Aw-nay-shuh: the jaw hinging open, letting loose the tongue that flicks across the top of the palate, before retreating behind the teeth to nestle into its postalveolar hush. Aw. Nay. Shuh. Or, rather, Onnesha, in its proper spelling. It wasn’t until I was thirty that I thought to give restaurants a simpler name to hold a reservation. I still pause and feel guilty every time I say, “Anna.” Like somehow I’m trying to pass. I expect this person who doesn’t give a shit to look at me, say, “There’s no way your name is Anna.”
During a brief phase when I was six or seven, I requested that my family refer to me as Elizabeth. My mother asked me didn’t I like my own name, which was much more unique and beautiful? It was a solid parenting gesture, though confusing as it was coming from a woman named Pamela with long, straight, blondish brown locks and blue eyes. There was power in a name, and I figured if mine were Elizabeth, maybe the blue eyes and blonde hair would follow. I would look more like her. My mother. She has stories of walking around—me in her arms, my brother in a stroller—and people asking what country we were adopted from. My mother is too polite to say things like, The country of my vagina.
In elementary school, on the first day of class or whenever there was a substitute, I knew when to raise my hand and say “here.” It was that pause. A person wondering if they had the necessary gear to scale the heap of consonants and vowels that compose my name. Here. It was a kind of preemptive strike—to be in on the joke before it could be made. Like: I already know what you’re thinking. I get it. My name is ridiculous.
Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) was the first film I saw after I moved to Japan in 1987. A Zen-trained painter from San Francisco, who’d spent fifteen years around Kyoto mastering its classical arts and the graces they stand for, pushed a videotape into his creaking machine the day we met, my first week in the old capital, and urged me to sit still. He’d already spent all day showing me the sights of my new adopted home, and now he might have been sharing with me a guidebook to its heart. We sat for 143 minutes on the tatami mat in his crumbling old wooden house, paper screens around us, and the piercing melancholy of the central story, about a bureaucrat in a dead-end job suddenly realizing he is about to die of stomach cancer, carried me off into what seemed to be a distinctly Japanese sensibility. I’d been trained, after all, by devouring most of Kurosawa’s other films before I arrived, as he was the Japanese filmmaker most accessible to (and in) the West.
But when I watched the film again recently, after half a lifetime in Japan, I was taken aback at how very un-Japanese it seemed: in the broadness of its satire, in the zaniness of its switches from one genre to another, in the almost violent simplicity of its message and story. The end was more moving than ever, as it famously cuts to the old man, Watanabe, on a swing, waveringly singing “Life is Brief”; twenty-eight years with a Japanese wife helped me to recognize and feel the spirit and charm (as well as the unabashed appetite) of the hero’s young female colleague, who gives the film its moments of sunshine and fresh purpose. I was even able now to notice that, when she greets the central figure in the street with what is translated as “Station Chief,” she is in fact calling out, “Daddy!”
The business of filmmaking is indeed booming in China, but not necessarily the artistry of Chinese cinema, which pertains to the innovative and imaginative form of storytelling that can yield memorable films of cross-cultural appeal and recognition. Recent Chinese cinematic fast food with the likes of Guo Jingming’s Tiny Times franchise and Monster Hunt are hardly masterpieces in the caliber of first-class world cinema. In comparison to the exhilarating outburst of waves of new cinema of the 1980s, Chinese cinema in the 2010s has yielded few memorable pictures of genuine delight.
Meanwhile, while outsourcing much of its production and exporting most of its tentpole blockbuster fare, Hollywood has reserved a spot for A-class quality films of cinematic feast and genuine human touch. One recent instance is Bridge of Spies, a cinematic masterstroke helmed by Hollywood’s consummate dream weaver Steven Spielberg, with delicious ingredients from the Coen brothers, who rewrote the original screenplay. The result is a film at once earnest and ironic, sweet and sinister, conventional and iconic, patriotic and cosmopolitan — a dexterous exercise in genre-bending and auteur-mixing. The film attests to the enduring charm of a classical Hollywood cinema with boundless grit, wit, and class — something that is thoroughly lacking in Chinese cinema.
It's worth repeating: Sometimes the most deeply flawed books are the most interesting. A corollary: Sometimes the most deeply flawed books are the most readable.
I was having my second Frogasm of the night when dinner got weird.
Not that this or any other night at Señor Frog’s in Times Square was ever fully conventional. In point of fact, I had already danced in a conga line wearing a three-foot-high crown of yellow and orange balloons that made me look like Simba in a production of “The Lion King” staged by balloon animals.
In further point of fact, I had also eaten a foot-long chili dog presented on a skateboard. Consider, too, that outside Señor Frog’s I had passed a sign promising that “Drinks go in, fun comes out!” (If nothing else, I was looking forward to seeing the restrooms.) The drink that was going in, a deviant margarita, came in a plastic cup that had a long, thrusting, curved, ridged shaft, ostensibly modeled on the trunk of a palm tree but impossible to grasp without thinking: “ribbed for her pleasure.”
Whether such a thing as God exists is one of those questions that we use to mark our identities, choose our friends, and divide our families. But there are also moments when the question starts to seem suspect, or only partly useful. Once, backstage before a sold-out debate at the University of Notre Dame between Craig and Sam Harris, Dawkins’s fellow New Atheist, I heard an elderly Catholic theologian approach Harris and spit out: ‘I agree with you more than I do with that guy!’
My favorite vulgar word by far is “shit.” I was about six years old when I learned the word, and ever since I’ve felt the greatest fondness for it. It seems to me one of the truly irreplaceable words in the language.
I learned the word from my childhood friend, Tony Tanzio. “Shit” was not the first bad word that Tony taught me. The first was “asshole.” It was Tony’s appellation for the ants that thronged around and into an ant hole that Tony and I found at the base of an aged, rather patriarchal oak tree. I knew that the primary name for these creatures was ants, but when Tony referred to them as “little assholes,” I decided that there was a secondary term. Many items in the world seemed to go around under two names, why not ants?
If science has dismantled the Enlightenment notion of “the rational man,” is Pinker’s optimism justified, or should Kahneman’s nihilism be our default view of the human condition? This problem becomes particularly acute when a book both outlines our deeply rooted behavioral inclinations and simultaneously suggests that they might be overcome. The better your argument for our inherent limitations, the weaker become your bootstrap suggestions for self-improvement.
In an outsize reference to yet another Russian classic, the doctor and his driver have to ax their way out of the frozen nose. They soldier on, but these Russian driving-through-the-snow stories never end well.
I watched The Assassin twice: once before I met its director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and once after. If you were to ask me what I “got” from our discussion about his film, I would say, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” I am not saying that I have learned nothing from Hou at all. Rather, the idea of nothingness is the very something — and probably the best thing — that I managed to take from our conversation.
In the final few weeks of what was, for me, a pretty bad year, a phrase has hung around in my head. I say it to myself sometimes: “Babe. Neither of us r the same.” It’s a seven-word excerpt from a Twitter story that captivated the internet for a few days this fall, and it’s only as deep as you want it to be.
About six-and-a-half months ago, my cousin and I were crushed between the passenger side of a fourteen-thousand-pound Ford F450 truck and a line of cement Jersey barriers, the only objects that separated us from a very long drop into very shallow water. It was a Thursday in the first week of June, nearing midnight, and we were trying to get from New York to Rhode Island for a bachelorette party. We had a flat tire, and then the car caught fire and, anyway, we made it as far as the Q Bridge in New Haven.
Where today’s titles offer consumers a neat package of therapy, escape and nostalgia, 1960s coloring books were both genuinely novel and subversive.
For many of its people, “England” retains a primordial emotional power that “Britain” never achieved. The institutions of the state are British: the British Museum, the British Broadcasting Corporation. Likewise the mighty engines of industry and commerce: British Petroleum, British Airways. But when a poet contemplated laying down his life for his country, hewrote, “If I should die, think only this of me; that there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.” Newcomers to the U.K. rapidly acquire a “British” identity. There’s a Muslim Council of Britain, and “British Asians,” “British blacks,” and “British Jewry.” But it’s a very rare newcomer who becomes English: T.S. Eliot, maybe, or Nirad Chaudhuri, and they often give the game away by overdoing it—leaving the English to worry that they are being mocked rather than mimicked. (As Henry Higgins laughingly sings in My Fair Lady: “‘Her English is too good,’ he said, ‘That clearly indicates that she is foreign.’”) Britain could be dissolved by a vote in Parliament but, as the saying goes, there will always be an England.
