For the first two weeks of October, I lived outside in a small pod resembling a human BBQ in the backyard of a California desert based artist while doing research for a book project about deserts of the American West.
I spent my days driving long distances between all the desert towns surrounding Joshua Tree, California, and I had the opportunity to explore a part of the world that many of my fellow Los Angelenos only visit during music festival season, during which time they don desert costumes, usually appropriating native and gypsy culture to some degree.
For some twenty-five years, Charles LeDray has been surprising and delighting, and sometimes mystifying, the audience for contemporary art. Now fifty-six, LeDray is a kind of realist sculptor whose pieces—in part because his subjects are familiar but not what we would expect in a gallery setting, and in equal measure because he works with such small, essentially miniaturist sizes—have the power of making almost every object he handles seem new to our eyes.
When his art was getting underway, in the late 1980s, he altered the idea we generally have of stuffed animals. Using bears mostly, and sometimes designing them with their limbs askew or separated from their trunks, he gave them the distilled presence of purist, abstract sculpture, and this somehow made their plight seem as much inward and psychological as it was physical. Going on to work as a potter, he has exhibited large vertical glass display cases where on every glass shelf we see scores of neatly placed bowls, pots, jugs, and so on, each about an inch high and each, unbelievably, freshly designed. And as a carver, LeDray has, strangely, used human bone to create phenomenally delicate pieces of household furniture, or buttons of every possible description, or a sheath of wheat.
There are two things that are wonderful about this moment. The first is the reminder that Berger is as interested as ever in ways of seeing; that he still has the ability to give himself the slip, to turn perception into an out-of-body experience. And second, it is characteristic that he is keen to champion the young artist who painted his granddaughter. “Fetch me a piece of card from that side table,” he says. He writes in his not-quite-steady, attractively looping hand: Jules Linglin. “He is going to be very well known one day,” he declares, handing the card back to me.
One of the most solid pieces of writing advice I know is in fact intended for dancers – you can find it in the choreographer Martha Graham’s biography. But it relaxes me in front of my laptop the same way I imagine it might induce a young dancer to breathe deeply and wiggle their fingers and toes. Graham writes: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
Fred Astaire represents the aristocracy when he dances,” claimed Gene Kelly, “and I represent the proletariat What can an art of words take from the art that needs none? Yet I often think I’ve learned as much from watching dancers as I have from reading. Dance lessons for writers: lessons of position, attitude, rhythm and style, some of them obvious, some indirect. What follows are a few notes towards that idea.
If you wanted to run away with the circus, it would be as easy right now as it has ever been. But you would have to provide a lot of paperwork: photo ID, proof of professional insurance and an E29 fire performer’s license from the New York Fire Department.
These days, being a professional fire eater is just not as wild as one might think. As of Jan. 1, 2016, all fire performers wishing to work within the five boroughs must be trained and licensed. I want to say that this is great, because it ensures the safety of audiences and venues, but it also makes me a little sad.
In fact, 1981 was a banner year for lycanthropes. An American Werewolf in London also came out that year. Like The Howling, it featured a cutting-edge transformation scene. Both movies were more or less tongue-in-cheek. But I think most people would agree that An American Werewolf In London was the superior fang-and-fur flick. Those people would be wrong. An American Werewolf In London is full of knowing winks. The Howling is proud that it is garbage. I took that garbage seriously, though. Like a scholar.
What could any book, a mere vessel of subjective interpretation, tell us about time, an invisible system of measuring change? I suspected that by the end I’d either feel tricked or confounded.
It turns out that I felt neither deceived nor confused — or, rather, I did feel those things, but about the subject and not the book.
The story that Mr. Levy tells in “To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey With Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) tackles a long list of complex subjects that have been covered in depth elsewhere: for example, movie accounting, Mr. Jobs, initial public stock offerings, commercial contract negotiations (and renegotiations) and corporate culture.
What makes Mr. Levy’s contribution so insightful is not that he plows old ground in greater depth but that he uses his personal story as vehicle to add a new dimension to each of these topics.
Though not quite a feminist manifesto, Witt’s search is very much driven by her desire as a 21st-century single American woman to understand love and sexual fulfillment in the Internet age — or, as she puts it, “to pursue emotional experiences that could not be immediately transposed to a party of young people in a cell phone ad, even if it meant delving into ugliness, contracting an STD, or lifting my shirt to entice someone jerking off over the Internet.”
That passage is a tip-off: Witt is both daring and serious. Her writing would not be described as bubbly, sassy or any other patronizing adjective usually associated with books of this kind. Witt treats her subjects (even her bad Internet dates) with respect instead of the judgment or mockery you might expect. It’s like reading something by David McCullough if he wrote about dating apps.
It was the first death of someone she was close to; it wasn’t long before she started to fret about our mother.
“Wait,” she said one day. “You’re old. When are you going to die? Who is going to take care of me when you do?”
I had moved to Austin, Texas, by then, but I was also waiting in the wings. For several years I anticipated becoming my sister’s guardian. I just didn’t know what it would look like in practice.
So placebos have pretty much been tossed in the "garbage pail" of clinical practice, says Ted Kaptchuk, director of the Program for Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. In an attempt to make them more useful, he has been studying whether people might see a benefit from a placebo even if they knew it was a placebo, with no active ingredients. An earlier study found that so-called "open-label" or "honest" placebos improved symptoms among people with irritable bowel syndrome.
And Kaptchuk and his colleagues found the same effect among people with garden-variety lower back pain, the most common kind of pain reported by American adults.
Vampire stories had been around a long time before Dracula started sucking blood, so what was it about the Transylvanian count that captured the public’s imagination, making him one of the most famous characters in modern literature?
The short answer: Sex sells. More than any other monster of classic horror, Dracula pairs violent threat with a carnal one. Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel revitalized the vampire legend, Stephen King rightly pointed out, because it “fairly pants with sexual energy.” David J. Skal’s “Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote ‘Dracula’ ” is an essential examination of where all this heavy breathing came from.
In the intervening years, largely through photo-friendly social media sites like Pinterest and Instagram, they have coated the entire world of baking — and beyond. Rainbow sprinkles (also known as Funfetti and unicorn food) first invaded cookies and waffles; then marched on, swarming over cocktails and croissants, and finally, as a design motif, onto phone cases, scented candles and press-on nails.
The movement began in 1989, when Pillsbury introduced a Funfetti cake mix, a white cake mix with multicolored sprinkles included in the box. The revolutionary twist: The sprinkles were for coloring the batter, not for decorating the top. In a hot oven, the sprinkles melted into streaks and dots of bright color that instantly made plain cake obsolete for a certain demographic: kids.
In a land where most magazines have the lifespan of a fruit fly, how is it possible for one magazine to survive — and thrive — for 75 years? Janet Hutchings has a theory: “The great power that Frederic Dannay gave this magazine was its variety and its reach.”
Hutchings was referring to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and she was invoking the name of its founding editor, Frederic Dannay, who, along with his cousin Manfred B. Lee, collaborated to produce the short stories and novels of the pseudonymous mystery writer Ellery Queen, selling somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million books. Hutchings is now the magazine’s editor, and she offered her theory about its longevity at a symposium that launched a delightful new show, “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine 75th Anniversary Exhibition,” which is now at the Butler Library at Columbia University in New York.
The concept of snobbery is deeply complex, as the literary critic and biographer DJ Taylor cleverly explores in his “definitive guide” to snobs. Snobbery is a form of social superiority, but it can also be a moral failing. Snobs may laud it over others, but we, in turn, despise and punish them for it.
Whether or not ghosts are real is beside the point, Colin Dickey tells us in the first lines of “Ghostland.” Rather, what compels him in this appealing book is the meaning of haunted places in contemporary American culture. “How do we deal with stories about the dead and their ghosts?” Dickey asks. “How do we inhabit and move through spaces that we have deemed haunted?”
Last year marked the two-hundredth anniversary of the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora, among the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Next year, 2017, will be the two-hundredth anniversary of Baron Karl Drais’s “running machine,” the precursor to the modern bicycle. Strange as it may seem, these three events are all intimately related; they’re all tied together by the great shift in climate that made 1816 the “year without a summer.”
Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia—then the Dutch East Indies—began its week-long eruption on April 5, 1815, though its impact would last years. Lava flows leveled the island, killing nearly all plant and animal life and reducing Tambora’s height by a third. It belched huge clouds of dust into the air, bringing almost total darkness to the surrounding area for days. The geologist Charles Lyell would reflect that “the darkness occasioned in the daytime by the ashes in Java was so profound, that nothing equal to it was ever witnessed in the darkest night.” According to Lyell, of the 12,000 residents of the province of Tambora, only twenty-six survived. Tens of thousands more were choked to their deaths by the thick black air and the falling dust, which blanketed the ground in piles more than a meter high.
