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Archive for December 2016

Saturday, December 31, 2016

My Father, The Shapeshifter, by Peter Haldeman, New York Times

“In the summer of 2004, I received an email from my father with the subject line ‘Changes,’” she began, her soft voice occasionally drowned out by cars racing up the canyon. “My father lived in Hungary, and it was the first communication I’d received from him in many years. He said he had some interesting news for me. He had decided, at the age of 76, that he’d had enough of, quote, impersonating a macho, aggressive man. There was a series of snapshots attached to the message. The first one showed my father standing in a hospital lobby in a sleeveless blouse and red skirt. Beside him were, as he wrote in the note, ‘the other post-op girls’ — two patients who were also making ‘the change.’”

“In the Darkroom” is a departure for Ms. Faludi. While previous works like “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women” and “Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man” were essentially polemics, her memoir is deeply personal. It is also a project as high concept as a sitcom pitch: What if a famous feminist author — whose activism was spurred by her father’s bullying machismo — discovered that said phallocrat had become a woman? Complications ensue. But Ms. Faludi mines her material less for easy ironies than for insights into the very meaning of identity.

Gathering Storm: A History Of The Complicated U.S.-China Relationship Since 1776, by Simon Winchester, New York Times

The underlying thesis of Pomfret’s account is quite simple: that the United States and China are locked “in an entangling embrace that neither can quit” and that this mutual dependence is “vital to the fate of the world.” The embrace’s entanglement is demonstrated by way of all too many examples — from the mid-19th-century American envoy Anson Burlingame to World War II’s Gen. Joseph Stilwell, from Pearl Buck to Henry Luce, Henry Kissinger to the American table tennis team, Richard Nixon to the accused spy Wen Ho Lee. It is shown to be an acquaintanceship of bewildering complexity and capriciousness, with periods of adoration interrupted by decades of suspicion, loathing and fear.

Günter Grass: From Enfant Terrible To Grand Old Man, by Rachel Seiffert, Spectator

‘Light as a feather, free as a bird.’ Günter Grass starts this final volume of short prose, poetry and sketches with a late and unexpected reawakening of his creative urge. After peevish old age had brought on such despondency that ‘neither lines of ink nor strings of words flowed from his hand’, he was gripped — out of the blue, and to his evident relish — by the impulse to ‘unleash the dog with no sense of shame. Become this or that. Lose my way on a single-minded quest.’

Friday, December 30, 2016

What Does Any Of This Have To Do With Physics?, by Bob Henderson, Nautilus

Einstein and Feynman ushered me into grad school, reality ushered me out.

To Speak Is To Blunder, by Yiyun Li, New Yorker

Years ago, when I started writing in English, my husband asked if I understood the implication of the decision. What he meant was not the practical concerns, though there were plenty: the nebulous hope of getting published; the lack of a career path as had been laid out in science, my first field of postgraduate study in America; the harsher immigration regulation I would face as a fiction writer. Many of my college classmates from China, as scientists, acquired their green cards under a National Interest Waiver. An artist is not of much importance to any nation’s interest.

My husband, who writes computer programs, was asking about language. Did I understand what it meant to renounce my mother tongue?

Next Waves, by Kevin Roose, New York Times

For the last few years, the professional conference circuit has been overrun by keynote speakers from San Francisco, bearing job titles like chief optimist and commanding five-figure fees to tell us how lucky we are to be living in a glorious new technological era. From coast to coast, every insurance-sales and dental hygienist convention now features one of these puffy paeans to technology. Robots! Augmented reality! The Internet of Things! All of these innovations will leave us richer, happier and more productive, the futurists tell us, and why not believe them?

But futurism in the time of Donald Trump feels fraught. After all, the techno-optimists completely missed the signs of an impending revolution in their backyards: the spread of fake news enabled by social networks; the megaphonic power of Trump’s Twitter feed; the rise of the so-called alt-right, a racist, neo-fascist clique that festered on 4chan and Reddit before emerging as a viable political movement. As a result, we fawned over self-driving cars and next-generation artificial intelligence while questions about the politics of all this new technology — the emotional backlash from manufacturing workers losing their jobs to automation, the interference of foreign hackers in American elections, the ability of partisan opportunists to flood Facebook with propaganda — went mostly unanswered.

Empathy Is Good, Right? A New Book Says We’re Better Off Without It, by Simon Baron-Cohen, New York Times

Bloom is on what he calls an “anti-empathy crusade.” He does not mince words. “When some people think about empathy, they think about kindness. I think about war.” (As someone who has represented the pro-empathy perspective, I have at times been a foil for his arguments — including in this book.)

Much of Bloom’s vehemence stems from the very narrow way he defines empathy as being distinct from compassion or sympathy, even if most people think of these as synonymous.

Yosemite: A Paradise Imperiled, by David Mas Masumoto, Los Angeles Review of Books

Together, Robbins and Masumoto blur the lines between what lies inside, and what lies outside, the official boundaries of Yosemite National Park — where past, present, and future all flow together.

Why Bullshit Is No Laughing Matter, by Gordon Pennycook, Aeon

Bullshit is much harder to detect when we want to agree with it. The first and most important step is to recognise the limits of our own cognition. We must be humble about our ability to justify our own beliefs. These are the keys to adopting a critical mindset – which is our only hope in a world so full of bullshit.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Picnics, Pit Stops And Potty Breaks, by Richard Ratay, Future Travel

Technically, the first rest areas weren’t known as such at all. They were called “roadside parks” or “waysides”. The transition to a new term didn’t occur until planning began for construction of America’s interstate highway system in the late 1950’s. Even then, such off-road refuges were officially designated Safety Rest Areas.

As the term implies, Safety Rest Areas (SRAs) were included along the interstates as much to offer motorists a safe place to pull off the road in the event of emergencies or mechanical issues as they were to offer road-weary travelers a place to enjoy picnic lunches and use the toilet.

A Reading Resolution, by Christian Kriticos, The Millions

So, inspired by my enjoyment of Steve Jobs, I am making a New Year’s resolution to embrace the unexpected book; to make an effort to read things I have never heard of, on subjects I know nothing about. If 2016 was able to introduce me to the book that would finally allow me to forgive Steve Jobs for the iPod Mini, I’m looking forward to seeing how my mind will be changed by the unexpected books of 2017.

‘Language At The Speed Of Sight’ Fights To Reopen Our Closed Book On Literacy, by David Kipen, New York Times

Too often, according to Mark Seidenberg’s important, alarming new book, “Language at the Speed of Sight,” Johnny can’t read because schools of education didn’t give Johnny’s teachers the proper tools to show him how. Economic inequality is a big problem, too, of course, but kindergartners may be grandparents before that can be redressed. Mr. Seidenberg, a veteran cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, makes a strong case for how brain science can help the teaching profession in the meantime.

‘Fairy Tales For The Disillusioned’: A Perfect Book, Perhaps, For The Moment, by Michael Dirda, Washington Post

As 2016, this year of upheavals, draws to a close, “Waves of anger and fear/ Circulate over the bright/ And darkened lands of the earth,/ Obsessing our private lives” (W.H. Auden). For many people, even this season of Christmas and New Year’s lacks some of its usual joy and sparkle. What better time, then, for a collection titled “Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned”?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Thinking In The Deep: Inside The Mind Of An Octopus, by Carl Safina, New York Times

If we met an alien whose intelligence derived through an entirely separate provenance from ours, would we recognize the sparkle in each other’s eyes? In “Other Minds,” Peter Godfrey-Smith hunts the commonalities and origins of sentience. He is an academic philosopher but also a diver. Watching octopuses watching him, our author considers minds and meanings.

The Nine Lives Of John Ogilby Review – A Cunning Cartographer, by Ruth Scurr, The Guardian

John Ogilby’s greatest legacy is his Britannia, the first road map of England and Wales, published in 1675-76 just before he died. The antiquary John Aubrey was one of the people Ogilby engaged to help compile Britannia, but from the start Aubrey was wary of the royal cosmographer, whom he thought to be “a cunning Scott”. Aubrey spent months researching the county of Surrey, only for Ogilby to announce he would neither pay him for his work nor include it in the printed volume. Disappointed and out of pocket, Aubrey nevertheless preserved biographical notes on Ogilby that serve as hints or clues to one of the 17th century’s most mysterious lives.

A ‘pan-Asian’ Restaurant May Seem Dated. In Fact, The Trend Is Hotter Than Ever., by Tim Carman, Washington Post

This apparent conflict between old- and new-school Asian restaurants can raise some uncomfortable questions, such as: Who’s qualified to present a region’s cuisine to American diners? And is it okay for outsiders to alter a region’s food because they think it’s too funky for the stereotypical American palate?

