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Archive for January 2017

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

High On The Apocalypse, by Jessa Crispin, The Baffler

Without their hysterical imaginings, we would be stuck with Kronos alone. Then, there would be no beauty, no love—just the god of limits bringing down the sickle.

Diving Into Hell: A Powerful Memoir Of Depression, by Andrew Solomon, New York Times

Into this morass daringly comes Daphne Merkin with the long-awaited chronicle of her own consuming despair. Merkin was born into circumstances of plenty, the poor little rich girl; she is not interested in universalizing, though she often does so almost inadvertently. In the earlier part of her memoir, her tight focus on her own story at the expense of anyone else’s can come off as self-indulgent, even self-aggrandizing, but it is part of her considerable art that by the end, it feels like a winning frankness. The reader is saved from diaristic fatigue by the sharpness of her observations. She is not out to demystify life on Park Avenue, nor even to apologize for it, but only to explain her experience, which happens to have unfolded there. She does not try to unpack the function of the amygdala, avoids all the statistics about the rate of the illness and does not apologize for her descents into darkness. Instead, she narrates what happened and how it felt to her. And she does so with insight, grace and excruciating clarity, in exquisite and sometimes darkly humorous prose. The same tinge of self-aware narcissism that makes the book at times so annoying makes it finally triumphant. Merkin is unlikely to cheer you up, but if your misery loves company, you will find no better companion. This is not a how-to-get-better book, but we hardly need another one of those; it is a how-to-be-desolate book, which is an altogether more crucial manual.

It Takes A Commune, by John Irving, New York Times

Good novels are constructed; they may seem effortless in their design, but they are planned as purposely as a well-built house. Good stories have an admirable architecture, and both an apparent and transparent craftsmanship. In a novel, the construction counts. Kevin Wilson, the author of a much acclaimed debut novel, “The Family Fang,” knows how to construct a story.

The Trials Of Hosting A Dinner Party At The Top Of The World, by David Ferry, Outside

James Sharman, a veteran of some of the world’s best kitchens, knew the logistics of hosting a dinner party on Everest were going to be difficult, but by the time he arrived at Base Camp, north of 17,500 feet, the plan seemed like it was verging on madness. Sharman, with four chef friends and eight porters, had just hauled up 16 blue plastic chairs (one for each paying customer), three wooden tables (two for dining, one for prep), and enough cooking supplies to feed 25 people. As the culinary team surveyed the craggy outcrops for an ice-free, level-enough patch of rock on which to serve dinner, a small avalanche cascaded down the mountain above them.

Such are the difficulties of hosting a Michelin-quality dinner at the foot of the tallest mountain on earth.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Stop Problematizing Academic Jargon. We Need It More Than Ever Under Trump., by Rebecca Schuman, Slate

Perhaps the answer moving forward, then, is not to join in the mockery of jargon, but to double down on it. Scholars of Yiddish studies are happy to tell you the thousand-year-old language developed as a kind of secret code so that its speakers could talk freely under the noses of their oppressors (and, yes, sometimes mock them). Perhaps academic jargon could serve a similar purpose.

Poetry Should Talk Honestly About Money, by Aaron Giovannone, The Walrus

But while I make my living as an English professor, that job stems from my career as a poet, without which I wouldn’t have earned my degrees or found teaching jobs. Many poets and other creative writers are in the same situation, struggling to make money in the academy. For those in the publishing industry, the situation is worse.

Few poets, however, write honestly about their economic situation. Indeed, it’s a challenge to find any poet willing to come clean about money: wanting it, enjoying it, needing it, or lacking it—even though this must necessarily be our condition.

The Novel Of The Century: The Extraordinary Adventure Of Les Misérables – Review, by Miranda Seymour, The Guardian

A translator of note (he wrote the elegantly witty Is That a Fish in Your Ear? about the perils of translation) and an admired authority on French literature, David Bellos is just the man to undertake the marathon task of decoding and contextualising a novel more often seen than read during the last 32 years of its vibrant reincarnation as a musical.

You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine By Alexandra Kleeman Review – Very Weird Is The New Normal, by Lucy Scholes, The Guardian

More allegorical than strictly satirical, Kleeman’s novel examines hunger in all its shapes and forms – “Wanting things was a substitute for wanting people, one of the best possible substitutes” – skewering contemporary society’s obsession with consumerism, consumption, commodification and conformity.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

How To Survive A Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit, Literary Hub

As election results poured in Tuesday night, I saw people reaching out to ask for support and solidarity or to offer it. I saw those of us who will probably not be targeted pledge to stand with those who are already being assaulted and insulted and menaced and beaten. I saw people preparing for something that as a kid who grew up fearfully devouring Jewish holocaust literature I’ve been anxiously imagining all my life: what it might look like to provide a secret annex—and beyond that one history of oppression, what it might look like to be part of an underground railroad, a White Rose resistance movement, an anti-Apartheid movement.

I’ve written about hope, and this is a tough time to hope. I’ve also written about survival, and we survive by coming together. This election was a referendum on coming together and coming apart, but I know that most of us in the face of earthquakes, hurricanes, bombing raids do come together, and I thought it might be useful to offer up a little of that from my book on the subject, A Paradise Built in Hell.

Embarrassing Bodies: What Did The Victorians Have To Hide?, by Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian

It turns out that the story about Victorians wrapping little trousers around their indecent piano legs is apocryphal or, at the very least, a weak joke. Yet the idea endures that our great-grandparents muffled their bodies in heavy fabric and silence. It’s an idea we picked up from the early 20th century and then, because it was flattering to imagine ourselves as so different from our poor buttoned-up, self-loathing ancestors, we refused to let it go.

Illuminating Love: On Carrie Jenkins’s “What Love Is”, by Carrie Jenkins, Los Angeles Review of Books

In What Love Is: And What It Could Be, Carrie Jenkins argues that it’s about time we give up on these “pathetic” and “desperate” solutions and, instead, think more expansively and inclusively about relationships. Arguing that lifelong monogamy isn’t natural and doesn’t work for everyone, Jenkins challenges the “normatively prescribed” but elusive romantic ideal that funnels lovers into the “cereal-box nuclear family.”

What Language Do I Dream In? By Elena Lappin Review – Questions Of Identity, by John Gallagher, The Guardian

Probing her past and her family’s secrets, Lappin runs up against her adoptive father’s reticence and the suspicions of some members of her biological father’s family. Punctuating her story is the silence of the dead: the voices that died with her ancestors, each with their own secrets, wrapped up in Russian, Armenian, English and Yiddish; all guests at a feast where only Lappin can understand everybody.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Everything I Learned From Mary Tyler Moore, by Lena Dunham, New Yorker

I first caught a peek of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1994, twenty-four years after it first aired and seventeen since it was cancelled. I was eight. Nick at Nite, that mainstay of nineteen-nineties family-friendly throwback programming, was re-introducing the youth to Mary Tyler Moore through a week-long “Marython.” My parents, sick of policing me as I watched snippets of “90210” riddled with casual sex and hints of violence, decided that any show produced during their youth was a safe bet and left me alone to sink into Mary Richards’s life in Minneapolis. My father would occasionally stroll by the TV: “God, I had such a crush on her on ‘Dick Van Dyke.’ “

Swimming Lessons By Claire Fuller Review – A Family In Deep Water, by Louise Doughty, The Guardian

Swimming Lessons is a story suffused with the poignancy of miscommunication between people who love each other, of the things we can never really know.

How Mr. Coffee Made Coffee Manly, by Erin Blakemore, Jstor

But Mr. Coffee did more than mansplain. It played into stereotypes of men as arbiters of coffee quality, and encouraged men to get into the kitchen themselves. Since it was so easy to use, men no longer had an excuse to cede coffee-making to their wives. This corresponded with women’s increased entry into the workforce and helped men contribute more to their households.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Multiple Multiverses May Be One And The Same, by Dan Falk, Naultilus

And yet these two kinds of multiverses have much in common. We can visit either sort only in our mind’s eye. Try as you might to reach another bubble universe in your starship, the intervening space would expand faster than you could possibly cross it; bubbles are thus cut off from one another. Likewise, we are by our very nature blind to other universes in the quantum multiverse. These other worlds, though real, remain forever out of view.

Moreover, although the quantum multiverse was not developed for cosmology, it is peculiarly well suited to it. In conventional quantum mechanics—the Copenhagen view, embraced by Niels Bohr and his collaborators—one has to distinguish between the observer and the thing being observed. That’s fine for standard laboratory physics. The observer is you, and the experiment is the thing you’re observing. But what if the object under investigation is the entire universe? You can’t get “outside” the universe in order to measure it. The many-worlds interpretation makes no such artificial distinctions.

How To Be Lucky, by Chelsea Wald, Nautilus

In 1995, a wounded 35-year-old woman named Anat Ben-Tov gave an interview from her hospital room in Tel Aviv. She had just survived her second bus bombing in less than a year. “I have no luck, or I have all the luck,” she told reporters. “I’m not sure which it is.”

The news story caught the eyes of Norwegian psychologist Karl Halvor Teigen, now an emeritus professor at the University of Oslo. He had been combing through newspapers to glean insights into what people consider lucky and unlucky. Over the following years, he and other psychologists, along with economists and statisticians, would come to understand that while people often think of luck as random chance or a supernatural force, it is better described as subjective interpretation.

How To Tell When You've Been 'VIP-ed' At A Restaurant, by Tove Danovich, Eater

“Everyone wants to feel important,” says Israel Morales, co-owner of Kachka restaurant in Portland, Oregon. “Every restaurateur would like to treat everyone the same way — and it looks good on paper to say that we do — but it’s not really the case.” Though restaurants aim to give everyone good service, regulars, big spenders, and friends of the staff often get special treatment in the form of a better table, free cocktails at the bar, or maybe even a few surprise courses courtesy of the chef.

And the best restaurants make their VIPs feel important without ever letting their other guests know that they’re second tier: Preparing for VIPs is a quiet dance that happens largely behind the scenes.

Defoe And The Distance To Utopia, by J.H. Pearl, The Public Domain Review

The great power of utopias is to disrupt our surrender to orthodoxy, freeing us to understand the status quo as contingent, not predetermined, as changeable, not inevitable. And by smuggling utopia home, Defoe unsettles our notion of the totality of state power, the power to which his utopias are opposed.

Perhaps the seeds of utopia are within us already. Drawing on Ernst Bloch, Ruth Levitas argues, “The essential element in utopia is … desire — the desire for a better way of being.” By this light, utopia becomes only natural human longing. What we need these days is a new literature to express this longing and give it shape and detail. All the better if it can show us alternatives close at hand.

Aravind Adiga’s Novel Is About The Game Of Cricket — And Sexual Awakening, by Marcel Theroux, New York Times

This is a novel with broad sweep, accomplished with commendable economy and humor, in a sinewy, compact prose that has the grace and power of a gifted athlete. And it pulses with affection for Mumbai itself; the effortless sociological dissection of that exasperating city recalls Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.”

“Stop Procrastinating And Start Your Own Food Business”, by Lucie Britsch, VOl. 1 Brooklyn

That was the name of the course. Stop procrastinating and start your own food business.