Other islands have enough space for the two groups of iguanas to find disparate habitats, but on Plaza Sur their territories overlap. "It is quite easy to see marine iguanas in the more interior part of the island," Gentile says. "The two species are forced into promiscuity."
Even more surprising than our once-in-a-lifetime sighting is that, nearly two centuries after Darwin visited the islands, the Galápagos continue to tell us how evolution works.
The new manual, out today from Clarkson Potter, is a beautifully produced cookbook: hefty and glossy and fit to be gifted by people who use “gift” as a verb. But Cooking for Jeffrey’s cookbookishness—its recipes, its lists of Contessa-recommended pantry items, its vaguely voyeuristic photographs of scattered radishes—is supplemented by bookishness of a more literary strain. Arranged among the recipes are brief interstitial essays in which the author discusses her entertaining philosophy; expounds on philosophy more generally (“it doesn't really matter what the occasion is … it’s the connections that we have with the people we love that nourish our souls”); reveals the formative moments in her culinary career; and in general makes implied arguments about feminism and Marxism and the merits of softly lit domesticity.
Today, as climate regimes undergo rapid shifts, the ability of plants to follow their preferred climates takes on a new urgency.
So, how does a forest, or any community of plants, undertake a migration? Although an individual plant can move only as fast as it can grow, plant seeds have evolved incredible hitchhiking capabilities. By taking advantage of wind, water currents, mammalian fur, and the digestive tracts of hemisphere-crossing birds, plants are capable of establishing colonies on even the most far-flung fragments of land. By making themselves appealing to mammals, they improve their odds of dispersal. The ubiquity of certain trees and vegetables that taste good to humans doesn’t reflect human ingenuity so much as it reflects the evolutionary advantages plants gain by bending humans to their will.
“What country, friends, is this?” Viola demands of a naval captain upon arriving on a foreign shore in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. After being told “Illyria,” she says, “And what should I do in Illyria?”
These are the very questions the Great American Novel (or “GAN” as Henry James put it)—whatever you deem this to be—sets out to answer. What country is America, and what should we do here? James Baldwin provides ample possible answers in the often overlooked Another Country.
The Perennials. We are ever-blooming, relevant people of all ages who live in the present time, know what’s happening in the world, stay current with technology, and have friends of all ages. We get involved, stay curious, mentor others, are passionate, compassionate, creative, confident, collaborative, global-minded, risk takers who continue to push up against our growing edge and know how to hustle. We comprise an inclusive, enduring mindset, not a divisive demographic. Perennials are also vectors who have a wide appeal and spread ideas and commerce faster than any single generation. Lady Gaga + Tony Bennett, Lena Dunham + Jenni Konner, Beyoncé + Jay-Z, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Fallon, Pharrell Williams, Justin Trudeau, Ellen DeGeneres, Malala, Sheryl Sandberg, Mick Jagger, Michelle Obama, Emma Watson, Elon Musk, Bernie Sanders, Diane Von Furstenberg, Lorne Michaels, Ai Weiwei, John Oliver, Aziz Ansari, the little girl on Stranger Things … #Perennials
The latest volume, “Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life,” by the novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd, offers no new revelations, but it provides a smart, fluent overview of the director’s life and art, and the mysterious dynamic between the two.
My daughter, Greta, was 2 years old when she died — or rather, when she was killed. A piece of masonry fell eight stories from an improperly maintained building and struck her in the head while she sat on a bench on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her grandmother. No single agent set it on its path: It wasn’t knocked off scaffolding by the poorly placed heel of a construction worker, or fumbled from careless hands. Negligence, coupled with a series of bureaucratic failures, led it to simply sigh loose, a piece of impersonal calamity sent to rearrange the structure and meaning of our universe. [...]
Seven weeks ago, our second child was born; a son, Greta’s younger brother. They would have been exactly three and a half years apart. With his birth, I have become a father to a living child and a spirit — one child on this side of the curtain, and another whispering from beneath it. The confusion is constant, and in my moments of strength I succumb to it. I had a child die, and I chose to become a father again. There can be no greater definition of stupidity or bravery; insanity or clarity; hubris or grace.
Sometimes it feels as if I’m not merely translating people’s stories into English, but helping people preserve their own lives, turning them into internationally comprehendible keepsakes.
For every two books of pure fiction that I translate, there is a third that is not exactly a memoir, not exactly a biography, but a novelization, an imagining, of true events that occurred in an author’s family. These are usually authors in their sixties or seventies writing about their parents’ lives or their own childhood memories. They have a deep pool of family lore and anecdotes to draw from, have performed extensive personal and historical research, and have utilized their own powers of imagination to fill in the missing details.
The first day I arrived in Paris for my semester abroad I smiled at all the helpful strangers: the passport agent, the taxi driver, the random person I asked for directions. No one smiled back but I must have been too excited to notice. Then I smiled at the guy at the cash register who sold me some bubble gum and he muttered something. It took a minute to absorb his words, although he was speaking in mocking, accented English: “Stupid American.”
I had largely forgotten that slap in the face until I read Ruth Whippman’s new book, “America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.” For us natives, reading this book can be an unnerving experience. Whippman, who is a transplanted British writer, moved to California when her husband got a job here. She spent much of her time settling in her family, but all the while she was watching us — how we read, eat, work, medicate, exercise and pray. And what she noticed the most was how the same subject comes up all the time: happiness.
In any other era, such a plan might have been understood as a precocious youngster’s idea for a sci-fi novel, or fodder for a screenwriter’s elevator pitch. And in fact, though in the paper Musk worked through the engineering and economic problems in impressive detail, it received large quantities of professional skepticism: While physicists pointed out that the technology mostly already exists, various experts in transportation infrastructure and urban planning — people who dedicate entire careers to inching public-works projects along — found Musk laughably naïve about the difficulty of building such a thing. An opinion piece in the Guardian argued that “as a shovel-ready infrastructure project, it is dead on arrival,” and a mathematician and transportation blogger named Alon Levy vividly imagined a 760-mile-per-hour “barf ride.”
But Silicon Valley loved the barf ride. In this, the age of the moon shot — of bold missions to make flying cars and “end all disease” — Musk’s hyperloop met all the criteria of bet-the-ranch, future-shaping audacity: a big vision, promising a new, “fifth mode of transport” after planes, trains, automobiles, and boats; the high purpose of using renewable energy; utopian visuals; and, perhaps most important, a terrific pedigree. Even the Valley’s most peppy cheerleaders weary, occasionally, of pitches for the latest world-changing smartphone apps. Genuine moon shots stir real excitement in the hushed corridors of Sand Hill Road. But the difference between an intrepid moon shot and a misguided fantasy project often hinges entirely on the daredevil behind it.
Some ride the subway alone. Others cannot leave home unescorted. They hang out on Broadway and at Target. They play on the swings with the little kids, then bike home in the dark through traffic-choked streets. They exchange daily pleasantries with doormen and bodega owners and grapple with the incomprehensible fact that some people sleep on the sidewalk.
They are New Yorkers of a certain age: 13, give or take a year or two, straddling the border of childhood and adolescence. And as they move toward independence, the city’s opportunities and diversions, challenges and frustrations come into focus. This is an unusual place to grow up — sometimes magical, sometimes impossible. But it is home.
With handwriting elevated to the realm of the virtues, every technology that made writing easier had to be treated with contempt. Bards worried that handwriting would destroy our memories (it did), and scribes loathed the printing press for economic reasons, but handwriting enthusiasts were suspicious of what the typewriter would do to our souls. In 1938, a writer in the Times fretted that “the universal typewriter may swallow all.”
And, of course, keyboarding has swallowed my handwriting whole. Aside from letters in the summer, I do two things by hand: correct my students’ papers, and add items to our weekly food-shopping list. But when I do use my cursive, however seldom, it’s with a small rush of good feelings.
Now, though, the appetite for paranormal lunacy has abated, and issue-driven fiction set very much in a universe of urbanism’s chief concerns is having a renaissance. This week, “All American Boys,” a novel by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, an outgrowth of the Black Lives Matter movement, appears on The New York Times’s best-seller list for young-adult books. The story follows the beating of an innocent black child by a white police officer who thinks he has stolen a bag of chips.
In optimistic visions of the future, there is a liberal and democratic world government, or perhaps an interplanetary federation. In dystopias, there is a single global tyranny. In post-apocalyptic novels and movies set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, nuclear bombs seem to off gone off everywhere in the world, even in places remote from the homelands and allies of the major combatants.
The assumption of uniform conditions in the world of tomorrow saves science-fiction authors and screenwriters the trouble of explaining the Sino-Indian dispute of 2345 AD, allowing them to concentrate on the plot and the main characters. But it is completely unrealistic.
