Late one summer night in 1949, the British archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes went out into her small back garden in north London, and lay down. She sensed the bedrock covered by its thin layer of soil, and felt the hard ground pressing her flesh against her bones. Shimmering through the leaves and out beyond the black lines of her neighbours’ chimney pots were the stars, beacons ‘whose light left them long before there were eyes on this planet to receive it’, as she put it in A Land (1951), her classic book of imaginative nature writing.
We are accustomed to the idea of geology and astronomy speaking the secrets of ‘deep time’, the immense arc of non-human history that shaped the world as we perceive it. Hawkes’s lyrical meditation mingles the intimate and the eternal, the biological and the inanimate, the domestic with a sense of deep time that is very much of its time. The state of the topsoil was a matter of genuine concern in a country wearied by wartime rationing, while land itself rises into focus just as Britain is rethinking its place in the world. But in lying down in her garden, Hawkes also lies on the far side of a fundamental boundary. A Land was written at the cusp of the Holocene; we, on the other hand, read it in the Anthropocene.
In 1980, health and safety laws weren’t as stringent as they are now, and neither was the law protecting employees from sexual harassment. The first time I heard of a customer having an allergy was in the mid-’80s (the staff started laughing), and food poisoning became a restaurant issue for me only in the ’90s. (Of course, it was an issue before then, but the complaints never reached me — possibly because those poisoned by eating at my restaurants died before they were able to reach the health department.)
Sex among the staff has also gone out the window. Well, not entirely. But as an owner, I’m legally bound to pour cold water on the idea the day someone new is hired. Seeing as I met my two wives in restaurants (not simultaneously), I often wonder if I’d met them in today’s climate, would I have been forced to steer clear of them? Had that been the case, they probably would have been far happier women today.
Sex is a fraught subject in April Ayers Lawson's impressively polished debut collection of stories. The audacious but vulnerable young Southerners who populate these five tales live in a world where the ordinary uncertainties of relationships and physical intimacy are amplified and distorted by their devout, fundamentalist Christian upbringing, and in several cases, a history of childhood sexual abuse. Despite her limpid, supple prose, there's a creepy cast to Lawson's vision, with shades of Flannery O'Connor's dark humor and Southern Gothic sensibility.
How timely, then, to read this strange, intense novel from Ha Jin about the glories and limits of the freedom of the press. A former Chinese army soldier who chose to stay in the United States after the Tiananmen Square massacre, Ha Jin has lived and worked under two very different sets of rules. He knows the Communist Party’s elaborate control of mass media just as well as he understands the free market’s complicated influence on what we read and watch. That bifocal vision brings uncanny depth to his eighth novel, “The Boat Rocker,” which should find its place alongside Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer ” as one of the most unsettling books about the moral dimensions of modern journalism.