Shakespeare's language is lost, but a harrowing visual poetry fills in the gap. The theater is still the place where the play's verbal richness can best be honored. There's dark power in the seductive words of the Macbeths, whose loathsome deeds are conveyed in irresistible rhetoric. But tapping that sorcery in the theater has left scores of actors and directors badly burned.
Welles made great use of his prowess as a stage actor to motor his low-budget affair. Polanski left us spellbound with an atmosphere thick in eroticism and appalling menace. But the willingness of film directors to unseam the play and thereby expose the dramatic skeleton may be what has allowed a notable few of them to elude the curse on-screen.
The irony is that policy journalism in Washington is thriving. It’s just not being written for you, and you’re probably never going to read it.
In a sense I’m used to a kind of linguistic exile. My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.
In my case there is another distance, another schism. I don’t know Bengali perfectly. I don’t know how to write it, or even read it. I have an accent, I speak without authority, and so I’ve always perceived a disjunction between it and me. As a result I consider my mother tongue, paradoxically, a foreign language.
As for Italian, the exile has a different aspect. Almost as soon as we met, Italian and I were separated. My yearning seems foolish. And yet I feel it.
It started with a fundamental lie. Born a man named William, I became Leigh Anne Williams, a woman who published 20 romance novels.
Why hide the truth now? It was Another Life, back in the 1980s, a time when greed was good and money was funny, and the needs of both the haves and the have-nots were seen through Reagan-colored glasses. At the dawn of that far-away decade, this have-not was living on the touristy downtrodden end of Bleecker Street in the Village, struggling through an uncertain marriage, poor, and desperate for a steady gig.
Chang’s back story, at this point, is well known. The Harvard-educated math wiz spent two years in the corporate world before ditching it for the kitchen, working her way through some of Boston’s finest restaurants as a pastry chef. Fifteen years ago, she liquidated her savings and begged money from friends and family to open Flour in the South End, helping to push the neighborhood into the boho haven it is today. A series of successful business moves later — she seems to have a knack for knowing which blocks are about to go through a real estate boom — she’s finally begun to think about a strategy for Flour’s growth. “About a year ago, for the first time, I actually created a plan,” she says. “Until now, it was relatively seat-of-your-pants.”
The entire first year that Joanne Chang ran Flour at the corner of Washington and Rutland streets in the South End, she thought she was going to sell it. After she spent two years scouting locations and raising more than $300,000 from family and friends, Chang lived in an apartment upstairs from her business, waking each day at 2 a.m. to begin baking. She was preparing all the food and managing the staff of 12, and none of it seemed to be up to her standards. “You go in every day and you see how the tables aren’t wiped and the milks aren’t filled, the pastry counter doesn’t have the signs on it, and the light bulbs are out, and the music isn’t on,” she recalls now, cringing. “And the people are grumpy.”
Chang didn’t take a salary that first year, not that she would have spent it: She barely left the building. The diary entries she kept were grim. “It’s been almost ten months and I’m so unhappy,” she wrote in July 2001. “I want to get rid of this — Mom says I have to hold on for a year. Why is this so hard?”
But the desire for a better tomorrow — for cleaner air, for justice, for a chance to pick their political leaders — cannot be entirely extinguished. A few days before I left, I stopped by my local bicycle repair shop, whose patriotic owner had always been quick to insult the Japanese or laud his country’s rising military might.
As I said my final goodbye, he made a joke about stowing away in my luggage. “But I thought you loved China,” I said, gesturing to the freshly paved road and the row of newly renovated storefronts that had been paid for by the government. “I do love my country,” he said, looking sheepishly at his feet. “But I love freedom even more.”
David Wootton’s answer is unequivocal: modernity began with the scientific revolution in Europe, bookended by the dates 1572 (when the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe identified a new star in the heavens) and 1704 (when Isaac Newton published Opticks). This was “the most important transformation in human history” since the Neolithic era. Later events such as the industrial revolution were no more than the extended consequences of the biggest revolution of them all. Wootton is equally clear about whether the scientific revolution was a matter for celebration (as most Enlightenment thinkers saw it) or regret (as some Romantics felt): it was, in his view, a very good thing indeed.
Some of our best-loved paintings have been ravaged by time, and by restoration.
Think of yourself walking a streetscape like that found in front of the Whole Foods in New York. As you take the first step, you see on your right a wall of frosted glass and on your left the busy street. Take another step. There’s nothing new. Step three. Nothing changes. For a span of about 200 steps, you could have predicted what you would see next based entirely on what you have just seen. No information has been passed and your nervous system is completely unaroused and uninformed. And you don’t really even need to walk along the Whole Foods façade to see this. Instead, you could stand across the street from the façade, take in the whole thing at once, and see that it consists of a single monolithic slab of built space that is virtually the same everywhere.
These constructions don’t work at a psychological level because we are biologically disposed to want to be in locations where there is some complexity, some interest. And this urge runs much deeper than a simple human aesthetic preference for variety. The urge to know is written into us at a very primitive level.
Kramer began writing a blog to capture the agony of his physical deterioration and his struggle to hold onto the splintered pieces of his life. He described his disease as "death by a thousand paper cuts," and it was an apt image: ALS was making changes that, day by day, could be all but imperceptible - but the overall effect of these small setbacks would be cataclysmic. At the same time, there was something that posed an even more immediate threat: unchecked anger and resentment, which could poison the time he had left to relish his life and loves.
Kramer's reflections on his journey have been collected in We Know How This Ends: Living While Dying, which describes his at times mystical pursuit of happiness in the face of disability and death. Kramer collaborated on the book with Cathy Wurzer, host of Morning Edition on Minnesota Public Radio. They finished the collaboration, which draws heavily from his blog -- The Dis Ease Diary -- and from four years of their radio conversations, before Kramer finally succumbed to ALS this past spring. (He did know how it would end.)
With cookbooks, those on the savory side have a lot more leeway to showcase innovative ideas and far-flung dishes. Armchair chefs are just as happy to read about smoking eels over green hay and butchering small game as they are to find a recipe for the best macaroni and cheese.
Dessert books tend to play it safer, delving deeper into the sweetly familiar rather than exploring the wilderness beyond. The best ones have a clear authorial voice and point of view, revealing delicious new truths about those old favorites.
So it goes with this year’s crop of baking books, the strongest of which are subdued on the surface, quietly thrilling once you crack the spine. What they lack in flashy spun-sugar theatrics they make up for with gentler, more sustaining joys. You won’t find gilded ooh-and-ahh-inducing spectacles, but the kind of excellent game-changing brownie recipes that you’ll make for every party, potluck and picnic in years to come.
The idea is simple, yet to many people disturbing: Society evolves, as does the world in general, largely in a way neither we nor whatever God we conjure up has any real control over. This isn’t true of everything, but it’s true of far more than we care to believe. Highways are designed; traffic happens. Buildings are constructed; cities happen. Battles are strategized, troops mobilized, weapons deployed, but defeat or victory happens. “I want to . . . get you to see past the illusion of design,” Ridley writes, “to see the emergent, unplanned, inexorable and beautiful process of change that lies underneath.”
Primo Levi is the rare writer about whom it can be said that his literary virtues are largely inseparable from his moral ones.
One of the sharpest divides between political and intellectual life is that changing one’s mind is unforgivable in the former and inevitable in the latter. For politicians, consistency is prized; switching positions elicits the dread flip-flopping charge. Among intellectuals, by contrast, dalliances with competing ideologies over the years are an almost required rite before settling on a worldview — ideally one stronger for the journey — that underpins subsequent inquiry.
Historian Rafael Rojas has written an oddly captivating account of the Cuban revolution as a moment when these two worlds clashed, when a political revolt in one nation upended intellectual forces in another. Rather than focus on Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, John F. Kennedy or the other usual suspects of this Cold War era, Rojas tells the story of the left-wing academics, beat poets, Black Panthers and radical journalists in the United States, particularly in New York, who initially embraced Cuba’s transformations only to splinter over Castro’s repression of individual freedoms and the island’s move toward the Soviet orbit.