“I always look at pan-Asian as sort of being racist,” says David Chang, the Northern Virginia native responsible for the Momofuku empire.


Yet Chang is not calling Tunks and his ilk racists. It would be hypocritical: Chang, after all, operates his own pan-Asian restaurants, featuring Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes that are not part of the chef’s Korean heritage. He just doesn’t call them “pan-Asian” or “Asian fusion.”

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Future Shock, by Abraham Riesman, Vulture

Now, in 2016, Children of Men is having a remarkable resurgence — not just because of its tenth anniversary but because of its unsettling relevance at the conclusion of this annus horribilis. There have been glowing reappraisals on grounds both sociopolitical (Children of Men is “obviously something that should be on people’s minds after Brexit and after the rise of Donald Trump,” political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared in September) and artistic (“Children of Men, like no other film this century, and perhaps no other movie ever, solves the meaning of life,” wrote Vanity Fair columnist Richard Lawson in August). It’s getting the kind of online attention it sorely lacked ten years ago, generating recent headlines like “The Syrian Refugee Crisis Is Our Children of Men Moment” and “Are We Living in the Dawning of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men?” As critic David Ehrlich put it in November, “Children of Men may be set in 2027,” but in 2016, “it suddenly became clear that its time had come.”

Cuarón, however, is not feeling like taking an overdue victory lap. Curled over a table in an upscale Mexico City restaurant recently, the 55-year-old director gets a little irritated when I laud the film’s imaginative prescience. “This thing was not imagination,” he says, jabbing his index finger into the tablecloth. By Cuarón’s estimation, anyone surprised at the accuracy of his movie’s predictions was either uninformed or willfully ignorant about the way the world already was by 2006. “People were talking about those things, just not in the mainstream!” he says. He was reading about refugees, know-nothing reactionaries, and eerie disruptions in biological processes during the early '00s. If Children of Men can be said to have a message, Cuarón encapsulates it: “What’s really relevant now,” he tells me, “is to stop being complacent.”

Machine Language, by Ian Denning, Ploughshares

I recently spent a long weekend collaborating with friends on a narrative outline for a point-and-click adventure video game. Relying less on twitchy button-mashing and more on logic puzzles, conversation, and critical thinking, the adventure game genre is a good project for a writer, and I found it provided a whole new set of challenges that I had never encountered in fiction. How do you tell a story when the action is determined by the player? How do you write enough dialogue so that the player doesn’t read the same few lines too many times? How do you plant clues to an ending twist that can play out three different ways, depending on the player’s choices throughout the game?

It was the most satisfying weekend of writing I’d had in months, and when the project stalled because we couldn’t align our schedules, I decided I’d start work on a solo project and teach myself how to write—and code—a video game.

Do Children's Books Need To Be Fact-Checked To Make Them More True To Nature?, by Cara Giaimo, Slate

Yes, children's books are bastions of fantasy, the rightful homes of dragons and magic crayons and talking cheese. But as kids spend less time outdoors, and more time learning about nature through screens, some experts are taking a closer look at how well the lessons translate. The answer is often a resounding "Needs Improvement." And fixing up picture books—those colorful gateway drugs to further education—might be a good first step.

Forget The Movie Date. Seeing A Film Is A Perfect Solo Activity., by Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post

No, if you really want to get lost in a movie — and have an aesthetic experience that will be yours and yours alone — the only way to see a movie is by yourself.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Widowhood Effect: What It’s Like To Lose A Loved One So Young, by Christina Frangou, The Globe and Mail

When Spencer didn’t inhale again, I waited and waited. I was overcome with fury when I felt my lungs expand to inhale while his remained still. He was now there, dead, and I remained here, alive. I put my head on our hands, still intertwined, and I whispered to him over and over, “You were supposed to stay with me.” I kept my head on Spencer’s bed; someone – one of my sisters, I think – kept a hand on my unwashed hair. The nurse, crying herself, started to lower the head of Spencer’s bed.

In the next seconds, I committed a terrible first act for a widow, but I did not care. I wanted to delete the memory of what cancer had done to my husband. Once strong and so preternaturally warm that I’d put my cold feet on his stomach after a day of skiing, he’d grown so thin that his collarbones poked out from the neck of his hospital gown; his hands were cold, his fingers curled in like claws. Adding insult to injury, his belly had swelled on his skinny frame as his abdomen filled with a cancery fluid due to liver failure. Spencer said to me once, bitterly, in the middle of the night as we drank milk sitting on his bed, that cancer turned him into Humpty Dumpty. He’d raged at the changes in his body. I took up his cause.

“I don’t want to see him like this any more.”

Through The Centuries, New York From Above, by Jordan G. Teicher, New York Times

“Manhattan has been compelled to expand skyward because of the absence of any other direction in which to grow,” E.B. White wrote in “Here is New York,” his classic 1949 essay. “This, more than any other thing, is responsible for its physical majesty.”

This ascent over the centuries, through photographs and illustrated maps, from the city’s beginnings as a Dutch settlement to a megalopolis stretching toward the clouds is at the heart of “New York: A Century of Aerial Photography,” recently published by Prestel. Though the city’s other boroughs, and even its neighbor New Jersey, appear in its pages, the book is largely a visual history of Manhattan, with its awe-inspiring symbols, as White put it, of “aspiration and faith, the white plume saying that the way is up.”

Giraffes, by Amy Gerstler, Los Angeles Review of Books

acting as if nothing terrible has happened
is a failed strategy you yell and this docility
has ruined and crushed us and afraid as I am
I cannot hold your vehemence against you [...]

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Alone In The City: A Christmas Day Walk Around London, by Alan Franks, The Guardian

Head straight for the belly of the sleeping beast. The place is deserted, which is a once-in-a year situation. Start at the Tower of London since so much else does, including the Wall and therefore known history itself. You may have been this way before but been pushed for time and for space, preoccupied by whatever and generally kept at bay from the surroundings by their mighty cordon of noise.

But at a time when much of industry – and transactions – are happening at the hearth and in the kitchen, this place is taking a breather and you can almost feel it exhaling with the pleasant surprise of quiet and clarity. This is not just the baseline of a city but of the City. As a name, this is a little like a historically eminent football side calling itself the Team, and getting everyone else to refer to it that way.

Roses Are Red; Violets Are — Red? How Color Terms Arise, by Kelly Kasulis, Boston Globe

Since the turn of the 20th century, scientists have examined how humans around the world name colors in an attempt to answer one question: Does our language shape our worldview, or does our worldview shape our language?

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Less Can Be More, by Karen Wilkin, New Criterion

Such miniature exhibitions, whether motivated by economy or by intense scholarship, are among the great delights of today’s museum practices. Our attention is called to works of art in ways that add greatly to our knowledge, and deepen and intensify our experience. We are shown few enough works at a time that we can study them carefully and over long periods. It’s the exhibition equivalent of the Slow Food Movement.

Lessons On How To Live, In 26 Books, by A.J. Jacobs, New York Times

Schwalbe’s new book is less narrative, more episodic. It consists of essays on 26 books that changed his life. Schwalbe chose an eclectic Cobb salad of volumes — fiction and nonfiction, old and new, famous and obscure — and he draws a lesson from each.

My favorite of Schwalbe’s essays are the ones that praise underappreciated values, those sometimes incorrectly categorized as vices. There’s an ode to loafing and lounging, inspired by the now-forgotten book “The Importance of Living,” by the Chinese scholar Lin Yutang. There’s a piece on how it’s O.K. to blow off your friends and stay at home, tied to Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s “Gift From the Sea.”

In Trying Times, The Balm Of Jane Austen, by Susan Chira, New York Times

Rereading, I did not need to race through the book wondering what would happen next. Like many Jane Austen fans, I could recite some of the best lines by heart. This predictability was the perfect escape from a regime of keeping vigil at hospitals, the panic of awaiting test results, the ever-present taste of fear. With the outcome of the novel never in doubt, I could savor the language, satire and repartee, the cutting observations cloaked in seemingly innocuous remarks. Humor is a balm; I needed badly to smile, and Austen was irresistible.

A dose of aggression, too, seems essential for reading that’s done in search of solace. Anger and suffering, after all, go hand in hand. Austen may be celebrated as the quintessential novelist of manners, but her wit can be cruel and her portraits unsparing. There is a guilty pleasure in savoring the moments of mockery, since they usually puncture hypocrisy, obsequiousness or arrogance.

Friday, December 23, 2016

How We Got From Doc Brown To Walter White, by Eva Amsen, Nautilus

Gone is the lone genius with a shed full of goofy contraptions and bubbling liquids. Today’s fictional researchers work in realistic labs, with high-tech equipment, and in teams with others. Their dialogue is scattered with words from the latest scientific literature, and they have so much depth and personality that they carry entire shows.