Ok! I will! I thought, and I might have even punched the air, but no jumping

I hadn’t realised that was what I was doing but who was I to argue with this guy. This guy in his plaid shirt with his rugged beard holding a wooden crate on his shoulder like he knew that was exactly what I had been doing and now he was going to show me how to stop it and start doing something. And not just anything but a food business! Who’d have thought!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Loneliest Whale In The World?, by Kieran Mulvaney, Washington Post

Somewhere in the North Pacific Ocean there is a whale. There are, of course, many whales, if rather fewer than there were a couple of hundred years ago. But this whale is different. It is a male and vocalizes during mating season in a way that only male whales do. Its species, however, is uncertain. It may be a fin whale, or perhaps a blue whale, the largest whale of them all. It may even be a hybrid — an unusual but not unheard-of scenario.

Nobody is certain because nobody has claimed to have seen it. But several people have heard it. And many more have heard of it. And what this latter group has heard about it has turned the whale into an unwitting celebrity, a cultural icon and a cipher for the feelings of many unconnected people around the globe. It is, allegedly, the Loneliest Whale in the World.

Bibliomania: The Strange History Of Compulsive Book Buying, by Lorraine Berry, The Guardian

When I was a young woman, I drew a sort of perverse pride from my willingness to skip a meal or two in order to afford books. Soon enough, with the ubiquity of credit card touts on campus, I could buy both books and meals. I justified my increasing debt as necessary for my education, and joked with friends that while others spent their money on cars and expensive clothes, anything of value that I owned was on my bookcases.

I realise now that my “jokes” were, in fact, humblebrags. I did love books, always had, but I also took a certain arrogant pleasure from owning so many. It was also when my first “To Be Read” (TBR) pile started – all those volumes I had bought with the intention of reading them. And while years later, adult economics has forced me to stop shopping every time I step into a bookstore, my work as a reviewer now means that an average of five new titles arrive on my doorstep each week. My TBR pile is ceiling-high, and while I’m not going into debt, the visceral pleasure that I get from being surrounded by books remains the same.

The Push And Pull Of The Small Town In The Annie Year, by Graham Oliver, Ploughshares

From the start, Ash sets up the town’s population as a defensive fortress, the “us” in “us vs. them.” The plot of the novel does this through the characters’ insular behavior, their obsession with protecting and controlling their own. But more interestingly, the narration itself does this by having Tandy address an unnamed city-dwelling “you,” as in “There was a coffee shop where you could buy the kind of coffee I know people like you are used to.” While part of me felt like it set up a false premise at the beginning of the book—I thought she was going to end up in conversation with someone, à la the framing of Lolita—once I got adjusted, it worked well thematically. Tandy saw the world in terms of the “us” of her town against everyone else; it made sense that she would tell her story with that in mind. The tone rings with a kind of dutiful, proud explanation.

From Frank Sinatra To Lady Gaga, The Greatest Hits Of Gay Talese, by Meryl Gordon, New York Times

In his latest collection, “High Notes,” which includes a selection of magazine articles and book excerpts over a 45-year period from 1966 to 2011, Gay Talese once again reminds us of the indefatigable reporting skills and inventive use of language that made him a paragon of the New Journalism. Immersing himself in the lives of his subjects, he searches tirelessly for telling details to produce vibrant scenes and illuminating portraits.

Fiction Confidential, by Maria Bustillos, Eater

Bourdain doesn't often talk about his career as a writer; he tends to blab about his junkie past, his life as a cook, and his fantastic and sometimes dangerous travels. But somehow he has also managed to write 13 books, including the two celebrated memoirs, Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw. His books, like his television shows, give a superficial impression of extreme candor, but look a little closer and you will often see moments of restraint, of filial or marital or parental respect or politesse, a gentle drawing of the curtain over private moments. The mask seems to drop when Saint Martin is mentioned, though; the island turns up in a number of key places in his work — it’s evidently a touchstone, in fiction and in fact.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Winter Is A Time Of Regeneration: We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, by Bernd Brunner, Aeon

Winter, for me, is a period of reflection and regeneration, of withdrawal, reminiscent of a time when humans were forced to be more malleable and responsive to the seasons. Each year, I long to see the landscape around my home in Germany transformed by the cold: frost-limned trees, crisp air, and snow shrouding everything, muffling every sound, as if covering over the acoustic evidence of humanity.

But human intervention will affect the phenomenology of winter. This is not just because of meteorological change. Knowing that the caprices of the weather are caused by us, as much as by any ‘natural’ process, changes how we experience the seasons: our relation to them, the respect and interest we accord them, and the way that they affect our perception of our place in the world.

Street Scribes, by James Parker, Pacific Standard

Writers Group, as it’s known in the community, is a space for the homeless writers of downtown Boston (“homeless, transitional, or recently housed” is the rubric), and we meet every Tuesday morning at 9:30, in the basement of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Tremont Street. Out of Writers Group comes The Pilgrim, a literary magazine that I’ve been editing for the last five years.

In Wondering Admiration Before The World, by Kevin Hart, Los Angeles Review of Books

Disenchantment had been becoming more and more apparent in Western culture for a long time, Weber believed, yet at the turn of the 20th century it had become a defining trait of modernity. To be a modern person meant, and means, first of all, not to trust in magic, prayer, ritual, sacraments, or anything of the sort; more than that, though, it means not to allow oneself to be enthralled by anything at all, at least not for very long. Anything that appears mysterious can be shown, by careful methodical investigation, to have a rational explanation. A century after Weber’s lecture, the West is divided over the success of disenchantment. True enough, there are many scientists, many philosophers, and of course many Marxists, who prize one or another version of a world that has been thoroughly demystified. If there is wonder, it is no more than a prompt to explanation. Yet there are many other people for whom calculation does not give the whole story about our world, or perhaps even the most important parts of it.

The Physics Of Poetry Or The Poetry Of Physics, by Bianca Lech, PloughShares

All of this finally left me thinking that if what Hoffman says is right, then the answers to all our big questions are so far beyond our perception that all we can do is steal tiny glances at them, carve new edges as we evolve. And at that exact point aren’t science and art the same? The pursuit of knowledge is an edge, and language is an edge, and poetry lives at the edge of language. The poet Elizabeth Willis wrote two lines that I like to come back to: “a word is a symptom/ of what can’t be described.”

Dear Rick Moody: How Can I Write Now That I’m Sober?, by Rick Moody, Literary Hub

I am both a singer-songwriter and a writer of prose. I quit drinking nine years ago. My life has gotten significantly better since then, which is to be expected. I released one album while actively drinking. I recorded my second record sober, but about half of the pieces on the record were written while I was more than half in the proverbial bag. I recently released my third album; all of the songs were written after I quit drinking. My material has gotten better over time. Whether this is because I’ve aged and matured as an artist or because I’m now writing sober, I’m not sure. I think it’s possible that both are true.

Why Brazil’s Greatest Writer Stopped Writing, by Alejandro Chacoff, New Yorker

Raduan Nassar was forty-eight and at the height of his literary fame when, in 1984, he announced his retirement. He wanted to become a farmer.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Now Is The Time To Cook For Others, by Rosie Schaap, Bon Appétit

The butcher pulled the big, bone-in loin out of the case and lifted it up on the scale. “That’s perfect,” I told him. “Don’t trim the extra fat. I like the fat.” He yanked a sheet of crisp brown paper off the roll, and wrapped up my parcel.

It was the first Friday morning in November. The presidential election was only days away. And it was then, as I stood in line waiting to pay for a pork roast, that I realized what was going on: Cooking had become my election coping strategy. And, now, on the day of the inauguration, my kitchen continues to be a source of activity—and solace, too.

Our School, by Lauren Markham, Orion Magazine

Among the few things that those of us from beneath the Arctic Circle are likely to know about polar Alaska is that the Inuit peoples have dozens of words for snow. It’s such a darling and oft-repeated fact that one wonders if it’s legend. Yet inside a warm, fifth-grade classroom in Barrow, Alaska, on the edge of the Chukchi Sea—it’s twelve below zero outside and the wind is scouring the tundra—a group of nineteen students sit at rapt attention, copying their new vocabulary words onto loose-leaf paper: the many Iñupiaq words for snow.

“Qanataag,” the teacher writes on the board at the front of the class. The students repeat it back to her in a ragged chorus.

“Good,” she says. “Qanataag means ‘ice or snow overhang.’”

The Physical Book Will Surely Endure: But Will It Endure For The Right Reason?, by James McWilliams, The Millions

If this is how we’re going to save the book — decorative mimicry — well then, forget it. True believers know that a room with books should accomplish something altogether more subversive and selfishly edifying — that it should foster radical internal mediation rather than decorative inspiration. Books should conspicuously confirm the persistence, in the face of so many competing (and lesser) forms of distraction, of a fierce dedication to promiscuous reading, the kind that requires — a la Zweig — that walls of literature be constantly approached, scanned, and chosen from. And then — the part that we rarely talk about when we talk about books — a roomful of books must be allowed to exact a cost.

Monday, January 23, 2017

'A Walk In The Woods' Vs. A Walk In The Woods: On Reading As A Substitute For Experience, by Jacob Lambert, The Millions

In the summer of 2000, two friends and I embarked on an epic cross-country drive. In preparation for the journey, we rented a Dodge Caravan, stocked up on peanut butter, and debated where to go. Using a Rand McNally map book, I laid out our path in pen, drawing lines from campsite icon to campsite icon across America and back. We planned to leave from Delaware, where I was a senior in college, in late June, and return in mid-August — in all, six weeks of whiskey-addled, open-skied adventure. For the quiet moments — of which there turned out to be few — I brought along a worn copy of The Grapes of Wrath. Like the Joads, we were also striving for California — but with more Led Zeppelin CDs in tow.

It Was Always The Words, by Sara Jane Witkin Berman, New York Times

When I was a child, my father gave me a necklace called a lavaliere. I loved the sound of the word more than the object. When my mother sewed on her old foot-pedal Singer, I heard the words “bobbin,” “remnant,” “selvage.” Grandma gave me the Italian words “tarantella,” “mozzarella,” “Campagna.”

Paul Auster’s Novel Of Chance, by Laura Miller, New Yorker

According to a currently popular line of philosophy, a self is merely the sum of all the stories we tell about a particular human body. It’s an idea that resonates through the work of the writer Paul Auster, in whose fiction both selves and stories are precarious constructions, fascinating but unstable, more illusion than reality. In “4 3 2 1”, Auster’s first novel in seven years and, at eight hundred and sixty-six pages, the longest by far of any book he has published, a single man’s life unfolds along four narrative arcs, from birth to early adulthood. “Clearly you’ve read Borges by now,” the faculty adviser remarks to one of these iterations of Archie Ferguson, a character who, like most of Auster’s heroes, is fanatically bookish. “4 3 2 1” is indeed a doorstop of forking paths.

'The Bear And The Nightingale' Is A Rich Winter's Tale, by Amal El-Mohtar, NPR

Arden's weaving of folklore and fairy tale with a very solid evocation of feudal Russia is beautiful and deft.