A visit to an Afghan performance of The Comedy of Errors at the Globe’s 2012 festival of Global Shakespeare opens Andrew Dickson’s book. Set in contemporary Kabul, the production startled him with its revelation of the play’s rarely noted emphasis on exile and separation. It set Dickson thinking. “Unser Shakespeare”, our Shakespeare, as the Germans began calling him in the 19th century, has been claimed as a fellow citizen across the world in a way no other writer has. “Global Shakespeare” is now a favourite topic for academic discussions, but they tend to focus on the “what” and the “how” of particular performances or postcolonial generalisations. Dickson came away with a different question: “Why was Shakespeare, a writer who barely travelled, so popular globally? And why had he been not only adapted, but adopted, in so many countries worldwide?”
No, trust me, I get it. I’m the cute one. I’m sweet, I’m red, and I plop out of a can. It’s fun. It’s endearing. It’s hilarious.
But enough is enough. My therapist told me to be direct about my feelings—to really engage with them—so before you all dig in and give your thanks, I would like to say a few things that have been on my mind for a while now. Because damn it, I’m a legitimate part of the meal, and it’s about time I was treated as such.
Diana Athill stopped thinking of herself as a sexual being in her mid-70s, and “after a short period of shock at the fact, found it very restful”. She had become another sort of creature: an Old Woman! “It was like coming out on to a high plateau, into clear, fresh air, far above the antlike bustle going on down below me.” Now, the memories of men mix in companionably with everything else: a bluebell wood at dawn, Venice, the white beaches of the Caribbean and her grandmother’s kitchen garden. “When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view, it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But … now out it comes, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring.”
A good theory is an act of the informed imagination — it reaches toward the unknown while grounded in the firmest foundations of the known. In “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs,” the Harvard cosmologist Lisa Randall proposes that a thin disk of dark matter in the plane of the Milky Way triggered a minor perturbation in deep space that caused the major earthly catastrophe that decimated the dinosaurs. It’s an original theory that builds on a century of groundbreaking discoveries to tell the story of how the universe as we know it came to exist, how dark matter illuminates its beguiling unknowns and how the physics of elementary particles, the physics of space, and the biology of life intertwine in ways both bewildering and profound.
In her new book “First Bite,” an exploration of how individuals and cultures learn to eat, for better and for worse, the British food historian Bee Wilson cites Japan’s culinary history as an example of how dietary improvements can take place on a national scale. The lesson to draw from the Japanese, she argues, is not that the West must move to a sushi-based diet to tackle its obesity pandemic, no matter how delicious that sounds. Instead, Japan is an example of how eating habits, far from being “inevitable or innate,” can evolve remarkably quickly, even in places where healthy practices are lacking. “We often convince ourselves that there is something vital within us that prevents us from ever eating differently,” Wilson writes. But “if the Japanese can change, why can’t we?”
Doctorow’s creative credentials are in order, then, and in his new nonfiction book Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free he has produced an essential primer for artists seeking to navigate the shark-infested waters of today’s media. It contains a good deal of very good advice for creators about how to figure out what is in their best interests. But Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free is more than a how-to book, or a Creators’ Rights for Dummies: it also provides the elements for a class-based theory of creative production in the 21st century.
Poem selected by Natasha Trethewey, New York Times
Behind the lot’s façades, Sony functions like any number of nondescript American corporate offices. Secretaries schedule meetings; HR manages benefits; food services dishes up lunch at the lot cafeteria. Over the past few months, I talked to those people—two dozen Sony employees, former employees who left in the months after the hack, contractors, and industry professionals who work closely with the studio—about what the hack was like for them.
Xi Jinping is often described as China’s most powerful leader in decades, perhaps even since Mao. He has been credited—if sometimes grudgingly—with pursuing a vigorous foreign policy, economic reforms, and a historic crackdown on corruption.
But as Xi completes his third year in office this month, this judgment seems increasingly mistaken, with China trapped by the same taboos that limited Xi’s predecessors. At heart this means a one-party state unwilling to retreat from the commanding heights of the country’s economic, political, and social life. The only area where the government has shown real creativity has been in coming up with new ways of legitimizing its rule—diversions from the real issues facing the country.
For most of his lifetime T S Eliot appeared an austere and reticent figure. During the long breakdown of his first marriage, to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, he took a vow of celibacy in 1928, controlled his relations with other women, and in 1953 planned to retire to an abbey. So some may be surprised by the sexual content of two sets of poems published in full for the first time in a complete edition of his Poems.
Were he living, he’d be staring down the holidays, like the rest of us. Mr. Hitchens was an observant and entertaining writer about holidays, as he was about most things. He liked Thanksgiving, which made immigrants like himself (he was born in England) feel welcome. He disliked Christmas almost entirely.
“And Yet …,” a very good new collection of Mr. Hitchens’s work previously unpublished in book form, includes a “Bah, humbug” for the ages in the form of two Christmas-skewering essays, one composed for Slate and the other for The Wall Street Journal. He hoped at least one would be reprinted annually.
Introduced by Andrew McCulloch, by Times Literary Supplement.
No longer could space be seen as a featureless void, the nothingness between the somethingness of galaxies and stars. Einsteinian space has heft, shape and a sense of place. It bends around giant suns and plunges down the throats of black holes. It expands restlessly in all directions and drags us along for the ride.
Space refuses to be ignored, clamoring for attention even in human pursuits. In art, architecture, music, the designs of our cities and the psychology of the invisible, multistage privacy zones we construct around our bodies, space can speak volumes, and it demands to be explored.
There is no shortage of books on the topic of suicide. A favorite of mine is Sylvia, the novelist Leonard Michaels’ fictionalized memoir of the suicide of his ex-wife. Describing a scene in which he learns she has slashed her wrists while he is at his mother's, he writes, “In my frustration — refusing to be intimidated, yet feeling terrified — I became angry at my mother for detaining me as she packed food … I was ashamed and didn’t want her to know how Sylvia and I lived, but I didn’t want Sylvia to bleed to death.” Michaels observes Sylvia’s frightening struggle with depression and his own incoherent reaction to her decision, and examines the fear that, if only he could have done something different, the disaster would have been avoided. Many books on the subject strive for a similar intensity, emphasizing emotion and empathy above all.
Yet a few cast a colder eye, positioning themselves stoically outside all spheres of emotion so as to dryly report on the topic, carefully avoiding falling prey to purple prose or excess feeling. It is in this very far distance that Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide, by Marzio Barbagli, finds its point of vantage. Barbagli, a professor of sociology at the University of Bologna, has produced a dense bundle of facts, figures, and findings collected over 14 years of studying the act of self-killing. He surveys the country of suicide from a great height.
Ian Fleming adored women, fast cars, golf, martinis and cards, and he cheerfully assigned these same hobbies to his most famous fictional creation, Agent 007. But “The Man With the Golden Typewriter: Ian Fleming’s James Bond Letters” is much less about Fleming’s glamorous cavorting than it is about his brazen hustle to become a famous commercial novelist. This will come as a disappointment, perhaps, to anyone who dives into this collection and expects an orgy of vice. But to anyone who has ever worked on a book — writing one, editing one, marketing one, publishing one — or, heck, even just read one, this volume is a giant stalk of catnip.
So perhaps this makes us more receptive to the idea behind the book: that there are alternative topographies, ways in which the UK has been mapped that do not consider the contours of the land, or the twisting of its roads, or even the boundaries between land and sea. Dr Joanne Parker, whose day job is senior lecturer in Victorian literature at the University of Exeter, has composed a short book based around five different ways of “imagining our relationship with the land that we live in”.
Carol Rumens's poem of the week.
The fifties were a key decade in the evolution of American magazine fiction. Earlier in the century, there had been a large stable of magazines to which writers like Katherine Anne Porter and F. Scott Fitzgerald could make a fine living by selling short stories. Later in the century, The New Yorker was preeminent; placing a story in its pages was the grail of budding writers, the ultimate validation. By the end of the century, the magazine essentially had the commercial market for short fiction to itself.