Libraries Are Dying – But It’s Not About The Books, by Simon Jenkins, The Guardian

The library must rediscover its specialness. This must lie in exploiting the strength of the post-digital age, the “age of live”. This strength lies not in books as such, but in its readers, in their desire to congregate, share with each other, hear writers and experience books in the context of their community.

Her Little Black Book, by Woody Allen, New York Times

Life is so unfair. I tore up the old linoleum in a grungy apartment I rented years ago and found under it only schmutz, hardened chewing gum and a torn ticket stub to “Moose Murders.” Ed Sorel tears up the old linoleum in his apartment and finds yellowing newspapers with headlines screaming about a scandal that gave him material for a terrific book. Not only does he then write a terrific book, but he illustrates it with his wonderful caricature drawings. Who would figure that Mary Astor’s life would provide such entertaining reading, but in Sorel’s colloquial, eccentric style, the tale he tells is juicy, funny and, in the end, touching.

Must Everyone Write English?, by Mark A. Heberle, Claremont

When published in 2008, The Fall of Language in the Age of English created a sensation in Japan, winning awards, becoming a bestseller, and igniting a furious online debate between its detractors and defenders. This first book of nonfiction by Minae Mizumura, whose four novels have all won national awards, was published last year in a superbly readable English translation. This powerful, insightful work analyzes the predicament of world languages and literatures in an age when English has become the universal language of science and the default language of the internet. Even for creative writers, it is the virtually inescapable medium for those desiring to be taken seriously in an age of globalized discourse.

Was Darth Vader’s ‘Rogue One’ Pun Forced? Many Star Wars Fans Find It Disturbing., by Michael Cavna, Washington Post

And just like that, Vader has executed the rare double-pun — an uncommon feat for Star Wars villains.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Limits Of Diversity, by Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic

If babies began to be born with antlers, or arachnid properties, or with penises for hair, many people, myself very much included, would treat them with dignity and advocate for their rights. My newfound empathy for those with a visceral desire to prevent an introduction of difference has not helped me to understand bigotry toward those who are different. I am nevertheless struck by Adam Zaretsky’s beliefs that willfully introducing transgressive differences into society would be both desirable as an end in itself and bring about a world that was ultimately more tolerant.

Much of human history, social-science research about negative effects of diversity, and the science-fiction canon all lead me to the more pessimistic conclusion that sentient beings of that sort would face much hatred and persecution, and would, if so empowered, dole out much hatred and persecution in turn.

I wonder if my diversity-loving tribe has lost the ability to see that.

The David Foster Wallace Disease, by Sasha Chapin, HazLit

Famous dead writer David Foster Wallace made many writers unhappy. The unhappiness, of course, was a feeling of inferiority. You know, if you’re a writer reading Wallace, that you just aren’t that good. You just can’t be. Anecdotal evidence of this includes many hours of my sadness. More anecdotal evidence of this includes Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, a big brick of a novel clearly intended to rival Infinite Jest, the latter marking its twentieth anniversary this year. (Franzen, in an interview in BookPage, said, “Infinite Jest got me working, as competition will get you working.”) And then there’s David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a book about hanging out with Wallace that is largely about Lipsky’s envy at not being his equal. I am not alone in this neurosis.

Cut The Cord, by Kelly Cherry, The Smart Set

But first you have to write the ending.

Correction: First off, you must avoid any ending in which some godlike savior comes into the story to take care of everything and everyone. This is a deus ex machina, a last-minute, last-ditch, make-everything-right, sort-out-the-kinks-and-crinkles ending that satisfies no one.

Now: write an ending that is not deus ex machina.

The Best Way To Lose Your Child On The Subway Of A Foreign City, by Jeff Vrabel, Washington Post

One day, during my retirement, if there is still Social Security or whatever, I plan to write a collection of short stories called “Places I Have Lost My Son.”

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

On Reading Less, by Bruna Dantas Lobato, Ploughshares

Now that I’ve thrown the cult of efficiency out the window, I get to read more deeply rather than faster. I get to hang out with language and not count this as a great achievement. I get to spend time with books rather than to simply collect their titles.

‘Victoria The Queen’ Delves Into Her Epic Reign, by Janet Maslin, New York Times

You can learn a lot about a queen from the contents of her coffin. In her frisky, adventurous new biography of Queen Victoria, Julia Baird offers not only an inventory of the items with which the queen wished to be buried but also the exact placement she specified for them. Of course her treasured husband, Prince Albert, would be represented; Victoria had spent much of her life draped in black, showily mourning his death. So Albert’s framed photograph and a cast of his hand were duly buried with her.

Empire Of Booze By Henry Jeffreys – Review, by Bernard Porter, The Guardian

The British are the most cosmopolitan people in all history. Forget the empire for a moment; that was just part of it. Aside from that, Britons travelled and traded in the world far more widely than they colonised it, unless you want to count travel and trade as forms of “imperialism”, which some do. They also emigrated, sometimes to their colonies, but more often not. This is why their presence and their legacy are still felt, even after all these years of shrinkage as a nation. In Empire of Booze Henry Jeffreys traces their contribution to the alcoholic drinking habits of the world. His claim is that Britain, rather than, say, France or Germany, “the country with the greatest influence on wine and drink in general”. It’s a bold assertion, but after reading this book one can see what he means.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The City That Knows How To Eat, by Besha Rodell, Eater

At the time, if you had asked me what I might miss most about my Melbourne life, the Markets wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. Boys, friends, record stores — these were the things I considered most meaningful.

In 1990, my American mother decided it was time for her to return home, and for the rest of us — four kids, one husband — to go with her. I arrived in Denver, Colorado, as a pissed-off 14-year-old with purple hair and a funny accent, separated from my father and my friends. My new home seemed to lack any discernible street life, only cars and tidy neighborhoods and malls. The most visceral culture shock came in the aisles of American supermarkets, which were sterile and bright and exciting in a morally ambiguous kind of way. The yogurt was different (sweeter), the candy was different (better), the cookies were called cookies, not biscuits. Rather than the vibrant, stinky thrill of Vic Market’s maze of stalls, in Denver, shopping for food was an act of sanitary consumerism. For my stepfather especially, the pleasure of shopping, and therefore of cooking and eating, was blunted. What had been a raucous joy became a cold chore.

How To Build A Time Machine, by Maria Konnikova, New Yorker

When the seemingly unimaginable—at least to certain people—happened and Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 Presidential election, many of her supporters suddenly started asking questions about what went wrong: Could something have been done differently? What if her strategy had been more aggressive? What if she’d campaigned more in Wisconsin? What if she’d added Bernie Sanders to her ticket—or what if Sanders had won the nomination to begin with? What if the media had covered Donald Trump differently? What if? What if? When we think back and try to answer those questions, we’re thinking about building alternate histories based on the notion that we can somehow, miraculously, go back in time and do it all over.

Thinking about time travel may seem like something humans have been doing since the first caveman dropped the first rock on his foot. But, even to begin to imagine the possibility of time travel, your mind must be able to wrap itself around the notion of a past and a future. Otherwise, where would you be travelling, exactly? In his new book, “Time Travel,” James Gleick argues that before the invention of the printing press, less than six hundred years ago, notions of any sort of temporal dislocation were next to impossible; people saw the future as relatively similar to the past—large changes over time simply weren’t visible or accessible. We could travel over geographical distances, exploring unknown lands, but the exploration of time wasn’t on anyone’s mind. The furthest people went was to seek a personal prophecy. But that didn’t involve a vision of time travel so much as a desire to know what lay in store for you, personally; for the world at large, well, what you saw was what you got, now and forever.

Aloud Poetry, by Emilia Phillips, Ploughshares

The longer I’ve lived my life with poetry, the more I desire to hear it aloud, experience it aloud. Now, when I read poetry collections, I often catch myself murmuring the poems when I think I’m silently reading, no matter if I’m in public or alone, and other times I indulge my desire to hear the poem by reading it aloud to my dog. (I censor out the words “walk,” “eat,” and “out,” however, else I get his hopes up.) It also means that I increasingly desire good reading performances from poets, even find myself bitter at lackluster and monotone readings, at “poet voice” and its attendant pendulum swings between apathy and taking-oneself-too-seriously. I find myself downloading podcasts of readings, casting around for those cadences that will live in me, over which I can improv my own songs. My whole writing process has changed because of this. Now I often start my drafts by speaking aloud the words, allowing the poems to come to me, to live on my mouth, on my tongue, before they ever make it to the page.

A Dickensian Divide, But United In Holiday Cheer, by Corey Kilgannon, New York Times

Leave it to New York City to have not one but two Dickens societies. After an unpleasant split more than 20 years ago, the two similar groups have been operating in close parallel with no reunification in sight.