Jeremy, The Last Man On Earth, by Sarah Aswell, New Yorker

Before all of this started, I said that I wouldn’t date Jeremy if he were the last man on Earth. Now that he is, I question the hyperbole.

Since we entered the endless darkness of this new era together, Jeremy has argued that we have a responsibility to procreate. He holds that, even if our little family ultimately died of radiation poisoning, or starvation, or from the bio-wolves, we could at least say that we tried to save the human race.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Trouble With Quantum Mechanics, by Steven Weinberg, New York Review of Books

The development of quantum mechanics in the first decades of the twentieth century came as a shock to many physicists. Today, despite the great successes of quantum mechanics, arguments continue about its meaning, and its future.

Reality Is Not What It Seems By Carlo Rovelli Review – Physics Versus Certainty, by Ian Thomson, The Guardian

Reality Is Not What It Seems – a deeper, more intellectually challenging meditation – outlines for the general reader some of the key developments in physics from the ancient Greek philosophers and the Roman poet Lucretius to the present day. In the Italian professor’s elucidation, physics goes deeper than any other science into the riddle of existence. The laws of physics – gravity, energy, motion – underpin those of chemistry, astrophysics and meteorology combined. So an understanding of the world requires some grasp of physics. This book aims to make that grasp easier for the layperson.

Han Kang’s ‘Human Acts’ Explores The Long Shadow Of A South Korean Massacre, by Lara Palmqvist, Washington Post

Like Kang’s widely acclaimed novel “The Vegetarian,” the first of her works to be translated from Korean by Deborah Smith, “Human Acts” is ruthless in its refusal to look away from atrocity. Both slim, polyphonic novels stare down violence and vulnerability, cruelty and confusion. Yet while “The Vegetarian” confronts such material in the context of a troubled family, “Human Acts” centers on the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Paul Auster: ‘I'm Going To Speak Out As Often As I Can, Otherwise I Can't Live With Myself', by Paul Laity, The Guardian

When Paul Auster was 14, a boy just inches away from him was struck by lightning and killed. “It’s something I’ve never got over,” he tells me. He was at summer camp: “there we were, nearly 20 of us caught in an electric storm in the woods. Someone said we should get to a clearing, and to get there we had to crawl, single file, under a barbed wire fence. As the boy immediately in front of me was going under, lightning struck the fence. I was closer to him than you are to me now; my head was right near his feet.”

Auster didn’t realise the boy had died instantly. “So I dragged him into the clearing. And for an hour, as we were pounded by intense rain, and attacked by lightning spears, I was holding on to the boy’s tongue so he didn’t swallow it”. Two or three other kids nearby had also been struck and were moaning; “it was like a war scene. Little by little, the boy’s face was turning blue; his eyes were half open, half shut, the whites were showing.” It took Auster a little while to absorb that, had the strike occurred just a few seconds later, it would have been him. “I’ve always been haunted by what happened, the utter randomness of it,” he says. “I think it was the most important day of my life.”

So Long, Farewell, by Kate Guadagnino, The Paris Review

The Sound of Music hasn’t tarnished over time; it was always dated, always reviled by the learned. Rumor has it that Pauline Kael was fired from McCall’s for her withering review of it (“the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat”) and that Joan Didion was fired from Vogue for hers, which described it as “more embarrassing than most, if only because of its suggestion that history need not happen to people … Just whistle a happy tune, and leave the Anschluss behind.”

‘Fuck’-ing Around, by Joan Acocella, New York Review of Books

Though research has not done much for profanity, the opposite is not true. Neurologists have learned a great deal about the brain from studying how brain-damaged people use swearwords—notably, that they do use them, heavily, even when they have lost all other speech. What this suggests is that profanity is encoded in the brain separately from most other language. While neutral words are processed in the cerebral cortex, the late-developing region that separates us from other animals, profanity seems to originate in the more primitive limbic system, which lies embedded below the cortex and controls emotions. As a result, we care about swearwords differently. Hearing them, people may sweat (this can be measured by a polygraph), and, tellingly, bilingual people sweat more when the taboo word is in their first language.

Haecceity, by Joshua Clover

If what you want is calm
to be restored you are still the enemy
you have not thought thru clearly
what that means

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Not-So-Fine Tuning Of The Universe, by Fred Adams, Nautilus

Astrophysicists have discussed fine-tuning so much that many people take it as a given that our universe is preternaturally fit for complex structures. Even skeptics of the multiverse accept fine-tuning; they simply think it must have some other explanation. But in fact the fine-tuning has never been rigorously demonstrated. We do not really know what laws of physics are necessary for the development of astrophysical structures, which are in turn necessary for the development of life. Recent work on stellar evolution, nuclear astrophysics, and structure formation suggest that the case for fine-tuning is less compelling than previously thought. A wide variety of possible universes could support life. Our universe is not as special as it might seem.

The Argument For God Is Out Of Tune, by Gary Gutting, Nautilus

But this effort to turn cosmology against religion is no more effective than the fine-tuning effort to support religion. A major failing is the assumption that we could have any plausible sense of how a divine designer would be thinking. A being with knowledge and power utterly exceeding ours might well be aware of possibilities beyond our feeble capacities. But even from our merely human standpoint we can suggest reasons why our apparently ordinary place in the universe might not count against a privileged relation to the creator.

Imagined Endings, by Kelly Cherry, The Smart Set

An ending may be as quiet as a ghost. Or as loud as a poltergeist were there poltergeists. Some endings are explanatory, which is risky — how many readers want the story explained after the fact? — but writers have pulled it off. More often, and usually more successfully, an ending will show — not tell — how the resolution has been reached and/or what the resolution is. Always remember that a story begins in conflict and ends in resolution (or let’s simply say satisfaction, as “resolution” sounds like hard work still to be done when the reader just wants to feel good about the book, that it was a good book). The conflict must be clear, and the resolution (or let’s simply say “ending”) must be relevant, pertinent, to the conflict. And don’t forget the middle, that region you traveled through for a while there. The ending should also lend some resonance to the middle.

Then again, novelist and story writer Ann Beattie has said there is no real ending to a story, only this moment or that which may be good points at which to stop. And of course, this is true. And yet we still want endings. Isn’t literature amazing?

One Country, Two Systems, by The Economist

Why don’t the Chinese just adopt pinyin? One is the many homophones (though these are not usually a problem in context). Another is that Chinese characters are used throughout the Chinese-speaking world, not just by Mandarin-speakers but also speakers of Cantonese, Shanghainese and other varieties. These are as different from each other as the big Romance languages are, but the writing system unifies the Chinese world. In fact, character-based writing is, in effect, written Mandarin. This is not obvious from looking at the characters, but it is obvious if you look at pinyin. If China adopted it wholesale, the linguistic divisions in China would be far more apparent.

But there is another reason for attachment to the characters. They represent tradition, history, literature, scholarship and even art on an emotional level that many foreigners do not understand. Outsiders focus so much on efficiency probably because those who do try to learn the characters cannot help but be struck by how absurdly hard they are to master.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

How Statistics Lost Their Power – And Why We Should Fear What Comes Next, by William Davies, The Guardian

In theory, statistics should help settle arguments. They ought to provide stable reference points that everyone – no matter what their politics – can agree on. Yet in recent years, divergent levels of trust in statistics has become one of the key schisms that have opened up in western liberal democracies. [...]

Rather than diffusing controversy and polarisation, it seems as if statistics are actually stoking them. Antipathy to statistics has become one of the hallmarks of the populist right, with statisticians and economists chief among the various “experts” that were ostensibly rejected by voters in 2016. Not only are statistics viewed by many as untrustworthy, there appears to be something almost insulting or arrogant about them. Reducing social and economic issues to numerical aggregates and averages seems to violate some people’s sense of political decency.

The Whitewashing Of Urban TV Sitcoms, by Brentin Mock, CityLab

There wasn’t much on television that privileged the lives of the single, child-less urban dwellers who were neither crime-fighters nor crime-committers. Then “Living Single” came out and changed the game. Queen Latifah’s character, Khadijah, was a magazine publisher who lived with her cousin and employee, Synclaire, and their bad-and-boujee roommate, Régine, a wedding planner. They were frequently visited by their close friend Max, an attorney. Their male friends Kyle and Overton—a stockbroker and handyman, respectively—lived together in the same brownstone apartment building as their lady friends in Brooklyn.

“Friends” jacked that set-up, though, and moved the story to Manhattan, filling it with white characters. They didn’t just flip the script; they gentrified it. It continues to be one of the most brazen acts of TV plagiarism in pop-culture history. If Ta-Nehisi Coates’s call for reparations ever materializes, it would need to include a clause that redistributes all future residuals from “Friends” syndication to former, current, and future black TV actors forever.

Bringing Audiobooks To Life In The Valley, by Agatha French, Los Angeles Times

Behind a wrought-iron gate in a residential area of Northridge, Deyan Audio Services sits on what looks like a country estate, with manicured lawns and tall privacy hedges. The recording studio is also the home of owner Debra Deyan; two of its nine recording booths are down the hall from her kitchen, where a pair of snow-white German shepherds bound in to play. There is something about the arrangement — the ghostly dogs, the gardens, the cloistered rooms — that feels fanciful, like Dickens does L.A.

“It makes sense that audiobooks were really birthed in Los Angeles,” Deyan says. “You can’t read sitting on a freeway.”

A Novelist Scours The Honduran Jungle For Pre-Columbian Ruins. The Jungle Scours Him Back., by Brendan I. Koerner, New York Times

Memoirs of jungle adventures too often devolve into lurid catalogs of hardships, as their authors take undue glee in detailing every bug bite, malarial fever and bad cup of instant coffee they’ve had to endure. But Preston proves too thoughtful an observer and too skilled a storyteller to settle for churning out danger porn. He has instead created something nuanced and sublime: a warm and geeky paean to the revelatory power of archaeology, tempered by notes of regret.

Sweet Bitter Blues, by Amanda Petrusich, Oxford American

I couldn’t quite figure out why Japanese listeners had come to appreciate and savor the blues in the way that they seemed to—lavishly, devotedly. Blues is still an outlier genre in Japan, but it’s revered, topical, present. I’d spent my first couple of days in Tokyo hungrily trawling the city’s many excellent record stores, marveling at the stock. I had shuffled into the nine-story Tower Records in Shibuya (NO MUSIC NO LIFE, a giant sign on its exterior read), past a K-pop band called CLC, an abbreviation for Crystal Clear—seven very-young-looking women in matching outfits, limply performing a synchronized dance, waving their slender arms back and forth before a hypnotized crowd—and ridden an elevator to a floor housing more shrink-wrapped blues CDs than I have ever seen gathered in a single place of retail. I had been to a tiny, quiet bar—JBS, or Jazz, Blues, and Soul—with floor-to-ceiling shelves housing owner Kobayashi Kazuhiro’s eleven thousand LPs, from which he studiously selected each evening’s soundtrack. I had seen more than one person wearing a Sonny Boy Williamson t-shirt. I had heard about audiophiles installing their own utility poles to get “more electricity” straight from the grid to power elaborate sound systems. What I didn’t know was what about this music made sense in Japan—how and why it had come to occupy the collective imagination, what it could offer.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Ballet, Gravity, by Sway Benns, The Paris Review

At the start of my first ballet class after a three-year hiatus, I attempted a grand plié and felt the muscle fibers in my thighs misfire and quake as my brain sent the then-unfamiliar signal to my body to give in to gravity, but not at the standard pace gravity had negotiated.