It was also in the fifties that “the New Yorker story” emerged, quite suddenly, as a distinct literary genus. What made a story New Yorker was its carefully wrought, many-comma’d prose; its long passages of physical description, the precision and the sobriety of which created a kind of negative emotional space, a suggestion of feeling without the naming of it; its well-educated white characters, who could be found experiencing the melancholies of affluence, the doldrums of suburban marriage, or the thrill or the desolation of adultery; and, above all, its signature style of ending, which was either elegantly oblique or frustratingly coy, depending on your taste. Outside the offices of The New Yorker, its fiction editors were rumored to routinely delete the final paragraph of any story accepted for publication.
As the novel’s attention alternates between Mr. Barry’s real trip to the island and John’s made up one, the identities of the two men — both artists, both marked by the loss of their mothers — mingle, until their stories begin to overlap more and more exactly, and finally the two become indivisible, ghosts of each other across the decades. The effect is beautiful, reminiscent at different moments of Virginia Woolf and Geoff Dyer, especially the ambiguous narrator of Mr. Dyer’s wonderful novel “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.”
You probably have not heard of a planet called Vulcan. That’s because it does not exist. But for a good chunk of the 19th century, leading scientists believed that it did and that it was lurking near Mercury. They had a powerful system of ideas backing them up — Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation and how it governed the orbits of planets.
Or so it seemed to. “The Hunt for Vulcan” is a short, beautifully produced book that tells a cautionary tale. Thomas Levenson, the head of MIT’s graduate program in science writing, deals in big ideas about the universe — the biggest of all, really, about space, time, and the very ways we perceive the cosmos — and colorfully illustrates the limits of scientific theory as it faces new data and even more persuasive theories.
Science fiction embraces a multitude of philosophies reflecting the different time periods and cultures from which it originates. One of these philosophies — liberal humanism — allows authors to envision a rational, empirical, and typically secular future centered on the agency of humans who have matured and achieved a harmonious (if not peaceful) coexistence. As an alternative to dystopian futures that emphasize strife and anarchy, liberal humanist visions eliminate class and ignorance to describe a communal society. Given present day conditions of aggression, resource scarcity, inequality, and religious conflict, these visions of the future are compelling to readers. Asserting that humanity will solve what seem like intractable problems using technology and reason provides a message of hope for the present. However, embracing liberal humanism does not dictate that visions of the future will resemble each other, nor that achieving a harmonious society will occur without consequences. Three popular authors from the late-20th century — Stanislaw Lem, Gene Roddenberry, and Iain M. Banks — have each created imagined societies founded on liberal humanism. Their diverse national origins as inhabitants of Poland, the United States, and Scotland influence their imagined futures. Each of their societies grant individual agency while relying on a rational community. Want has been eliminated, and individuals are free to achieve self-actualization. Beyond these broad characteristics, however, there are profound distinctions in how each author allows his characters to gain knowledge, channel aggression, remain passionate, and engage with society. These distinctions raise the question of whether liberal humanism, in its different flavors, can be effective in providing a future in which individual agency coexists with plenty and achievement.
For two weeks in the spring of 2015, I distributed across the internet a phone number where I could be reached by anyone. It was the number to an old flip phone with a zero-megapixel camera — a secondary phone specific to this project. I bought it on Amazon, unboxed it in Philadelphia, and activated it in a McDonald’s somewhere outside of Baltimore. Without giving any guidelines or constraints about how to talk to me, I shared the number publicly on my Twitter over the next 12 days. I also gave it out at each of the readings I did, 13 in total, to audiences in nine different cities.
This isn’t one of those “What Happened When I Exposed Something About Myself” essays. Nothing dramatic happened: strangers called or texted. They were polite and pleasant, if at times a little awkward. The project went about as I’d expected: over the course of a two-week book tour, I conducted one-on-one correspondence with people who didn’t identify themselves. The conversations were sometimes superficial, sometimes intimate, and rarely creepy. But during the half-life of the project, I began to notice something fundamental about the intersections of communication, and the creation of a public persona. These intersections began to affect me in ways I didn’t anticipate — specifically, the ways in which I communicate with people I do know: my family, my loved ones, my friends.
My loss of God occurred soon after I got to divinity school. I still can’t decide if that was the least likely of places for it to happen or the only place in the world where it was possible.
It was something of a shock for the writer Kevin Barry to find he was working on a piece of historical fiction. Barry began his latest novel, Beatlebone, in pursuit of John Lennon’s voice, imagining the singer travelling to an island in the west of Ireland to batter his way through a bout of writer’s block by screaming his lungs out. Browsing clips of archive interviews on YouTube, Barry found there was something old-fashioned, something antique, about Lennon’s diction – realising to his horror that the late 70s setting of his Goldsmith’s prize-winning novel was another era. But after making the leap into the past to capture the rhythm of Lennon’s speech for the dialogue, Barry found himself bringing the rest of the story right up to the minute, by reaching for the present tense.
“Human history,” writes Louise Fresco, a plant scientist from Amsterdam, “can be seen as a way of defeating scarcity and converting it into plenty.” Our ancestors grabbed food and gorged when it was available, in the knowledge that hunger was round the corner. The basic premise of politics is a need to manage disputes over scarce resources. For much of human evolution, daily life was shaped by chronic food shortages, compounded by the difficulty of preserving out-of-season produce. To have a constant supply of food was the stuff of fantasy. Now, however, as Fresco writes, we have “paradise on every street corner” in the form of supermarkets that may offer 60 types of bread and 30 types of pasta sauce.
We were about three minutes from showtime when I told the producers exactly what they didn’t want to hear. “If I make it past $100,000 and I don’t know the answer,” I said suddenly, “I’m going to walk.” The producer with whom I had been speaking looked shocked, and with good reason. Playing it safe was not the reason I had been invited back on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The producers wanted to see me try to beat the game. But as the cameras began to roll on the show’s first-ever Second Chance Week, I was absolutely terrified that the game might once again defeat me.
I sketch this climate of abandoned roads and pesticidal storms, of California-as-disaster, not as a doomsayer, but because that possible future is what propels Claire Vaye Watkins’ first novel, Gold Fame Citrus. The novel is a nihilistic reckoning with the exploded fantasia of the West, set in a devastated near future where the trees have all died, blueberries are sold in narcotic quantities at exorbitant prices, and a ‘dune sea’ called the ‘Amargosa’ is steadily sanding away much of California’s geography. For a book about a dry future, Watkins writes in a torrent, her language flooding the psychedelic landscapes of her ruined California. It’s a book that could prove prophetic, and one already terrifyingly expressive of our cultural moment in which the slow-motion disaster of Western drought — a disaster more than a century in the making — has finally become un-ignorably visible.
The philosopher Sydney Morgenbesser, beloved by generations of Columbia University students (including me), was known for lines of wit that yielded nuggets of insight. He kept up his instructive shtick until the end, remarking to a colleague shortly before he died: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?” For Morgenbesser, nothing worth pondering, including disbelief, could be entirely de-paradoxed.
The major thesis of Tim Whitmarsh’s excellent “Battling the Gods” is that atheism — in all its nuanced varieties, even Morgenbesserian — isn’t a product of the modern age but rather reaches back to early Western intellectual tradition in the ancient Greek world.
With his worries about the gigantic power of technology and the minuscule moral illumination it can afford, Walter Benjamin remains our contemporary.
Will Spong was my father, and when I was growing up I took real pride in his reputation around Austin. He didn’t have his own church, but Episcopal congregations knew him as a must-see guest lecturer who played piano while he taught. “The Gospel According to Oscar Hammerstein” was a greatest hit. Some of those churchgoers also knew him as the interim rector who came in when churches were in distress: when a priest died or, just as often, when a warring congregation drove one out. Dad had a way of telling the truth that didn’t leave scar tissue, of getting people to agree to disagree. That accounted for his place in Austin’s counseling community as well. When a therapist working with a couple identified a rift too great to mend, the two were often referred to Dad. He was the counselor to help them make a clean, healthy break.