Perhaps that pharmaceutical approach to our inner cave man or cave woman will work out someday. In the meantime, we can take some psychic comfort from the fact that our pudginess may not be pure gluttony, nor our anxiety some culpable failure of the will. Forgive your genes, Dr. Goldman concludes: “As a society we need to become less judgmental of one another and oftentimes less critical of ourselves.”
Carol Rumens's poem of the week, The Guardian
That friendship is now broken. Most of us don’t orient to our loved ones using the lights in the sky, nor do we spend our nights pondering what in the 1920s the poet Robinson Jeffers called that ‘useless intelligence of far stars’. Discoveries in astronomy and physics of the past century expanded the known universe by orders of magnitude in size and age, and turned cosmology into a true observational science. Those breakthroughs urged upon us an extraordinary stretch of the imagination, even as related technological advances detached nearly everyone from that larger world by making the stars safe to ignore.
Today, we are more disconnected from the stars than ever before. Even utilitarian attachments have fallen away, as the markers that form our sense of place in the wider world have shifted from the distant to the local. Navigators once used the stars as reference marks; the GPS units in modern cellphones refer instead to a constellation of artificial satellites in orbit around the Earth, synchronised to atomic clocks in ground-based laboratories. (There has been one intriguing reversal of the trend: anxiety about the wartime vulnerability of the GPS system recently prompted the US Naval Academy to reinstate the teaching of celestial navigation. This particular unease is an apt metaphor for our general anxiety about losing our way when the lights go out, about where we stand in general relation to the world.)
Many people want to have children. But they might wonder: is it ethical to bring a child into this broken world, where she might suffer – and partake in – various harms and injustices? Others prefer not to have children. This choice also raises ethical qualms: is it ‘selfish’ to refrain from procreating? Are non-parents failing to contribute to the future of humanity – to the building of the next generation – in a way that we all should if we can?
What Rita Felski explains with such insight and clarity in her new book, The Limits of Critique, is that the features that make these theories seem so different from one another are the very things that ground them all in a common ethos, the ethos of critique. Whether she takes a formalist or a queer approach, the critic’s job is to interrogate the text, diagnose its complicity with social forces, rebel against this complicity, and extol the virtues of texts that do this work for us. The authority of critique depends, in part, on its dispassionate tone, its ability to provide the critic with enough distance to identify and interrogate what seems like common sense. If she does not engage in critique, then the critic is thought to be naive, uninterested in politics, or, far worse, a humanist!
The medium once championed their voices, but now, fewer than 20 percent of Rotten Tomatoes-excerpted reviews are by women.
An outback tour is not a luxury cruise. A cruise liner gives the impression that everything is taken care of, and available. This is impossible when you’re the sole driver/guide, and it doesn’t make for a good experience anyway. I prefer to give the illusion of barely contained chaos. It contributes to people’s sense of adventure and togetherness. When it’s going well, it will feel like you’re the captain of a pirate ship.
If a family of native mice sneak on board your bus, and are only discovered when you’re barrelling down the highway, don’t stop. If there is screaming and hopping and running about, smile ruefully and say, “Welcome to the outback.” This is the most important phrase in your arsenal. Keep driving if you can. Maybe shout some words of encouragement, as the tourists round up the mice into saucepans.
I am not the intended audience for William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. Likely you’re not either, as you’re reading this on Tor.com. We read fantasy. We love books about heroes and villains and giants and princesses. We are not so cynical that we have to be coaxed into a story about true love and a wicked prince and a masked pirate.
The term “shooting from the hip” could have been invented to describe Mark Cohen’s style of street photography. Like many of the 1960s pioneers, Cohen likes to surprise his subjects, capturing them as they pass by and often without them even being aware that they have been photographed.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, though – Garry Winogrand, say, or Bruce Gilden – Cohen’s images do not tend towards the cruel or the confrontational. Rather, there is a certain tenderness to the best shots, particularly when his subject matter is children or teenagers. A beautiful little book called Dark Knees, which accompanied a mini-retrospective of his work at Le Bal in Paris a few years ago, homed in on this aspect of his work to poetic effect, emphasising just how singular a stylist Cohen is, not least in the way he crops the human figure or captures it from odd angles.
Punk, we greasy teens soon learned, was once the rightful province of a worthy few able to discern reality from simulacrum, irony from sincerity, punks from poseurs, shit from Shinola. Punk was diametrically opposed to massification; like an ailing Victorian child, it would die if exposed to the slavering crowd. The thrust of this purist insider aesthetic was neatly summed up in the first track of the debut (and only) album from L.A.’s great crash-and-burn hardcore punk outfit the Germs—“What We Do Is Secret,” a dictum that was almost instantly repealed in a series of cinematic and literary productions devoted to the sainted memory of martyred Germs founder Darby Crash. (The Janus-faced nature of punk’s tetchy relationship to commerce was also embedded right there in the Germs original lineup, which featured Belinda Carlisle, who would go on to front mega-pop New Wave leviathan the Go-Go’s before posing for Playboy, marrying a Republican fund-raiser, discovering Buddhism, and—of course—publishing a memoir.)
But by this summer, none of the ideas for season two seemed to be coming together perfectly or quickly enough. Serial had made a public commitment to its listeners, some of whom had donated money, that a new season would arrive in 2015, and had also made some commitments to the lead sponsors of that yet-to-be-built follow-up — MailChimp, Squarespace, and Audible.com, back from the first season — but also, this time, a streaming deal with Pandora, which had brought in its own advertisers (bigger fish like Esurance and the Warner Bros. film In the Heart of the Sea).
The folks at Serial figured the best way to keep all those commitments was to take on a partner: Page One, a multiplatform media outfit bankrolled by Hollywood producer Megan Ellison and home to Mark Boal, the journalist turned filmmaker who won an Oscar for his script for The Hurt Locker and also wrote Zero Dark Thirty. (Koenig’s one-word deadpan review: “Heartwarming.”) Koenig is building the new season on 25 hours of taped interviews Boal did with Bergdahl as research for a feature film; she herself is not interviewing Bergdahl at all, which is an unusual position for any journalist to be in. Especially since part of what made last season so compelling was the intimacy of her prepaid-call-from-prison tango with the accused, which, truth be told, some listeners read into. “Oh, that I’m in love with Adnan?” Koenig says. “That he was” — she breaks into a teen lilt — “myyy boyfriend? I found that so fucking offensive.”
That Christmas, I realized we may never know the value of the gifts we give to others every day. And it is at bookstores, at actual physical places, that we make connections with other people, where we give and receive small ordinary gestures of humanity. If I had run into Mr. Cho on the street, I might not have said anything. He didn’t recognize me or remember me, so I might have let him walk on by. It was because we were at the bookstore, a place where I feel confident and knowledgeable, that I said hello and we connected. And that was the moment I understood why we all keep coming to these places that some might call obsolete: that it is in such places that we can still feel like more than a confirmation number, that we can still feel like a person in the world.
Fundamentalists’ reaction to modernity is predictable. They are threatened by individualism, the upending of traditional values and gradual decimation of institutions that have historically maintained moral order. What is novel in the fundamentalists’ response is that they use modern technology to promote their regressive morality.
For the millennial generation, the same technology expands rather than contracts their horizons. As I argue in my book Finding Faith, tradition means little to them. They pick and choose among various options, including the array of religions and forms of spirituality.
The common denominator of fundamentalism and millennial individualism is “over-choice.” For the former, choice is a threat. For the latter, it is an opportunity for self-expression.
I remember the year my mother ceded the holidays to me. I was still in my 30s, with a new baby, and a new house, and in-laws who had decided to come down from Virginia and, in my mother-in-law’s always guileless words, “help out.”
At the time, being home in Houston for Thanksgiving and Christmas seemed like the best solution to a complex problem: My husband and I were not quite up to moving our newborn and all his faux-portable equipment to my parents’ home in San Antonio. Yet my parents were not quite willing to cede our son’s first Thanksgiving to my husband’s family.
In 1957, Roland Barthes illustrated how semiotic units are animated by forces outside of themselves by showing how the lack of a pure signifier means that any sign is subject to being taken up and deployed for multiple uses. Barthes used this modulation away from a sign’s apparent meaning — what Barthes referred to as myth — to articulate the ways in which ideology saturates language. The starting point for our inquiry, then, is the question of how the “science” in “science fiction” is taken up and deployed as something other than its apparent meaning.
By the time the fourth round of shots and beers arrives at our table at the karaoke bar in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, the crab fishermen are no longer paying attention to me. They don't notice that I'm not drinking or that I'm typing into my phone, even though there's no cell service. They're too busy getting ready to sing songs by AC/DC, Bob Seger and Hank Williams Jr. to an audience of lonely fisherman. I might as well be invisible, which is just the way I like it.