In a ballet class, the instructors sometimes offer esoteric corrections:

“Grow taller as you lower yourself down.”

“Push down as you lift up.”

Why Venice Works, by David Dudley, CityLab

Like the War Against the Machines that spans the Terminator franchise, the War on Cars that urbanists are supposedly waging is unavoidable, and essentially unresolvable. Battles are won and lost, the hardware changes, but drivers and their pedestrianist foes are fated to forever be at each other’s throats, vying for control of the city streets. Perhaps because it’s a conflict that, like so many others, has become bitterly politicized, it’s hard not to despair of the final outcome.

I recently spent time in Venice, Italy, which was like entering some alternative timeline where this war never happened. Venice’s Centro Storico is Europe’s largest car-free space, a medieval city that somehow managed to make it into the 21st century nearly untouched by internal combustion. And, lemme tell you, it’s weird.

Why Does Anyone Write?, by Alice Adams, Lithub

When I wanted to know how to see clearly and speak honestly, Diana Athill was there to show me. When I wanted to see the fireworks produced when cynicism and idealism collide, in strolled Martin Amis, cigarette dangling from lip. When I needed courage, Andrew Solomon pulled me to my feet. When I wanted to exult in the beauty of nature and solitude, Sara Maitland stood beside me. When I could do nothing but laugh at the absurdity of the whole damn shooting match, Jonathan Coe and David Nobbs did not forsake me. And when I grieved, C.S. Lewis reached out across the decades and said, Here, take my hand. You are not alone.

What Keeps Everything From Happening At Once?, by Sara Lippincott, Los Angeles Review of Books

But maybe it’s just a case of whistling past the graveyard. Time is among the slipperiest concepts in physics. It is a dimension (number four) but not one you can visualize. It speeds up and slows down — subjectively, but also by the clock, if you go fast enough. Its exact nature has baffled philosophers for ages: “What, then, is time?” Augustine complained. “If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.” Physicists call it t, for use in their equations (where, unlike its behavior in the real world, it is reversible), and seem unworried by its insubstantiality.

In Now: The Physics of Time, Berkeley physics professor Richard A. Muller sets out to trap this enormous will-o’-the-wisp. An experimentalist rather than a theoretician, he has seen things in the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory that would curl your hair. He is not free to live in his mind as the theoreticians are; he has actually manipulated time by, for instance, accelerating pions to just below the speed of light.

Review: Rachel Cusk’s ‘Transit’ Offers Transcendent Reflections, by Dwight Garner, New York Times

But mostly, Ms. Cusk’s novel bears down on topics like power and powerlessness, freedom and fate, love and its opposite. The most important thing we have in this world, “Transit” suggests, is other people, and it’s very hard to find the good ones: “They were like expensive paintings hung in the safety of the museum. You could look as hard as you liked, but you weren’t going to find one just lying in the street.”

The Best (And Worst) Chicken Nuggets In America, by Ryan Sutton, Eater

Say what you will about the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder; the hamburger patty is made of nothing but USDA-inspected beef. The McNugget, by contrast, is an amalgamation of over 20 discrete ingredients — rib meat, breast meat, botanicals, chicken skin, sodium phosphates, autolyzed yeast extract, sodium acid pyrophosphate, safflower oil, dextrose, and other oddities — that are mixed, cut, molded, and fried in vegetable oil laced with the ominous-sounding (but innocuous) anti-foaming agent known as dimethylpolysiloxane.

And yet, the McNugget is the more delicious creation. Biting into a Quarter Pounder mimics the sensation of chomping down on an oil-soaked sponge. But dipping the engineered and salted protein disc that is the McNugget into a peel-away plastic-container filled with pure honey (and nothing else) is nearly a peerless fast-food experience. Until you try a better version at Wendy’s.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What King Learned From Gandhi, by Priyanka Kumar, Los Angeles Review of Books

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was successful not only because of the energy poured into it by hundreds of thousands of people, but also because it sought redress for racial injustice within the rule of law. King adopted a game-changing tool, nonviolence, which reduced white backlash and set the stage for civil rights activists and lawyers to fight for racial equality within the justice system. Nonviolence as a political tool was the brainchild of a lawyer, M. K. Gandhi, who first tested the method in South Africa and then deployed it to oust from India the most powerful colonial power of the time, Great Britain.

Gandhi was no longer alive in 1955 when King was asked to take on his first leadership role in Montgomery, Alabama. How did King develop an affinity for Gandhian principles? What led him to embrace Gandhi’s most potent idea? The story of this unlikely cross-pollination becomes even more remarkable when we consider that an influential teacher whom Gandhi derived his idea from was the author Leo Tolstoy.

Irma Boom’s Library, Where Pure Experimentalism Is On The Shelf, by Joshua Barone, New York Times

Creation begins with a concept. (“It always has to have a concept,” Ms. Boom likes to say.) She then carries out her vision not with software, but with models — handmade, drastically scaled down versions of her projects that she uses to test ideas and materials. The final result often looks as if it could never have been designed on a computer. In a catalog she made of the artist Sheila Hicks’s woven artwork, for example, the edges of the pages, soaked and sawed, echo the edges — the selvage — of Ms. Hicks’s art.

The Detached Poet, by Mark Dunbar, The AMerican Conservative

The European poet Paul Celan once said that a poem “intends another, needs this other, needs an opposite.” For Wallace Stevens, this otherness was the world at large—the reason, perhaps, why his poetry contained so little but expressed so much.

‘Class’ Takes Satirical Aim At Brooklyn Grade-School Parents, by Sarah Lyall, New York Times

The novel is called “Class,” but it’s just as preoccupied with race, and Ms. Rosenfeld deserves a great deal of credit for taking on this minefield of a subject. Karen and her “chronically underemotive” husband, Matt, a low-income-housing advocate who is “currently earning zero dollars per week,” try to live according to their values. This effort entails, among other things, sending their daughter to a public school, Betts, where white students are in the minority.

The Life Of A Scilly Sergeant By Colin Taylor Review – Adventures Of High Tide And Low Crime, by Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

When I started reading this book I did not know that Sergeant Colin Taylor, stationed on the Isles of Scilly until last year, was something of a star. (Under his management, the Isles of Scilly police force’s Facebook page has achieved more than 50,000 followers (now including me).) I was just mildly surprised that his memoir had drawn me in. I am, surely, above books with pictures of a policeman on a child’s bike on the front cover, a gull standing on a police helmet on the spine, and a stupid pun in the title. But then I remembered something about not judging a book by its cover; and besides, I was in the mood for lightness.

Piccadilly Circus: Still London’s Heart Of Darkness, by Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

Close enough to Soho to feel disreputable, raucous enough to feel dangerous, Piccadilly Circus will never suffer the fate of New York’s Times Square, and get cleaned up for midwestern visitors. It is impure and corrupting, the luminous heart of London.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Why The Hell Did Humans Evolve To Be Ticklish?, by Rick Paulas, Thrillist

Remember how you can't tickle yourself? As a young child, you learn how to separate your body from others through this phenomenon. Suddenly, you become yourself, and others become others. "[S]uch a mechanism may be at the foundation of a sense of identity and a first step toward the evolution of personhood and the neurological computation of its boundaries," writes Provine. He goes even further, saying that this response may be even more powerful than sexuality: "Solo tickle is even emptier than solo sex -- you can masturbate to climax but you cannot tickle yourself."

Lie To Me: Fiction In The Post-Truth Era, by Adam Kirsch, New York Times

We are entering a period in which the very idea of literature may come to seem a luxury, a distraction from political struggle. But the opposite is true: No matter how irrelevant hardheaded people may believe it to be, literature continually proves itself a sensitive instrument, a leading indicator of changes that will manifest themselves in society and culture. Today as always, the imagination is our best guide to what reality has in store.

The Unbearable Niceness Of Being, by Alana Massey, New York Times

The first feeling to arrive while reading Emily Gould’s essay on publishing’s gendered niceness problem was mortified panic. It was followed my many more feelings, but the mortified panic lingered throughout, accompanying other fears made more real by seeing them confirmed in writing by another woman my age in the same industry. I bristled at some points and nodded my head with the entire top half of my body at others, but the one that nagged at me most wasn’t found in the essay itself but in its sub-hed: “Baking cookies is just part of playing the game.” Amid Gould’s thorough and thoughtful critique of the expectations placed on women in publishing, I was stuck on the thought that I had missed the memo on bringing cookies to my readings to render myself more likable than my prose and wit could do alone. As I read on, however, I discovered a still greater horror: even in the absence of snacks, I still exhibit the telltale characteristics of someone who is nice.

The Doctor Is In, by Gail A. Hornstein, The Weekly Standard

So why would we ever need another biography of Freud?

Precisely for the reason that Roudinesco wrote this brilliant new book: because Sigmund Freud, declared dead more times than anyone can count, is nevertheless very much alive. And despite the vast profusion of materials by and about him, or perhaps as a consequence of them, "we have great difficulty knowing who Freud really was, so thoroughly have the commentaries, fantasies, legends, and rumors masked the reality of this thinker, in his time and in ours." The need is even more acute now that the Sigmund Freud Archive at the Library of Congress—with reams of correspondence, family documents, patients' files, notebooks, photographs, school records, interviews, etc.—has finally, after almost 70 years of continuous collection, been opened fully to researchers.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Call Of The Wild: Can America’s National Parks Survive?, by Lucy Rock, The Observer

Climate change is killing trees, threatening birds and mammals, and leading to devastating wildfires across the 85m acres run by the NPS. Patrick Gonzalez, the principal climate-change scientist at the NPS, told me about rising sea levels (there’s been a 22cm rise across the bay at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California, since 1954); high ocean temperatures bleaching and killing coral in Virgin Islands National Park; and major vegetation types and wildlife moving upwards.

Yosemite saw subalpine forests moving up into subalpine meadows over the last century and small mammals, including mice and ground squirrels, shifting 500m uphill. “As temperatures warm,” he said, “things on higher elevations get warmer and things on lower elevations move up.” Bark beetles, once killed by cold winters, are now surviving and wreaking havoc with trees. “You go to Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone… hillsides formerly covered in a green canopy of trees are now just rust-coloured areas.”

If no action is taken, the glaciers of Glacier National Park may melt away; Joshua trees could die out in the park that bears their name; bison may disappear from Yellowstone; and the ancient cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde in Colorado could crumble away.