In 1794, by decree of the National Convention under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre, all villages in France were obliged to celebrate the first (and what would prove to be the last) Festival of the Supreme Being. In the village of Meudon, just south of Paris, a parade escorted a woman dressed as the goddess Reason to her temple, which was known as the Church of Saint-Martin before the revolutionaries repurposed the churches. Those celebrating in Meudon had little idea that they were the talk of the concurrent grand festival in Paris.
On the Champs de Mars, near where the Eiffel Tower would one day stand, Robespierre and his artist friend Jacques-Louis David had devised quite a spectacle for the Festival of the Supreme Being, with a man-made mountain at its center and atop it a giant tree of liberty. Members of the National Convention weaved through the crowd carrying bouquets of flowers, fruits, and ears of corn, wearing “national blue” coats (no longer were they royal blue) and suede culottes. Some in the crowd whispered that their culottes were made from the skins of recently executed Christians and other enemies of the Republic, at a special tannery for producing human leather in Meudon.
“Snack tray” quickly became a cheerful, wordless conversation about who we wanted to be in the world and how we wanted that world to be. Where food was not a fetish object, where your car and driver — not your handcrafted artisanal gin — was still your status symbol. Neon-orange Delicious over sweet-potato Righteous.
There should be a literary term for a book you can’t stop reading that also makes you stop to think. I slammed down “The Red Car,” Marcy Dermansky’s sharp and fiery new novel, in tense fits and jumpy starts, putting down the book to ponder it, but not pondering long because I had to know what happened next. The novel’s furious action keeps the pages snapping by, but each incident, at times each sentence, is bubbling with equally furious ideas. “A novel of ideas” is not the term for this — that’s a term for a book that often has big chunks of boring, which “The Red Car” does not — but neither does it inhabit the term “entertainment,” which assumes a certain shallowness also nowhere to be found.
It is Saturday, 1 November 2014. I am book-browsing at Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue in New York City when my attention is caught by a collection of beautifully produced volumes. I look closer and realise that these books are part of what’s called the Leatherbound Classic series. An assistant informs me that these fine specimens help to ‘embellish your book collection’. Since this exchange, I am reminded time and again that, as symbols of cultural refinement, books really matter. And, though we are meant to be living in a digital age, the symbolic significance of the book continues to enjoy cultural valuation. That is why, often when I do a television interview at home or in my university office, I am asked to stand in front of my bookshelf and pretend to be reading one of the texts.
Since the invention of the cuneiform system of writing in Mesopotamia around 3500 BCE and of hieroglyphics in Egypt around 3150 BCE, the serious reader of texts has enjoyed cultural acclamation. The clay tablets on which marks and signs were inscribed were regarded as precious and sometimes sacred artefacts. The ability to decipher and interpret the symbols and signs was seen as an extraordinary accomplishment. Egyptian hieroglyphics were thought to possess magical powers and, to this day, many readers regard books as a medium for gaining a spiritual experience. Since text possesses so much symbolic significance, how people read and what they read is widely perceived as an important feature of their identity. Reading has always been a marker of character, which is why people throughout history have invested considerable cultural and emotional resources in cultivating identities as lovers of books.
Sitting there, holding A Rather Haunted Life in my hands, I re-read the Gaiman blurb over and over. I don’t make it a habit of parsing blurbs, but the oblique reference to Russ confused me. It wasn’t quite the right title (and thus couldn’t be looked up), and it didn’t have a citation (and thus couldn’t be referenced), and it wasn’t a self-aware riff (like the title of this essay). I kept returning to it, annoyance growing, trying to figure out how no one had caught this simultaneously subtle and weirdly flagrant error. [...]
So what does it mean that a high-profile male writer, in praising an oft-overlooked female writer, used an unsourced, unsearchable reference to another oft-overlooked female writer’s seminal work in the process? For women artists, it is nothing new, though there is something oddly on-the-nose about it — a quote illustrating the very thing it condemns.
In the course of his life, Vincent van Gogh wrote hundreds of letters to his beloved brother Theo. “I have the grounds pretty well in my mind, and will choose a fine potato field at my ease,” he wrote in the early 1880s, when he was 30 and just beginning to think of himself as an artist. Vincent’s letters often sounded more like private speech than outward exchange; he didn’t seem to expect or require a reply. The act of writing, the expression of his internal, inchoate jumble of thoughts, was a crucial part of his creative process, helping him orient himself within his own vision and plan its execution. In “The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves,” Charles Fernyhough, a professor of psychology at Durham University in England, points to van Gogh’s letters as showing how these voices in our heads are connected to larger questions of thought, decision making, creativity — even consciousness itself.
Dan Futrell is an affable, loud, heart-on-his-sleeve kind of guy. Impulsive. Persistent. In college he was the Gonzaga bulldog mascot at basketball games, dancing and making costumed mischief during time-outs. After graduating in 2005, he served two tours in Iraq. He completed Army Ranger School but decided to move on to civilian life. Now 33, he manages people and spreadsheets for an Internet company in Boston, where he lives.
To say that he misses the physical challenge of soldiering is an understatement, but that’s his preface when you ask him what kicked off his interest in the crash. Since leaving the Army, he’s made a habit of regularly scheduling sufferfests—he once took aim at all seven peaks in New England named after presidents and bagged them in one day. A little more than a year ago, he stumbled across a Wikipedia list of unrecovered flight recorders. Next to Eastern Air Lines Flight 980, the article listed “inaccessible terrain” as the reason the flight recorders had never been found.
“Challenge accepted,” he wrote on his blog.
“Close down the lending libraries and buy every citizen an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription,” Forbes contributor Tim Worstall wrotein July 2014, arguing that his native U.K. might thus save a lot of taxpayers’ money.
Given that the amount of new digital content produced in 2011 amounts to several million times the combined contents of every book ever written, it is easy to see why technology-fascinated experts and non-specialists alike have propagated the idea that libraries will soon fall prey to Google, Amazon, and other technological giants. However, public libraries around the globe are increasingly disproving hardcore pessimists like Worstall and others who find libraries irrelevant in the modern age. Simply put, these pessimists make a fundamental mistake: They look at libraries as reactionary spaces filled with nothing but shelves.
Sven owns thirty thousand cookbooks. Why does Sven own thirty thousand cookbooks? He could not tell you.
He will tell you that he likes to cook, that he can taste a recipe by reading it, that he likes going to flea markets, that he started buying cookbooks when he was twenty-two, but nothing he tells you will really explain how he came to own thirty thousand of them. He is a collector, and that’s all you can say. If you are also a collector, this impulse needs no further explanation. If you are not a collector, you sit with Sven for three hours trying to tease out the secret of this impulse in vain. I am not a collector.
If I’m generous toward my child-self, I like to think I was lying in order to figure all this out. To become a writer. It’s striking, for instance, that my more elaborate tale of Maine failed, while my simpler, one-sentence lie about the slapstick accident succeeded. Perhaps it was an early lesson in how less can sometimes be more?
But it is artefacts possessing general intelligence – whether rat-level, human-level or beyond – that we are most interested in, because they are candidates for membership of the space of possible minds. Indeed, because the potential for variation in such artefacts far outstrips the potential for variation in naturally evolved intelligence, the non-natural variants might occupy the majority of that space. Some of these artefacts are likely to be very strange, examples of what we might call ‘conscious exotica’.
In what follows I attempt to meet Sloman’s challenge by describing the structure of the space of possible minds, in two dimensions: the capacity for consciousness and the human-likeness of behaviour. Implicit in this mapping seems to be the possibility of forms of consciousness so alien that we would not recognise them. Yet I am also concerned, following Ludwig Wittgenstein, to reject the dualistic idea that there is an impenetrable realm of subjective experience that forms a distinct portion of reality. I prefer the notion that ‘nothing is hidden’, metaphysically speaking. The difficulty here is that accepting the possibility of radically inscrutable consciousness seemingly readmits the dualistic proposition that consciousness is not, so to speak, ‘open to view’, but inherently private. I try to show how we might avoid that troubling outcome.
It has become a commonplace to remark on the hyper-sensitivity of the culture; a person saying a vile thing can never be debated, but only no-platformed. A person who once debated another person who went on to say a vile thing thereby shared a platform. Often it’s hard to establish what was vile about the thing, because if you ask, you are giving it a platform. So once an issue has platform status, the platform acquires final authority and all you can talk about is the platform. Taken as a free-speech issue, it is quite two-dimensional (your right to say what you like versus my right not to be offended), and therefore boring.
Yet the steady build-up of unsayables has had an effect on humour that you only notice when the jokes are gone.