I'd traveled to Alaska's Aleutian Islands to spend time with Scott Campbell Jr., captain of the Seabrooke, famed for his role on Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch." The trip was the culmination of a series of interviews that would eventually lead to the 2014 book "Giving the Finger: Risking It All to Fish the World's Deadliest Sea." Campbell's face, boat and name are on the cover — as is my name, the co-author's, in much smaller letters.
Sometimes we are accused — believe it or not — of being overly negative in our annual Year in Review. Critics say we ignore the many positive events in a given year and focus instead on the stupid, the tragic, the evil, the disgusting, the Kardashians.
OK, critics: We have heard you. This year, instead of dwelling on the negatives, we’re going to start our annual review with a List of the Top 10 Good Things That Happened in 2015. Ready? Here we go:
1. We didn’t hear that much about Honey Boo Boo.
OK, we’ll have to get back to you on Good Things 2 through 10. We apologize, but 2015 had so many negatives that we’re having trouble seeing the positives. It’s like we’re on the Titanic, and it’s tilting at an 85-degree angle with its propellers way up in the air, and we’re dangling over the cold Atlantic trying to tell ourselves: “At least there’s no waiting for the shuffleboard courts!”
Nostalgia is intrinsically conservative. It dwells on loss and seeks comfort in false memory. Yet Britain is capable of optimism. Whether it was the Great Exhibition of 1851 or the Swinging Sixties, there have been times when tomorrow was a bounty, not a threat. The urge to curl up on the back seat of the car is a phase, a natural reaction to economic and political uncertainty. And maybe Christmas is the wrong time to challenge that impulse. ’Tis, after all, the season to regress and watch old movies. But – I say this as an atheist – it is also the festival of infinite promise, of hope incarnate in the newborn child. You don’t need the gospel to get with that spirit. As the high priest of secular Christmas nostalgia, Neville “Noddy” Holder MBE, sings: “Look to the future now, it’s only just begun.”
Nothing about Nadar was ever straightforward, as the photograph on the cover of When I Was a Photographer reveals. There he is, a dapper daredevil in his top hat and floppy cravat, in the basket of a gas balloon, floating high among the clouds, binoculars at the ready, ballast and grapnel hook within easy reach. He’s scanning the horizon, coolly indulging one of his ardent enthusiasms: human flight.
But the photograph is a fake: it was staged in his plush studio on the top floor of 35, Boulevard des Capucines, in the heart of fashionable Paris. The clouds are a painted backdrop, the basket dangles in perfect safety a couple of feet above the floor of the studio. Even that intent gaze is a con: Nadar, who was myopic, could see into the distance only with his specs on.
With its software-generated stories, Lost My Name has carved out an unusual niche within children’s publishing. Instead of relying on audio and visual bells and whistles to engage children, like three-dimensional pop-ups or buttons that play music, Lost My Name aims to make the narrative itself more captivating, by using computer codes to weave personal details into the storyline. Despite all the technology driving it, the resulting product looks and feels oddly, and charmingly, traditional.
Thomson has written about film for decades, although he’s probably best known for “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” one of those reference books that you can browse for hours. As one might expect, he’s seen everything. Throughout “How to Watch a Movie,” he often speaks of his latest or most recent screening of, say, “The Godfather,” “Citizen Kane” or “Psycho.” In fact, Thomson’s critical advice can be reduced to a single dictum: Watch serious films more than once. To this, one might add two corollaries: Always pay close attention and, even as you surrender to the screen action, keep a part of your brain thinking about and judging what’s happening.
My commuting choices—just like everyone’s—are the sum of the advantages of one transportation mode weighed against the downsides of all other options. Or, more succinctly: my feelings about the bus are mediated by what I’m thinking about my car.
At a macro level, this decision-process implies that there are two ways to shift more commuters out of single-occupancy vehicles and into other modes of transportation, whether that’s biking, carpooling, walking, or transit. We can incentivize transit by making all of those other options more attractive. Or we can disincentivize driving by making it less so. What’s become increasingly apparent in the United States is that we’ll only get so far playing to the first strategy without incorporating the second.
The counterculture claimed Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland right around the time of its 100th birthday in 1965, when young people re-interpreted the book’s 19th-century fantasy of disorder as a trope for altered mental states. At the time, Lewis Carroll’s jubilant celebration of chaos seemed to have been in waiting to become a subversive rallying point — most famously by Grace Slick; her 1965 song “White Rabbit” referenced not only Carroll but also Owsley Stanley, the chemist known by that moniker, who provided the musicians of the day with LSD. Carroll’s imagery was in a sense re-claimed by supreme Surrealist Salvador Dalí (“I do not take drugs; I am drugs”) in 1969, when Random House joined with Maecenas Press to publish a limited edition of the text with 13 electrifying Dalí compositions. Drugs or no drugs, Dalí captured the youth culture’s mixture of mad energy and entranced introspection. His images still delight and amaze today: a gargantuan rabbit with a pulsing eye leaps over a mushroom; a fiery orange tree sprouts through the center of a melting clock strewn with teacups.
The British essayist Ronald Blythe called it “the climax of Jane Austen’s genius and the Parthenon of fiction.” It’s now more customary to rank Emma as Austen’s “most perfect” book. But given that Austen has a pretty good claim on the title of Most Perfect Novelist—she never published a bad or even a weak novel—and Emma is widely acknowledged to be her masterpiece, calling it her most perfect book is really just a sly way of asserting its supremacy in the form. Why not come right out and admit it? Emma, which was published 200 years ago today, is indeed the perfect novel.
Earlier this year, the British writer Tessa Hadley described “The Past” as “more plotty” than her previous novels. “It has a stronger narrative curve,” she explained, “which drives us from the first pages to the last.” That’s both hilarious and entirely apt because, in one sense, “The Past” couldn’t be more placid. Yet these elegant pages are so preternaturally gripping that they countenance no interruption.
“Let me know what you decide,” he said, turning back to his computer. I excused myself to Google Wall Street Journal stories about what constitutes a good deal when upgrading. The price he was quoting me was hundreds of dollars less.
“Okay fine I’ll take it.”
One credit-card swipe later (so easy!) the man's attitude toward me brightened considerably. “Okay, as a first-class passenger, you now have access to the Admiral lounge.”
How was our Universe created? How did it come to be the seemingly infinite place we know of today? And what will become of it, ages from now? These are the questions that have been puzzling philosophers and scholars since the beginning the time, and led to some pretty wild and interesting theories. Today, the consensus among scientists, astronomers and cosmologists is that the Universe as we know it was created in a massive explosion that not only created the majority of matter, but the physical laws that govern our ever-expanding cosmos.
This is known as The Big Bang Theory. For almost a century, the term has been bandied about by scholars and non-scholars alike. This should come as no surprise, seeing as how it is the most accepted theory of our origins. But what exactly does it mean? How was our Universe conceived in a massive explosion, what proof is there of this, and what does the theory say about the long-term projections for our Universe?
Today, we take our global system of timekeeping largely for granted: 24 time zones rippling serenely outward from Greenwich; a year of 12 months, divided into 52 weeks, recognized from San Francisco to Shanghai; the much-loathed biannual leap of daylight saving time. These are the conventions that let us talk and travel and trade across the world without batting an eye. Yet in her imaginative and thought-provoking new book The Global Transformation of Time, 1870-1950, Vanessa Ogle reminds us that standardization and simultaneity had to be invented.
A handsome book just arrived on my desk. War Is Beautiful the title declares. Surely not! Then I see the subtitle: “The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict.” Ah, irony. An asterisk takes me to some tiny print at the bottom left of the cover: “(in which the author explains why he no longer reads The New York Times).” And who is the author? David Shields, the man who gave us Reality Hunger and many other thoughtful provocations. In fact, I now recall that a couple of years ago Shields, with whom I occasionally exchange an email opinion or two, and who was then on the lookout for a publisher, ran this project past me and although at the time I saw neither the book’s title or its actual photographic contents, I endorsed his introductory essay with the quote: “Absolutely right, to the point and guaranteed to stir things up.”
So maybe I’ve been wrong: Maybe Britain hasn’t really ceased to exist completely. A lot of what constitutes “Britain” has lost its material basis — has lacked it since the Empire collapsed, really. Like a Christmas tree, it has been cut off from its roots but continues to give the illusion of life, as it stands in a bucket of water, nourished just enough not to lose all of its needles while it is still in the living room. But “The Baking Show” can help Britain grow new roots. For instance, it can provide the nation with its first genuine hijab-wearing celebrity — no small thing in a year where the dominant narrative throughout the West has been the increasing marginalization of Muslims from public life.
Maybe because the creation of toast is such a meaningful transformation in itself, the toaster has acquired a special relevance and inspired in us an affection we do not feel for, say, a microwave.