‘Restaurants Have Taught Me Who I Am’, by Kathleen Alcott, The Guardian

You can tell everything about a person, says a common piece of wisdom, by how he or she treats the waiter. It’s a dependable and convenient yardstick, given how the bistro tables and corner booths are, very often, the places where we decide upon whom we let into our lives – acquaintances who might become dear friends, depending on how urged we feel to linger on after the bill has been dropped; those we may choose as colleagues, gauging by whether their ideas are so dull we require a second coffee; dates who remain just that, failing somehow to attach to our ideas about the futures we’ve imagined. Beyond bantering with the staff or failing to, forgiving the waitress her misstep or snapping at her for it, there’s another element of our comportment as diners that serves as a kind of shorthand: the public element of the transaction ends up serving as a kind of censor, limiting the largeness of our expression but placing a premium on the smallest of gestures and phrases. In the expensive cities where I’ve spent all my adult life, where the luxury of the space to cook is rare and a halfway point between subway stops seems the only polite solution, white tablecloths and Edison bulbs and pale green espresso machines have almost always been the backdrop when I have chosen people, and likewise when I have let them go.

The Death Of The Tunnel Tree, by Nathan Heller, New Yorker

Early last Monday morning, a friend of mine sent news that a tree we knew, a sequoia, had collapsed in a winter mountain storm. I was in New York, where two inches of hard snow sat on cars and tree branches that themselves looked like death. He was in Northern California, near the place where we grew up. No one is certain of the fallen tree’s age, but it is thought to have lived at least a thousand years. Any tribute I could give it would be fatuous; the tree was older than the language in which I can write.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

I Read Zines To Escape Surveillance And Clickbait. It's The New Teen Rebellion, by Jonno Revanche, The Guardian

Flicking through photocopied pages, and pausing, and then taking a deep breath. And then again, turning over to a new page allowing yourself time to absorb the sentiments, before carefully moving on, slowing down time around you to let the new ideas settle.

High Spirits, by Sarah Miller, The Awl

How had this happened? Well, imagine if you were in New York City on vacation and you didn’t know shit about it or the surrounding area. Imagine also that not only did you not speak any English, you spoke a language comprising totally unfamiliar symbols altogether so that everything in your range of hearing and line of vision was both confusing and fatiguing. Then imagine you had a plan to make a side trip, the details of which you hadn’t yet attended to, because you weren’t the sort of person who always attends to things.

Then let’s say, finally trying to attend to things, you told one New York City resident, “I’m going to Upstate New York! (Which you thought of as ONE PLACE) How should I get there?” And, for some reason, this person said with total certainty, “Oh, you’re going to take Metro North to Cold Spring!” Then imagine the exact same conversation took place with a totally different New York City resident a few hours later, and you thought you had the right information, because why would two people tell you the same thing if it weren’t true?

In 'Cold Eye,' A Small Story That Packs A Big Punch, by Jason Sheehan, NPR

When you live in the West, you come to expect the big skies. You learn to navigate by the epic weight of mountains crowding the horizon. You know the snapping sharp transition between the close embrace of the woods and the openness of the high mountain clearing. Even in the cities, you live with the land close by — never being allowed to forget that you are in a wild place that will never be truly settled. In the East, nature is allowed to exist by man in controlled, manageable pockets, ever shrinking. In the West, nature allows you to exist. Or doesn't, according to its whims. And anyone who forgets that is a fool.

Of the three things I love most about Laura Anne Gilman's Devil's West series, her deep understanding of this sharp division of dominion on either side of the Mississippi is my second favorite. My first is petty (and we'll get to it shortly). And my third is the dirt under its nails.

Turning The Nightmare Of A Child’s Loss Into Art, by Doron Weber, Washington Post

“Kadian Journal” is the moving, anguished and ultimately healing account of Harding’s efforts to come to terms with the unspeakably tragic loss of his beloved son and to pay him tribute. It describes Harding’s quest to unravel the mystery of his son’s fatal accident, complete with a police investigation, forensic experts and an inquest, and to grapple with his own guilt and responsibility, or lack thereof.

On Menopause And Milkshakes: Short Reports From A Poet, by Ben Ratliff, New York Times

Mary Ruefle’s “My Private Property” is a book that, if not read carefully and to its very last words, almost invites the reader to underestimate it.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Deceptions Of Luck, by David J. Hand, Nautilus

Luck is obviously closely related to the concept of chance, but it’s not quite the same. Chance describes an aspect of the physical universe: It’s what happens out there. The coin coming up heads rather than tails, the die falling to show a six, and even a particular one of the 45,057,474 possible tickets in the United Kingdom National Lottery being drawn. In contrast, luck attaches a value to the outcome of chance. Luck is chance viewed through the spectacles of good or bad fortune. It’s really good news, at least for you, if you win the lottery, and it’s really bad news if you’re one of the passengers on the plane when it crashes.

The Rise And Fall And Rise Of Logic – Catarina Dutilh Novaes, by Catarina Dutilh Novaes, Aeon

The history of logic should be of interest to anyone with aspirations to thinking that is correct, or at least reasonable. This story illustrates different approaches to intellectual enquiry and human cognition more generally. Reflecting on the history of logic forces us to reflect on what it means to be a reasonable cognitive agent, to think properly. Is it to engage in discussions with others? Is it to think for ourselves? Is it to perform calculations?

Originality Versus The Arts, by Michael Lind, The Smart Set

In the last century, originality has killed one once-flourishing art form after another, by replacing variation within shared artistic conventions to rebellion against convention itself.

I blame the Germans.

Considering The Novel In The Age Of Obama, by Christian Lorentzen, Vulture

What will we mean when someday we refer to Obama Lit? I think we’ll be discussing novels about authenticity, or about “problems of authenticity.” What does that mean? After the Bush years, sheer knowingness and artifice that called attention to itself had come to seem flimsy foundations for the novel. Authenticity succeeded storytelling abundance as the prime value of fiction, which meant that artifice now required plausible deniability. The new problems for the novelist became, therefore, how to be authentic (or how to create an authentic character) and how to achieve “authenticity effects” (or how to make artifice seem as true or truer than the real).

In 'Transit,' Rachel Cusk Continues To Slyly Blur The Lines That Surround Fiction, by Laird Hunt, Los Angeles Times

Like Pavel’s, the house of fiction is made from materials both transparent and opaque. We don’t know, of course, what Faye, a fiction writer, is choosing to leave out or to underplay or invent in her reconstructions. She makes no promises to us. Nor does her creator, Cusk, whose life looks from a distance to have more than a little in common with Faye’s. This is fictional autobiography or autobiographical fiction that refuses to name — and thereby limit — itself.

Of Women, Men And Ballet In The 21st Century, by Alastair Macaulay, New York Times

The meanings that flow from ballet are not only about gender. Yet the use of pointwork places the woman on a different level of being.

And so ballet remains a sexist view of the world — one that privileges the woman, certainly, but on terms that let her shine only by doing what no man can. Should we agree with the choreographer George Balanchine (1904-83) that “ballet is woman”? Or do we qualify this, as the choreographer Pam Tanowitz (born in 1969) has recently done, by saying that ballet is a man’s idea of woman?

The Rise And Fall Of Potato Skins, by Chris Crowley, Grub Street

Perhaps due to their inherent lack of sex appeal, potato skins have all but disappeared from menus. (Unless you’re a regular at your local TGI Friday’s you might be hard-pressed to come up with the last time you ordered some.) Which is a shame, because it’s not just the potato skin that’s disappearing from New York but a certain breed of restaurants and bars.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Who Killed The Curry House?, by Bee Wilson, The Guardian

Now, however, the curry house’s once unassailable place in British life looks precarious. Thousands of Indian restaurants are critically short of both staff to cook the food and customers to eat it. Across the industry, two or three curry houses are closing down a week.

This is a crisis with many causes, the effects of which extend far beyond curry. Since the Brexit vote and the subsequent collapse of the pound, independent food outlets of all kinds have been hurt by rises in rents, rates and food prices. Meanwhile, in families that run curry houses younger generations have moved away from catering to more lucrative jobs in medicine or tech. So long as there was a ready supply of new onion choppers from Asia, the exodus of upwardly mobile offspring did not affect curry houses too much. The real blow came when a harsh new politics of immigration came in, which made it harder for skilled south Asian chefs to work in the country, just as the wider British public were changing the ways in which they consumed curry.

Neanderthals Were People, Too, by Jon Mooallem, New York Times

One British geologist, William King, suspected something more radical. Instead of being the remains of an atypical human, they might have belonged to a typical member of an alternate humanity. In 1864, he published a paper introducing it as such — an extinct human species, the first ever discovered. King named this species after the valley where it was found, which itself had been named for the ecstatic poet who once wandered it. He called it Homo neanderthalensis: Neanderthal Man.

Who was Neanderthal Man? King felt obligated to describe him. But with no established techniques for interpreting archaeological material like the skull, he fell back on racism and phrenology. He focused on the peculiarities of the Neanderthal’s skull, including the “enormously projecting brow.” No living humans had skeletal features remotely like these, but King was under the impression that the skulls of contemporary African and Australian aboriginals resembled the Neanderthals’ more than “ordinary” white-people skulls. So extrapolating from his low opinion of what he called these “savage” races, he explained that the Neanderthal’s skull alone was proof of its moral “darkness” and stupidity. “The thoughts and desires which once dwelt within it never soared beyond those of a brute,” he wrote. Other scientists piled on. So did the popular press. We knew almost nothing about Neanderthals, but already we assumed they were ogres and losers.

Why Do Canadians Say 'Eh'?, by Dan Nosowitz, Atlas Obscura

When I told friends in the Pennsylvania suburb where I grew up that I was going to college in Canada, their responses tended to come in two forms. One was about the weather; to a southern Pennsylvanian, any temperature below 25 degrees Fahrenheit is cause for panic. The other was a volley of linguistic stereotypes about the nation of Canada, involving either “aboot” or “eh.”

Canadians are not particularly amused when you eagerly point out their “eh” habit, but the word has become emblematic of the country in a way that is now mostly out of their control. In response, some have embraced it, adopting it as an element of Canadian patriotism. But what even is this word? How did it come to be so associated with Canada?

The Problem With “Playing God”, by Bina Venkataraman, Slate

Since its publication nearly 200 years ago, Shelley’s gothic novel has been read as a cautionary tale of the dangers of creation and experimentation. James Whale’s 1931 film took the message further, assigning explicitly the hubris of playing God to the mad scientist. As his monster comes to life, Dr. Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, triumphantly exclaims: “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”

The admonition against playing God has since been ceaselessly invoked as a rhetorical bogeyman. Secular and religious, critic and journalist alike have summoned the term to deride and outright dismiss entire areas of research and technology, including stem cells, genetically modified crops, recombinant DNA, geoengineering, and gene editing. As we near the two-century commemoration of Shelley’s captivating story, we would be wise to shed this shorthand lesson—and to put this part of the Frankenstein legacy to rest in its proverbial grave.

Bern, Baby, Bern, by Tom Gallagher, Los Angeles Review of Books

But for many in the United States, what Sanders was saying was kind of crazy — or at least new. His campaign arguably introduced the country not to 21st-century politics, but to 20th-century politics. As Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, told the Sanders campaign kickoff crowd, “This guy’s been saying and doing the same stuff for the last thirty years. If it weren’t so inspiring, it’d be boring.”