At Austin’s Seminary of the Southwest, where for thirty years he taught pastoral theology—the nuts and bolts of how to apply faith to caring for people—he was known as “the Will of God.” It was an especially good joke given that his unwavering message, in the classroom and at the pulpit, was that no one can ever know God’s will with any degree of certainty. To his mind, human understanding of God is necessarily limited, and it’s too often used as leverage over others, to demean, exclude, or otherwise diminish them. “We are all made in God’s image,” he used to say, “and ‘all’ means all.” It was a theology of humility and grace, and a less facetious distillation of it showed up on T-shirts some students made one semester and wore around campus. In big block letters, they announced his oft-repeated, bottom-line truth: “God is God and I am not.”
At home, on the other hand, he was just Dad and, as far as I could tell, being a preacher was just his job. For one thing, he had a way of cursing when he discovered dog mess on the kitchen floor that demystified the word “priestly” for me. But also I had numerous friends from more outwardly religious households, even though their parents weren’t clergy. The Spongs said grace before meals but not in restaurants. We attended services most Sundays, but we were Episcopalians: there was no expectation that we be at church for midweek expressions of our faith. The most conspicuous that Dad’s work ever was at home was when he spent all day Saturday working up a sermon or weeknights on the phone with people having a hard time.
Astronomers can sometimes be literal to a fault. We like to call things as we see them. For example, if it’s red and it’s huge: “Red Giant.” White and small: “White Dwarf.” Massive explosion: “Big Bang.” Dark and sucks everything in: “Black Hole.” Most of the time, classifying objects this way works fine—either it’s new, or it’s something we already know of. But sometimes, as with Pluto, we make new observations that force us to question the name, reassess the object, and identify it differently. You might think this never happens with something as clearly defined as a black hole, but you’d be wrong.
This month, we celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, one of his many ideas that brought lucidity to the deeply hidden. With all the surrounding hoopla, it would be nice if we could fathom something of what he actually accomplished and how he did it. That turns out to be a tall order, because general relativity is tremendously complex. When Arthur Eddington—the British astrophysicist who led the team that confirmed Einstein’s predictions, during a solar eclipse in 1919—was asked if it was really true that only three people in the world understood the theory, he said nothing. “Don’t be so modest, Eddington!” his questioner said. “On the contrary,” Eddington replied. “I’m just wondering who the third might be.”
Fortunately, we can study an earlier, simpler example of Einstein’s thinking. Even before he received the little geometry book, he had been introduced to the subject by his uncle Jakob, an engineer. Einstein became particularly enamored of the Pythagorean theorem and—“after much effort,” he noted in the Saturday Review—he wrote his own mathematical proof of it. It is my intention to lead you through that proof, step by logical step. It’s Einstein’s first masterpiece, and certainly his most accessible one. This little gem of reasoning foreshadows the man he became, scientifically, stylistically, and temperamentally. His instinct for symmetry, his economy of means, his iconoclasm, his tenacity, his penchant for thinking in pictures—they’re all here, just as they are in his theory of relativity.
Back in the late 90s, the photographers James and Karla Murray settled on a project: to catalogue New York’s most compelling storefronts with a 35mm camera. What began as a personal mission became an epic five-borough endeavour – and a race against time.
Poem selected by Natasha Trethewey.
On January 15, 1947, the naked body of Elizabeth Short, a 22-year-old unemployed cashier, was found in a vacant lot in Leimert Park. Nearly 70 years later the case remains unsolved, leaving an indelible mark on Los Angeles history. Short’s bisected corpse was posed toward the Hollywood Hills, a symbolic reordering of glamour-myth-making at the beginning of the postwar years. Colloquially known as “The Black Dahlia,” she is a symbol that has lived on in countless books, a movie, and conspiracy theories regarding her death.
Short’s story can also be explored by traversing the city streets she walked in life and lay in death. The body dump site is now located on a manicured lawn where tourists and macabre enthusiasts alike make their pilgrimage to one of Los Angeles’s most infamous sites of tragedy. This experience is even curated: as demonstrated by Esotouric tour founders Kim Cooper and Richard Shave’s The Real Black Dahlia Tour, which takes participants on a journey throughout Los Angeles whilst providing an oral history of Elizabeth Short and the city. The bus tour navigates through LA, from the Biltmore Hotel in Downtown (one of the last places Short was last seen alive), to the bus depot where her suitcase was found containing un-mailed love letters among other personal effects, to the body dump site in South LA.
Claire-Louise Bennett’s highly acclaimed debut, initially published in Ireland earlier this year, is a collection of 20 stories – the shortest of which runs to a couple of sentences. They are all told, it seems, by the same female character, whose semi-reclusive existence the tales revolve around. Reading them is an immersive experience. We come to share the “savage swarming magic” the narrator feels under her skin by focusing at length on her “mind in motion” (the only exception being the final story, told in the third person). For all this propinquity, we would be hard-pressed to recognise her, should she suddenly emerge from her rural retreat. One of the most striking aspects of this extraordinary book is how well we get to know the narrator – whose brain and body we inhabit – yet how little we know about her. We don’t even learn her name.
Tomine began his career as a formidable teenage prodigy, first self-publishing his sophisticated mini-comic Optic Nerve before shifting it to the flawless roster of the Canadian publishers Drawn and Quarterly, then becoming a regular cover artist for the New Yorker. His 2007 graphic novel, Shortcomings, was a complicated and emotionally nuanced work that made the rest of us cobwebbed cartoonists look up and take notice. Since then, Tomine has married, had two daughters and continued to produce Optic Nerve, the pages of which have previewed the stories in his latest book as he has completed them. But Killing and Dying is no hastily cobbled collection of short pieces assembled simply because they’re done; it’s the most mature and sharp work of Tomine’s caree
As an inspector for restaurant guidebooks, I spend my life eating around the UK. Such vast choice means I need to quickly whittle options down before heading to a new region. Within seconds, I’ve culled the local curry house, trattoria and Chinese. With an ever-affordable formula available 364 days a year, these neighbourhood stalwarts serve a purpose, but mostly follow an identical business model of cash-and-carry buying and shortcut cooking. We all have our favourites, but you don’t need me to tell you the £5.99 lunch menu isn’t worth travelling for. So what is? There are plenty of obvious pointers, from reviews, awards won, multiple guide listings – but the surest way to find those lesser known places worth shouting about is reading between the lines of a restaurant’s menu.
In the days when Coney Island was in ruins, there was a carny at the broken-down game arcade who would, to draw a crowd, sometimes have his schnauzer smoke a cigarette. This was in the 1980s, when a pet dog with a Pall Mall was probably not the strangest thing you could find at the park. Coney back then was a derelict dystopia of burned-out lights and empty rides and sea gulls lying dead beneath the boardwalk — a place of which the smoking dog’s owner once explained, “It’s an interesting kind of crazy.”
I thought about that man when I heard about a new show at the Brooklyn Museum, “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008” the first full-fledged exhibition to gather works of art inspired by the celebrated park. The show looks at Coney Island through its stylish rise, slow decline and eventual revival. In so doing, it asks a lasting question: Why is it that for 150 years this narrow coastal island has persistently provided “an interesting kind of crazy” to so many artists from so many eras, working in a variety of media and in vastly different styles?
Melodramatic or banal prose mostly gets blamed on the author, reasonably enough. But melodrama and banality are aesthetic judgments, and, as such, they are sometimes also products of their context. Twain was writing in the late nineteenth century, a time when the field of meteorology was belatedly coming into its own. With that scientific model of weather in ascendance, the literary models came to seem suspect. Weather facts served to make weather fictions seem overwrought, while the newly empirical understanding of the atmosphere—and, more staggering at the time, the ability to predict its behavior—made weather itself seem suddenly more prosaic.
