draped on the back of his chair. Indeed, Carlson appeared so cheerfully ensconced in his legendary bookstore, so hopelessly surrounded by its near geological layers of books and tote bags of books and boxes of books and odd miscellanea (top hats, scrimshaw, Abraham Lincoln bookends) that even an April closing seemed like wishful thinking.
Nevertheless, the store is closing.
For many years, the main figure informing the ethics of my shopping habits was a handsome celebrity. Paul Newman’s face—framed as it was by a variety of ethnic hats—signaled a quick opportunity to be a better person while just cruising down the condiment aisle. When I chose Newman’s Own over its competitors, I knew I was making the right split-second decision because Paul’s label declares, “All profits to charity!” Which charity? I'll admit it: I never bothered to check.
When I accepted a job as lifestyle editor of this magazine last summer, I knew it was time to think a little harder about the ethics of my day-to-day choices. And soon, I heard from dozens of PR representatives who said they could help.
How Christian Marclay created the ultimate digital mosaic.
Though the novel grapples eloquently with the many sadnesses of life — guilt and grief and disappointment — it does so with lyricism and humor. It captures the variegated texture of the characters’ daily routines while conjuring the disparate worlds they traverse.
Mon, Mar 12, 2012
If your sense of taste is offended, you can spit out an unappealing food. You can pinch your nose when an awful odor overwhelms you. To shut out offensive images, you can simply close your eyes. But since you have no earlids, your sense of hearing is often assaulted without your permission — even during a meal.
"Please don't feel you always have to be good," eight-year-old Barnaby Johnson is advised on what is almost the final page of Patrick Gale's new novel. "Sometimes you're so good it hurts to watch you."
Wise words, but in the book – which spans the Cornish parish priest's life from youth to late middle age – they go largely unheeded.
Sun, Mar 11, 2012
When Mary Anne Evans wanted to be taken seriously as a novelist, she gave herself a man’s name and wrote an essay, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, lacerating the “feminine fatuity” that she saw cluttering the literary landscape of her day.
Needless to say, George Eliot was never invited into the Oprah Book Club. But 150 years after Evans made her debut under that name, her gender-switching strategy remains all too plausible.
Despite all of the ink spilled over Franzen of late, both in print and online, an important point has been missed. He is not out of touch. His opinion would not be any different if he actually spent time on Twitter before criticizing it. He wouldn’t feel any differently even if he was a struggling young writer who needed social media to market his work.
The collective method of writing throws up some interesting suggestions. When asked what Dude the Vampire's greatest wish might be, a small girl in the front row with long dark hair, held back by a sparkly pink scrunchie, puts up her hand. "He wants to eat a monkey," she says.
The sinking of the Titanic almost exactly 100 years ago, on 15 April 1912, has become, for literature and storytelling, the gift that goes on giving.
Sat, Mar 10, 2012
A picture may say a thousand words, but only if you know what you're looking at. The images of North Koreans mourning the death of Kim Jong-il left more than a few people puzzling over what it was we were seeing: grief, terror of being viewed as insufficiently sad, mass hysteria, fear of the unknown or something else entirely? Questions such as these can place an undue, and perhaps unwanted, burden on a Korean writer whose debut collection wings into the UK shortly after we've been confronted with the untranslated images, but if there's one thing Krys Lee knows how to do it's use history and culture as the boards and backdrop of a narrative while allowing her characters to take centre-stage.
It is not a book of moral philosophy. Press is a journalist, and he is interested in how moral problems play out in particular lives. To that end, he relates the experiences of Grüninger and three others: a Serb who saved the lives of Croats by lying about their ethnic identity; an Israeli soldier from an elite unit who refused to serve in the occupied territories; and a financial industry whistle-blower. Press is not simply storytelling, however. He splices his case studies with brief accounts of other dissenters, along with insights drawn from sociology, political theory, history, neuroscience, psychology, fiction and philosophy.
When an adviser to President Obama was quoted in The New Yorker as saying that the administration’s policy in Libya was “leading from behind,” he initiated a season of hand-wringing about American decline, as if he had announced that the president was implementing a secret plan to make a second-rate country even worse. But whether America is leading from — or falling — behind affects more than our foreign policy. It also affects how it feels to be an American, which is a central concern of American novelists.