The picture that the Lucasfilm faithful relentlessly call A New Hope but everyone else calls Star Wars came out in 1977. It and its sequels (and TV movies and cartoons and toys and bedsheets) burrowed deep into popular culture. And if the people at the Walt Disney Company, which bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, have anything to say about it, the past four decades of Star Wars were merely prologue. They are making more. A lot more. The company intends to put out a new Star Wars movie every year for as long as people will buy tickets. Let me put it another way: If everything works out for Disney, and if you are (like me) old enough to have been conscious for the first Star Wars film, you will probably not live to see the last one. It’s the forever franchise.
“If there is a rule in biology, I can think about how it does not apply to fungi,” Anne Pringle, a mycologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said earlier this year. “They challenge our preconceptions of how biology works.” Neither plant nor animal (though closer to the latter in evolutionary terms), fungi are everywhere. They are, for the most part, invisible, single-celled microbes and cobwebs of wispy mycelial thread, lurking beneath the surface of things. Even those species that fruit, into the fleshy scallops, caps, and puffballs that we call mushrooms, tend to be frustratingly well-camouflaged. Scientists often describe fungi as cryptic. Their lifestyles are poorly understood, and their taxonomy is a mess. And yet, without them, biology would not work at all. Fungi are a forest’s sanitation department; in ecosystems across the globe, they break down and recycle organic matter, along the way supplying plants with nutrients, water, and chemical defenses.
The difference between “slut” and a mere vulgarity like “cunt” — a term that is gendered, to be sure, but whose very definition most certainly merits contempt — is that the former attempts to degrade a whole segment of the population, while the latter only attempts to degrade a particular individual. Only the former is necessarily sexist, and only the former is a slur. Slurs are, of course, inherently false. They are lies. Men and women who use the term “slut” as a weapon reveal, it turns out, very little about their targets, and a great deal about themselves.
It can be comforting to laugh at Hitler. Laughter helps audiences feel that they’ve overcome evil—that a mass murderer is not only safely locked away in the history books, but also somehow defanged. During World War II, anti-Nazi propaganda aimed to make Hitler look either incredibly evil or utterly ridiculous. Modern-day Nazi comedies have adopted the same basic tactics, from silly costumes to “Heil” jokes to caricatures of the German language. The problem with most contemporary Nazi comedies isn’t that they’re offensive or humorless. It’s that they tend to be humorous and not much else.
The best thing about Mr. Axelrod’s frequently absorbing book is how idiosyncratic it feels; he is a unique presence on the page. You feel he is saying, to quote Robert Louis Stevenson, “You must suffer me to go my own dark way.”
Carol Rumens's Poem of the Week, The Guardian
You imagined 99 to your 100. But by “young” he meant 65. What “young” ended up meaning was 35.
In the memory book the funeral home gave you, there was a page to record his exact age in years, months and days. You added hours; you even added minutes, because you had that information. You were there when he had the heart attack.
Now it seemed that minutes were so very important. There was that moment in the emergency room when you begged for 10 more. You would’ve traded everything for the speck of time it would take to say his name, to hear him say your name.
hen I was 19, life changed in an instant. One minute Mum was there – coming through the door every day in her red duffle coat, greeting the dog enthusiastically – the next, she was gone. She died late one February night in a car crash. While everyone fell apart, I was determined that grief would not take me over, so in an act of denial I took a deep breath and swallowed the pain. While the dog would continue to whimper for her each day at “home time” until the day he died, I went to bed dry-eyed, wishing only that one day life would feel normal again.
But the shockwaves from mum’s crash pulsed on, splintering not only us, but the wider family too. While some pull together in tragedy, upset, anger and pain tore us all apart. Within a few months, we had lost not only mum, but the wider family web and all the annual family celebrations that came with them. My wish for normality seemed to be slipping further and further out of reach.
So when Dad announced later that summer, over jacket potatoes in a Somerset pub garden, that he hated Christmas, the final punch was thrown. Christmas was officially over.
When Japanese people want a really good read they may not pick a spy thriller, a sci-fi fantasy or a throbbing romance - they may choose a novel about the world of business, with a besuited middle manager as its hero. Business novels now routinely feature in bestseller lists, and have even made the transition from the printed page to chart-topping TV drama.
When considering the entirety of Bush-versus-Gore, it is worth disentangling three distinct lines of inquiry. First, did Florida’s electoral system accurately identify the aggregate preference of the eligible voters who attempted to record their preferences through that system, and, if not, why was Florida unable to remedy this inaccuracy? Second, what would have been a fair procedure for handling the chads that became the focus of the litigation, and insofar as the procedure used fell short, who is responsible for that failure and with what consequence? Third, insofar as the US Supreme Court did become involved in the dispute, did it act appropriately, and if not, what effect did its involvement ultimately have?
(Excerpted from "Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States")
I grew up in a Manhattan apartment whose view encompassed sky, clouds, and other apartments. For a while I kept a pair of binoculars on the windowsill. I used them before going to bed, a kind of voyeuristic nightcap. Most of the pleasure I got came from noting which lights were on and which were off in other people’s apartments. I would sometimes wonder if somewhere out there, in one of the unlit windows, perhaps, there was a kid with binoculars looking back at me.
When I think about the outstanding things I read this year, however, what comes to mind isn’t a stack of “best books.” Instead, I recall a flickering series of moments I’ve been unable to shake: killing jokes and stolen kisses and fleeting glimpses; scenes and ideas and sleights of hand.
Reginald Edward Morse, the hero of “Hotels of North America,” Rick Moody’s elaborate new skit of a novel, does get around. Milan, Spokane, London, Washington, Tulsa, Tuscaloosa, Cleveland, Des Moines, Chicago, Charlottesville: He’s crossed the deserts bare, man, he’s breathed the mountain air, he’s been everywhere. Morse is a motivational speaker, which accounts for his traveling, but he also moonlights as a reviewer for a website called RateYourLodging.com, which accounts for the way this novel is constructed: as a series of 37 hotel reviews.
In “Trading Places,” Prestowitz explored postwar history to understand how Japan had come to achieve such dramatic economic gains. In “Japan Restored,” he works backward from an imagined future to deduce how Japan can reestablish and bolster its position as a central player in the world’s strategic balance. That future would require a series of transformations that would reverse long-standing — and in some cases seemingly immutable — trends.
The notion of ‘human remains’ can disturb, but as a custodian of anatomical specimens, I think it’s important to understand death: it’s a big part of life.
The humanities are in crisis. It’s become orthodoxy. In fact, so much attention has been paid to the ‘crisis of the humanities’ that few have stopped to ask if there actually is such a crisis. Over just the past few generations, enormous changes have transformed higher education. These changes have brought a greater proportion of 18-year-olds to university. In the case of most countries apart from the United States, this brings a huge increase, from a low base – and thus tremendous changes in the composition of that student body in terms of class, gender, ethnicity and other key markers. In each generation, commentators have predicted (and policymakers have demanded) that the humanities would suffer from a more utilitarian, career-oriented, tech-savvy influx. But it hasn’t happened.
The severely scaled-down units are neither a utopia nor a dystopia. In fact, they expand housing options across many demographics.
The Book Collector is an exercise in using traditional tropes and leaving whopping clues lying around, while still creating unease and suspense. Perhaps Thompson resolves and reveals too much at the end – I like to be left in doubt, myself – but she has created an elegant and bloodily shocking entertainment.
There’s a narrative effect to the way Yoda speaks. To an English speaker, anyway, the way he orders his sentences sounds vaguely riddle-like, which adds to his mystique.
But what’s actually going on with Yoda, linguistically?
An 18-year-old said she was attacked at knifepoint. Then she said she made it up. That’s where our story begins.
This year, my wife suggested that we take a family vacation to Vietnam. Our daughters are growing up — Lein was 19 years old and Tai was 16, and she pointed out that they won’t want to be dragged along with their parents much longer. Plus, she said. “We’re not getting any younger.”
Still, I thought she was crazy. I know a lot of Westerners are discovering Vietnam (“world-class cuisine,” “breathtaking natural beauty” and “Asia’s most resilient peoples” are a few descriptions you will find on travel sites), but it wasn’t at the top of my list as a vacation destination. Maybe that’s because I was born there. It has been more than 40 years since I left and, to this day, I still feel some trepidation at the sound of exploding fireworks. To me, they reverberate vividly in my memory like those turbulent last days of the war.