He was America’s greatest vocalist: a consummate artist who redefined the possibilities of popular music, bringing to it an intimacy, an urban swagger and an emotional vulnerability that stamped songs as indelibly his own. A voice — no, the Voice — who could deliver “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and “I’ve Got the World on a String” with equal authority and self-knowledge. A tough guy with Bond-like sophistication and savoir-faire, who sang with uncommon tenderness about loneliness and yearning. A ring-a-ding-ding Vegas showman, rarely without his posse, who could articulate the heartache and existential solitude of the human condition with more conviction than any singer on the planet.
The challenges of capturing the magic of Sinatra’s art and the contradictions of his life are daunting. His career spanned decades as he continually explored his gifts and tried to adapt to changing times, and his life, as the son of Italian immigrants, embodied the American dream of success, while his persona, with its nimbus of dangerous glamour, came to define one generation’s ideal of masculinity.
After first writing poetry to impress and entertain his wealthy parents’ guests, cosmopolitan James Merrill went cosmic.
The first step is to introduce the precious commodity of silence, so that your students are listening with open ears to the cosmos, and are beginning to forget their addictive pleasures.
When he was in his late 20s, the writer Howard Axelrod spent two years living in a remote cabin in Vermont. He avoided almost all human contact; his beard grew long and his body grew thin. He went for epic walks in the woods. He had no computer, radio, or TV; he had a phone, but on the rare occasions it rang, he often would not bother to answer it. The kindly local who came by to plow his drive during the winter described him as a “real backwoodsman,” and on the long nights, Axelrod would lie down by the wood stove while memories streamed through his mind—of his boyhood walk to school, say, or some experience from summer camp—as though he were watching his very own TV show. It would make him laugh out loud, and cry.
The Point of Vanishing is Axelrod’s memoir of those years and the odd path that led him to hole up alone in the middle of nowhere for 24 months. The kind of solitude Axelrod imposed on himself is regarded as torture by some prison rights activists and as a threat to mental stability by many psychologists. But it’s also a fantasy.
The American writer Edgar Allan Poe might have invented detective fiction, but it's been a long time since the United States has had a monopoly on the genre. In the past few decades, Americans have fallen in love with mystery writers from as far away as Iceland and Japan.
It would be a mistake, though, to call Ricardo Piglia's Target in the Night just a detective novel, although a murder mystery is at its heart. The Argentine author's book, released in Spanish five years ago and newly translated by Sergio Waisman, is much more than that. It's Piglia's postmodern, brainy and sometimes funny take on the detective thriller, and it's an absolute joy to read.
Hey, Mary-Louise Parker, you're a killer actress, you've hit fifty, and you've written a funny, clever, genuinely moving book, Dear Mr. You. You took a form, the epistolary novel, mashed it up with another form, the celebrity memoir, and turned them both on their heads. Thirty-four intimate letters to various "Mr. You's" collectively demonstrate you've lived many lives. All the letters are to men, but of course they really serve to reveal ... Mary-Louise Parker.
Carol Rumens's poem of the week.
English speakers know that their language is odd. So do people saddled with learning it non-natively. The oddity that we all perceive most readily is its spelling, which is indeed a nightmare. In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a ‘spelling bee’ competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal.
The people who say that artificial intelligence is not a problem tend to work in artificial intelligence. Many prominent researchers regard Bostrom’s basic views as implausible, or as a distraction from the near-term benefits and moral dilemmas posed by the technology—not least because A.I. systems today can barely guide robots to open doors. Last summer, Oren Etzioni, the C.E.O. of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, in Seattle, referred to the fear of machine intelligence as a “Frankenstein complex.” Another leading researcher declared, “I don’t worry about that for the same reason I don’t worry about overpopulation on Mars.” Jaron Lanier, a Microsoft researcher and tech commentator, told me that even framing the differing views as a debate was a mistake. “This is not an honest conversation,” he said. “People think it is about technology, but it is really about religion, people turning to metaphysics to cope with the human condition. They have a way of dramatizing their beliefs with an end-of-days scenario—and one does not want to criticize other people’s religions.”
Because the argument has played out on blogs and in the popular press, beyond the ambit of peer-reviewed journals, the two sides have appeared in caricature, with headlines suggesting either doom (“WILL SUPER-INTELLIGENT MACHINES KILL US ALL?”) or a reprieve from doom (“ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE ‘WILL NOT END HUMAN RACE’ ”). Even the most grounded version of the debate occupies philosophical terrain where little is clear. But, Bostrom argues, if artificial intelligence can be achieved it would be an event of unparalleled consequence—perhaps even a rupture in the fabric of history. A bit of long-range forethought might be a moral obligation to our own species.
I can’t remember not wanting a miniature Christmas village. It’s like how I can’t remember when I first realized I have bad posture: some things you never have to learn about yourself but rather just have to accept.
I moved out of my parents’ house at seventeen, but my heart has never left—not out of some romantic notion of remembering my roots, but because the idea of renting an apartment with enough room to store my Christmas village borders on lunacy.
So now I am back in Calgary, hauling an unending line of boxes out from my parents’ basement and into their dining room. My mother has already resigned herself to hosting next week’s dinner party for twelve around the kitchen counter.
Once all the boxes have emerged from their summer hibernation, I begin.
“I always tried to argue against the idea this was something new,” he says. “As I did the research I found a continuous kind of foraging movement that went through the second world war when even the Ministry of Food produced a pamphlet called ‘Hedgerow Harvest’ with a few Heston Blumenthal touches – ‘leave the stones in your damsons when making your jam for a little extra taste of almond’. It runs right back. In the 1700s there was wonderful a book produced by a shoemaker in Great Yarmouth on esculate plants…”
One of the stranger or sadder aspects of his own book’s history is that its sales have always tended to mirror the economic fortunes of the country. When times are hard its sales tend to spike. “One of the many editions is a little one produced by Gem,” he says. “After the crash of 2008 within two months the sales tripled. It could only be something that happened in people’s heads – I mean they weren’t going to survive the downturn by hoping there would be blackberries in January – but somewhere in the psyche there must have been that idea that there might be consolation if not calories in the wild. And since then sales really have followed the economic curve quite closely. While the recession was at its height sales stayed very high; it is since the slight recovery seems underway that there has been a dip and I’ve lost out on my pension…”
Fantastic as it was, “Wonderland” was rooted in the place Dodgson lived and worked: the city and environs of Oxford with its ancient university, its “dreaming spires” and its surrounding countryside. Oxford is a city teeming with tourists and traffic, whose shop windows, in the sesquicentennial year of “Wonderland,” overflow with Alice merchandise; but if one listens closely, if one ducks through stone arches, opens creaky oaken doors, and descends to quiet riverside paths, one can still find the Oxford of Charles Dodgson and Alice.
I set out to discover that place, beginning with the college of Christ Church, where Dodgson lived from 1851 until his death in 1898 at age 65 and Alice lived from the time she was 3 until her marriage in 1880.
The only hiking I’ve ever known or half-enjoyed has involved flat terrain, a swimmable body of water as a destination and at least one parent to whine to along the way. But in September, I found myself 5,000 feet up a mountain, lost, alone, without a working cellphone, not even close to where I was supposed to be going, and completely happy. As I gnawed my way up the Dolomite peak of Kronplatz mountain, I had to stop every 100 yards and catch my breath. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the trek would be difficult or that I should bring water. But whatever panic and thirst and lung-burn I experienced was mitigated by the frosted clover and edelweiss and enzian, which I could see the sun thawing in real time as I walked. The air smelled sweetly of manure and cut grass; the tinkle of cowbells and the call of actual cuckoo birds echoed through the valleys.
I was promised, via translated emails, that waiting for me at the top of the mountain would be Reinhold Messner, who is, at least in the glaciated, barely oxygenated part of the world where he was born and still lives, extremely famous. South Tyrol, the autonomous, Austria-bordering province of Northern Italy where Messner scaled his first mountain in the mid-1940s at the age of 5, is plastered with blown-up pictures of his leathered face. In the decades that followed his first kindergarten ascent, Messner went on to climb another 3,500 peaks and in the process became one of the most celebrated and sport-advancing, and correspondingly wealthiest, mountaineers of the 20th century.