All the books of the twentieth-century British novelist Henry Green are relatively short and unobtrusively but highly condensed. And anyone who has read several of them will almost certainly have observed not only how different they are from one another, and in how many ways, but also that one of their shared features is how stunningly different they are from anybody else’s.
Although Green (1905-1973) had read a lot when he was a student at Eton and Oxford, and in the later part of his life claimed to read a novel a day, it’s as if he was the first writer on the planet and had never learned what a novel is supposed to be like.
Mr. Salle’s mission in “How to See” is to seize art back from the sort of critics who treat each painting “as a position paper, with the artist cast as a kind of philosopher manqué.” Mr. Salle is more interested in talking about nuts and bolts, about what makes contemporary paintings tick.
At least this is what you think you see. In fact, you live and work in virtual reality. Your city amounts to racks of computer hardware and the pipes that cool them. And you are not "you" in the traditional sense: You are an "em," a robotic brain emulation created by scanning a particular human brain and uploading it to a computer. On the upside, you process information 1,000 times faster than a human. On the downside, you inhabit a robotic body, and you stand roughly two millimeters tall.
This is the world Robin Hanson is sketching out to a room of baffled undergraduates at George Mason University on a bright April morning. To illustrate his point, he projects an image of an enormous futuristic city alongside clip art of a human castaway cowering on a tiny desert island. His message is clear: The future belongs to "ems."
This may sound more like science fiction than scholarship, but that’s part of the point. Hanson is an economist with a background in physics and engineering; a Silicon Valley veteran determined to promote his theories in an academy he finds deeply flawed; a doggedly rational thinker prone to intentionally provocative ideas that test the limits of what typically passes as scholarship. Those ideas have been mocked, memed, and marveled at — often all at once.
At eighty-seven, I am solitary. I live by myself on one floor of the 1803 farmhouse where my family has lived since the Civil War. After my grandfather died, my grandmother Kate lived here alone. Her three daughters visited her. In 1975, Kate died at ninety-seven, and I took over. Forty-odd years later, I spend my days alone in one of two chairs. From an overstuffed blue chair in my living room I look out the window at the unpainted old barn, golden and empty of its cows and of Riley the horse. I look at a tulip; I look at snow. In the parlor’s mechanical chair, I write these paragraphs and dictate letters. I also watch television news, often without listening, and lie back in the enormous comfort of solitude. People want to come visit, but mostly I refuse them, preserving my continuous silence. Linda comes two nights a week. My two best male friends from New Hampshire, who live in Maine and Manhattan, seldom drop by. A few hours a week, Carole does my laundry and counts my pills and picks up after me. I look forward to her presence and feel relief when she leaves. Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over. I am grateful when solitude returns.
It’s an arresting vision. If you think about it, however, the prospect that the human species could “upgrade itself” to godhood melts away. “Humanity” can’t become God, because “humanity” does not exist. All that actually exists is the multifarious human animal, with its historic enmities and intractable divisions. The idea that the human species is a collective agent, setting itself “big projects” and realising them throughout history, is a humanist myth. Surfacing here and there inSapiens, it didn’t do very much damage. In Homo Deus, which shows signs of having been written hastily, it muddles and undermines much of the argument.
What's remarkable is how much wit and pathos Prose manages to wring from this wildly unpromising jumping-off point. It brings to mind a graduate school writing teacher who challenged students to fabricate an interesting story about, say, an orthodontist. Prose's novel could be a lesson in point: Handled with imagination and élan, almost anything can be turned into compelling literature.
I spent seven months following the company’s efforts at recovery. The journey took me from rural farms to industrial kitchens, from the hotbeds of Chipotle’s outbreaks in Massachusetts to its fan festival in Arizona, from a summit of food-safety experts in Illinois to the company’s corporate offices in Colorado and New York. I talked to scores of restaurant employees—and I ate more burritos than I can count (never once getting sick). I interviewed the co-CEOs, other top executives, current and former employees, suppliers, and food-industry partners, and I reviewed more than 1,000 pages of internal documents. The story that emerges from all this is provocative and unexpected, a tale of optimism, hubris, bad luck, and missed opportunity.
Chipotle has said it won’t be satisfied until it’s regained all of its lost sales and resumed its momentum. It has pledged to continue to refashion the food system. As a longtime customer, I want to believe them. Everyone wants to believe them. But as I learned, what’s ailing Chipotle is more pervasive and insidious than any foodborne illness. For Chipotle to win back all it has lost will require a soul-cleansing broader than perhaps even Ells and Moran realize.
Before a special night out, a glamorous Parisienne might treat herself to un brushing, at which her hair will be blow-dried and styled. In Moscow, would-be clubbers must first make it past feyskontrol (‘face control’), to ensure that only the beautiful people come in. And those Berliners who just can’t let the party end can carry on at eine Afterhour until well after the sun comes up.
These words – brushing, feyskontrol, Afterhour – seem odd to English ears. We recognise them, sort of, but we’d never use them ourselves – not in those ways, at least. They are borrowed from English but their meanings are new and different; linguists call them pseudo-anglicisms. Sometimes they are English words used to mean something else, other times they are combinations that native speakers find plain weird. Occasionally they’ve been made up to sound like English, but have nothing to do with the language of Shakespeare at all.
“You guys” is the most common way Americans refer directly to a group of people; it is a de facto pronoun, duct-taped together. If you remember your high school linguistics, you might also remember that this pronoun would be the second-person plural. (First person is “I,” second person is “you,” third person is “he/she".) The need for a pronoun to directly refer to a group of people is not a small one, or one that can simply be brushed aside; this is one of the most basic elements of language.
And American English is terrible at it.
In what presents itself as a modest, mischievous little novel, Francine Prose has, modestly and mischievously, given us a great work. Expertly constructed, “Mister Monkey” is so fresh and new it’s almost giddy, almost impudent with originality. Tender and artful, Prose’s 15th novel is a sophisticated satire, a gently spiritual celebration of life, a dark and thoroughly grim depiction of despair, a screwball comedy, a screwball tragedy.
Mr. Eustis, whose theater oversees Shakespeare in the Park, had long known about the possible connection between the playwright’s grief and his play, but it had new and unwanted resonance.
His 16-year-old son, Jack, took his own life nearly two years ago. Now, Mr. Eustis, with his family, faces the kind of soul-searching for which there can be no preparation. How to hold on and move forward at the same time. What it means to be a public figure with a private grief. How he thinks about the work he does and the shows he sees.
The tragedy coincided with a time of extraordinary success in Mr. Eustis’s professional life: The Public was the Off Broadway birthplace of two groundbreaking new musicals, “Fun Home” and the once-in-a-generation hit “Hamilton.” Those very shows are propelled by tragic losses. But his is a life of theater, and immersing himself in theatermaking is the only path he knows to take.
Some folklorists align the current clown scare with other stories of “phantom attackers,” like the Phantom Slasher of Taipei from the 1950s or the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, Ill., from 1944. The latter most likely played on World War II-era fears of gas and wartime instability; in general, urban legends tend to spread in times of anxiety, when there are low levels of trust in official institutions and sources of information. Our current moment certainly qualifies.
But when did clowns become scary? It turns out that even asking that question is evidence of a short cultural memory. Dark clowns go back centuries before Stephen King. As Benjamin Radford, author of the recent book “Bad Clowns,” points out, “It’s misleading to ask when clowns turned bad, for they were never really good.”
When imagining a journey around planet Earth, I never pictured the part where I crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in a Toyota Camry with a pink Lyft mustache on the dashboard. Yet that was how I embarked on an accidental circumnavigation of the globe one recent sunny morning, Annie Lennox singing “I travel the world and the seven seas” on the car stereo as the Camry hurtled through the E-ZPass lane.
Because I was flying west out of Newark Liberty International Airport and arriving back at Kennedy Airport two weeks later, my trip had begun, and would end, rather prosaically, like my daily commute, on my doorstep in Brooklyn. At least that was how the experienced travelers of the Circumnavigators Club explained it to me. I had sought their counsel a week before as I tried to understand what, if anything, this inadvertent journey meant to me.
Hag-Seed, fourth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series of novels reworking the Bard's plays, is Margaret Atwood's take on The Tempest. But you don't need to be a Shakespeare geek like me to enjoy Hag-Seed; it's a good story, and will introduce you to the play gently, with Felix himself as your guide.