Both groups are chapters of the worldwide Dickens Fellowship, founded in 1902 in London, and both try to keep Dickens’s memory alive by discussing his work at monthly meetings held — separately, of course — at the same library branch on East 23rd Street.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Grand Unification Dream Kept At Bay, by Natalie Wolchover, Quanta Magazine

But the proton lifetime predicted by that first, and simplest, GUT model, along with the first thousandth of the range of proton lifetimes predicted by other models, has already been ruled out. Super-Kamiokande is now probing the range of predictions of several popular proposals, but with two decades under its belt, it won’t be able to push much further. “It’s harder to do much better now because it’s accumulated so much data,” said Ed Kearns, a physicist at Boston University who has worked for Super-K since the experiment started.

This leaves the fate of grand unification uncertain. Barr, one of the originators of the still-viable “flipped SU(5)” GUT model, compared the situation to waiting for your spouse to come home. “If they’re 10 minutes late, there’s simple explanations for that. An hour late, maybe those explanations become a little less plausible. If they’re eight hours late … you begin to worry that maybe your husband or wife is dead. So the point is, at what point do you say your theory is dead?”

The Brutal Dreams That Came True, BY Martin Filler, New York Review of Books

Time and again we have seen reawakened interest in the disdained buildings of two generations earlier, a span still within living memory but not quite yet history. [...]

Now, with almost clockwork inevitability, several new books indicate that the rehabilitation of yet another once-reviled phase in the building art is underway. The architecture in question is an industrial aesthetic that arose in postwar Britain and was dubbed New Brutalism, a semi-ironic, quasi-pejorative label on the order of Gothic (which implied the barbarism of the Goths) and Baroque (from the Portuguese word for a misshapen pearl). The Swedish architect Hans Asplund coined the term nybrutalism in 1949, and four years later it was used for the first time in the British journal Architectural Design.

'Hidden Figures,' 'The Glass Universe,' And Why Science Needs History, by Genevieve Valentine, NPR

Science often exists in the public mind as a tidy series of facts; anonymous and absolute things we know. Hydrogen is the universe's most abundant element. Air traffic controllers have to keep passing planes free of wake turbulence. But the history of science is, like so much else, a human history. The process of discovery isn't a timeline of data points, but a search for meaning undertaken by people looking for answers. And some of them achieve the fame that fixes them on that timeline (we all know Galileo).

But history tends to get simplified; a map becomes a single road leading from point to point. It's not surprising that some scientists who contributed invaluably to the field have been kept out of the dominant narrative because they were women, and they were considered anomalies of their time. (That those times practically overlap — meaning a steady line of crucial work being done by women — is one of those scientific patterns that tend to get forgotten.)

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Polar Bears’ Path To DeclineRuns Through Alaskan Village, by Erica Goode, New York Times

At night, the bears steal into town, making it dangerous to walk outside without a firearm or bear spray. They leave only reluctantly, chased off by the polar bear patrol with firecracker shells and spotlights.

On the surface, these bears might not seem like members of a species facing possible extinction.

Scientists have counted up to 80 at a time in or near Kaktovik; many look healthy and plump, especially in the early fall, when their presence overlaps with the Inupiat village’s whaling season.

But the bears that come here are climate refugees, on land because the sea ice they rely on for hunting seals is receding.

Quinoa Is The New Big Mac, by Amanda Little, New Yorker

Still, with products double and triple the cost of a Big Mac combo meal, the young competitors don’t yet pose any real danger to conventional fast food. “The big issues are sourcing, labor, and price points,” Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, told me. “These are issues for any chain restaurant, but places that depend on fresh, sustainable ingredients have extra challenges, including the perception that their foods are expensive.”

David Friedberg, a former Google programmer with a degree in astrophysics, hopes to overcome these challenges with a new vegetarian chain called Eatsa. “We’ve got to do two things: get healthy products down to a price point that McDonald’s and Taco Bell are winning on, and offer products tasty enough to disrupt the meat-focussed fast-food business,” he told me recently. “We think the way to do it is quinoa.”

Pardon Edward Snowden, by Joseph O'Neill, New Yorker

The poet Mark McCain received an e-mail, which had been sent to numerous American poets, inviting him to sign a “poetition” requesting that President Barack H. Obama pardon Edward Snowden. The request took the form of a poem written by Merrill Jensen, whom Mark knew to be twenty-eight years old, a full nine years his junior. The poem-petition rhymed “Snowden” with “pardon.” And “pardon” with “Rose Garden.” And “Rose Garden” with “nation.” And “nation” with “Eden.” It rhymed—or, as Mark preferred to put it, it echoed—“Putin” and “boot in” and “Clinton” and “no disputing.” “Russia” echoed “U.S.A.”; and “U.S.A.” “Thoreau”; and “Thoreau” “hero.”

Mark forwarded the e-mail to the poet E. W. West. He wrote:

    Am I crazy to find this enraging?

Within seconds Liz wrote back:


They arranged to have coffee that afternoon.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

If Nuclear War Broke Out Where's The Safest Place On Earth?, by Becky Alexis-Martin and Thom Davies, The Guardian

Our computer modelling shows that should atomic annihilation be on the cards, one of the safest places to live would be Antarctica. Not only is this sub-zero continent miles from anywhere, it was also the sight of the world’s first nuclear arms agreement in 1959. The Antarctic Treaty banned the detonation of all nuclear weapons and dedicated this frozen landscape as a space for peaceful research. But who’d want to live there? It wouldn’t be the first time polar regions have been used as nuclear hideouts: in perhaps the coolest mission of the Cold War, codenamed ‘Project Iceworm’, a huge nuclear base was secretly buried deep within the Arctic Circle. Known as “the city under the ice”, this vast bunker, which is now full of abandoned toxic waste and radioactive coolant, will soon be disentombed from its frozen lair as the icecaps continue to melt. So if Antarctica doesn’t take your fancy, where else?

The Sexist, Political History Of Pockets, by Chelsea G. Summers, Racked

Content with their pockets, men have little to say about them, but women have been complaining about the inadequacy of their pockets for more than a century. "One supremacy there is in men’s clothing… its adaptation to pockets," Charlotte P. Gilman wrote for the New York Times in 1905. She continues, "Women have from time to time carried bags, sometimes sewn in, sometimes tied on, sometimes brandished in the hand, but a bag is not a pocket."

Siri Hustvedt Views The Human Condition Through Art And Science, by Vivian Gornick, New York Times

Hustvedt speaks here both as a writer of fiction (she’s got six novels under her belt) and as a serious autodidact who has spent the last decade reading and writing about neurobiology in hopes that she herself might become that marvelously integrated citizen Snow was calling for: a person who has developed a mind-set that moves with ease between understanding derived from the emotional imagination as well as the analytic intellect. The book we have in hand, however, made me wonder whether anyone can develop a sensibility so flexible it can address both sorts of experience with equal intimacy.

When Harry Met Fifty Shades: What Makes A Book Popular?, by Frances Wilson, New Statesman

Jodie Archer, formerly a publisher, and Matthew Jockers, an American academic specialising in Irish literature, approached bestsellers by teaching a computer to read. Predictions are based on established patterns and so there must, they reasoned, be a pattern to these books. The Bestseller Code lays bare nothing less than the DNA of bestsellers, which makes Archer and Jockers the Watson and Crick of their age.

When A Writing Opportunity Knocks, Answer, by April Smith, New York Times

Adaptability is the byword for authors in the technological age; to flip at warp speed from print to digital, bookstores to algorithms, while dealing with a flood of competing product not seen since Noah. But there will always be the “external factor,” as they say in marketing, that rocks your world.

Friday, December 16, 2016

If Not Darwin, Who?, by Philip Ball, Nautilus

What would physics look like if Einstein had never existed, or biology without Darwin? In one view, nothing much would change—the discoveries they made and theories they devised would have materialized anyway sooner or later. That’s the odd thing about heroes and heroines of science: They are revered, they get institutions and quantities and even chemical elements named after them, and yet they are also regarded as somewhat expendable and replaceable in the onward march of scientific understanding.

But are they? One way to find out is to ask who, in their absence, would have made the same discovery. This kind of “counterfactual history” is derided by some historians, but there’s more to it than a new parlor game for scientists (although it can be that, too). It allows us to scrutinize and maybe challenge some of the myths that we build around scientific heroes. And it helps us think about the way science works: how ideas arise out of the context of their time and the contingencies and quirks of individual scientists.