Sanders has now written the book on social democratic campaigning in the United States — literally. It’s called Our Revolution, and it’s structured kind of like one of his campaign rallies (I was a Sanders delegate to the convention and therefore went to many of these events). Part one is preliminaries, and in part two Sanders talks issues, issues, issues — and it contains much more detail than any campaign rally. Either part stands on its own.

Wow, Weather, by Riane Konc, New Yorker

Have you seen the weather? It is so much weather right now, I’m considering staying home instead of dealing with all this weather. All I know is that NO ONE can drive in this weather. People from my state are the worst at driving, especially when weather comes. It’s like they’ve never seen weather before!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Supplement Maker Tried To Silence This Harvard Doctor — And Put Academic Freedom On Trial, by Rebecca Robbins, Stat

The dietary supplements had ominous names, like Black Widow and Yellow Scorpion. They contained an illegal and potentially dangerous molecule, similar in structure to amphetamines.

But when a Harvard researcher dared to point that out, in a scientific, peer-reviewed study and in media interviews, the supplement maker sued him for libel and slander.

The Last Trial Of The Codfather, by Brendan Borrell, Hakai Magazine

Since his release from prison in the 1980s, Carlos Rafael has ruthlessly run his Massachusetts seafood business with little regard for the law. But is there any other way to survive the gauntlet of restrictions on the New England fishing industry?

Why Is It So Hard For Writers To Talk Candidly About How Much Money They Make?, by Laura Miller, Slate

That books still make money at all is something of a miracle. (And to be fair, the vast majority of books don’t make money; publishing, like baseball, is a game predicated on failure.) No market could be less rationalized, or as Strayed puts it, “There’s no other job in the world where you get your master’s degree in that field and you’re like, ‘Well, I might make zero or I might make $5 million.’ ”

Ethnographic Writing And Poetic Discipline, by Mishka Hoosen, Ploughshares

Studying anthropology, you are never not made acutely conscious of this history. It is, or should be, the same as when studying history, or politics, or science. The language and paradigms of oppression are ones we must continually be un-learning.

But what makes anthropology so utterly poignant to me, as a discipline, what makes it remarkable, is what comes through in the process of ethnographic fieldwork, and what is often the only tangible evidence of that process: what has been written.

Paul Auster’s 4321 Is A Brilliant Math Problem That Doesn’t Quite Work As A Novel, by Lydia Kiesling, Slate

Anyone who has experienced Paul Auster’s hall-of-mirrors postmodern experiments knows to be on her guard for funny business, and it takes time to acclimate to the novel’s logic. The structure makes perfect sense once you get used to it, but the first few chapters open in ways that don’t immediately reveal we are being treated to four separate realities (even if you read the jacket copy).

Moonglow By Michael Chabon Review – Much More Than A Memoir, by Alex Preston, The Guardian

This is a novel that, despite its chronological lurches, feels entirely sure footed, propulsive, the work of a master at his very best. The brilliance of Moonglow stands as a strident defence of the form itself, a bravura demonstration of the endless mutability and versatility of the novel.

The Most Intimate Photograph, by Chris Wiley, New Yorker

One of the most beautiful photographs I know of is an image of a woman standing in the doorway of a barn, backlit in a sheer nightgown, peeing on the floorboards beneath her. It was taken in Danville, Virginia, in 1971, by the photographer Emmet Gowin, and the woman in question is his wife, Edith. The picture is so piercingly intimate that I find it difficult even to look at it. This is not because I feel as if I am intruding, or being shown something that I was not meant to see, but simply because it seems to hover too close to the vital force of human connection. It is too poignant, too alive. Rather than merely avoiding clichés—about love and intimacy, artist and muse, public and private­—the picture seems to repel them, as an amulet repels evil spirits.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Dim Sum Democracy: The Story Of Tim Ho Wan, by Adam Gollner, Lucky Peach

Before becoming a luxury good, dim sum was an everyday food. Mak combined the best of both those worlds: he sells high-end dumplings that aren’t expensive. But as affordable as his restaurants are, he’s not a rebel Robin Hood figure: he’s a top dumpling master who started an immensely successful restaurant chain. Like any capitalist, he wants businesses here to be able to run smoothly.

“I’m in the middle,” as he puts it. “I respect both sides.” After all, Hong Kong hasn’t held him back. Quite the opposite: there are already branches of Tim Ho Wan in Australia, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and New York. Mak represents the complicated face of Hong Kong today. By figuring out how to democratize Michelin-level dim sum and make it accessible to the masses, he started a multinational craze, just as democracy itself looked to crash-land in the vicinity of Victoria Harbor.

Mary Gordon’s Spending: A Different Breed Of Fantasy Lit, by Jennifer R. Bernstein, Ploughshares

Several years back, I read a book that was unlike nearly any other I’d read before in one striking way: nothing particularly bad happened in it. The protagonist experienced minor internal struggles and dilemmas, but basically, everything came up roses. This felt like a major departure from Great Literature as I knew it, the purview of suffering and loss and existential pain on a grand scale. I loved it unreservedly.

‘The Dry,’ A Page-Turner Of A Mystery Set In A Parched Australia, by Janet Maslin, New York Times

Ms. Harper throws out so many teasing possibilities that it’s hard to believe this is her first novel. And even harder to believe that she learned to write fiction via a literary agency’s online writing course. (She had already been a print journalist for more than a decade.) One trick the course clearly taught her was a basic of the crime genre: Make sure that nothing is what it looks like at first sight. People trying to solve the Hadler murder case — and to deal with many other troubles that erupt in Kiewarra during Falk’s stay — are reliably quick to jump to the wrong conclusions.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A.J. Daulerio Is Ready To Tell His (Whole) Gawker Story, by Maximillian Potter, Esquire

Not all that long ago, as the editor in chief of, Daulerio was among the most influential and feared figures in media. Now the forty-two-year-old is unemployed, his bank has frozen his life savings of $1,500, and a $1,200-per-month one-bedroom is all he can afford. He's renting here, he says, to be near the counselors and support network he has come to rely on lately.

Six months earlier, Daulerio was in a Florida courtroom two hundred miles away, a defendant in a high-profile invasion-of-privacy lawsuit filed by former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan and secretly funded by Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist and Donald Trump supporter. Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, had sued Daulerio; Daulerio's former employer, Gawker Media; and Nick Denton, Daulerio's former boss and the founding CEO of Gawker Media, for more than $100 million.

"Close To Tears, He Left At The Intermission": How Stanley Kubrick Upset Arthur C Clarke, by Michael Moorcock, New Statesman

I guessed the problem was a difference in personality. Arthur was a scientific educator. Explanations were his forte. He was uncomfortable with most forms of ambiguity. Kubrick, on the other hand, was an intuitive director, inclined to leave interpretation to the audience. These differences were barely acknowledged. Neither did Kubrick tell Arthur of his concerns regarding the final version. Where, thanks to Arthur, the film was heavy with voice-over explication and clarifications of scenes, Kubrick wanted the story to be told almost entirely visually.

Looking And Looking Away, by Kim Fay, Los Angeles Review of Books

A friend once told me that her parents took her along to see Saturday Night Fever when she was just seven years old. This shocked me. For many, this movie is nothing more than a nostalgic time capsule for disco and John Travolta. What I remember vividly, though, is the traumatizing backseat gang rape scene. I marveled that adults would take a child to see a movie like this, but my friend reasoned, “I guess when you’ve lived through the Holocaust, there isn’t much left that can shock you.”

This conversation returned to me as I was trying to wrap my head around Argentinian writer Guillermo Saccomanno’s Gesell Dome, a 600-page novel translated by Andrea G. Labinger that is bursting with incest, rape, child abuse, spousal abuse, drug abuse, political corruption, suicide, patricide, matricide, infanticide, all-purpose murder, and torture. Saccomanno has said, “In a country that had concentration camps, one cannot look the other way.”

Just How Smart Is An Octopus?, by Callum Roberts, Washington Post

Encountering an octopus in the wild, as Peter Godfrey-Smith argues in his fascinating book, “Other Minds,” is as close as we will get to meeting an intelligent alien. The octopus and its near relatives — squid, cuttlefish and nautilus — belong to a vast and eclectic group of creatures that lack backbones, the invertebrates. Collectively known as cephalopods (head-footed), they are related to snails and clams, sharing with them the unfortunate characteristic of tasting wonderful. Don’t read this book, though, if you want to continue eating calamari with an untroubled conscience, for living cephalopods are smart, beautiful and possessed with extraordinary personalities.

Locol Calls: On The Geography And Politics Of Restaurant Criticism, by Jonathan Gold, Los Angeles Times

But are certain restaurants unreviewable? It depends on the critic. (Have I reviewed Locol? I have not.) Wells might have concentrated on more conventional restaurants like Camino or Commis on his trip to Oakland, but in some ways, Locol is indeed too important to ignore.

The Perils Of Being The People’s Critic, by Matt Buchanan, Eater

What Locol, as an enterprise, demands of any reviewer is a deeper recognition of the restaurant’s context relative to what a critic may be hoping to evaluate, and a more considered approach to how and where a critical perspective should be applied. This is not to say that Locol shouldn’t be rigorously assessed on how well it is serving the communities that it is operating in, but maybe, to put it another way, some restaurants aren’t meant to be assessed by some critics, even ones considered populist heroes.

Counting Shrimp, by Calvin Trillin, New Yorker

Since the election, I sometimes wake up at three or four in the morning, disturbed by dark thoughts, and when that happens I try my best to think of the surprising amount of shrimp consumed in Las Vegas every day. We all have our own way of dealing with this thing.

My way is what might be called replacement denial. In order to avoid dwelling on a depressing or disturbing subject—the sort of subject that can keep you from falling back asleep—you concentrate on a subject that is so engrossing that it can drive the depressing subject from your mind. Concentrating on shrimp consumption in Las Vegas is not my first attempt at replacement denial. On previous nights, for instance, I’d done my best to contemplate the ramifications of a similarly surprising fact: the largest state east of the Mississippi, in land area, is Georgia.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Birth Of An Imperial Nation, by Gabriel Winant, The Nation

The process through which the American nation-state emerged and then grew into an empire is the subject of A Nation Without Borders, a compendious new work on America’s 19th century by New York University historian Steven Hahn. The third entry in the Penguin History of the United States, A Nation Without Borders takes us from the Jacksonian dawn of American “democracy” to the First World War.

Hahn reminds us that our little postcolonial republic had imperial inclinations even at its birth. From its outset, the country was seeking to seize new lands and resources as well as to consolidate those territories it had already absorbed. That America’s economic and political origins can be found in its imperial expansion—first within the American continent and then abroad—is well-­established. But Hahn manages to do something new by showing how the Civil War and the struggle to abolish slavery from this country fits into this narrative as well.