My lookout tower is situated five miles from the nearest road, on a ten-thousand-foot peak in the Gila National Forest. I live here for several months each year, without electricity or running water. Although tens of thousands of acres are touched by fire here every year, I can go weeks without seeing a twist of smoke. During these lulls I simply watch and wait, my eyes becoming ever more intimate with an ecological transition zone encompassing dry grasslands, piñon-juniper foothills, ponderosa parkland, and spruce-fir high country. On clear days I can make out mountains 180 miles away. To the east extends the valley of the Rio Grande, cradled by the desert: austere, forbidding, dotted with creosote shrubs and home to a collection of horned and thorned species evolved to live in a land of little water. To the north and south, along the Black Range, a line of peaks rises and falls in timbered waves; to the west, the Rio Mimbres meanders out of the mountains, its lower valley verdant with riparian flora. Beyond it rise more mesas and mountains: the Diablos, the Jerkies, the Mogollons.
It is a world of extremes. Having spent each fire season for nearly a decade in my little glass-walled perch, I’ve become acquainted with the look and feel of the border highlands each week of each month, from April through August: the brutal gales of spring, when a roar off the desert gusts over seventy miles an hour and the occasional snow squall turns my peak white; the dawning of summer in late May, when the wind abates and the aphids hatch and ladybugs emerge in great clouds from their hibernation; the fires of June, when dry lightning connects with the hills, sparking smokes that fill the air with the sweet smell of burning pine; the tremendous storms of July, when the thunder makes me flinch as if from the threat of a punch; and the blessed indolence of August, when the meadows bloom with wildflowers and the creeks run again, the rains having turned my world a dozen different shades of green. I’ve seen fires burn so hot they made their own weather; I’ve watched deer and elk frolic in the meadow below me and pine trees explode in a blue ball of smoke. If there’s a better job anywhere on the planet, I’d like to know about it.
She leaves university around 5 p.m., just as the sun is falling behind the dark mountains to the south, and steers her white Honda Civic down the hill toward the border. It’s a short drive, maybe 10 minutes, past the fast-food restaurants and strip malls of El Paso and over the I-10, where Texans sit in traffic to head home to the suburbs, then alongside the two fences—electric and brown metal—that divide Texas from Mexico.
Then, she waits. Valeria Padilla is accustomed to waiting—for four years she has commuted from the home she shares with her mother and grandmother in Ciudad Juarez to the campus of the University of Texas-El Paso, where she, like many other Mexican nationals, qualifies for in-state tuition. But the wait used to be to get into the United States. Now, she waits to get out, too.
For the first time ever, the jury has given the Nobel Prize in literature to a writer who cannot be appreciated by the deaf. In their citation, the jury lauded Bob Dylan’s “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” But can song lyrics be rightly esteemed on the page, or do they need a tune and a voice?
Dylan’s lyrics — absent the memory of the chords that fed them life — read like dead fish. But they swim in sounds like nothing else. I remember they do, but deaf, I can’t hear them now. And just as color cannot be helpfully explained to a blind museum patron, so the lilt of a voice cannot be helpfully explained to one who’s deaf. The Nobel Prize in literature has gone to someone I’m no longer able to “read.”
To satiate this curiosity and hunger for near-obsessive detail, few can top “When Paris Sizzled,” a book so packed with intriguing character sketches and associations as to be almost encyclopedic. McAuliffe, the author of several books about Paris, draws on the troves of material left behind by the era’s great writers and expats to bring the city to life in a kind of you-are-here-with-Cocteau-and-Chanel tableau vivant. And everyone is here at McAuliffe’s proverbial Montparnasse party.
I never considered the chalkboard’s prominence in my education until I visited my old school in 2015. It shouldn’t have surprised me to find a whiteboard where the chalkboard had been, but the change was startling. No matter how young, most parents today still conjure the image of a chalkboard when they imagine a K-12 classroom. In popular culture, chalkboards are a visual shorthand for school. They appear in stock photography accompanying articles about education and inmovies and television shows set in schools.
By the end of the 1990s, whiteboards outsold chalkboards by a margin of up to four to one. Even digital whiteboards—computerized display boards with interactive features—outsold chalkboards by the turn of the millennium. Since then, chalkboards have all but disappeared from schools. Why, then, do they remain such potent symbols for education? Perhaps it’s because of what they represent: the idea of stable knowledge in a rapidly changing digital age.
If you’re trying to tell the story of a friendship, do you start when the two of you met? For Sam and me, that was in the late summer of 1996, after we became co-editors of the arts and entertainment section of our university’s student newspaper.
Or do you start the story with the day everything changed? Which was in 2014, right around his thirty-eighth birthday, when Sam was given a diagnosis of Stage III-C stomach cancer. For the enviably uninitiated, about nine per cent of people who receive such a diagnosis are alive five years later.
His example has taught writers of all sorts — not merely poets and novelists — about strategies of both pinpoint clarity and anyone’s-guess free association, of telegraphic brevity and ambiguous, kaleidoscopic moods.
Late-night comedy may not be considered as serious or vital an institution as the rest of our media, but that’s what it is — an institution. And like the rest of our institutions, late night has undergone a long and painful process of discovering its own inadequacies in the harsh light of Trump’s America.
Like so many other civic norms, though, late night’s jocular, collegial template for handling our nation’s quadrennial screaming match was utterly unprepared for 2016. As November 8 approaches, the field’s most successful personalities are the ones who’ve admitted as much and thrown out their inherited template. The least successful, and occasionally even disgraceful, are the ones who’ve clung to that template for dear life. And the most vital are two hosts — Samantha Bee and John Oliver — who were never working from a broken and outdated template in the first place.
The door opened and a doctor we hadn’t seen before came in, but that wasn’t unusual for this hospital. She had brown hair and brown eyes, which she kept trained on the floor.
She stuck her hand out to my husband Zack. “I am Dr. Minnick,” she said. She sat down at the ultrasound machine. When she finally looked at me, I felt like I was going to throw up.
“I couldn’t find a heartbeat,” she said.
Reflections were, at the time, generally trusted as showing something real: The mirror became "an assiduous courtier, the rival of lovers, a fashion adviser to coquettes, a confidante, an accomplice, the most impartial of judges," writes Melchoir-Bonnet. But the proliferation of mirrors and their bizarre funhouse cousins eventually fed skepticism and "taught the relativity of all points of view."
It is this relativism, rather than faith and rapture, that imbues contemporary interpretations of the mirror — and has pushed entrepreneurs to come up with better versions of the mirror using technology.
Sometimes I’m jealous that my wife gets to work from home, like when she posts photos in the middle of the day of a squirrel playing on the oak tree behind the house, for example, or when she texts me about foxes running across our lawn. Who wouldn’t be jealous of that? But I’m more jealous of the distracted look she had on her face while working at her computer that weekend. I remember feeling like that when I was writing my dissertation: some bit of reasoning would be just out of my reach and I knew I could just sit at my computer and work until my idea would become clear and orderly. I remember how that process could eat whole afternoons, evenings, and nights, how one problem could define a week or even two or three.
In these moments, my wife is in the thrall of what 1843 and Economist writer Ryan Avent recently called flow, “the process of losing oneself in a puzzle with a solution on which other people depend.” The subject of Avent’s essay is the tendency of modern work to fill so much of our lives, to make “permanent use of valuable cognitive space,” to “choose odd hours to pace through our thoughts,” and to “colonize our personal relationships.” With smartphones, email notifications, and constant internet access, he says that work “becomes our lives if we are not careful.”
Conditions were great—powder coated the runs, and the Arctic summer sun promised to shine long into the night. But a few runs into their trip, disaster struck. Bågenholm caught some snow the wrong way and tripped, losing her skis. She tumbled and slid until she hit a frozen stream. Then she cracked through the ice, and was pulled upside-down into the rushing water.
Seconds later, her friends reached her. They grabbed her boots, preventing her from sinking further, but they couldn't yank her out. As they phoned for help, Bågenholm struggled upward under the water, searching the undersurface of the ice until she found an air pocket large enough to let her breathe. Her clothes got heavier and heavier, soaked through with near-frozen water. Her core temperature plummeted. Eventually, everything went black.
Mr. Lethem’s backgammon writing has a satisfying crunch. It’s witty and sexy, too. I’m not sure I’ve ever before read a love scene that begins with a woman crying out, “Double me, gammon me.”
I am presently sitting five cables off this island, Tristan da Cunha, wallowing on the swells on a small boat that is hove-to just off the mole at the entrance to the harbor of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, the island’s capital and only settlement. But while my fellow passengers will soon be landing—once the easterly gale blows itself out and the seas die down to an acceptable level—and so are excitedly preparing themselves to enjoy the fascinations that Edinburgh has in store (a visit to the fields where the islanders grow potatoes being the main advertised attraction), I will not be joining them.
For I have been sternly and staunchly forbidden to land. The Island Council of this half-forgotten outpost of the remaining British Empire has for the last quarter century declared me a Banned Person. I am welcome on Tristan neither today nor, indeed, as was succinctly put to me in a diplomatic telegram last year, “ever.”