It is intriguing that for decades “wooden” has been a decidedly pejorative description. No actor or sportsman wanted to be called “wooden”. Until a few years ago, there was no material or fuel as unfashionable as wood. In an age of dirt-cheap oil, open fires were seen on as labour-intensive and hastily bricked up. Very few sculptors – bar the incomparable David Nash – worked in wood, and only prophetic writers such as Bruce Stanley (Forest Church) or Roger Deakin (Wildwood) dared talk about the transcendence of woodlands.
Now, at last, wood is being rehabilitated. More than that: it is suddenly fashionable, and Norwegian Wood has become one of the most uplifting publishing stories of 2015. A simple, elegant book about how to fell trees – about how to move the timber and then split and stack the logs in the most efficient, aesthetic ways – it has already sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It is one of those books, full of lush, earthy photos, about which people seem to become almost evangelical.
When the media praises the heroically frugal, there’s an ugly subtext: that our financial woes are exclusively our faults.
To get to Saldang is simple, if not exactly easy. You walk. The nearest airport, many days away by foot, is a rough dirt strip at an altitude of about eight thousand feet. It sits on the side of a Himalayan mountain in the Dolpo district of northwest Nepal, on the border with Tibet. Heading north from the village of Juphal, a labyrinth of small houses on a steep slope, you encounter a place where fossil fuels are not part of daily life. In much of the region, there are no roads. Horses, mules, and yaks—and men, women, and children—carry goods on trails.
One autumn day, the Nomads Clinic, a medical-service trip, pilgrimage, and adventure expedition, set off from Juphal with six riding horses, and fifty pack mules laden with a month’s worth of food, cooking equipment, camping gear, and clothing. Six duffels were stuffed with medicine and medical equipment—asthma inhalers, deworming pills, vitamins, analgesics, antibiotics. Others held hundreds of solar lights, toothbrushes, sunglasses, and reading glasses, to be given away. It was the 2015 edition of a mobile clinic that Joan Halifax, a seventy-three-year-old American teacher of Zen Buddhism, has been coördinating since the nineteen-eighties, to provide medical care in places where there is little or none.
From the age of 6, Jaynes had been transfixed by the singularity of conscious experience. Gazing at a yellow forsythia flower, he’d wondered how he could be sure that others saw the same yellow as he did. As a young man, serving three years in a Pennsylvania prison for declining to support the war effort, he watched a worm in the grass of the prison yard one spring, wondering what separated the unthinking earth from the worm and the worm from himself. It was the kind of question that dogged him for the rest of his life, and the book he was working on would grip a generation beginning to ask themselves similar questions.
I was mystified at first as to how I was able to tolerate, let alone devour, a book so devoted to two of my least-favorite literary topoi (pedophilia, lifestyles of the rich and glamorous). Then it occurred to me that perhaps what was so compelling was precisely the combination of the two. It’s as if you get to see all the misery—the moral compromise, inequality, jealousy, and self-doubt—that we know lies behind every gorgeously finished brownstone floor-through, every “prestigious” career, every “major award,” every super-expensive sushi dinner at a New York City restaurant with only six seats (“all at a wide, velvety cypress counter”), displaced on to this one guy. That’s why his suffering has to be so far over the top.
This month, Congress may decide whether consumers are smart enough to be trusted with their own food choices. Some lawmakers are trying to insert language into must-pass spending legislation that would block states from giving consumers the right to know whether their food contains genetically modified ingredients.
They must be stopped.
The scattered atolls, reefs and sand bars known as the Spratly Islands are a very difficult place to get to. Some are controlled by Vietnam, others by the Philippines, one by Taiwan, and then of course there are those controlled by China.
Don't expect an invitation from Beijing. Believe me, I've tried. Only the Philippines will let you visit a tiny 400m-long scrap of land called Pagasa. It's just about big enough to land a small aircraft on.
Even after a year of landmark anniversaries, Great Britain has rarely looked such a disunited kingdom - but could our national identity crisis reveal the best reason for staying together?
The question sent Ashley into a depressive spiral. Hers just wasn’t the breezy, glamorous life people expected from her. Customers had approached her at work before, starstruck but confused. Why would someone with 90,000 Instagram followers be serving brunch?
Simple: because Ashley needed the money. And yet, she says, “as I started having more visibility on the internet, I had to scale back on serving people.” Her wallet took the hit, and so did her pride. “My coworkers would tell me a table of kids was freaking out [about seeing me] and I’m like, ‘What? Am I going to go say hi and take a picture in my work uniform?’”
The language of food is changing at breakneck speed to reflect new menus, new mashups, new diets, new hashtags.
“We need new words and labels to give voice to our food obsessions and anxieties,” said Josh Friedland, the author of the new book “Eatymology: The Dictionary of Modern Gastronomy.” “And we especially need more words to describe gastronomic emoting,” like “hangry.”
Carol Rumens's poem of the week, The Guardian
A life of homelessness is one of logistical challenges and exhaustion. Little things, like planning a wardrobe for the week, involved coordinated trips to storage units and laundromats, and could take hours. The biggest conundrum? Where to pull over and sleep. Suzan and James learned quickly not to pull over on a residential block, because the neighbors would call the police. They tried a church or two, 24-hour businesses where they thought they could hide amidst the other cars, and even an old naval field. The places with public toilets were best because, for reasons no one can quite explain, 3 a.m. is the witching hour for needing to pee. They kept their socks and shoes on, both for staying warm on chilly Bay Area nights and also for moving quickly if someone peered into their windows, or a cop flashed his light inside, ready to rouse. Wherever they were sleeping, they couldn’t sleep there. “Sometimes, I was so tired, I would be stopped at a red light and say, ‘Don’t go to sleep. Don’t go to sleep,’” Suzan said. “And then I would fall asleep.”
A few months in, a nice man in a 7-Eleven parking lot told them about a former high school turned community center on the eastern side of town called Cubberley. He’d walked up to their van after recognizing signs of life in the car, tired faces among the junk piling up in the back. Suzan and James were familiar with the community center because they’d taken their daughter to preschool there many years before, but they hadn’t thought about sleeping there. Cubberley had a quiet back parking lot, a flat grass amphitheater with a concrete paddock for a stage, and 24-hour public bathrooms with showers in an old gym. Rumor was that the cops wouldn’t bother anyone.
Bitter animosity toward women’s use of cosmetics is nothing new. In her book on makeup practices and production, Face Paint: The Story of Makeup, Lisa Eldridge – a renowned professional makeup artist – charts out the history of the debate on the value of applying color to the body. She finds that makeup has been considered a form of artifice, or even indecency, for a large portion of history from ancient Greece through the present, while, on the other side of the spectrum, some contemporary feminists have denounced makeup as an instrument of oppression that forces women to conform to an ideal.
By way of response to such criticism, Eldridge explores questions as, what motivates women to apply makeup? Do cosmetics warrant the negative reaction that they arouse? What is the value of makeup in women’s lives? She attempts to answer the age-old question of whether its use is driven by mere vanity or some higher aspiration. And what appears to be a history of colors, ingredients, and beauty brands, reveals itself as a more significant enterprise – a kind of history of women. For exploring the various developments and trends in the world of beauty accoutrements, Eldridge discovers a curious phenomenon that reappears again and again throughout the chapters, namely that historically, “it’s during the times when women were most oppressed that makeup was most reviled and seen as unacceptable.” In other words, she observes a strong correlation between the subjugation of women and the attempt to dictate their appearance, particularly in regard to the use of beauty-enhancing products. Eldridge implies that the criticism of makeup is an attempt to regulate women’s self-representation – that makeup use is not merely motivated by the desire for beautification, but that it plays a meaningful role in the largely oppressive history of women – as an exercise in self-expression, an act of emancipating oneself from external forces.
I have only two major objections to Deanna Fei’s “Girl in Glass: How My ‘Distressed Baby’ Defied the Odds, Shamed a CEO, and Taught Me the Essence of Love, Heartbreak, and Miracles.”
The first is its cover. I am looking at you, art department of Bloomsbury. The author has spun a profound work of philosophy and sewn it into the shell of an exquisite memoir. Yet your book jacket, with its emphasis on text and a picture of Ms. Fei’s child in a porthole, is indistinguishable from a parenting guide.
Second: The book’s 100-yard subtitle. For all those words — 20 of them! — we get no hint of the refinement of Ms. Fei’s writing or the book’s overall craftsmanship. Just the opposite. It sounds like a teaser for a segment on “The View.”
My books stank the house out years ago, and have been a nuisance to me ever since, but I did the right thing buying them. Funny how much a boy of eight or nine knows.