Let’s Banish The Phrase Creative Writing, by Cydney Alexis, Slate

I would love to see English and related departments banish the use of “creative writing” in titling disciplines, tracks, and departments. Instead, bring us all together under the banner of Writing Studies, Writing, or Writing Arts. In my courses, I tell my students at the beginning of the term that they will not hear me use the phrase, and I tell them why. Most of my students are not going to be fiction writers and poets; they are going to be journalists, technical writers, emailers, texters, medical record writers, memo writers, proposal writers, and list writers. And I want them to understand that if they enjoy this work, it is as valuable to them as fiction and poetry.

It’s time we banish the idea that certain writing forms are creative and certain aren’t. And that academic writing is dull. Let’s challenge ourselves to stop using the pernicious phrase creative writing—to produce more public texts that depict the creativity involved with forms besides fiction and poetry, and to expand our fundamental ideas about what it means to be creative.

Spinoza And The All-American Novel: Ranbir Singh Sidhu, by Hawa Allan, Los Angeles Review of Books

Deep Singh Blue examines the question of whether Deep or Lily or Deep’s parents or Jag can free themselves from their cages of denial, anger, and despair. Writing with humor and beauty, Sidhu illustrates how Deep’s perception of his racist suburb adjusts to his imperfect yet progressive embrace of philosophy and love — and how he is gradually able to glimpse perfection amid his drab surroundings. Deep shifts from merely regarding “[a] sort of gray gray with flecks of brown and a sort of gray brown with flecks of gray” to noticing “[i]nside the spectrum of universal gray” that there are “whole dramas of colors jostling one another and knocking shoulders.” Perhaps that backward Nazi symbol is, for Deep, a lucky signpost, pointing to the way out of his so-called cage, if only he can adjust his vision to see it. There are no promises of happy endings here, only an acknowledgment of the introspective work an enormous number of people in this country have to do in order to see themselves as more than being “threatened from all sides.” Sidhu’s novel is required reading during this Trump-era nightmare from which we apparently cannot awake.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Is It Better To Beat Temptation Or Never Feel Tempted At All?, by Christina Starmans, Aeon

When was the last time you were tempted, even briefly, to do something a little immoral? To lie, betray a friend’s confidence, cut in line, or take a little more than your share? I’m willing to bet it was today. Maybe in the past hour. Larger temptations hound us too, especially those involving sex or money. And yet, perhaps to a shocking extent, we often rise above these temptations and act morally nonetheless. But how does the inner struggle with temptation affect how our actions are viewed by others? Who is the better person: the one who acts morally while tempted or the one who is never tempted at all?

Is The Chinese Language A Superstition Machine?, by Julie Sedivy, Nautilus

English speakers can relish a good pun, and messing around with homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings) is a staple of many a clever ad. But Chinese practices take punning to a whole new level—one that reaches deep into a culture where good fortune is persistently courted through positive words and deeds, and misfortune repelled by banishing the negative. The number four is tainted because of its homophony with the word for “death”—many Chinese people would never consider buying a house whose address contained that number. In visual designs, fish and bats figure prominently because they are sound twins of the words for “surplus” and “fortune.” Gift-giving is fraught with homophonic taboos; it is all right to give apples, because their name sounds like “peace” but not pears, whose name overlaps with “separation.” Questions about why certain objects or numbers are considered lucky or unlucky are often met with matter-of-fact statements about their sound-alikes.

With Mysteries, Knut Hamsun Rewrote The Novel's Rules, by Jonathan McAloon, The Guardian

Hamsun was making formal jokes about stream of consciousness, parodying it, when it was still in prototype, 30 years before James Joyce or Virginia Woolf had perfected it. He was defying forms that had yet to be invented.

Mysteries is one of my favourite books and I can’t figure out how it works. I read it in Gerry Bothmer’s 1973 translation which I suspect adds additional oddness to Hamsun’s strange mix. The characters feel simultaneously strange and familiar. Hamsun isn’t the father of the modern novel, but rather its difficult, lonely uncle. His heritage, which began in Russia with Pushkin, Lermontov and Dostoevsky, was widely abandoned for high modernism, a decade or so after Hamsun’s best work. Because of this he still feels advanced and new. He isn’t in our blood the same way, though he has high-profile disciples: among them Beckett, Céline and Lawrence.

Dishing It Out: Why Americans Eat The Way We Do, by Corby Kummer, New York Times

If every generation rewrites history, then our current food historians are only beginning to claim large tracts. These three new books about America’s culinary past explore less-trodden territory with an eye to concerns that seem surprisingly contemporary: the need of workers for a higher minimum wage and better conditions; the need for women to gain equality with men; and the need for immigrants to be treated fairly and with respect.

Stop Punching Me, Darth Vader, by Joyce Wadler, New York Times

The movie begins. On the screen, we’re moving through space. Off screen, my chair rumbles and the leg rest vibrates. Are we this close to the subway? This theater is two stories up. [...]

What’s weird here is that as the spacecraft banks to the right, it feels as if my chair is tilting to the right; as it banks left, it feels as if my chair is tilting left.

Friday, January 6, 2017

English Is The Language Of Science. That Isn't Always A Good Thing, by Ben Panko, Smithsonian Magazine

"Native English speakers tend to assume that all important information is in English," says Tatsuya Amano, a zoology researcher at the University of Cambridge and lead author on this study. Amano, a native of Japan who has lived in Cambridge for five years, has encountered this bias in his own work as a zoologist; publishing in English was essential for him to further his career, he says. At the same time, he has seen studies that have been overlooked by global reviews, presumably because they were only published in Japanese.

Yet particularly when it comes to work about biodiversity and conservation, Amano says, much of the most important data is collected and published by researchers in the countries where exotic or endangered species live—not just the United States or England. This can lead to oversights of important statistics or critical breakthroughs by international organizations, or even scientists unnecessarily duplicating research that has already been done. Speaking for himself and his collaborators, he says: "We think ignoring non-English papers can cause biases in your understanding."

An Ode To Japanese Curry, by Aaron Gilbreath, The Smart Set

When Western eaters think of Japanese food, most think of sushi and ramen, but the Japanese have transformed India’s comforting curry into a national dish. Introduced by the British navy around 1868, the Japanese kept the standard British-style brown gravy — warm and aromatic, spiced but not spicy, thickened with a roux — and created something wholly their own.

Literary Agents, by Patrick Iber, New Republic

The propriety of such largesse, both for the CIA and its beneficiaries, has been hotly debated ever since. Jason Epstein, the celebrated book editor, was quick to point out that CIA involvement undermined the very conditions for free thought, in which “doubts about established orthodoxies” were supposed to be “taken to be the beginning of all inquiry.” But Gloria Steinem, who worked with the CIA in the 1950s and ’60s, “was happy to find some liberals in government in those days,” arguing that the agency was “nonviolent and honorable.” Milosz, too, agreed that the “liberal conspiracy,” as he called it, “was necessary and justified.” It was, he allowed, “the sole counterweight to the propaganda on which the Soviets expended astronomical sums.”

Book Review: The Nix Is The Fix You Need, by Kelly Knorad, Chicago Now

And, between Laura's Pottsdam's multi-page excuse for a plagarized paper, and, I shit you not, a 10-page single sentence about giving up video games, the story's creativity is off the charts. I loved every delicious moment.

Art's Red Pill: An Appreciation Of Critic John Berger, by Carolina A. Miranda, Los Angeles Times

What Berger taught me is not just how to look at an image — but to look through it and ask why and how.

The Japanese Art Of Grieving A Miscarriage, by Angela Elson, New York Times

I’m not sure if this is the correct way to weather a miscarriage, or even the right way to Jizo. I don’t know how long I’m supposed to crochet new outfits: maybe until I don’t feel the need to, or maybe forever.

I do know that like those parents haunting Mount Koya, Brady and I will always think of that baby who never was. We’ll leave pieces of our love for him wherever we go, hoping Jizo will deliver them to wherever he is.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Pavese’s English, by Anthony Madrid, The Paris Review

A wonderful thought occurred to me, though. What about finding the collected letters of people like Baudelaire and Mallarmé (who supposedly spoke and read English fluently) and sit in judgment of them? I can’t judge Johnson’s French, but I can definitely judge, say, Cavafy’s English. Or Freud’s.

Yet, look what happens.

What Can Explain A Mother’s Murder Of Her Child?, A Novel Asks, by Smith Henderson, New York Times

With an act of unspeakable violence at its heart, “Idaho,” Emily Ruskovich’s debut novel, is about not only loss, grief and redemption, but also, most interestingly, the brutal disruptions of memory.

A Feminist’s Biography Of Steven Spielberg Focuses On His Jewish Identity, by Lisa Schwarzbaum, New York Times

As writer-for-hire on “Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films,” the pioneering feminist movie critic Molly Haskell is such a counterintuitive choice of contract employee that she acknowledges the weirdness of the situation upfront, confessing her qualms about taking on the project.

The pairing is the work of imps, apparently, who preside over the Jewish Lives series, billed as “interpretive” biographies, now rolling out steadily from Yale University Press. A publisher’s note alongside the robust catalog explains that the editorial matchmaking is done based on the ability “to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the range and depth of Jewish experience from antiquity through the present.” And by those standards, done and done: The exploration here is lively, the critic is deeply informed, and she approaches her mandate with a calmness of inquiry that is a gift often bestowed on the outsider anthropologist impervious to tribal influences.

Miami 2017, by Dan Piepenbring, The Paris Review

For obvious reasons, 2017 hasn’t loomed large in the popular imagination. It’s a bit of a dud. It reeks of the random number generator. Until late last year, no one except economists and steering committees probably gave it too much thought. Sure, Cherry 2000, a 1987 Melanie Griffith vehicle, was set in 2017, but its creators went with the more beguiling 2000 for the title. (It’s named after an android who malfunctions during sex.)

Only one great prognosticator, one seer and visionary, heard the music of this dull year thudding from afar. I speak of William “Billy” Joel, the Piano Man himself, whose song “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” is a foreboding indicator of what the year has in store.

Listening To George Michael In Taiwan, by Hua Hsu, New Yorker

This has been a year, though, when we’ve been reminded that culture abides by no definitive reading. What’s deplorable to one becomes an organizing principle for another. And that’s how culture should work. Yet the harm comes when we insist on a single version of the story, an archetypal way of being, a right way to see things—for there is no language capable of representing us all.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

One Man’s Quest To Change The Way We Die, by Jon Mooallem, New York Times

Now, at the morning meeting, Miller began describing the case of a young man named Randy Sloan, a patient at U.C.S.F. who died of an aggressive cancer a few weeks earlier at Zen Hospice. In a way, Sloan’s case was typical. It passed through all the same medical decision points and existential themes the doctors knew from working with their own terminal patients. But here, the timeline was so compressed that those themes felt distilled and heightened.

And then there was the bracing idiosyncrasy of everything Miller’s staff had been able to do for Sloan at Zen Hospice. Rabow told me that all palliative-care departments and home-hospice agencies believe patients’ wishes should be honored, but Zen Hospice’s small size allows it to “actualize” these ideals more fully. When Miller relayed one detail about Sloan’s stay at the hospice — it was either the part about the sailing trip or the wedding — one doctor across the conference table expelled what seemed to be an involuntary, admiring, “What?”