Fri, Mar 9, 2012
"There are certain things you can't look at directly. You need to trick them into revealing themselves," a hedge fund entrepreneur named Cy Bachman explains in Hari Kunzru's new novel "Gods Without Men." It's 2008, and he and his associate Jaz Matharu are looking at a silver coffee set in Manhattan's Neue Galerie: The set is all that remains of a life that's disappeared.
I used to be a chef.
That sounds funny, because I still cook. But the thing is, the moment I stepped out of those kitchen clogs, said goodbye to that part of the chef community and cooked from my soul is exactly the moment when I became more of a cook than when I actually was a chef. Heck, with all that's happened in the last three and a half years — feeding the streets, hearing boisterous laughter, seeing shivering smiles — it all seems a little hazy. But I look at the cadaver that once was a white chef coat with a toque and see a guy who studied food till his eyes got blurry, and realize, damn, I really knew nothing about food at all.
Eating people is wrong. But why?
The Washington Post is haunted by its history. Dominated by towering figures such as Katharine Graham (who died in 2001), Ben Bradlee (who stepped down as executive editor in 1991), and the reporters who pursued the Watergate scandal, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the mythology of the Post was always grander than the reality. No other newspaper enjoyed quite the hype the Post did during its heyday. And few papers are as defined by their city as the Post has been defined by Washington—“Washington” meaning both the nation’s capital and a metropolis in its own right. Don Graham’s devotion to his city has never wavered. “I can’t imagine existing anywhere else,” he told me when I sat down with him recently. From the moment he became publisher, in 1979, he insisted that the newspaper must concentrate on its Washington readers. But not everyone got the message. Inside the Post, there was always a powerful tension between Graham’s view and the view of the newsroom, which, starting with Bradlee and for a period of decades, sought to compete on a national stage with The New York Times—and to a significant degree succeeded.
For much of that time, the paper’s profits supported both views. Then came the Internet and new competition for readers and advertising dollars.
Thu, Mar 8, 2012
The particular genius of E.L. James is mixing the red room of whips and cable ties with the safer territory of emoticons and job applications and brotherly affirmations such as, “It’s fine.”
Wed, Mar 7, 2012
And thus we arrive at the eventual (perhaps inevitable) destination of all that one-upmanship: Films done without cuts, entire stories told, seemingly, in one long take.
They’re the literary equivalent of a week’s sailing trip, not a Thor Heyerdahl slog across an ocean, with reader and writer lashed to the mast.
Eating is one of life’s most enjoyable sensations. It’s fun and life-enhancing. Yet today, the pleasure of eating is increasingly weighed down with anxiety. Eating, once a relatively uncomplicated activity for many of us, has become laden with ethical and moral meaning and which has been tasked with grandiose political purpose.
Tue, Mar 6, 2012
Michael Ryan, Slate
You’d Better Run
Natalie Shapero, The New Republic
Deliverymen and women have few defenders or advocates. They lack the cultural aura that once gave bad behavior by bicycle messengers an outlaw appeal. Nobody romanticizes deliverymen — and they are almost all male — as urban cowboys.
Mon, Mar 5, 2012
Divesting oneself of cherished books at age 42 seems premature, but perhaps the digital book revolution has altered the book owning lifecourse in ways we have yet to appreciate.
That was my introduction to the olive oil business — the temptation to describe it as "slippery" is almost irresistible and certainly justifiable. If you're curious about just how slippery, Tom Mueller's "Extra Virginity" offers a smart, well-written crash course.
In a wooden warehouse in this industrial suburb, the 20th century is being stored in case of digital disaster.
Sun, Mar 4, 2012
I’m wondering if this craving, for fish-and-chips, is hereditary; do all New Zealanders, like me, have this craving? Did we inherit this from our English forefathers?
The only thing wrong with this otherwise terrific novel is its title, which is (a) clumsy, (b) overlong and (c) only marginally accurate, for the protagonist to whom it refers is as much a giver of pleasure as a seeker of it. Never mind.