An estimated 48 million Americans become sick each year because of something they ate. Annually, over 3,000 die because of contaminated food. Both numbers are projected to rise in the coming decade, along with our reliance on imported food. And here’s the irony: A big reason for that increase is that we’ve developed healthier eating habits. On average, we eat 14 percent more fruits and vegetables than we did in 1970. We’re eating beet greens with bee pollen and drinking kale-and-date smoothies. And those foods — which is to say fresh foods — are the very hardest to police, particularly when they come from overseas.
Across the seven decades and three generations encompassed by the novel, Thien writes with the mastery of a conductor who is as in command of the symphony’s tempo as she is attuned to the nuances of each individual instrument. For the reader, as well as Marie, fragmentary details slowly accrue, as if polyphonically, manifesting a central theme of the book: that life does not proceed according to a linear chronology so much as it “spirals closer and closer to a shifting center.” Instead of moving forward, it swirls on continual reiterations of the past.
There used to be parties in the apartments on the top floors of New York City's branch libraries. On other nights, when the libraries were closed, the kids who lived there might sit reading alone among the books or roll around on the wooden library carts—if they weren't dusting the shelves or shoveling coal. Their hopscotch courts were on the roof. A cat might sneak down the stairs to investigate the library patrons.
When these libraries were built, about a century ago, they needed people to take care of them. Andrew Carnegie had given New York $5.2 million, worth well over $100 million today, to create a city-wide system of library branches, and these buildings, the Carnegie libraries, were heated by coal. Each had a custodian, who was tasked with keeping those fires burning and who lived in the library, often with his family. "The family mantra was: Don’t let that furnace go out," one woman who grew up in a library told the New York Times.
What makes the story of the book’s initial publication more than a bit of bookchat trivia is that those circumstances and the novel’s reception support many of the ideas explored within the story itself. Dark Reflections is among the most detailed, thoughtful, and heartbreaking portrayals of a writer’s life — a writer seeking not only to write well, but to earn prestige and build a literary reputation. It was Delany’s own prestige and reputation that allowed the book any notice when it was more or less dumped into the marketplace. Had it been his first publication, or had he had a different sort of career, its fate would have been different.
In many ways, Dark Reflections is a narrative companion to Delany’s 2006 collection of essays, letters, and interviews, About Writing. In the introduction to that book, Delany says that its varied texts share common ideas, primary among them ideas about the art of writing fiction, the structure of the writer’s socio-aesthetic world both in the present and past, and “the way literary reputations grow — and how, today, they don’t grow.” The book is mainly, though not exclusively, aimed at aspiring writers. It provides some advice on craft, but it circles back most insistently to questions of value, and especially to questions of the difference between good writing and talented writing — and what it means, practically and materially, for a writer to shape a life around an aspiration toward the highest levels of achievement. While About Writing poses and explores these questions, Dark Reflections dramatizes them.
In moments of great literal silence, Look gives its audience a counterweight to the deliberateness of wartime jargon. The sense of serenity that intentionally-poetic phrases suggest — terms like TOGETHER FORWARD or GLAD TIDINGS OF BENEVOLENCE, for example; two remarkably ironic names of US operations in Iraq — find their match in Sharif's use of elision.
In June 2010, a small group of frozen-pizza technicians, cooks and marketers met in a conference room in Chicago. They had been summoned to report to Paul Bakus, an executive at Nestlé. This team had developed DiGiorno pizza for Kraft, and came along when Nestlé bought Kraft’s frozen-food business in January of that year. Nestlé is known for its chocolate Crunch bars, of course, but it makes all sorts of food: frozen meals, bottled water, bouillon cubes, Hot Pockets, instant noodles, baby food and dog food. It is, in fact, the world’s largest food company. But unless Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza counts, Nestlé didn’t make pizza in the United States at that time. Bakus was new to pizza, too. He had done a tour of duty at Nestlé’s Swiss headquarters before he was sent home to head the American baked-goods division. From there, he was transferred to run the frozen-pizza business from Solon, a suburb of Cleveland where Nestlé develops all its frozen foods.
DiGiorno, the line Kraft created in 1995, became a market leader for its “rising crust,” which, unlike other frozen pizza crusts, started raw and rose in the oven. The crust was the centerpiece of DiGiorno’s pitch to consumers: that it could pass for delivery. But now that DiGiorno was a Nestlé product, it would have to be brought into compliance with Nestlé’s nutritional standards. Bakus was sent to Chicago to talk about sodium.
Calling a thriller “psychological” credits it with a kind of literary complexity. The very first recorded use of the term “psychological thriller” was in an admiring review of Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil in 1925. Most dictionaries of literary terms lack an entry for this genre, as if it were a figment of reviewers’ or publishers’ imaginations. A cynical interpretation would be that it is a thriller that an intelligent person is happy to be seen reading. Hawkins’s novel gained a place on Barack Obama’s summer reading list, thereby endorsed as the thinking person’s page-turner. A couple of years ago it was Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, also made into a glossy and violent film, that successfully filled this niche.
It is where genre fiction and literary fiction overlap. One of the books on this year’s Man Booker shortlist, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, is declared to be a “taut psychological thriller” in a quotation from an admiring reviewer blazoned on its cover. Certainly it displays some of the key features of the psychological thriller. It has a first-person narrator on whom we rely, yet whose view of the world sometimes seems warped. Eileen works as an administrator in a prison for young offenders, whom she likes to study. “The best was when I could see the hard face of a cold-hearted killer breaking through the chubby cheeks and callow softness of youth. That thrilled me.” Like those of a character in a novel by Ruth Rendell (the British doyenne of the psychological thriller), her thought processes are at once logical and twisted. Eileen has a narrative that, we know with delicious apprehension, is heading towards a nasty, probably violent, conclusion. There is already talk of a film adaptation of Moshfegh’s novel. This is hardly surprising: “psychological thriller” has long been a description applied equally to novels, on the one hand, and film or TV dramas, on the other.
section divider, roughly a third of the way through Some Rain Must Fall, the penultimate volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle cycle, is a reminder, if one were needed, that this is not quite a stand-alone novel. The break is a distraction even for the committed reader: it takes a Knausgaardian feat of memory to remember that the first volume was also cleaved in two. Yet despite its jarring inclusion, the part break proves a reminder of Knausgaard’s sheer ambition and his committed attention to the moments and memories that define a life.
For the last 50 years, reformers have wanted to teach kids to reason mathematically, to think nimbly about topics like quadratic equations that otherwise come off flat. Instead, in programs that employed the New Math, students often ended up playing logic games. [...]
It’s not surprising that ambitious changes like these would be hard to implement. After all, teaching kids to adopt a scientific mindset is a subtler and more complex task than having them memorize the parts of a cell. For one thing, it requires teachers who inhabit that mindset themselves, and they’re harder to find. For another, it takes a more patient perspective than the prevailing one in public education, which expects teachers to post a learning objective on the board before each class and end every unit with a multiple-choice test.
Ambition. The word itself makes me want to run and hide. It’s got some inexorable pejorative stench to it. Why is that? I’ve been avoiding this essay like the plague. I’d so much rather be writing my novel, my silly secret sacred new novel, which will take a while, during which time I will not garner new followers nor see my name in the paper nor seek an advance from the publisher nor receive the hearts and likes and dings and dongs that are supposed to keep my carnivorous cancerous ego afloat. I will simply do my work. Hole up with family and friends, live in the world as best I can, and do my work.
The work: this is what I would like to talk about. The work, not the hearts and likes and dings and dongs. And maybe I can float the possibility that the work is best when it’s done nowhere near the hearts and likes and dings and dongs. Maybe I can suggest that there is plenty of time for hearts and likes and dings and dongs once the work is done, and done well. Maybe I can ever so gently point out that a lot of people seem rather addicted to the hearts and likes and dings and dongs, and seem to talk about and around writing a hell of a lot more than they actually do it. Maybe we can even talk about how some self-promote so extensively and shamelessly and heedlessly and artlessly that their very names become shorthand for how not to be.
Willis — famous for her ability to combine sci-fi and humor — looks around at the modern world, with its phones constantly ringing and social media constantly socializing, and she wants to lock the door, pull up the drawbridge, and hang a do-not-disturb sign on the moat. The result is a true oddity; a romance in which greater intimacy is not a dream but a paranoid nightmare.
A walk through a forest might never be the same again after reading this elucidating book, which makes a case for trees as social beings that communicate, feel and help each other. “The Hidden Life of Trees” explains that trees use scent to talk, “agree” to bloom together and take communal action against pests. Bizarre as this might sound, the author Peter Wohlleben is not a New Age disciple who conjured up some crazy esoteric visions but a forester in Germany who underpins (most) of his ideas with hard scientific data.