Star Wars Killed A Universe To Save The Galaxy, by Walt Hickey, FiveThirtyEight

In the spring of 2014, on the editor forum of one of the internet’s most comprehensive encyclopedias, a project was underway. Mere days before, more than 90 percent of the content on the wiki, representing almost a decade of work by tens of thousands of volunteers, had been rendered obsolete by the corporate parent of their favorite franchise. The question put to the wiki’s stewards was whether to delete these artifacts from the site — in which case they would inevitably find their way onto some other, less-noticed quadrant of the web — or to allow them to remain as a shrine to the stories and characters that had nourished a fanbase for decades but had now seen their last days pass by. The Star Wars Expanded Universe was dead. Time to prepare for what was to come next.

But first, the matter of the archives. After several days of hand-wringing and politicking among the concerned, there was a vote. It was as unanimous as these things can be. The Star Wars universe so many had known for nearly four decades was to be relegated to a separate tab; a second vote later ensured that it would be secondary to the new canon, a new set of true and historical facts within a fictional universe. The stories adding color to the Battle of Endor or tales of how the Millennium Falcon became such a hunk of junk would be quarantined with the likes of fanfiction and unlicensed knockoffs.

The Secret Life Of Cemeteries: Go For A Stroll, Meet Your Book Club, Visit The Dead, by David Montgomery, Washington Post

It’s easy to forget that cemeteries were made for the living. Where first we may come in sorrow, seeking consolation, we often return again and again for something else.

We discover that places of eternal rest have many moods and designs — the moneyed hush of Oak Hill in Georgetown, the canine frolic of Congressional near Capitol Hill, the fields of infinite sacrifice at Arlington — yet in whichever idiosyncratic refuge we linger awhile, we sense the dead watching and taking our measure as well, keeping us company as much as we keep them.

The Museum Of Cathy By Anna Stothard Review – A Cabinet Of Dangerous Memories, by Jane Housham, The Guardian

The action of Anna Stothard’s fourth novel takes place on a single day in a single location, yet within those few hours the lives of Cathy and her current and former lovers unfold in flashbacks to create a vaster landscape. This tightly plotted yet expansive structure, in which tiny events release powerful memories, mirrors Cathy’s attempts to deal with her past.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Does Knowledge Of The Past And Present Determine The Future?, by Tony Sudbery, Aeon

Facts about the past and present are either true or false. Can knowledge of the future offer the same degree of certainty?

Three Men On What It’s Like To Be Brought Back From The Dead, by as told to Adam Elder, Mel

That’s what I would say this whole thing has done for me — given me gratitude for all the things around me. And I’m definitely more at peace. We all get our heads down in the day-to-day routine. I try hard to catch myself when I notice it happening. I’m not particularly religious. So I don’t like to say, “Each day is a gift,” since it implies it’s a gift from a higher power. I prefer to tell people to “cherish each day.”

I know it’s a cliché, but tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. I know that firsthand.

The Language Wars, by Jeffrey Mitchell, The Smart Set

The oddness in “Apostrophes, explained” was German Lopez’s defensive worry that his well-meant prescriptions would seem so out of place, perhaps even so authoritarian, as to cause offense. The oddness in “Stop. Using. Periods. Period.” is quite opposite. Despite its good cheer, it’s remarkably aggressive. It turns a description of part of English into a prescription for all of it. I suspect that, like Lopez, Guo is a true believer. Lopez believes in conventions, though he fears for them. Guo believes in dismissing conventions — and, it seems, in being on the right side of history.

The Diver, by Oswald von Wolkenstein, translated from the German by Richard Sieburth, New York Review of Books

Then there was the time
I tried to learn to swim
in a deep lake,
but once in,
shot straight
to the floor,
out of sight, out of mind

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

My President Was Black, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next.

'People Hope My Book Will Be China's Star Wars': Liu Cixin On China's Exploding Sci-fi Scene, by David Barnett, The Guardian

When he was a schoolboy, Liu Cixin’s favourite book was Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne. This might seem like a fairly standard introduction to science fiction, but Liu read it under exceptional circumstances; this was at the height of the Cultural Revolution, in his native China, and all western literature was strictly forbidden.

The Chilling Stories Behind Japan’s ‘Evaporating People’, by Maureen Callahan, New York Post

Since the mid-1990s, it’s estimated that at least 100,000 Japanese men and women vanish annually. They are the architects of their own disappearances, banishing themselves over indignities large and small: divorce, debt, job loss, failing an exam. [...]

These lost souls, it turns out, live in lost cities of their own making.

Review: ‘Table Manners,’ Chef Jeremiah Tower’s Guide For All Dining Challenges, by Dwight Garner, New York Times

The best thing about Mr. Tower’s book is that it is driven by his interest in pleasure — his and ours. This word to wine snobs is typical of his advice here: “Please don’t bring up the old rag about cocktails destroying one’s palate. So does toothpaste, but a Negroni is a lot more fun.”

Year Of Upheaval For Restaurants That Ended Tipping, by Julia Moskin, New York Times

It is too soon to tell whether the no-tipping model will become the standard, or simply an option for a few restaurants that can make it work. What is clear after about a year is that it has forced a number of unforeseen changes, large and small, in the places that have embraced it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Seeing Africa By Road, by Jeffery Gettleman, New York Times

A 4,250-mile, 16-day trip through six countries with five children and four hardheaded adults. What could go wrong?

The Women Who Brought Disney Princesses Into The 21st Century, by Ariane Lange, BuzzFeed

Asserting that a Disney heroine has broken ranks with her predecessors is a tradition that dates back to 1989 with Ariel, the defiant princess in The Little Mermaid.


But Mulan’s masculine aesthetic and Moana’s athletic proportions may not have made it to the screen without the women behind the scenes who, sometimes quite literally, shaped them. “The women involved in the film, our producer and some [others], were … pushing, ‘Let’s not have her be a wasp-thin woman. Let’s have her be a more realistic body shape and feel like she’s not going to be blown over by a strong wind,’” Musker said of Moana in the same July interview with BuzzFeed.

The Rest Of Your Life, by Arianna Huffington, New York Times

His central thesis is that rest not only makes us more productive and more creative, but also makes our lives “richer and more fulfilling.” But not all rest is created equal — it’s not just about not-working. The most productive kind of rest, according to Pang, is also active and deliberate. And as such, that means rest is a skill.

Soak, Steam, Spritz: It’s All Self-Care, by Marisa Meltzer, New York Times

The term self-care has, over the past few years, become part of the vernacular. But what does it mean? “I always say it’s a daily practice,” she said. “It can be as complicated or as simple as you want it to be: making sure you get enough sleep and drink enough water, monthly facials, fermented foods, a meditation app for your phone or packing healthy snacks for the plane.”

In recent weeks, though, self-care has often been invoked as a way of dealing with open-ended anxiety.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Can Evolution Have A ‘Higher Purpose’?, by Robert Wright, New York Times

The headline almost writes itself: “World-Class Scientist Says Miracles Can Happen!” The subhead would add: “Extraterrestrials may play a role.”

But that’s the headline you’d write if you were just trying to maximize clicks. If you wanted to capture the philosophical significance of what Hamilton was saying, you’d take another tack. Rather than focus on miracles, you’d focus on the idea of “higher purpose” — the idea that there’s some point to life on earth that emanates from something that is in some sense beyond it. And — in hopes of generating as many clicks as possible, notwithstanding the philosophical significance — you’d put this in listicle form, laying out several misconceptions that Hamilton had implicitly dispelled. You could call these the “Three Great Myths About Evolution and Purpose.”

The Cozy Linguistics Of Hygge And Other "Untranslatable" Words, by Chi Luu, Jstor

Just what is it about “untranslatable” words that fascinate us so much? There are endless lists and articles on these beautiful words, so apparently alien to English, that are simply “untranslatable” or even the hardest words in the world to translate… but then they’re subsequently translated anyway, in English sentences, just not in words that are directly equivalent. Untranslatable words aren’t really untranslatable at all. When we unpack this concept it raises a number of curious questions.

Up Out Of The Darkness: A New History Of Monsters, by Colin Dickey, Los Angeles Review of Books

The early fascination with the monstrous births of humans and animals as objects of wonder was intricately connected to the desire to interpret them as God’s messages to the world. By the eighteenth century this religious and philosophic wonder at the variety of the natural world was being transformed into popular entertainment.

By the end of the 19th century, this attitude too had changed: a figure like John Merrick, the Elephant Man, whose condition might once have been interpreted as a religious omen, could move in the course of a lifetime from a circus sideshow attraction to a man deserving of sympathetic treatment.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

D.C. Got Everything It Wanted Out Of CityCenterDC — Except The Crowds, by Jonathan O'Connell, Washington Post

Only one coveted retailer got away: Apple. Hines so badly wanted the world’s largest tech company to open in CityCenter that it tailored an enormous storefront for it in the complex’s most visible location, overlooking the triangular park along New York Avenue, looking out toward the convention center. But the iPhone dispenser decided against it. Ironically, Ahrendts now oversees retail at Apple, which recently expressed interest in leasing the former Carnegie Library nearby — a twist that clearly irks Riker.