One of the beauties of all Van Booy’s stories, including in his two prior stories collections and in two novels, is that he tells his stories without affectation, but ever so effectively as a stylist and a devout humanist. One amplifies the other, making his stories literary treasures.
When Arne Hendriks, a 6” 4’ Dutchman, faced audience members at TEDxBrainport in 2012, he smiled apologetically. “I have some bad news for you,” he said. “You’re not short enough.” Hendriks believes that the planet’s growing population—currently at 7 billion—is unsustainable. His solution? We should shrink ourselves to 50 cm, around the height of a chicken. “I think we can actually achieve that,” he says.
The best estimates today are that countdown clocks that tell you when the next train is coming will arrive on the so-called B division of the New York subway system in 2020. (The A division already has them.) That would make them about nine years overdue. It is easy to take for granted that governments move slowly, particularly on large infrastructure projects, particularly when those projects involve software. But we live in a world with cars that can drive themselves. Trains are huge objects that move in one dimension. How could it cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take nearly a decade just to figure out where they are and report that information to the public? Really: How?
Times change, and magazines along with them, but I can’t help thinking that Harold Ross would be pleased that the magazine he conjured up 90 years ago is today the premier magazine in the world.
Switching back and forth between the centuries, Rebecca Hunt unfolds these parallel stories with great verve. Her careful control of the narratives and dramatic pacing keeps the tension in each story steadily escalating. She conjures the Antarctic convincingly not only in terms of the colors, shapes and textures of the place and its wildlife but also in its vastness and implacable indifference to human life and the passage of time. The Aegeus team doggedly tags and microchips the continent’s penguins and seals, but these pinpricks of data can never quantify the vast, almost malevolent power of nature they confront.
No, for the first time in his career, he has had to be discreet. No tasting room. No name on the front label. No obvious indicators that your bomb-ass Pinot was produced by one of the most derided chefs in America. Fieri is betting a great deal of time (and money) that the quality of his wine will speak for itself, and that people who would never drink a Guy Fieri wine will be pleasantly surprised when they discover that they just have.
We use neat stories to explain everything from sports matches to symphonies. Is it time to leave the nursery of the mind?
Several exciting discoveries in the cosmos, including close-up photos of Pluto by the New Horizons space probe and new evidence for water flows on Mars, are helping us reframe many age-old questions. Is there life elsewhere? Are we alone? These questions have finally leaped from popular speculation to the realm of scientific scrutiny.
Sushi, good sushi, is the type of thing that sings the importance of intimacy and the human touch, of the care and attention to every step of creating every perfect morsel – of the feeling, literally, of the food. When I eat sushi, when the chef places each piece on my plate, I almost want to be able to read his fingerprints in the glistening fish. I trust that I am in good hands. That’s part of the pleasure.
Poem selected by Natasha Trethewey, New York Times.
‘‘I need a song that will keep sky open in my mind,’’ the poem reads. What comes before that — short declarative sentences, lines closed with end punctuation and laced with rhyme — is one kind of song. And when that pattern breaks and the punctuation falls away, there is a different evocation of song, linked but open, like a long ‘‘necklace of days.’’
The title of Hanya Yanagihara’s second work of fiction stands in almost comical contrast to its length: at 720 pages, it’s one of the biggest novels to be published this year. To this literal girth there has been added, since the book appeared in March, the metaphorical weight of several prestigious award nominations—among them the Kirkus Prize, which Yanagihara won, the Booker, which she didn’t, and the National Book Award, which will be conferred in mid-November. Both the size of A Little Life and the impact it has had on readers and critics alike—a best seller, the book has received adulatory reviews in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and other serious venues—reflect, in turn, the largeness of the novel’s themes. These, as one of its four main characters, a group of talented and artistic friends whom Yanagihara traces from college days to their early middle age in and around New York City, puts it, are “sex and food and sleep and friends and money and fame.”
You can get high on the book’s passion, its humour, on the creation of a still-fresh style that not only says new things about female experience, but is able simultaneously to comment, tongue-in-cheek, on how this experience has been written, filmed and made into art.
For years, I’ve been an avid reader of what I call the “Death in … ” books. It’s not quite an actual series — there are four so far, from three different publishers — but the “Death in … ” books all do the same thing: They chronicle accidents, murders and mishaps in several of America’s most treasured national parks, giving us “Death in Yellowstone,” “Death in Yosemite,” “Death in the Grand Canyon” and “Death in Big Bend.” The Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon books purport to chronicle every single death (excluding illness and car accidents) from the mid-19th century onward, sorted into chapters by type: flash floods, bear maulings, murder, falls, poison gas and so on. “Death in Big Bend” is a bit of an outlier, acting more like a highlight reel.
‘‘Genius,’’ E.B. White wrote, ‘‘is more often found in a cracked pot than in a whole one.’’ Judging by how many of my possessions are chipped, broken, worn, bowed and burned, it’s apparent I’ve invested in his odds. It’s not a popular attitude — certainly not in cookbooks, where kitchens often seem embodiments of sunny, enameled perfection — but I hold to it. I was particularly glad recently to open the cookbook ‘‘This Is Camino,’’ by Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain, the owners of the Oakland restaurant Camino, and find in its pages a catechism for my crackpot ways.
This was Medieval America—one of several dozen centuries-old buildings imported to the U.S. in the early 20th century. They lie scattered around the country, a hidden patchwork of mostly-illegal monasteries and mansions whose history has been largely forgotten. In reporting this story, Atlas Obscura dug into both scholarly and journalistic texts, and spent time on both coasts, to understand how and why a handful of the country’s most famous families spent small fortunes helping themselves to whole European buildings. The story that emerged is part caper, part mystery, and part tragedy: American robber barons snuck ancient stones out of the war-torn countryside in the dead of night, Europeans fretted over how their familiar landmarks were rapidly disappearing, and U.S. cities spent decades of the 20th century fighting over what to do with tens of thousands of displaced medieval remnants.
Around 2010, casual Internet users were introduced to the idea that the digital world around them could be understood in terms of the “cloud.” As a metaphor, the cloud seems easy to grasp: our data is somewhere in the ether, floating, drifting and wireless, available wherever and whenever we need it. It carries hints of childhood wonder; the term is evocative because it is the opposite of the hard, material world of plugs and cables, disk drives and superhighways. But the thing about a cloud, Tung-Hui Hu reminds us in his mesmerizing new book, “A Prehistory of the Cloud,” is that you can only see it from a distance. How did we come to place our faith in a symbol that is so ephemeral—all vapor and crystal? “Like the inaudible hum of the electrical grid at 60 hertz, the cloud is silent, in the background, and almost unnoticeable.” What might we learn if we try to trace its mellow outline against the sky?
I rarely spend much time wondering why others do not enjoy the books I like. Henry Green, an old favorite, almost a fetish, is never an easy read and never offers a plot that is immediate or direct. “There’s not much straight shootin,’” he admitted, in the one interview he gave. Elsa Morante is so lush and fantastical, so extravagantly rhetorical, she must seem way over the top to some. Thomas Bernhard offers one nightmare after another in cascades of challenging rhetoric; it’s natural to suspect he’s overdoing it. Christina Stead is so wayward, so gloriously tangled and disorganized, it’s inevitable that some readers will grow weary. And so on.
Perhaps it’s easy for me to understand why so many are not on board with these writers because I occasionally feel the same way myself. In fact it may be that the most seductive novelists are also the ones most willing to risk irritating you. Faulkner comes to mind, so often on the edge between brilliant and garrulous. Italy’s Carlo Emilio Gadda was another. Muriel Spark. Sometimes even Kafka. Resistance to these writers is never a surprise to me.