Louise Doughty’s excellent new novel is a character study, a glimpse at midcentury American civil rights, a thriller, a meditation on the effects of foreign policy on individuals, a modern love story and a portrait of Indonesian unrest in the 20th century. And throughout it’s an attempt to explain in dramatic terms how someone lacking the zeal of patriotism might choose a life in the detached, pitiless and barely understood profession we call intelligence. If that sounds like a handful, it is. But Doughty has found an ideal vehicle for her wide-ranging interests: a laconic, aging man, born Nicolaas Den Herder but known to colleagues and strangers alike as John Harper.
In another review for The Times, Dwight Garner acknowledges the short story-ness of Bennett’s book even as he insists that the work is a novel: “‘Pond’ is a slim novel, told in chapters of varying lengths that resemble short stories. There’s little in the way of conventional plot.” Hmm. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Garner was describing a short story collection.
This phenomenon of misidentifying a story collection as a novel is surprisingly common, both in book reviewing and in polite conversation. A number of people seem to use the term “novel” as a synonym for “book,” and because of this I sometimes see even works of nonfiction referred to as novels. (I won’t call anyone out on this point, since it’s really quite embarrassing.) More often, the word “novel” is applied to collections when all of the stories within feel strongly of a piece (and consequently are favorites of the creative writing workshop).
Mr. Szalay’s own stream of perception never falters in its sensitivity and probity. This book is a demonstration of uncommon power. It is a bummer, and it is beautiful.
With the publication of “Today Will Be Different,” she has now written two works of fiction (her previous novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” was published in 2012) that are truly smart and deep and funny — worthy of laughing out loud rather than merely saying “LOL.” Semple brilliantly conveys a whole array of angst — self-deprecation and existential dread and a panic attack of neuroses — while simultaneously packing in a liberal dose of levity.
My time in China has taught me the pleasure and value of craftsmanship, simply because it’s so rare. To see somebody doing a job well, not just for its own reward, but for the satisfaction of good work, thrills my heart; it doesn’t matter whether it’s cooking or candle-making or fixing a bike. When I moved house some years ago, I watched with genuine delight as three wiry men stripped my old apartment to the bone in 10 minutes, casually balancing sofas and desks on their backs and packing the van as tightly as a master Tetris player.
But such scenes are an unusual treat. (And, after losing the card for my master movers, the next time I shifted house, the moving team did a fine imitation of the Three Stooges.) Instead, the prevailing attitude is chabuduo, or ‘close enough’. It’s a phrase you’ll hear with grating regularity, one that speaks to a job 70 per cent done, a plan sketched out but never completed, a gauge unchecked or a socket put in the wrong size. Chabuduo is the corrosive opposite of the impulse towards craftmanship, the desire, as the sociologist Richard Sennett writes in The Craftsman (2008), ‘to reject muddling through, to reject the job just good enough’. Chabuduo implies that to put any more time or effort into a piece of work would be the act of a fool. China is the land of the cut corner, of ‘good enough for government work’.
Why write a Twitter essay? While thoughts might be concise in a Tweet, a Twitter essay allows for incredible amounts of fluidity. As a writer is putting together a Twitter essay, other users can actively respond while it’s being written and form the shape of the final product—a Twitter essay is a communal project, or performance. Watching a Twitter essay unfold is like watching a concert, not the recording; it’s like attending an author’s reading, not reading the book itself.
Twitter is maybe one of the most ideal places to watch a draft shape itself into a finished essay—a public place for us to learn the bones.
Standing still for forty minutes—absolutely still, without moving a finger or shifting your line of sight—is something few of us have ever been called on to do. Even fewer have done it naked while circled by twenty people whose gazes are intently focussed on each bend and angle of your body. What I can report of it is this: nothing I’ve ever done, before or since, has afforded me such a state of concentration—intense, extended, charged. I would run whole passages of text—Baudelaire, Rilke, Ponge, whomever I’d been reading, even my own small works in progress—through my head, forward, backward, taking apart each image, amplifying each metre and sub-rhythm in the loaded silence. I probably learned more about literature in the six months I spent on the podium than in the three previous years of study.
When you read Ms. French — and she has become required reading for anyone who appreciates tough, unflinching intelligence and ingenious plotting — make only one assumption: All of your initial assumptions are wrong. This author drops just enough breadcrumbs through her book to create trails that lead away from whatever the detectives’ conventional wisdom happens to be, and she doesn’t follow up on them until she’s good and ready.
Firefighters began to inflate the enormous yellow air mattress they carry to break the fall of jumpers. But there was a tree in the way.
So they were preparing instead for a rooftop rescue. That’s when, suddenly, the woman scooted forward and, without a word, launched herself into the air.
At 7:46 a.m., a police officer radioed in: “She jumped!”
“Oh, God!” the dispatcher said. “Was that pillow already inflated?”
“That’s negative,” the officer said.
Today Esperanto is as much a movable feast as a movement, a cheerful diaspora that lives on at characterful classes and congresses where diehards for the interna ideo mingle with fearsome polyglots and hardcore language nerds. A language spoken by a mobile subculture of (mostly) middle-class Westerners may have a better chance at survival than most of the world’s natural languages, half of which are endangered and have fewer than 10,000 speakers. The greatest danger Esperanto faces is that a language born out of a hope for universal understanding could end up as just another hobby, cultivated in convention halls that next week will be filled with memory junkies, chess fanatics, or Trekkies.
For a would-be international language, the paradoxical strength of Esperanto lies in its particular identity and idealism. Born in an age of nationalisms, it sometimes seems like a language in search of a country. There’s no army, but Esperanto has many of the other trappings of a nation-state: a flag, an anthem, a literature with its own rigorous poetics, and even places of pilgrimage like Zamenhof’s Bialystok and an Esperanto-speaking farm-school in the Brazilian Amazon. In 1996, the UEA pledged itself to support seven core objectives: democracy, global education, effective education, multilingualism, language rights, language diversity, and human emancipation. Its grammar may have a geeky appeal, but plainly humanism, internationalism, and love of language are Esperanto’s bedrock.
Modern prestige comedies, thanks to fracturing audiences and changing tastes, often don’t feel the need to focus on joke-making at all. There are long stretches of any of the shows I named above with no real jokes in them, instead developing characters and telling stories in the same way as any drama. Is Baskets really even a comedy? Is Orange Is The New Black? Do we have to assemble some kind of metric of jokes-per-minute to be able to figure out where to slot these shows into Emmy nominations?
The broad shift of prestige comedies from sitcoms to something that maybe used to be referred to as a “dramedy” is neither bad nor good. The quality of a show doesn’t rely on whether it slots nicely into decades-old categories for awards shows. But the rise in prestige comedies has a secondary effect that I’d argue is unwanted, at least for me: the decline of joke-focused comedies.
The strange thing is that you’re never tempted to put Ms. Zink’s novels aside. They contain so much backspin and topspin that you’re kept alert by the leaping motion. “If you can make the reader laugh,” the novelist Henry Green said, “he is apt to get careless and go on reading.” When I am reading Ms. Zink, my carelessness gets the better of me.
As you may know, my husband Robin Williams had the little-known but deadly Lewy body disease (LBD). He died from suicide in 2014 at the end of an intense, confusing, and relatively swift persecution at the hand of this disease's symptoms and pathology. He was not alone in his traumatic experience with this neurologic disease. As you may know, almost 1.5 million nationwide are suffering similarly right now.
Although not alone, his case was extreme. Not until the coroner's report, 3 months after his death, would I learn that it was diffuse LBD that took him. All 4 of the doctors I met with afterwards and who had reviewed his records indicated his was one of the worst pathologies they had seen. He had about 40% loss of dopamine neurons and almost no neurons were free of Lewy bodies throughout the entire brain and brainstem.
What is this connection between odd constructions and ghosts? Perhaps it’s because these strange buildings defy common sense and time-honed principles, creating in us a sense of unease that’s hard to name. The principles of architecture—the ones so readily abused by McMansions—didn’t appear overnight; they emerged from centuries of use and tradition. They reflect how we move through houses and how we are most comfortable in them. They maximize the kinds of spaces where we feel most at home, organized around layouts that facilitate ease of use and movement.
In time they become second nature: You don’t expect a front door to open into a bedroom or to find a kitchen on the second floor—even though, technically, there’s nothing stopping a builder from laying out a house in such a way. So when a space is off in subtle ways, when it violates these ergonomic principles we long ago internalized, we often sense it without even realizing it. You may walk into a room where a ceiling fan is off-center, or a fireplace is on the wrong wall, and not immediately identify what’s wrong, yet you still feel the imbalance in the room.