Apple, which draws throngs of people with its product releases and, increasingly, with company-sponsored concerts and events, would likely have helped to neutralize two of CityCenter’s most common criticisms: It’s rarely crowded, and there isn’t much to buy or do there for anyone other than one-percenters.

To Read Is To Choose, by Christina Lupton, Los Angeles Review of Books

Rubery is not interested in these comparisons. His stated purpose in The Untold Story of the Talking Book is not to weigh up the comparative advantages of media forms but to parse the whole concept of reading through the history of one of them. What do we mean when we say we’ve read, or in Hungerford’s case, not read, a book? How do we imagine it getting into our brain? Rubery’s pitch for this as his real question is risky given that what he actually delivers is a detailed, lively, and well-peopled history of the technologies, economies, and organizations that have driven the recording of novels over the last 150 years. The more abstract question of what reading is floats around, mostly out of sight, as something the book leaves us to answer for ourselves.

But this risky strategy for telling a more implicitly conceptual history largely pays off: Rubery’s project is more than the sum of its parts. He covers different phases in the history of recording books in a fairly predictable way: a long one stretching over most of the 19th century and focusing on the creation of audio libraries for the blind, and three short ones covering the early commercial stages of artistically curated spoken-word recordings, books on tape, and the current Audible market. The larger effect of all this is somewhat more surprising.

Digging To Freedom: Tales Of Escape From Behind The Most Famous Wall In History, by Hope M. Harrison, Washington Post

The book vividly describes the harrowing conditions under which strong young men based in West Berlin dug the tunnels; some had fled the East and now wanted to help their loved ones left behind. Mitchell shows how would-be escapees made their way to secret entrances and then crawled through the cramped, damp tunnels, all the while trying to make sure — not always successfully — that they eluded the dreaded Stasi, the East German secret police.

Reading The Game: No Man's Sky, by Jason Sheehan, NPR

No Man's Sky does not tell a great story, but it contains multitudes of them. And any time it begins to grow dull or rote or predictable, all I have to do is look up, into the starry sky, and wonder what else might be out there.

And then go find out for myself.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Six Straight Hours On Night Tube, by Tara Isabella Burton, BBC

There is something carnival-like about late-night transit, especially alcohol-fueled urban transit, that allows us to break the rules of social interaction. By day, trains and buses are purely functional: they get us to where we need to go. But by night, they’re a rare example of an enclosed public space, somewhere that allows for, even demands, social interaction, the breaking of barriers.

The Feminist Legacy Of “The Baby-Sitters Club”, by Brooke Hauser, New Yorker

For many of us, the Baby-Sitters Club offered an early glimpse into the world of ambitious working women. Granted, they were middle-schoolers, but they were girl bosses, role models long before pop culture gave us Olivia Pope, Liz Lemon, or Leslie Knope.

The Poem That Foretold Modernism, by Ellen Handler Spitz, New Republic

Throughout much of Mallarmé’s adult life, he yearned quixotically to create a magnum opus that could encompass the entire world and render it into words. He wanted to collapse the gap between representation and what is represented. Psychologically, this wish can be interpreted as an intellectual defense against the agony of mourning. Perhaps, as Bloch suggests, such a “harmony of words and things” recalls us to St. Augustine and the Holy Sacrament, where language and object merge and past becomes present. But from a psychological perspective, it is a move that constitutes a retreat from the embodied human condition.

Notes From The Resistance: A Column On Language And Power, by Summer Brennan, Lithub

No one person can defend everything in America that will need defending in the age of Trump. What we must do, instead, is to find our particular hills to defend, and then to defend them as if our freedom depended on it. Even if these battles are lost, the very act of writing down the progression of that loss, as Winston did, is an act of resistance. The hijacking of public language, as is happening now, is a way to shift perception—to bend and control thought—and must be resisted.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Queen And I, by Tanya Gold, Harper's Magazine

The awful seduction of the British monarchy.

Found: 148 Diaries. But Who Wrote Them?, by James Parker, New York Times

So here we have something rather cosmic: Into the hands of witty Alexander Masters, ardent celebrant of the hidden and the rejected, falls this diary dump, this exiled word-hoard, this abandoned trove of interiority. Homeless writing, in the realest sense. Can he face it? Can he take it on? He can. Appointing himself reader for a text that was never meant to be read, Masters digs in, begins his exegesis, his first discovery being that the diaries are anonymous: “A person can write five million words about itself, and forget to tell you its name. Or its sex.” Thus an element of mystery enters the story, and although Masters is highly ambivalent about the need to solve it — isn’t anonymity more interesting? — he will enlist a graphologist, a private investigator and several academics in a quest to find the identity of the author.

Review: Where We Land By Daryl Farmer, by Evan Nicole Brown, Ploughshares

Alaska, our largest yet least densely populated state, at times may conjure thoughts of bleak landscapes, harsh temperatures, and the type of static isolation that doesn’t quite lend itself to human connection. In (Where We Land*, Daryl Farmer turns the distant and seemingly unknowable Alaskan landscape familiar, using the daily lives of his characters as nuanced examples of the human condition. This short story collection is at once deeply introspective, an honest illustration of the inward journey and the mania that can sometimes result, but it also situates Farmer as a careful observer of the subtle differences in people that can make the world, or even just a town, a more vibrant place.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Why There’s No ‘Millennial’ Novel, by Tony Tulathimutte, New York Times

Time’s Lev Grossman blames our increasingly “multicultural, transcontinental, hyphenated identities and our globalized, displaced, deracinated lives” for why any consensus about a single voice now seems impossible. I’d go even further and argue that the “voice of a generation” novel never existed to begin with. For starters, why did we ever pretend novels by straight white guys about straight white guys spoke for entire generations?

Even if you think that’s politically correct claptrap, and that those works transcended the boundaries of identity and social context (which is a weird thing to claim about a social novel), the idea of a one-size-fits-all masterpiece runs squarely against the novel form.

Why Do Dwarves Sound Scottish And Elves Sound Like Royalty?, by Eric Grundhauser, Atlas Obscura

The most commonly occurring pop fantasy races—elves, dwarves, trolls/orcs, even humans—have their roots in European mythology. From the dwarves and elves of Nordic poetry to Scandinavia’s trolls, the basic shape and cultural texture of many of these beings can be linked directly to ancient folklore. But it wasn’t until Tolkien’s works, which were heavily inspired by such myths, that the tropes we are familiar with today really fell into place.

“Elves wouldn’t even really be a thing, at least not in the way they currently are, if it weren’t for Tolkien,” says Corey Olsen, noted Tolkien scholar and creator of The Tolkien Professor podcast. “Dwarves are another thing. A lot of the things that we associate with dwarves, we owe a lot of that to Tolkien.”

A Bookworm’s Travel Plan, by Jennifer Moses, New York Times

But more than that, bookstores are, for me, destinations in and of themselves, little slices of the local culture that are the same, yet somehow different, unique, each with its own local flavor or bias or accent.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Scientists Think The Speed Of Light Has Slowed, And They're Trying To Prove It, by Daniel Oberhaus, Motherboard

But in the late 1990s, a handful of physicists challenged one of the fundamental assumptions underlying Einstein’s theory of special relativity: Instead of the speed of light being constant, they proposed that light was faster in the early universe than it is now.

This theory of the variable speed of light was—and still is—controversial. But according to a new paper published in November in the physics journal Physical Review D, it could be experimentally tested in the near future. If the experiments validate the theory, it means that the laws of nature weren’t always the same as what we experience today and would require a serious revision of Einstein’s theory of gravity.

It May Not Feel Like Anything To Be An Alien, by Susan Schneider, Nautius

The safest mindset is intellectual humility. Indeed, barring blaringly obvious scenarios in which alien ships hover over Earth, as in the recent film Arrival, I wonder if we could even recognize the technological markers of a truly advanced superintelligence. Some scientists project that superintelligent AIs could feed off black holes or create Dyson Spheres, megastructures that harnesses the energy of entire stars. But these are just speculations from the vantage point of our current technology; it’s simply the height of hubris to claim that we can foresee the computational abilities and energy needs of a civilization millions or even billions of years ahead of our own.

Going Off Track, by Christopher Beanland, TheLong+Short

In the 1980s, British engineers pioneered futuristic levitating trains pushed by magnets. Now, despite gleaming maglev trains gliding around Asia, Britain's version has been shuttered and left to waste. What went wrong?

On Emily Witt’s “Future Sex”, by Madeleine Watts, Los Angeles Review of Books

The question “What do you desire?” is never directly asked in Future Sex, but it is the animating premise of the book. “What do you desire?” forms both foundational inquiry and narrative momentum. It nags through the book like a koan.