On the other hand, I do spend endless hours mulling over the mystery of what others like. Again and again the question arises: How can they?
I am consistently enamored with the form of fiction called the novella. I think my first book might be one, even though the cover declares it a novel. From where did this anxiety about calling the book a novella come? Perhaps from the rhetoric that surrounds the novella today, a rhetoric that argues, implicitly or explicitly, that the novella is a smaller brand of novel, underdeveloped, minor, feminine. I am here to argue it is not.
But how can he bring the reader into such a magical world if it is so arcane and difficult? The problem, he suggests, is that most people’s exposure to mathematics does not go beyond elementary algebra and geometry. That tedious routine gives the wrong impression. It is like taking an art class “in which you were only taught how to paint a fence.” So students get turned off. Frenkel too was bored until a family friend told him what he is now telling us.
This increasingly fevered quest for the authentic can in truth be a mug’s game, if only because the visitor’s ‘‘reality’’ is sometimes a local’s canny business plan.
It's easy to make fun of people in big cities for their obsession with gluten, or chia seeds, or cleanses.
But urbanites are not the only ones turning away from the products created by big food companies. Eating habits are changing across the country and food companies are struggling to keep up.
Carol Rumens's poem of the week, The Guardian
In November 2012, Salvador Alvarenga went fishing off the coast of Mexico. Two days later, a storm hit and he made a desperate SOS. It was the last anyone heard from him – for 438 days. This is his story.
Can digital technology make the Herculaneum scrolls legible after two thousand years?
In July 2014 she was diagnosed with lung cancer and given two or three years to live. Her characteristic response was to crack a Breaking Bad joke, then settle down to figure out how she could write about it. What she has been producing is in some ways the conventional cancer diary, moving from diagnosis and rejection of the cliches of cancer writing, the “battle” and “bravery”, to treatment (for Jenny, “poison infusions” and “death rays”) and descriptions of tiredness, pain, side effects, encroaching sadness. But she has turned this into something funnier, livelier and more complicated, the pain woven together with memories of Doris, her childhood, the freedoms and demands of the 60s, of the writing life.
Edna O’Brien’s new novel, her first in a decade, has already been hailed as “her masterpiece” by that master-of-them-all Philip Roth. And he’s right. This is a spectacular piece of work, massive and ferocious and far-reaching, yet also at times excruciatingly, almost unbearably, intimate. Holding you in its clutches from first page to last, it dares to address some of the darkest moral questions of our times while never once losing sight of the sliver of humanity at their core.
Gallardo doesn’t talk much about race or history, but that’s the broader context for his work in a state whose population has the largest percentage of African-Americans (38 percent) of any in the union. The most Gallardo will say on the subject is that he sees the Internet as a natural way to level out some of the persistent inequalities—between black and white, urban and rural—that threaten to turn parts of Mississippi into places of exile, left further and further behind the rest of the country.
And yet I can’t help but wonder how Gallardo’s work figures into the sweep of Mississippi’s history, which includes—looking back over just the past century—decades of lynchings, huge outward migrations, the fierce, sustained defense of Jim Crow, and now a period of unprecedented mass incarceration. My curiosity on this point is not merely journalistic. During the lead-up to the civil rights era, my father worked with the Extension Service in southern Mississippi as well. Because the service was segregated at the time, his title was “negro county agent.” As a very young child, I would travel from farm to farm with him. Now I’m here to travel around Mississippi with Gallardo, much as I did with my father. I want to see whether the deliberate isolation of the Jim Crow era—when Mississippi actively fought to keep itself apart from the main currents of American life—has any echoes in today’s digital divide.
John Cage was very creatively productive up until his death in 1992 and yet is best known for his early work, such as the silent composition 4’33’’, first performed in 1952. Still a powerful source of inspiration — or irritation, depending on whom you ask — this controversial but pivotal work paved the way for new and innovative directions in art. In a 1972 interview, Cage confessed that, at times, even he was prone to “admire my former thinking in many ways more than my present thinking.” He went on to explain that, as he spent more time observing social problems, his theories had become much less clear. “I write about just anything that I notice,” said Cage. “And I think that many people would agree with me that what can be noticed now is extraordinarily confusing.”
A handful of the names will be familiar to anyone who has read a newspaper: territories such as Taiwan, Tibet, Greenland, and Northern Cyprus. The others are less famous, but they are by no means less serious; Middleton discusses many examples of indigenous populations hoping to reassert their sovereignty. One of the most troubling histories, he says, concerns the Republic of Lakotah (with a population of 100,000). Bang in the centre of the United States of America (just east of the Rocky Mountains), the republic is an attempt to reclaim the sacred Black Hills for the Lakota Sioux tribe.
‘‘Be anti-tech when it comes to what you put inside,’’ says William E. Jarvis, a founder of the International Time Capsule Society. You don’t want your message to the future formatted irretrievably on an obsolete technology like a floppy disk. Include stable items that will not damage everything else by corroding (electronics), exploding (beer bottles) or decomposing (flora and fauna). Put in objects that show evidence of human touch. ‘‘Suppose you wanted to include a book of erotica,’’ Jarvis says. ‘‘Make it a used one, so that the person who finds it can tell which pages have been thumbed more.’’
Hunting for mushrooms can feel surprisingly like hunting animals, particularly if you’re searching for edible species. Looking for chanterelles, I’ve found myself walking on tiptoe across mossy stumps as if they might hear me coming. It’s a bad idea to walk around and try to spot them directly. They have an uncanny ability to hide from the searching eye. Instead, you must alter the way you regard the ground around you, concern yourself with the strange phenomenology of leaf litter and try to give equal attention to all the colors, shapes and angles on the messy forest floor.
Friends and family congratulated me, book sales bounced a little and a 10-year-old title was suddenly under discussion by people who had never read it. I had been awarded literary recognition of a peculiar kind, one that brought me no euphoria. Along with six other books opposed by conservative parents in a wealthy school district near Dallas, my book “The Working Poor: Invisible in America,” a nonideological portrayal of lives near the bottom, was suspended from the English curriculum at Highland Park High School, where it had been used in advanced placement classes.
"My Kitchen Year" is exactly what the title says it is: a chronicle of Reichl's year following the abrupt shuttering of Conde Nast's Gourmet magazine, this country's oldest food and wine publication, in 2009. She had been its editor for a decade. That year — spent largely holed up at her home in New York's Hudson Valley, licking her wounds, pondering her future and cooking — became her annus horribilis.
Poem selected by Natasha Trethewey, New York Times.
The subtlest changes in syntax can work in a poem to evoke a feeling of strangeness. Here, the inversion in the first line places the emphasis not on the sentence’s noun, the “I,” but on the comparison to the biblical story. And the alliteration and cadences of the lines evoke the actual feeling of tumbling — “How heel over head was I hurled down.” That inversion of heel and head enlivens a common phrase, making the poem an experience in language.
That’s when the game I played only when I was bored turned into something all-consuming. I had friends and did well in my classes, and I knew that the characters and stories in my head weren’t real, so I knew I wasn't insane. But something was wrong with me. Daydreaming was taking over more and more of my life. It was as if I’d lost the remote control and the TV set in my head was running constantly, never turning off.
For the past six months Robertson, like thousands of other Detroiters, scrambled to make sense of a notification saying their home would be up for the taking. There had been sleepless nights, humbling crowdfunding campaigns, calls to nearby homeless shelters, demeaning visits to 400 Monroe, dispiriting budget decisions — birthdays and holidays would be scrapped to save money — fake smiles to hide the uncertainty and fear from the children ... and ultimately a lot of hope. Because that's what it came down to at some point. So much of the auction process was out of Robertson's control — both how she got there and what might happen next. Today's outcome rested in the hands of nameless bidders on the Internet — perhaps even one who drove a maroon sedan.
In an hour, Robertson would find out if her home was still her home, if the porch on which she was standing was still her porch, and if her yard in which the man was standing was still her yard.