What if we could counterfeit reality so completely that the representation would partake of the essence of the original, closing the gap between the world and our imagination of it? What if we could fly? The two dreams link up almost effortlessly, and the technologies of their realization complement each other. The first movie to win a Best Picture Oscar was ‘‘Wings.’’ The most recent was ‘‘Birdman.’’ The camera has learned not only to record flight but also to replicate its rhythms and feelings — to swoop and soar, to blast off and fall to earth, to hover over rooftops and leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Every human culture has used masks for ritual disinhibition, shaming and play. Is being online the ultimate masquerade?
Despite the atrocious spelling, questionable grammar (and civility), and inventive punctuation that mars online product reviews, sometimes gold appears among the dross in comments that are nearly novels unto themselves. Once, while browsing for living-room seating, I came across a review from a grateful woman who authoritatively praised stools “that will stand up to 300+ lb drunks.”
Rick Moody has staked out this fertile terrain in his latest work, “Hotels of North America,” an entertaining and frenetic epistolary-like novel that follows the peregrinations of protagonist Reginald Edward Morse through his own top-rated reviews on Rate Your Lodging, a website similar to TripAdvisor.
It's a long and winding road from those vaudeville spitballs to Eddie Murphy's reign over the 1980s and the debut of "The Daily Show" on the eve of the new millennium, but Nesteroff takes us the whole way. With his encyclopedic knowledge, talent for vivid anecdotes and tireless gusto, he drives this busload of rowdy clowns into the 21st century. By the end, he provides a telling montage of how snarky TV hosts responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Altogether, "The Comedians" is an insightful overview of the most independent and subversive entertainment genre of the last century.
For the past half century, he has been at the forefront of the fight against one of the world’s most feared diseases, and in “The Death of Cancer” he has written an extraordinary chronicle. DeVita’s book is nothing like Siddhartha Mukherjee’s magisterial “The Emperor of All Maladies.” Mukherjee wrote a social and scientific biography of the disease. DeVita, as befits someone who spent a career at the helm of various medical bureaucracies, has written an institutional history of the war on cancer. His interest is in how the various factions and constituencies involved in that effort work together—and his conclusions are deeply unsettling.
‘It was the dead I wanted to talk to. The writers and artists and composers who kept me company in the late hours of the night.” On the edge of suicide, Jessa Crispin finds herself unable to confide in her “married, employed, insured” friends in Chicago. Instead she needs to spend time with the “unloosed, the wandering souls”. Aged 30, she gives up everything and travels to Europe with a single suitcase, hoping that by tracing the footsteps of the dead she can solve the problem of how to live.
A sense of wonder pervades the powerful essays in “The Givenness of Things,” Marilynne Robinson’s new collection. “Existence is remarkable, actually incredible,” Robinson exclaims; even materiality is “profoundly amazing, uncanny.” Yet unlike physics, which has a strong sense of the “givenness” Robinson refers to in her title, neo-Darwinian positivism rejects anything — the self, the soul or God — that cannot be explained empirically. Robinson defines the “given” as something “that presents itself, reveals itself, always partially and circumstantially, accessible to only tentative apprehension, which means that it is always newly meaningful.” Calvin insisted that divine wisdom was one such “given,” perceived only “within radical limits.” Robinson does not say so, but here Calvin was deeply in tune with the great sages of the past, who all maintained that the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana or Dao must always ultimately elude us.
While moments from Allen’s own life have often bled into his jokes and movies, “Woody” emphasizes that it’s a mistake to assume the Allen persona — the wry joke-teller on ’60s and ’70s talk shows or the simpering neurotic from “Annie Hall” — reflects the real Allen. He “pretended” to be “a loser, a nebbish, the guy who fails at everything,” Evanier writes, but that “wasn’t really him. It never had been.” He played up those qualities because they resonated with audiences, and, as a result, Allen “made millions, got the girls, maintained a self-discipline that enabled him to churn out an endless stream of work, and forged an amazing career that would withstand any setback.”
Over nearly three decades as a physician in Oregon, the first state to allow physicians to prescribe drugs for the purpose of ending patients’ lives, Rasmussen developed many strong beliefs about death. The strongest was that patients should have the right to make their own decisions about how to face it. He remembers the scene in Alice’s bedroom as “inspiring, in a sense” — the kind of personal choice that he’d envisioned during the long, lonely years when he’d fought, against the disapproval of nearly everyone he knew and all the way to the Supreme Court, for the right of terminal patients to decide when and how to die.
By the time he retired, Rasmussen had helped dozens of his patients end their lives. But he kept thinking about her. Alice’s pragmatism mirrored the image he had of himself and how he would face such a diagnosis. But while he had often conjured that image — had faced it every time he walked a dying patient through a list of inadequate options — he also knew better than to fully believe in it. How could you be sure what you would do before the decisions were real?
“You don’t know the answer to that until you actually face it,” he said later — after his own diagnosis had been made, after he knew that he had cancer and that he would soon die. “You can say you do, but you don’t really know.”
“It’s a totally brand-new city. I don’t recognize anything,” my mom says, gazing wide-eyed out of the decades-old tram and into the chaotic streets of Hong Kong. “I never used to take the ding ding. It’s so slow,” she complains as the tram operator rings the bell twice to alert pedestrians nearby — emitting a characteristic sound that gives the tram its Cantonese nickname. “But actually, it’s kind of nice. You can take your time to see the scenery around you.”
It’s been 33 years since she moved from Hong Kong to Toronto, and four months since I did the opposite. This is how I became my mother’s tour guide in her own hometown.
“People don’t know why they get so upset about language,” David Crystal told me recently, over Skype from his home in Wales. “ ‘Potato’s,’ with an apostrophe ‘S,’ ” he offered, as an example of the kind of thing that drives some people batty, “but you ask them, ‘Why are you so upset?’, and they can’t answer you.” Crystal is an independent linguist and the author, co-author, or editor of more than a hundred books about language. His newest book, “Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation,” takes for granted that we all have anxiety—and, therefore, curiosity—about punctuation. His response to this anxiety is to explain calmly but firmly how punctuation rules came to be.
The moment it was accepted that Aristotle had not been right about everything was a crucial turning point in the history of science.
In the 1990s, when literary parties were more fun, or I was more fun, I used occasionally to see Stephen Spender: there he was, the establishment on quivering legs, queer as a chocolate orange but safely married. (When I spoke to him, I discovered he could flirt with his eyes shut.) Frank Kermode, a great friend to this paper but never knowingly unmalicious, remarked that ‘Stephen never knew where he was going but he always knew the quickest way to get there.’ To me, it seems perfectly natural to forego the gay life if you don’t really want it, but Spender protested too much. In 1994 he wrote a letter to the young Alan Hollinghurst after receiving a copy of his second novel, The Folding Star. The letter shows a man in a state of confusion or unhappiness about the choices he has made.
Behind this novel’s antic machinations lurks a sharply intelligent satire, if one is willing to suspend enough disbelief. In the end, the plot veers toward farce, which, though frothy, seems a more appropriate register for Claude and Paul’s high jinks. Tying everything up, Murray displays considerable architectonic skill, shutting down this wild and unruly book, a solid landing after a bumpy flight.
A novel about a pack of talking dogs, you say? The very idea will most likely breed thoughts of insufferable whimsy, like those paintings of mutts playing poker, or of more or less effective satire, in the vein of Animal Farm. It’s a grand thing, then, that this spry novel by Canadian André Alexis spends its 160 pages repeatedly defying expectations.
I’m pleased that people are becoming more adventurous, and that the threshold of disgust, set remarkably low in countries like ours, is perhaps beginning to rise. But go easy on the dolphin.
Introduced by Andrew McCulloch, The Times Literary Supplement
He was the most famous ape in America. But to really understand a chimp, you have to know his mother.
For those who start within the establishment, professional writing is likely to correspond to drudgery, and they’ll seek to escape it. For those on the outside looking in, it’s a mark of legitimacy.
As a recovering clutterbug myself—though not a minimalist and not a fan generally of the how-to genre’s Manichean, one-size-fits-all prescriptions—I admit I find aspects of the so-called KonMari Method (a contraction of Kondo Mariko, her name in the Japanese style) compelling, if not altogether original. The method’s anchoring principle, that we hang onto only what “sparks joy,” deftly reconfigures the notion of tidying and decluttering as mere throwing away: transformative existential keeping seems to be Kondo’s lesson.
There is something evanescent, temporary and fragile about food. You make it, it goes, and what remains are memories.
But these memories of food are very powerful. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “There is no love more sincere than the love of food.” Lin Yutang, a Chinese philosopher, tells us that “Patriotism is the love of the dishes of our childhood.” Yes, the dishes of our childhood stay with us forever.