And “What do you desire?” is an important question, because it allows that you might not know.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Reading Literature Won’t Give You Superpowers, by Joseph Frankel, The Atlantic

“Reading,” according to the writer Joyce Carol Oates, “is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin.” The idea that literature orients readers to the thoughts and feelings of others goes back at least as far as Aristotle, but only recently have psychologists tried testing it in the lab.

Why Moviegoing Matters, by Graham Daseler, Los Angeles Review of Books

I once asked a friend why she doesn’t like watching movies at home. “Because you can’t talk at home,” she replied. This assertion, on its face, is clearly ridiculous. It’s a lot easier to talk through a movie in your living room than in a packed theater, surrounded by a hundred angry, hissing patrons. But I knew what she meant. One of the pleasures of going out to see a movie is talking about it afterward, over dinner or during the walk back to the car. It’s part of the experience — the first part, as soon as you step out of the theater — beginning with the inevitable question, “So, what did you think?” The question becomes much less pertinent in the seclusion of one’s own home, where your companion’s thoughts are more discernible, whether through comments or yawns or by the fact that, halfway through the film, she leaves the room to read a book. But in the darkness of the theater the answer becomes a genuine mystery: what did you think? And so begins the conversation, for movie theaters, as much as they are places we go to watch movies, are also places we go to talk about movies, and therein to learn more about each other and about ourselves.

In Free Fall: Anne Carson’s “Float” And Mary Ruefle’s “My Private Property”, by Nina MacLaughlin, Los Angeles Review of Books

In one memorable passage from Anne Carson’s latest work Float, she writes of the choreographer Elizabeth Streb, and how she teaches her dancers to fall from heights of 30 feet or more, falling straight for their faces, or spines, or sides. “They look like gods for an instant,” Carson writes. “They redeem the shame of falling, an act we usually associate with being very young or very old or very lost or not the master of oneself.” They are able, amid the fall, to continue to help themselves, exert control while at the mercy of the force. They defy the mortal condition of there being, at some point, nothing more one can do. Here, in this “gravitational scene,” as Carson terms it, there are all sorts of fallings. Of empires, countries, bodies, from grace, in love. It’s “our earliest motion,” she writes. We begin by falling “to the ground. We fall again at the end; what starts on the ground will end up soaking into the ground forever.”

“We bury our dead in the ground,” writes Mary Ruefle, finishing the thought in her new book, My Private Property, a collection of short essays and prose poems. She is likewise concerned with ends, with what accumulates, what soaks in and seeps out. In books out this month, both writers grapple with falling, with absence and longing, losses and lasts. Carson and Ruefle are both poets and more than poets: they are essayists, experimenters; they teach; they are mind-movers and prize-winners. Both concern themselves with what’s to be found in texts from before, Carson as a translator of ancient Greek, Ruefle in her erasure projects, in which she takes old texts and whites-out or eclipses all but a few words, making new meaning from what’s already there. They share a vigor, a sanguine, impassioned engagement with language, the results of which are, in turn, knavish, breathtaking, totally thrilling.

How Just 8 Flavors Have Defined American Cuisine, by Alan Yu, NPR

"I find when I'm teaching cooking classes ... my students are often afraid of doing something so massively wrong in the process of cooking that will be irrecoverable that they don't even try in the first place," she says. "I would love to get back to a world where we can be a little bit more relaxed and confident in the kitchen."

But Lohman quickly discovered there was much more than translating historic recipes for modern use: "I didn't realize I was going to be telling the story of disenfranchised people in America throughout history."

‘The Revenge Of Analog’: See It. Feel It. Touch It. (Don’t Click), by Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

“Sooner or later, everything old is new again,” Stephen King once wrote — an observation that’s never been truer than today. Far from being dead, vinyl records sales rose to $416 million last year, the highest since 1988, and artists like the Black Keys, Lana Del Rey and Beck are eagerly embracing the format. Instant Polaroid-like cameras have caught on among millennials and their younger siblings. A new Pew survey shows that print books remain much more popular than books in digital formats. Old-school paper notebooks and erasable whiteboards are the go-to technology among many Silicon Valley types, and even typewriters are enjoying a renaissance in today’s post-Snowden, surveillance-conscious era.

In his captivating new book, “The Revenge of Analog,” the reporter David Sax provides an insightful and entertaining account of this phenomenon, creating a powerful counternarrative to the techno-utopian belief that we would live in an ever-improving, all-digital world. Mr. Sax argues that analog isn’t going anywhere, but is experiencing a bracing revival that is not just a case of nostalgia or hipster street cred, but something more complex.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Internet Is Spoiling TV, by Alison Herman, The Ringer

We’re currently living in a paradoxical TV moment: “Spoilers” are considered sacrosanct, and yet we do our damnedest to figure out what they are. We rush to do the Wikipedia Test — and then to check Reddit, and the recap, and the podcast. Preserving a pop culture property’s sanctity and plumbing its depths are just two different ways of showing how much you care.

So how are shows shouldering the burden of that scrutiny, provided they’re lucky enough to earn it? Is rabid sleuthing an entertaining appendix to a show, or a distraction from it? Are we loving our TV to death?

The Museum Of The Present, by James Panero, New Criterion

For a generation, museums have chased after the numbers, with blockbuster exhibitions and amenities that have indirectly ceded curatorial control to the turnstile. The government now looks to accelerate this abdication of leadership through “reenvisioning our grant programs,” as the National Endowment for the Humanities announced this year.

If the museum visitor now expects to receive the keys to the collection, backed by government mandates, there may be little hope to save the museum from populist whim.

Helen Garner’s Savage Self-Scrutiny, by James Wood, New Yorker

“Honesty” is a word that, when thrown at journalism, unhelpfully describes both a baseline and a vaguer horizon, a legal minimum and an ethical summum. Too often, we precisely monitor the former and profligately praise the latter. In Helen Garner’s case, we should give due thanks for the former and precisely praise the latter. As a writer of nonfiction, Garner is scrupulous, painstaking, and detailed, with sharp eyes and ears. She is everywhere at once, watching and listening, a recording angel at life’s secular apocalypses—“a small grim figure with a notebook and a cold,” as she memorably describes herself. She has written with lucid anger about murder cases, about incidents of sexual harassment, about the experience of caring for a friend dying of cancer.

But Garner is, above all, a savage self-scrutineer: her honesty has less to do with what she sees in the world than with what she refuses to turn away from in herself. In “The Spare Room” (2008), her exacting autobiographical novel about looking after that dying friend, she describes not only the expected indignities of caring for a patient—the soaked bedsheets, the broken nights—but her own impatience, her own rage: “I had always thought that sorrow was the most exhausting of the emotions. Now I knew that it was anger.”

What’s Happening To The Bees And Butterflies?, by Verlyn Klinkenborg, New York Review of Books

This is the trick that time and human nature always play on us. The way things are—no matter how they are—quickly comes to seem normal. It’s as unremarkable not to see moth snowstorms now as it once was to see them. As a species, we too are passing through the bottleneck of the present. It’s stunning to realize that the ampleness of nature in 1970, however you measure it, isn’t even a memory for most Americans. For every generation, nature seems full enough no matter how empty it becomes.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Humans Make A Mess, But Invasive Species Get The Blame, by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, Boston Globe

The big problem with starlings is that they don’t belong here. They are what‘s called an introduced, alien, or exotic species. If a species is bad enough, like the aggressive starling, we call it “invasive.” In 1992, famed Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson branded “exotic animals” the second-largest cause of extinctions worldwide, behind habitat destruction. He expressed what was then coalescing into the dominant discourse about introduced organisms: They’re bad news. We don’t want them.

This, in part, is why conservationists were alarmed this past summer when odd species of turtles were spotted in Quincy and Western Massachusetts. It’s why park officials in Des Moines are trying to weed out non-native honeysuckles and Florida conservationists are trying to persuade chefs and supermarkets to serve up lionfish. It’s why the United States and the European Union have been fighting a trade dispute about Maine lobsters in Sweden.

So what should we do about starlings — and all these other interlopers?

For a growing minority of biologists, conservationists, ecologists, and environmental writers, the answer is simple. Nothing.

David Foster Wallace’s Peaceful Prairie, by Lynn Freehill-Maye, New York Times

There is a spare beauty to the Illinois prairie, with winds swooshing between its wide sky and paper-flat fields. Central Illinois will often surprise visitors who don’t realize there’s much between St. Louis and Chicago. But the writer David Foster Wallace knew this gusty stretch of the Midwest well. He felt at peace among the prairie lights of its university towns, which nourished his literary genius before his death in 2008, at age 46.