Design is not the icing on the cake but what makes architecture out of buildings, what turns them into places we want to live and eat and shop rather than avoid. Architecture critics can praise and pick on new designs, but their readership has lately been too limited. We need more critics — citizen critics — equipped with the desire and the vocabulary to remake the city.
According to Walter Bagehot, Dickens described London "like a special correspondent for posterity". Dickens was a reporter before he became a novelist, and his reporter's instincts remained strong, especially in his "condition of England" novels, from Bleak House to Our Mutual Friend. John Lanchester also has a reputation as a reporter and as a novelist, and with this "big, fat London novel" he is writing a report on London in 2008, peopling it with fictional but precisely observed Londoners – a touch of Mayhew as well as Dickens. His documentation is sharp and vivid as he follows their adventures: now we know what it feels like not to get your expected bonus at the bank, and what it's like to be arrested before dawn, manhandled, handcuffed and carried off to a police cell without explanation or any mention of your rights as a citizen.
Sat, Mar 3, 2012
So, what if Jeanette had never met the Wintersons? What if she hadn’t grown up surrounded by madness and unpredictability and the language of the Old Testament? What if she had been loved?
But there’s one literary depiction of mortality for kids so gripping and so terrifying that it has been haunting me—a fully grown man—since I read it. It is arguably the most disturbing book published in America since The Road. I refer, of course, to Mo Willems’ 2010 picture book, We Are in a Book!
Dermont may be working within comfortably familiar outlines, but her fusion of the boating novel and the boarding school novel is captivating and inspired.
The spectacle of Jamie Oliver, a cheeky lad from Essex, tearing basil leaves on to spaghetti was in some ways a step forward for equality, but in other ways it was a sneaky step back – because it made it that much harder to notice the dodgy doublespeak that has come to dominate the way we talk about food.
Setting out to describe a figure from the past, an author has to reach beyond names, places and dates and try to bring a human being back to life. The author does this by becoming an invisible daily witness, standing at the subject’s elbow, listening to the subject’s conversations, observing smiles and frowns, then using the advantage of hindsight to judge harshly when disapproving, indulgently when understanding. As the months and years pass, it often happens — unless the subject is Hitler or Stalin — that the subject becomes a friend.
Someone asks, “What would you like to do tonight?” and you have no idea. Maybe your mind goes blank, or maybe you say “Whatever you want to do, dear,” or maybe you default to the same restaurant or the same bar or the same television show. That seems easier, and safer, than admitting to yourself that you don’t know, and don’t know where to go to find an answer.
We all know about famous poetic friendships — Wordsworth and Coleridge, Eliot and Pound — but an equally strong tradition in English literature has been the poetic feud. In the 18th century Alexander Pope mocked the banal rhymes of his rivals: “Wher’er you find 'the cooling western breeze’, / In the next line, it 'whispers through the trees’.” The Romantics were no friendlier: Byron wrote of “Johnny Keats’ piss-a-bed poetry”.
One of the interesting things about the word "grammar" is that many of its users think that it is self-evident that it refers to one thing: "the grammar" of the language. If only the matter were that simple.
Fri, Mar 2, 2012
Exercise and memo books, writing sets and endless rubbers, coloured pens and propelling pencils, Post-it Notes and fountain pens, highlighters in different hues, markers – great, galumphing things – and tiny fibre-tips, envelopes all shapes and sizes, notebooks stapled (spiral-bound or sewn-spined) – I own and love them all.
On January 1
Elizabeth Robinson, Switchback
It was a brave man who first ate an oyster, but what kind of man first cooked with Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup?
Thu, Mar 1, 2012
The hippies of Solidarity Hall and their contemporaries may have been naïve, they may have worn – and continue to wear – terrible clothes, but they belonged to a generation, Lewycka suggests, who truly did believe we were all in this together. As Serge puts it, they had something they believed in – "Values and stuff – it all seems a bit retro."
A. In May
Kathleen Ossip, Boston Review
At 225 feet above sea level, hanging on the rock surface, there is a small, spindly little bush, and under that bush, a few years ago, two climbers, working in the dark, found something totally improbable hiding in the soil below. How it got there, we still don't know.