Everything Miller was saying had a way of sharpening an essential set of questions: What is a good death? How do you judge? In the end, what matters? You got the sense that looking closely at Sloan’s case might even get you close to some answers or, at least, less hopelessly far away.

This is the story he told.

No Shrinking Violets: A Short Story Collection From Roxane Gay, by Gemma Sieff, New York Times

Gay has fun with these ladies. Her narrative games aren’t rulesy. She plays with structure and pacing, breaking up some stories with internal chapterlets, writing long (upward of 20 pages) and very short (under two pages). She moves easily from first to third person, sometimes within a single story. She creates worlds that are firmly realist and worlds that are fantastically far-fetched — there is a wife who is dogged by water, as if under a personal rain cloud, and a wife who is made of glass.

'The Strays' Invites You To A Disturbing, Magical World, by Jean Zimmerman, NPR

"Dogs are better than human beings," wrote Emily Dickinson, "because they know but don't tell." That sentiment comes to mind when considering Emily Bitto's debut novel, which showcases a dazzling, gabby and ultimately doomed collection of stray human beings. Assembled under one bohemian roof in 1930s Australia, most of these characters tell all to a fault. But one, an adolescent girl named Lily, sees all but keeps her mouth firmly shut — until she comes to narrate this book. Framed as a memoir drafted in 1985, when Lily has grown to maturity, The Strays invites readers into a world that is by turns disturbing and magical.

Why Are Animated Dance-party Endings So Goddamn Annoying?, by Jesse Hassenger, AV Club

It’s difficult to picture anyone arguing that Disney’s animated adventure musical Moana is in any way inferior to fellow cartoons like DreamWorks’ Trolls, a movie based on a once-popular line of toy trolls, or Illumination Entertainment’s Sing, a movie based on the frequently popular idea of singing. But 20 years ago, actual cartoons with contemporary music cues or dizzying mashups might have felt downright cutting edge. These days, there’s a good chance you find this vaguely annoying. Have we as a culture grown so hardhearted to both eye-popping animation and glittering pop music that we can no longer be impressed by a combination of the two? Or is there something genuinely and insidiously annoying about what has come to be known as the dance-party ending?

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

How The Rainbow Illuminates The Enduring Mystery Of Physics, by Jon Butterworth, Aeon

Scientists must avoid falling into the trap of defending all aspects of current thought because we feel the underlying truth needs protecting. Details of theory, or even broader aspects, can often be improved. Doing so strengthens the core of the theory – that is, if it is fundamentally correct. If it isn’t, then we need a better theory as soon as possible. The most effective way to find a deeper description of nature is to seek more observations and to push the existing conception to breaking point. All of those thoughts were hovering along with the rainbow over the Helford River.

Our understanding of rainbows is very robust now, but not complete. There are undoubtedly details that can still be improved. That walk home along the river, however, was definitely perfect.

The Voices In Our Heads, by Jerome Groopman, New Yorker

“Talking to your yogurt again,” my wife, Pam, said. “And what does the yogurt say?”

She had caught me silently talking to myself as we ate breakfast. A conversation was playing in my mind, with a research colleague who questioned whether we had sufficient data to go ahead and publish. Did the experiments in the second graph need to be repeated? The results were already solid, I answered. But then, on reflection, I agreed that repetition could make the statistics more compelling.

The Right Book At The Right Time, by Rosa Lyster, The Millions

Some books you know you will love straight away, and other books you need to sit on for a while. You need to coexist with the book for some time, resenting it, maybe, assuring yourself that it is not for you. Rolling your eyes when it comes up in conversation etc. Saying oh PLEASE when it’s mentioned. Talking about it at dinner parties in a way that is actually a bit strange. Are you sure you’re not in love with the book? You are certainly talking about it a lot, for someone who says that they hate it and they wished no one had ever read it. Are you sure you don’t, at least, have a bit of a crush on the book? Hmm? You and the book, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Admit it. You secretly love the book and you know it.

Dirty Words, by Kevin Currie-Knight, Reason

My parents raised me not to use "bad" language, but late in elementary school my friends and I learned both how to curse and how to turn off our cursing when grown-ups were around. Just as I wasn't supposed to curse around adults, I was, in some sense, expected to curse around my friends.

Such experiences are explained in Michael Adams' In Praise of Profanity. The book's argument is not that we should use more profanity. It's that profanity evolved within the spontaneous order we call language to perform certain functions. Eliminate profanity and you'll eliminate those functions, making language less powerful.

More Reasonable New Year’s Resolutions For 2017, by Susanna Wolff, New Yorker

2016: Start exercising and eating right. Lose some weight.
2017: Stop standing in front of your open refrigerator eating cheese. Maybe put it on a plate and shut the door.

Monday, January 2, 2017

A Fictional Guide To Surviving The End Of The World, by Stassa Edwards, Jezebel

Aside from prophecies, fiction is the only way to render the apocalypse concrete; to look directly at the end with a suitable veil of denial, or to at least refract contemporary anxieties through fantastical accounts. Searching for a guide to surviving in what seemed like a desolate landscape of my own making, I turned to the only reliable source. For a year, I waded through post-apocalyptic novels, films, bad movies that can’t possibly be described as films, and possibly worse television. I wasn’t quite particular about parsing post-apocalyptic and dystopic, the genres are similar enough that they often arrive at similar insights; rupture coupled with survival was good enough. At first, it was a morbid joke and then, at some point, acquiring knowledge about survival felt like a necessity.

There are no specifics on how to survive the apocalypse—no truly usable guidelines for how to inhabit the post-apocalyptic landscape, not even a clear way to navigate the apocalypse’s cousin, dystopia. The apocalypse is personal, too close to suffering to provide any real universal guideline. What exists instead are a series of tropes that capture individual and collective anxieties played out on a universal scale about everything from gender to climate change, government overreach, and reproductive coercion. Here are some takeaways from the end of the world.

How Watership Down Was Written, by Miranda Johnson, 1843

Bustling preparations for a car journey take time: the need to check on children, belongings and provisions, to make certain of the route and the vehicle, and to calculate quite when to leave. In the 1960s driving from London to Stratford-upon-Avon took three hours. For two little girls, such a period could be delightful given that their father, Richard Adams, who was my grandfather, would come up with fantastical tales en route. “It was spontaneous,” he recalled, “but if you have to go a distance of any length in a car it is important to make children enjoy it.” Enlivening the day mattered; my grandpa wanted Juliet and Rosamond to learn to love both Shakespeare and Stratford. “I actually don’t think there are that many good stories in Shakespeare, and he borrowed a lot of them,” he added, “but the characters are so powerful”.

The Economist Bids Farewell To A Formative Home, by The Economist

If we notice our surroundings rather more in the next few months, it is because they will soon change. This is our last Christmas in a tower that was created for us. Next summer we will move into the Adelphi building, a renovated 1930s hulk near the Strand. The change is exciting and disorienting. The modern, global version of The Economist was created in the tower, and has been shaped by it. This sublime slab of the 1960s is the only home it has ever known.

But for two German bombs, everything might have worked out differently. The first, which fell in 1941, destroyed The Economist’s offices in Bouverie Street, near Fleet Street — the old heart of British journalism. The newspaper fled to offices near Waterloo Bridge. In 1947 it moved to St James’s, into a building that was vacant because it, too, had been bombed. Number 22 Ryder Street was not London’s smartest address. It had been an upmarket brothel before the war; Nancy Balfour, the United States editor, shocked a taxi driver by asking to be taken there. It was, say the few who remember it, a pleasant jumble of offices and corridors. But by the late 1950s it had started to pinch, and The Economist decided to do something radical.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Will Scientists Ever Prove The Existence Of Dark Matter?, by Robin McKie, The Guardian

It is thought there is five times more dark matter than normal matter in the universe, although it has yet to be detected directly. Finding it would solve one of science’s most baffling mysteries and explain why galaxies are not ripped apart by stars flying off into deep space.

However, many scientists believe time is running out for the hunt, which has lasted 30 years, cost millions of pounds and produced no positive results. The LZ project – which is halfway through construction – should be science’s last throw of the dice, they say. “This generation of detectors should be the last,” said astronomer Stacy McGaugh at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. “If we don’t find anything we should accept we are stuck and need to find a different explanation, perhaps by modifying our theories of gravity, to explain the phenomena we attribute to dark matter.”

In Defense Of Facts, by William Deresiewicz, The Atlantic

John D’Agata has accomplished an impressive feat. In three thick volumes, over 13 years, he has published a series of anthologies—of the contemporary American essay, of the world essay, and now of the historical American essay—that misrepresents what the essay is and does, that falsifies its history, and that contains, among its numerous selections, very little one would reasonably classify within the genre. And all of this to wide attention and substantial acclaim (D’Agata is the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, the most prestigious name in creative writing)—because effrontery, as everybody knows, will get you very far in American culture, and persistence in perverse opinion, further still.

Future Sex: A New Kind Of Free Love By Emily Witt – Review, by Lara Feigel, The Guardian

Witt set out to explore the sexual landscape of the present more fully, wanting to find out how her experiences related to the zeitgeist and how her own sexuality might be enriched by learning about the practices of others. Her quest lasted for five years and took her to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, to orgasmic meditation workshops and extreme porn film shoots in San Francisco and to the darker reaches of her computer. At the end of this, her life had externally changed very little but she had changed internally in learning to see sex – “the pure force of sexual desire” – as disconnected from the stories we tell ourselves about love and marriage.

The book that results is fascinating, both because it’s always interesting to hear about the sex lives of others and because it opens up an historical context that allows us to understand how the free love of the past did and didn’t lead to our internet-driven sexual present. Witt sees herself as learning about “free love”, but also believes that the term itself has been too discredited by the failed experiments of the 1960s and 70s to be used easily now. She quotes the American radical Ellen Willis stating that though freedom was inherently risky, her generation had felt confident enough to reject security but had then found that “sex has never been safe” and that the losses were as real as the risks: “the deaths, breakdowns, burnouts, addictions”.

Dave Barry’s Year In Review: 2016 — What The ... ?, by Dave Barry, Miami Herald

In the future, Americans — assuming there are any left — will look back at 2016 and remark: “What the HELL?”

They will have a point. Over the past few decades, we here at the Year in Review have reviewed some pretty disturbing years. For example, there was 2000, when the outcome of a presidential election was decided by a tiny group of deeply confused Florida residents who had apparently attempted to vote by chewing on their ballots.

Then there was 2003, when a person named “Paris Hilton” suddenly became a major international superstar, despite possessing a level of discernible talent so low as to make the Kardashians look like the Jackson 5.

There was 2006, when the vice president of the United States — who claimed he was attempting to bring down a suspected quail — shot a 78-year-old man in the face, only to be exonerated after an investigation revealed that the victim was an attorney.

And — perhaps most inexplicable of all — there was 2007, when millions of people voluntarily installed Windows Vista.

Yes, we’ve seen some weird years. But we’ve never seen one as weird as 2016. This was the Al Yankovic of years. If years were movies, 2016 would be “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” If years were relatives, 2016 would be the uncle who shows up at your Thanksgiving dinner wearing his underpants on the outside.