In early spring, before the crops were planted, I drove down from Chicago’s Midway Airport along Route 66, that old-fashioned strip of duct tape affixing America’s great farmland to California and the Mountain West. Wallace had driven that direction many times, I knew, returning from major literary-tour stops around the country to his anonymous home in central Illinois.

Women Astronomers Shine In 'The Glass Universe', by Heller Mcalpin, NPR

Dava Sobel is as adept at spotting promising subject matter as the extraordinary women astronomers she writes about in The Glass Universe were at spotting variable stars. By translating complex information into manageable bites sweetened with human interest stories, Sobel makes hard science palatable for the general audience. Even more than her 1999 book Galileo's Daughter, this new work highlights women's often under-appreciated role in the history of science.

This Is Science Fiction?, by Jeff VanderMeer, Los Angeles Review of Books

Will this book resolve science fiction’s identity crisis? Does it give us an account of science fiction that we can feel confident about? By shining a light into aspects of science fiction obscured or ignored by conventional histories are we at last getting close to the full story?

No. But it will tell you a part of the story that is well worth knowing. And it will provide an awful lot of pleasure along the way.

How To Win Dinner And Alienate People, by Jeremiah Tower, Los Angeles Review of Books

By the end, you can feel where all of these rules come from: the idea of being good to each other. What can be frustrating are the rules themselves, or rather, the need to put them into text, condescend to the reader, or let the reader condescend to the non-reader. [...] The point is, it doesn’t matter how we eat, or share, or containerize our buckwheat honey. Each successive entry into our library of etiquette books is the same rule obscured by slightly different and ephemeral layers of mores, tradition, and fashion. It isn’t the Platinum Rule or even the Golden Rule. It’s much simpler — call it the Styrofoam Rule: just be decent.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Case Against Dark Matter, by Natalie Wolchover, Quanta

This month, a series of developments has revived a long-disfavored argument that dark matter doesn’t exist after all. In this view, no missing matter is needed to explain the errant motions of the heavenly bodies; rather, on cosmic scales, gravity itself works in a different way than either Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein predicted.

Bibliomania, The Dark Desire For Books That Infected Europe In The 1800s, by Lauren Young, Atlas Obscura

The social elite and scholars did everything they could to obtain and collect books—no matter the price. Some collectors spent their entire fortunes to build their personal libraries. While it was never medically classified, people in the 1800s truly feared bibliomania. There are several written accounts, fictional and real, of bibliomania, but the most famous and bizarre documentation is by Reverend Thomas Frognell Dibdin, an English book lover and victim of the neurosis. In 1809 he published Bibliomania; or Book Madness, a series of strange, rambling fictional dialogues based on conversations and real collectors Dibdin had encountered.

Is ‘Rashomon’ Kurosawa’s Best Film?, by Phillip Lopate, New York Times

Paul Anderer, who teaches Japanese literature and film at Columbia University, has written a well-researched study that is part biography of Kurosawa, part cultural history of modern Japan and part film monograph. He is previously the author of two scholarly works, but his prose in “Kurosawa’s Rashomon” is energetic, straightforward and free of academic jargon — if rhetorically overheated, at times, seeming to mirror his subject’s excitable style. He has chosen to focus on “Rashomon” as the fulcrum of Kurosawa’s career, emphasizing what he regards as the early influences in the filmmaker’s life that fed his thematic vision — specifically, its mixture of the appalling and the redemptive, the apocalyptic and the humanistic.

A Millennium Of Undergarments, by Miranda Seymour, New York Times

Despite its seriously restrictive title, “Corsets and Codpieces” is an extremely expansive, often jolly book. Karen Bowman is the writer’s equivalent of a magpie, her beady eye alert for the oddest of details and the weirdest of facts in her brisk romp through a millennium of fashion’s victims. I won’t soon forget her description of the mortified lady who attended a Dickens reading in an inflatable rubber bustle and found that it farted when sat upon — or of the hungry horse who dined off the stuffing in a fashionable racegoer’s bran-enhanced behind.

It's Not Your Grandma's Book Of The Month Club, by Ellen F. Brown, Los Angeles Times

Before Oprah Winfrey anointed bestsellers with her book club picks, there was the Book of the Month Club. And now it’s coming back for another round.

The Book of the Month Club, a pioneer of book distribution and marketing, relaunched late last year with a new approach and new attitude. The reboot makes a nod to the storied firm’s 90-year history in mail order book sales but concentrates more on the future rather than its, at times, controversial past.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Need To Read, by Will Schwalbe, Wall Street Journal

Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt books; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin or even chuck it out the window. Still, you won’t change the words on the page.


Books remain one of the strongest bulwarks we have against tyranny—but only as long as people are free to read all different kinds of books, and only as long as they actually do so. The right to read whatever you want whenever you want is one of the fundamental rights that helps preserve all the other rights. It’s a right we need to guard with unwavering diligence. But it’s also a right we can guard with pleasure. Reading isn’t just a strike against narrowness, mind control and domination: It’s one of the world’s great joys.

Memoir’s Ladder To Recovery, by Tracy Strauss, Ploughshares

Trauma writing heals: published words serve as the rungs of a ladder to recovery, leading readers up and out of a dark, painful place and into a world of veracity, validation, grief, comfort, love, growth, and even humor. When I set out to write about my own personal trauma, I first read the memoirs of authors who’d successfully published their stories, including Half the House, by Richard Hoffman, a book about more than the child sexual abuse story described on the jacket cover—this is a story of overcoming not one but many traumatic losses.

‘The Women Who Made New York’: Icons, Trailblazers And Visionaries, by Maureen O'Connor, New York Times

This willingness to recount hardship as unflinchingly as success allows the book to function as more than an aside that “many women were there.” But it also means that no matter how persuasively Scelfo makes the case for her subjects’ achievements, a deeply depressing question remains: What more would have been accomplished if circumstances were different?

Wordless Short Stories By Richard McGuire, by James Yeh, New York Times

The most cinematic story in “Sequential Drawings,” titled “Touched,” depicts an apology through a series of fingertips. After tracing one finger’s journey from iPhone app to the buzzer of an apartment, the narrative switches perspectives to reveal the finger’s owner: a baseball-capped delivery person with roses for the apartment’s resident. She signs for them, discovers the “I’m sorry” note inside and is moved to email its sender. The last panel shows her finger on the “return” key of her laptop. There is no narrative or dialogue — everything is purely conveyed through visual language.

Such is the conceptual simplicity behind the little moments throughout Richard McGuire’s charming “Sequential Drawings.” Collecting over a decade’s worth of spot illustrations for The New Yorker, the art book showcases McGuire’s mastery of form and economy along with his knack for highlighting the often overlooked bits of our daily lives.

The Last Last Cigarette, by Gregor Hens, New Yorker

I’ve smoked well over a hundred thousand cigarettes in my life, and each one of those cigarettes meant something to me. I even enjoyed a few of them.

In Comparison, by Wei Tchou, The Paris Review

I am at once horrified and relieved to know that my life has been so cleanly compartmentalized from their past, that the rest of my family exists in a doubled reality. I am often forgetful that this life, in the humid Georgia winter, is not the only one my mother contains. And when I think to ask questions about what came before me, before democracy, before English, before baked potatoes and canned whipped cream, when I learn about the despair but also the beauty of the past, it feels as though I am uselessly pressing my face up against glass. Ma reached up to hang an ornament from a recent vacation in Myrtle Beach, an iridescent sphere filled with loose sand and tiny seashells.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Confessions Of An Instagram Influencer, by Max Chafkin, Bloomberg

I’ve always been well-liked. At least, I think that’s the case. I have friends, a spouse, a job, a college degree. I exercise. I get haircuts regularly.

And yet lately I’ve felt unrealized—incomplete, almost. Everywhere I look on social media, I’m surrounded by extremely attractive, superbly groomed men and women who eat meals that are not only healthy but impeccably plated. My clothes seem tired, wrinkled, bereft of accessories. And my vacation photos—Christ, my vacation photos.

"They Went To Sea In A Sieve, They Did", by Shannon Proudfoot,

In 1969, Donald Crowhurst fooled the world into believing he was completing the fastest non-stop solo circumnavigation of the globe. Then his boat was found, empty and adrift in the Atlantic.

How To Write Great Books For Children And Young Adults, by Mary Quattlebaum, Washington Post

Above this bubbling stew of hope and ambition, Cheryl B. Klein floats like a craft-focused fairy godmother with “The Magic Words.” This book is a well-organized master class for serious writers seeking solid instruction. Readers — and would-be authors — soon learn that the “magic” referred to in her title happens only with a great deal of effort and creative risk-taking. Klein calls for attention to detail, regular hours of writing and numerous revisions.