Throughout history, writers, musicians and artists have created works of art to keep the wolf from the door and satisfy their paymasters. Without that commercial imperative, there would be no Michelangelo, Mozart, Shakespeare or Dickens. What is so shameful about writing a book and hoping it sells well?
The answer is simple: nothing.
Have we lost the art of drawing pleasure from the ordinary things in life? Adam Phillips believes so. Long after organised religion and its Thou Shalt Nots have receded from most minds, he argues we remain imprisoned by a notion that something can only be pleasurable if it is wicked.
I was sitting in a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when I received the message on Monday afternoon. It was from Kho Jumai, a short but heart-breaking note, sent over WhatsApp: “My brother this Friday die.”
I understand that as a cheerleader for universal creativity, Gilbert has to set herself against gatekeeping, but inspiration needn’t rule out aspiration. And while the perfect may be the enemy of the good, “good enough” is the handmaiden of deliberate mediocrity.
In 2013, a Canadian-born actress named Sonja O’Hara was scanning Backstage, an industry newspaper that lists casting calls, when she came across an ad seeking egg donors. “Help another woman get pregnant,” it said next to a photo of a gorgeous, smiling young woman. “Egg donors are compensated $8,000.” She suspected the ad was targeting aspiring actresses because they’re thought to be both beautiful and poor—possessors of prime genetic material and willing to sell it. “I saw that they were offering large amounts of money to really broke girls, and I thought that kind of seemed negligent,” she says.
Americans have worried about the state of science literacy in our country since the days of Sputnik. Educators who want to improve our prospects in this field would do well to take a few pages from the “MythBusters” handbook.
This time of year the South of France turns freezing when the sun goes down. The climate is only like California for those who leave before Labor Day, which doesn’t exist here. The giant sycamores lining the street into our village change color every year just as my beloved St. Louis Cardinals are eliminated from the playoffs. All spring and summer they’re strong and beautiful and suddenly they’re withering until they fall ignominiously, breaking my heart. It happens with the leaves too.
When the clocks jump back here, on a different day than in America, I’m temporarily thrown off kilter. Do NFL games start at 7pm or 6? Can I still call my mother in Los Angeles early in my morning? Do we invite the Hussons for drinks at 5:30 (disturbingly early for an apéro) so we can watch the sunset from the patio? Do I change the manual clock in the car or just leave it for six months? Decisions long ago made get thrown back at me and I must deal with the anxiety of re-deciding. I never get used to it.
In her new novel, the author — known for depicting violent sex and lonely people — delves into the most frightening subject of all: real connection.
The most famous photograph from Brandon Stanton’s new book, “Humans of New York: Stories”—the one you have probably seen or read about or heard discussed—is of a boy in an open black bubble jacket. Beneath the jacket is a fleece-lined hoodie, also black, and in his hand the boy holds a black plastic bag, stretched by the weight of what might be groceries. The sidewalk behind him is cracked and dotted with litter. Dull-brown public-housing towers—as much a part of the quintessential visual New York as the bodega bag—form a jagged horizon.
For decades Icelanders have celebrated the Atlantic Puffin even while they've served it up on plates. But some traditions can't last forever.
There was no desire to wait any longer. We were ready to chase after one of life’s greatest—and most exasperating—little victories: parenthood.
For a while we tried the old-fashioned way, which is exciting—like removing the restrictor plates in a Nascar race, which may or may not be the first time you’ve heard baby-making compared with Nascar. But it wasn’t working. It didn’t work for so long that we decided to go to our doctors and solicit their professional medical opinions.
Summarizing the plot of a John Irving novel is like trying to divert the Nile River into a champagne flute. He is a mega-maximalist and a hawker of magic carpets. Signs and portents, crosses to bear and axes to grind, coincidences and grand designs, grace and disgrace, and more man-tears than a John Boehner news conference — they’re all here.
It was me. I did it. I was the first person to fart in the Sydney Olympic Pool. I can't completely verify that nobody farted in the Olympic pool before me, but I'm fairly certain nobody farted in it until I did. This is my story, the story of a 10-year-old boy with a flatulent dream.
Carol Rumens's poem of the week
What does Putin want? Is he trying to restore the Soviet empire? Is it all about the oil and maximizing Russia’s position as a petro-power? Maybe corruption and cronyism are his ultimate objectives as he enriches himself and the tight circle of friends from his native St. Petersburg. Perhaps he’s never stopped being a K.G.B. man, paranoid about “foreign agents” and with a Cold War wariness about the power of the United States? Is the answer megalomania, the self-regard of a man who likes being photographed bare-chested on horseback? Or do the moralistic pronouncements about Russia as a Third Rome, saving a fallen Western world, provide the key?
There’s truth to each of these, but what Steven Lee Myers gets so right in “The New Tsar,” his comprehensive new biography — the most informative and extensive so far in English — is that at bottom Putin simply feels that he’s the last one standing between order and chaos.
Vladimir Putin says he is a religious man, a great supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church. If so, he may well go to bed each night, say his prayers, and ask God: “Why didn’t you put mountains in eastern Ukraine?”
If God had built mountains in eastern Ukraine, then the great expanse of flatland that is the European Plain would not have been such inviting territory for the invaders who have attacked Russia from there repeatedly through history. As things stand, Putin, like Russian leaders before him, likely feels he has no choice but to at least try to control the flatlands to Russia’s west. So it is with landscapes around the world—their physical features imprison political leaders, constraining their choices and room for maneuver. These rules of geography are especially clear in Russia, where power is hard to defend, and where for centuries leaders have compensated by pushing outward.
Women who bake and write about it want you to understand what is impossible to understand without personal experience. They want you to know about the magic of it: how you combine a heap of powders which have no real-world meaning (to conceptualize flour, for example, feels impossible), and add something wet, and heat it up, and watch it change. There’s some power in this.
And more than that: baking requires (and imbues) a kind of trust that is absent in everyday cooking.
Quantum theory, however, suggests that objects which have been carefully prepared together and placed into a combined quantum state can, even when separated across the galaxy, remain “entangled,” as long as neither has any significant interactions with other objects to break the entanglement. If I perform a measurement on one of two entangled objects, the state of the other object will be instantaneously affected, no matter how far apart the two objects are.
In itself, this may not seem that spooky. After all, if I separate two identical twins across the galaxy and then observe that one twin has red hair, I have instantaneously determined that the other twin has red hair, too. The real spookiness comes in only when you consider what a measurement in quantum mechanics really involves.
And that tension is exactly why his latest book, Slade House, is such a revelation. Instead of a daunting brick that taunts anyone unfamiliar with his work, the comparatively diminutive novel—out this week—clocks in at a comparatively diminutive 256 pages. For Mitchell’s established fanbase, it’s a glimpse at previously excised backstory for recurring characters. But to newcomers, it’s a bite-sized collection of haunted-house stories that function as a beginner’s guide to Mitchell’s sprawling world.
I am not old enough to have lived through a yellow or black, dirty and suffocating London fog, but like many others I feel I have experienced it, especially through TV adaptations of the classics, with their inevitable use of fog as a backdrop to tales of mystery and evildoing set in 19th-century London. No representation of Sherlock Holmes or Jack the Ripper would be complete without it. Switch on the fog machine and light a dim gas lamp in the street and you have immediately told viewers what to expect.
But for many writers London fog was much more than a simple scene-setting device. Charles Dickens first conjured the image of foggy Victorian London in fiction. You can almost feel the clammy, tactile greasiness of the vapour as you read the opening passage of Bleak House (1853), with its evocation of fog coming “down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city”.
But perhaps my newfound allegiance to the House of Maxwell is that I simply prefer it over the expensive stuff (which, don't get me wrong, I still occasionally enjoy). Cheap coffee is one of America's most unsung comfort foods. It's as warming and familiar as a homemade lasagna or a 6-hour stew. It tastes of midnight diners and Tom Waits songs; ice cream and cigarettes with a dash of Swiss Miss. It makes me remember the best cup of coffee I ever had. Even though there was never just one best cup: there were hundreds.