My last clear memory was standing outside a rest stop at 3:00 a.m. watching the canvas of white stars meet the glittering orange lights of the nuclear-weapons plant far to the north. It was crisp outside Amarillo, where industry meets the Texas plains, and I considered what I'd left and the world I was delving into. A spiritually paralyzing tower of student debt from four years of college. I'd been a long-haul truck driver for exactly three weeks. This was my test run.
There's something metaphysical about driving alone through the night. As the world slips into darkness, you enter a free-form self that is post-sleep and incoherent. After a few hours, the parameters that separate you from the prism of night dissolve, and only an elongated tube of light sucks you along. And you begin to hallucinate. Under prolonged sensory deprivation, your brain invents its own visions. Before we reached Amarillo, I'd spent days on an acrobatic sleep schedule, trying to weather my driving partner's erratic temper and fearing for my own safety.
To create something beautiful, concludes Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek in his relentlessly engaging new book, A Beautiful Question. “Many motivations have been ascribed to the Creator,” he points out, “but artist ambition is rarely prominent among them.”
The beautiful question the book considers, stated simply, is this: “Does the world embody beautiful ideas?”
The answer is an emphatic yes: “You bet it does,” Wilczek writes. “And so do you.”
I would like to begin by telling you about my rigid yet always productive writing routine that I follow each day without fail while seated at my beautiful oak desk – overlooking, no doubt, a sea of lush trees covered in flowering vines – and surrounded by detailed story notes, poignant quotes from my favorite thinkers, and a cup of still steaming coffee. However, I’ve been told that this is a non-fiction essay. The coffee is cold, the trees are shriveling for winter, and I played Candy Crush on my phone for an hour before getting out of bed.
When I was asked to write this essay, my first thought was that there was nothing to write because my “routine” and “process” are completely chaotic and scattered. But perhaps that chaos is interesting. My book, Upright Beasts, was written on stalled subway cars, noisy cafes, and park benches. My physical drafts have either been shredded in some recycling plant or else wrinkled and stained in an obscure corner of my bedroom. My computer docs are located alternatively in my documents folder, my downloads folder, and my desktop, with minimal organization. Sometimes I write by hand in a notebook and revise on the computer. Other times I write a draft on my laptop, then print out and revise by hand.
For many, the American dream kitchen has long been a grand showplace, filled with granite islands that stretch like aircraft carriers through a sea of shining appliances.
But in the urban technology centers that have become the nation’s new factory towns, the kitchen gold standard glorified in design magazines and lovingly ogled in Nancy Meyers movies is being redefined. In cities like this one, where Amazon plans to fill 10 million square feet of office space, the aspirational kitchens of young cooks have small footprints and shrunken appliances.
Carol Rumens's Poem of the Week, The Guardian
This, she was realizing more and more, was the role of a survivor in a mass shooting: to be okay, to get better, to exemplify resilience for a country always rushing to heal and continue on. There had been a public vigil during her surgery, a news conference when she was upgraded from critical to stable and then a small celebration when she was sent home after two weeks with handmade card signed by the hospital staff. “Strong and Moving On,” it had read.
By then, the college had reopened. What remained of her Writing 115 class had been moved across campus to an airy art building with windows that looked out on Douglas firs. They were forging ahead and coming back stronger, always stronger. That’s what the college dean had said.
Except inside the rental, where every day was just like the one before: Awake again in the recliner. Asleep again in the recliner. Cheyeanne dressed in the same baggy pajamas that hung loose and away from her wounds. She was wrapped in an abdominal binder that helped hold her major organs in place. Her hair was greasy because her injuries made it painful to take a bath. Five medications sat on the coffee table, next to a bucket she reached for when those medicines made her throw up. She couldn’t go back to school, or play her guitar, or drive her truck, or hold a long conversation without losing her breath, so she mostly sat in silence and thought about the same seven minutes everyone else was so purposefully moving past. The shooter was standing over her. The hollow-point bullet was burning through her upper back.
Frontiers are always changing, advancing. Borders are fixed, man-made, squabbled about and jealously fought over. The frontier is an exciting, demanding – and frequently lawless – place to be. Borders are policed, often tense; if they become too porous then they’re not doing the job for which they were intended. Occasionally, though, the border is the frontier. That’s the situation now with regard to fiction and nonfiction.
My advice about this book is simple: buy it today and read it. Read all of it from front to back and then re-read whole sections or even just little bits, either for the fun of it or to help you place some contemporary London trend or event in the context of London government’s sometimes chaotic, sometimes pragmatic, often impressive recent past. The evolution of the capital can be as confusing as it is enthralling. London’s Boroughs At 50 does a terrific job of making sense of it.
Jedediah Purdy has written a big book, taking up a set of profound environmental questions and offering sweeping answers. As with any volume of this scope and ambition, some of the ideas he spells out and the direction he proffers will resonate broadly. Other dimensions of his analysis will be jarring to many readers. But the strengths of After Nature are significant and make this a must-read book for all who are struggling with how to reinvigorate environmental protection in the face of political breakdown in America and troubling global trends, including the emerging risk of climate change.
Emma, published 200 years ago this month, was revolutionary not because of its subject matter: Austen’s jesting description to Anna of the perfect subject for a novel – “Three or four families in a country village” – fits it well. It was certainly not revolutionary because of any intellectual or political content. But it was revolutionary in its form and technique. Its heroine is a self-deluded young woman with the leisure and power to meddle in the lives of her neighbours. The narrative was radically experimental because it was designed to share her delusions. The novel bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s mind. Though little noticed by most of the pioneers of fiction for the next century and more, it belongs with the great experimental novels of Flaubert or Joyce or Woolf. Woolf wrote that if Austen had lived longer and written more, “She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust”. In Emma, she is.
We are forced to clumsily dance around the matter, or to give in and refer to our coworkers, students and friends as “he” or “she.” The result is that our language caps our ability to be progressive in this realm, forces us to immediately characterize people as male or female, associates other aspects of their personalities with their sex and, in doing so, makes it an inseparable part of how we perceive ourselves and each other, far more so than any other random biological feature or accident of birth. It is so hard to distinguish words from their potentially sexist intentions or applications because sexism necessarily pervades our language. It is literally impossible to say what, exactly, it is that many of us are “trying to say.”
Now in his mid-90s, he has put together one last (one assumes) collection of odds and ends: essays, urban sketches, letters, Christmas jingles and dog haiku, farcical opera librettos, elegies, tributes, literary criticism, baseball reporting — the whole schmear. He himself describes it as “a mélange, a grab bag, a plate of hors d’oeuvres, a teenager’s closet, a bit of everything.” Some of the writing is terrific, some very slight. Is it modesty, vanity or both that has prompted the author to include the weak with the strong, the trivial with the pungent, so that readers may get a chance to see him in all his moods and musings? Whichever the case, not only is no harm done, but there is a certain generosity operating here, an assumption of friendship between reader and writer, the way one is pleased to hear what a friend has to say no matter what the occasion. In inviting us to rummage through his literary files, Angell proves almost consistently engaging and companionable.
But like many things in China, ghosts are not as simple as they seem. Throughout Chinese literature and history, ghosts have been a metaphor, and evil ghosts often symbolise corrupt government officials. Ghost stories became a political tool anyone could use and that the government found hard to control.
Maybe at some point pundits look back at access-based journalism and think, wow, that never made sense, how rude of those weird “publications” to hold readers hostage and blackmail their subjects. The triumphalist pundits will explain this, and why it matters, but also doesn’t, and why basically everything is good and getting better, anyway. Maybe, at the same time, other pundits will lament the media’s lack of interest in certain Important things. This will be dealt with by people who will explain what is actually Important, and what does that even mean, and who, actually, you’re talking about when you accuse the media of doing or not doing something you want them to do (yourself) and why that matters, or doesn’t, and whose fault it all is. (It’s yours.)
“Graphic novel” is a perfectly serviceable phrase, but it expresses an unmistakable and unfortunate bias, emphasizing the literary identity of a given book at the expense of its visual essence. Pictures are more than prose carried out by other means. And there is some category confusion when it comes to a book like Adrian Tomine’s “Killing and Dying.” “Graphic short story” doesn’t sound quite right, but how else to describe the half-dozen vignettes in this collection, each one bristling with acute observations and piquant ironies?
His name was Zosa Szajkowski. Born in 1911, he was a prolific historian of French Jewry who had been condemned repeatedly after World War II for stealing archival materials from European libraries, which he then sold to American institutions. These, to his mind, were far more suitable homes for Jewish cultural patrimony after the Holocaust: If Europe had collaborated in the Nazi annihilation of Jewish life in Europe, the continent had therefore forfeited its moral claim on the traces of Jewish culture that had somehow survived.
But were Szajkowski’s actions always noble attempts at restitution? Or were they pathological, the obsessive tendency of a crazed collector and thief?