Szalay’s subject is the loss of prestige afforded a certain kind of European manhood, the spuriousness of its foundations and the ease with which it is threatened. If manhood is an arena of struggle in the midst of civilization — something like that stadium the Danish journalist drives past — the sympathy of these stories lies firmly with the bull. The novel’s characteristic mood is a kind of lambent melancholy, shot through with dark, sometimes savage humor.
In 1952, geologist Don Miller was conducting a petroleum investigation in the region surrounding the Gulf of Alaska when he encountered a vaguely disquieting geological anomaly. While surveying a remote fjord known as Lituya Bay, Miller found that the dense, mature forest that surrounded the bay ended abruptly hundreds of feet upslope of the water. There was some vegetation growing below the distinct line, but it was all upstart grasses, saplings, and such. It was clear that at some point in recent history, an unknown, massive force had scraped the shores clean, and the vegetation was only beginning to reclaim the land.
There was no evidence that a fire had passed through—none of the surviving trees were charred, nor were the few remaining tree stumps. Instead, it appeared that the trees had been bent and twisted away by some powerful lateral force. The damage resembled a “trimline” like those left behind when a glacier recedes, exposing a line of bare rock alongside vegetation, but there was no glacier in a location that would account for it. A tsunami could also theoretically cause such destruction, but the boundary was much farther upshore than any tsunami in recorded history. Upon investigating further, Miller discovered other, older trimlines around the bay, suggesting that the destructive event had occurred multiple times prior, each a few decades apart. This was not typical bay behavior.
In his series of black-and-white images, Bad Weather (1980), English photographer Martin Parr captured some recognizably damp, gray scenes. Shot across northern England and Ireland, but largely in Yorkshire, Parr used flash and an underwater camera to light up thick falling raindrops or wet snow. Behind these, one sees a sodden street; a tea towel flapping on a washing line; a deserted park bandstand; pedestrians under umbrellas or holding newspapers and cardboard boxes over their heads; a Jubilee street party abandoned under a downpour, with a thin glimmer of light illuminating only a backdrop of industrial decay. These photographs reinforce the question of how weather relates to national identity. It’s no surprise that “mizzle,” a Devonshire word for a thin drizzle, is the name chosen for a dull gray-green paint color manufactured by Farrow & Ball: nothing could be more quintessentially English.
What was, and is, English weather? How does this weather relate to national identity? And will that weather, and therefore this identity, ever be the same again? Three books each tackle these questions from different angles, but all are grounded in the belief that how we talk about the weather reveals much about how we view ourselves.
There's so much in this book. I could talk for ages about how mesmerized I was by the depiction of research and development in wartime; how happy to see same-sex desire represented with loving complexity; how riveted by plot-twists that further complicate the world Liu is building. When I said Liu was building a dynasty, I imagined his material was a single family; instead I see that time, physics, and settler-colonialism are all load-bearing elements of his epic architecture.
Internally, executives at American Public Media, the nonprofit that produces and distributes “A Prairie Home Companion,” liken Thile’s ascent to Jimmy Fallon’s taking Jay Leno’s seat. The comparison sells short the jarring nature of the shift. Leno didn’t conceive of “The Tonight Show” or write most of the jokes himself, as is the case with Keillor and “Prairie Home.” More peculiar still, Thile is not a writer-raconteur in the mode of Keillor, but a musician, and one who prefers technical, challenging terrain.
The transition brings with it more than one existential question — whether “A Prairie Home Companion” can possibly go on without Garrison Keillor’s voice, and whether there’s even a place for such a show in modern America. Thile’s motivations also seem curious. He spent this summer touring Australia and Japan and curating a sold-out series of concerts at Washington’s Kennedy Center. He has a choir. Why preach to Keillor’s?
Every year since 1982, an event known as Banned Books Week has brought attention to literary works frequently challenged by parents, schools, and libraries. The books in question sometimes feature scenes of violence or offensive language; sometimes they’re opposed for religious reasons (as in the case of both Harry Potter and the Bible). But one unfortunate outcome is that 52 percent of the books challenged or banned in the last 10 years feature so-called “diverse content”—that is, they explore issues such as race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, mental illness, and disability. As a result, the organizers of Banned Books Week, which started Sunday, chose the theme “Celebrating Diversity” for 2016.
Since the inception of the American children’s literature industry in the 1820s, publishers have had to grapple with the question of who their primary audience should be. Do kids’ books cater to parents and adult cultural gatekeepers, or to young readers themselves? But as books that address issues of diversity face a growing number of challenges, the related question of which children both the industry and educators should serve has become more prominent recently. Who benefits when Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of Part-Time Indian, which deals with racism, poverty, and disability, is banned for language and “anti-Christian content”? Who’s hurt when Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings’s picture book I Am Jazz, about a transgender girl, is banned? The history of children’s book publishing in America offers insight into the ways in which traditional attitudes about “appropriate” stories often end up marginalizing the lives and experiences of many young readers, rather than protecting them.
Even though there is a notable weakness in End of Watch because of these constant and seemingly clunky coincidences, and despite its heavy metatextual dependence upon familiarity with King’s earlier writings, the novel nonetheless stands up as an enjoyable read. As the end of this trilogy, everything is wrapped up neatly, and the Constant Reader will not be spending his or her time burning impatiently for more tales focused on Bill Hodges. The story is done, the good guys win (mostly), and while King may have become enslaved by a fixation on time, one cannot completely consider this work as a contrived and overly manipulated story; it is a narrative that may offer little supernatural magic, but there is something magical about looking back on the events of a life — whether real or fictional — and seeing just how beautifully everything comes together (for better or for worse).
As a general cultural survey, “Time Travel” illustrates a powerful longing for escapism — from death, from our humdrum fates. So long as we perceive time the way we do, literary dreams and scientific studies of time travel are here to stay.
“The day turned into the city / and the city turned into the mind.” So Jessica Greenbaum begins her breathless, single-sentence poem “I Love You More Than All the Windows in New York City.” Often when we think of the kinds of landscapes that poets physically traverse and turn their minds to, we think not of the city but of the countryside. The conception of walking as a pastoral pastime to stimulate one’s creativity comes in large part from the legendary rural rambling of the Romantic poets: William Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s week-long solo walking tour of the Cumbrian mountains. But Greenbaum’s poem participates in, and perhaps even helps define, an equally rich tradition of the poetry of urban wandering.
An aimless urban walk—no map, no GPS—can resemble the experience of flipping through a poetry collection: the turn you take on a given street or to a given page, the forms or structures you’re drawn to, the storefront or poem you pass in favor of another. Or as Michel de Certeau puts it in a chapter called “Walking in the City” in his landmark 1984 book, The Practice of Everyday Life, “There is a rhetoric of walking. The art of ‘turning’ phrases or ‘stylistic figures’ finds an equivalent in an art of composing a path.”
The sign is small, maybe a few inches by a few inches. A friendly-looking bear with his hand over his stomach sits next to a rhyming poem. “I have cystic fibrosis / so please be fair / your germs are more / than I can bear,” which hovers over an imperative: “Please DO NOT touch the baby.” For just under ten dollars, you can purchase this sign and fasten it to a stroller or carrier or wherever anyone nearing your baby might be called off. When I saw it a few weeks after my son was born, I thought it was the saddest thing I’d ever seen.
I’m always proud of myself when I don’t mention cystic fibrosis to people who ask about my son, especially fellow new mothers. Platitudes feel indulgent and not untrue: sleep training is heinous, pumping is a pain, parent groups seem to breed judgment. The omission is invigorating and makes me feel temporarily powerful, an eager participant in the fantasy of how ecstatically grateful I might be, if I had nothing more than five months of sleepless nights to report.
I have a dirty little secret about airline food. I love it. I know of other foodies who so loathe the whole business that they now travel with smug little hampers of goodies so they can wrap themselves in a pashmina, turn on the expensive headphones and bury themselves in a private world of airborne luxury. But I can’t go that way.
There’s always been something incredibly exciting about communal eating while mashed into a seat and surrounded by the detritus of inflatable neck cushions, headphone cables, magazines and books. Long, long before hipster chefs were selling meat that had been cooked fashionably low and slow, cabin crew with fireproof legs and plastic smiles were serving chicken-or-beef that had spent most of a day being cooked, sealed, transported and stored.
Set in a madhouse in an era when straitjackets and feeding tubes represented the cutting edge of psychiatric health care, “The Ballroom” is a provocative account of the brutal effects of industrialization, poverty, sexism and misguided social policy on the hearts and minds of working people, and on women in particular.
Semple’s novel is a life’s worth of events presented over the course of a single day. And in presenting that life, she also compellingly portrays the “hamster wheel” existence all of us are faced with from time to time – the feeling of running as hard as we can but getting nowhere. And sometimes the life events that “unstick” us are not always the most pleasant or welcome.