All this means that tonight, I can order excellent pad thai from my phone in under a minute. Or, I can find a recipe for “easy” pad thai, run—literally, run—to the grocery store at lunch, hope that grocery store sells fish sauce, then spend 40 minutes making the dish and 20 minutes cleaning up. The decision to cook from scratch may have many virtues, but ease is not one of them. Despite what we’re told, cooking the way so many Americans aspire to do it today is never fast, and rarely easy compared to all the other options available for feeding ourselves.
When Alvaro Cerezo, a Spaniard with an unslakable wanderlust and a sun-bleached man bun, dedicated his life to exploring the remotest islands on Earth, he could not have predicted how many hours he would have to spend indoors, making uneasy small talk with local authority figures across Southeast Asia. Recently, I went with him to the office of a provincial government minister in northern Indonesia. (Because Cerezo’s business depends on obscurity, I am at liberty to name neither the province nor the minister.) Cerezo was there to see about an island. But first came the obligatory schmoozing.
The word for debt in German also means guilt. A friend who used to live in Munich mentioned this to me recently. I took note because I’m newly in debt, quite a lot of it, from buying a house. So far, my debt is surprisingly comfortable, and that’s one quality of debt that I’ve been pondering lately — how easy it can be.
I had very little furniture for the first few months in my new house and no money left to buy any. But then I took out a loan against my down payment, and now I have a dining-room table, six chairs and a piano. While I was in the bank signing the paperwork that would allow me to spend money I hadn’t yet earned, I thought of Eddie Murphy’s skit in which he goes undercover as a white person and discovers that white people at banks give away money to other white people free. It’s true, I thought to myself in awe when I saw the ease with which I was granted another loan, though I understood — and, when my mortgage was sold to another lender, was further reminded — that the money was not being given to me free. I was, and am, paying for it. But that detail, like my debt, is easily forgotten.
Great metaphors, terrible sex, and talking dogs in some of the most memorable sentences of the year.
Poem selected by Natasha Trethewey, New York Times
She’s 36, with two kids. A competitive marathoner for just two years. And she’s going to the Olympic Trials. Andrea Duke is a late bloomer, trying to beat the clock and runners half her age.
The economic potency of China has made the Dalai Lama a political liability for an increasing number of world leaders, who now shy away from him for fear of inviting China’s wrath. Even Pope Francis, the boldest pontiff in decades, reportedly declined a meeting in Rome last December. When the Dalai Lama dies, it is not at all clear what will happen to the six million Tibetans in China. The Chinese Communist Party, though officially atheistic, will take charge of finding an incarnation of the present Dalai Lama. Indoctrinated and controlled by the Communist Party, the next leader of the Tibetan community could help Beijing cement its hegemony over Tibet. And then there is the 150,000-strong community of Tibetan exiles, which, increasingly politically fractious, is held together mainly by the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan poet and activist Tenzin Tsundue, who has disagreed with the Dalai Lama’s tactics, told me that his absence will create a vacuum for Tibetans. The Dalai Lama’s younger brother, Tenzin Choegyal, was more emphatic: ‘‘We are finished once His Holiness is gone.’’
How many times would Murakami have to get things wrong, badly wrong, before his fans and publishers stopped supporting him? Quite a few. Actually, no matter what Murakami writes, it’s almost unimaginable that his sales would ever fall so low that he would be considered unprofitable. So the Japanese novelist finds himself in the envious position (for an artist) of being free to take risks without the danger of much loss of income, or even prestige.
This is not the case with less successful authors. Novelists seeking to make a living from their work will obviously be in trouble if a publisher is not confident enough in their success to offer a decent advance; and if, once published, a book does not earn out its advance, publishers will be more hesitant next time, whatever the quality of the work on offer. Authors in this situation will think twice before going out on some adventurous limb. They will tend to give publishers what they want. Or try to.
The book may on occasion be silly and over-the-top, even for a satire. But Ms. Rothschild writes with such exuberance and spins such a propulsive yarn that you happily accept these excesses as part of the package, the same way you happily accept the frippery of Elton John.
Assuming you like Elton John.
(I like Elton John.)
A few years ago I helped push a beached humpback whale back out into the sea, only to witness it return and expire under its own weight on the sand. For the three days that it died the whale was a public attraction. People brought their children down to see it. They would stand in the surf and wave babies in pastel rompers over the whale, as if to catch the drift of an evaporating myth. The whale was black like piano wood and because it was still young, it was pink in the joints under its fins. Every few minutes it exhaled loudly and slammed its fluke against the sand – a tantrum or leverage. Its soft chest turned slack, concertinaed, when it rolled.
At first the mood was festive. People cheered every time the whale wrestled in the breakers. Efforts made to free it from a sandbar in the morning had been aided by the tide. That the whale had re-stranded, this time higher up the beach, did not portend well for its survival but so astonished were the crowd and such a marvel was the animal that immoderate hope proved difficult to quash. What the whale inspired was wonderment, a dilation of the ordinary. Everyone was talking about it, on the buses and in the delis. There were dogs on the beach held back by their owners, sweeping flat quarter-circles in the sand with their tails. How they imagined the whale – predator, prey or distant relation – was anyone’s guess, but the dogs seemed keen to get a closer look. At sunset armfuls of grease-blotted butchers’ paper, chips and battered hake were passed around. The local lifesavers distributed zip-up hoodies. Wildlife officers, who had been stand-offish with the gathering crowd, relaxed and taught some lessons on whale physiology.
It has been said that, if the 20th century was the age of physics, the 21st will be the age of the brain. Among scientists today, consciousness is being hailed as one of the prime intellectual challenges. My interest in the subject is not in any particular solution to the origin of consciousness – I believe we’ll be arguing about that for millennia to come – but rather in the question: why is consciousness perceived as a ‘problem’? How exactly did it become a problem? And given that it was off the table of science for so long, why is it now becoming such a hot research subject?
The mysteries on television today are almost without exception procedurals. “Mystery” and “procedural” have become synonymous, two words for one genre. If there’s a hint that something is amiss here, it’s only found in a rarity like The Returned, a French show whose second season is now airing on SundanceTV. When The Returned separates mystery from procedure, it reveals them to be very different from one another, maybe even antithetical.
The procedural as a genre includes everything from the old Agatha Christie adaptations on the BBC to today’s slick, souped-up CSI clones. Cop dramas and lawyer dramas and hospital dramas and secret government agent dramas — in our TVs they are legion. And despite their efforts to distinguish themselves with sci-fi twists and ever-kookier detectives, they all work pretty much the same way. Every week our heroes (or antiheroes) carefully accumulate and follow the evidence to its logical conclusion. If a procedural bothers with emotion, it’s usually as “motive,” which is just another kind of evidence, on par with blood spatters or phone logs. And rest assured: the murderer will be discovered within the hour, the crime ring rolled up by the end of the season. Even if, in a daring sort of procedural, the criminals get away, we never doubt who they are, what they’ve done, and how.
No-one should feel the need to apologise for not being a scientist. And yet when I tell people I work for the British Science Association (BSA), embarrassment is a common response. “I don’t really understand science”, I hear. “Oh, I’m more of an arty person”, they say, or, “the last time I did science was at school”.
Such embarrassment is misplaced; not liking science is fine. The real concern is when people are excluded when they don’t need to be – and this happens with science more than it does for many other parts of our culture. Music, literature, politics, and sport, for instance, can all be shaped by anyone who consumes, creates, or critiques them – not just by their respective professional classes.
There are now over 300,000 Chinese students enrolled in American colleges or universities, up 10.8 percent from the year before and more than from any other country. The surge is bringing billions of dollars stateside and changing the face of American universities. It’s also changing lives like mine. I recently started my junior year at Harvard, and I still sometimes feel like I’m living a double life. In China, I’m known as “the girl from Harvard.” At Harvard, I’m known as “the girl from China.” Neither truly tells my story.
Dawkins and Harris are still, by far and away, the most recognisable frontmen for the New Atheist show. So how did a movement ostensibly full of progressives end up so identified with writers who sound less and less like incarnations of pure reason and more and more like your Islamophobic uncle after he chugs his sixth pint?
But the triumph of chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s and then for many other tumors opened an interlocking series of dilemmas. In the clinic and the hospital, the new protocols demanded that doctors muster the courage to make their patients very sick in order to make them well. But how sick was too sick? The risks and benefits of the powerful treatments now needed careful, deliberate assessment at every stage of the disease.
Linda Rosenkrantz’s 1968 quasi-novel Talk reminds us that wry self-awareness and anxious fragility are hardly millennial inventions.
Carol Rumens's poem of the week, The Guardian