The battle between high culture — that of the real artists, their patrons, critics and audiences (which could be all of us) — and the anarchists and populists, is as vital as ever. This is what cries out for harder reading and thinking. There are other forces which are not on the side of the angels: increasing democratisation, the economic forces of globalisation, producing a rootless technocratic class and offering so many tempting routes to materialist excitements; there are the infinite tentacles of the internet. It is not so much the withdrawing roar of the waves down the naked shingles that depresses, as the ceaseless clamour of their electromagnetic counterparts, so difficult to avoid, so impossible to control, and (on balance, despite all the brilliant stuff) so massively, heedlessly Philistine.
Such idiosyncratic filing systems may have edifying or aesthetic advantages, but the task of organizing books is one that grows in complexity the more one tries to simplify it. Jigsawing new, more delicately drawn puzzle pieces out of a given set of titles, however brainy, often creates more confusion than it erases, spiraling inward into subcategories of subgenres of co-authored anthologies that are impossible to browse.
Reader, I have two selves. For many months, or sometimes years, I work on a novel in the privacy of my home. Each book presents problems of its own: characters that are not yet fully alive, subplots that threaten to overtake the main story, a narrative structure that needs to be rethought. Whatever the challenge, the work is never easy. Fear sits beside me. Doubt is my daily bread. If I’m lucky, I finish the book and it gets published. Then I give readings, do interviews on the radio or television, attend book parties and writers’ workshops and literary festivals. I become, however briefly, a public figure.
The line between public and private selves is different for different writers. Some are comfortable sharing many details of their lives. Neil Gaiman tells fans about his book projects, encourages people to get involved in refugee relief and tweets pictures of his wife and baby son. Other writers prefer relative anonymity. Thomas Pynchon famously doesn’t give interviews and is rarely photographed. Most writers probably fall somewhere in between.
Boys like sticks and girls prefer dolls, or so the tidy evolutionary story goes. Because stone-age men hunted game and competed for mates, boys want to play rough, take risks and assert dominance. Because women mainly cared for babies, girls still hope to nurture. Given these hard-wired differences, it is only natural that it can sometimes seem that men are from Mars and women from Venus.
In “Testosterone Rex” Cordelia Fine of the University of Melbourne takes aim at those who suggest that evolutionarily determined sex differences—and the power of testosterone—can explain why most CEOs are men and few physicists are women. She argues that essentialist presumptions that rationalise an unequal status quo are “particularly harmful to women”.
In the end, I got something other than the love story I had been expecting. In fact, this is a feminist novel, with Rose ever reminded that biology shapes destiny. She is keenly, cynically aware of her currency as a woman, and eager to feel “the grandeur of being responsible for oneself”. O’Neill writes with frankness about female sexuality, here crude and hungry. Rose is an inversion of the chaste princess: “She liked the idea of being ruined. She was curious to see what would happen to her if no man would marry her.”
Elif Batuman seems to be making a career for herself writing about academia under the titular auspices of Dostoyevsky novels. Her first book, a collection of essays called The Possessed, is part campus memoir, part comic ode to Russian literature. Its through-line arrives as a kind of call to action: this is the sort of novel American authors could to be trying to write, but aren’t. Now, with The Idiot, Batuman has gone and written one herself. The result is an uproarious debut that funnels her same academic wit and intellectual earnestness into the overactive mind of Selin, a linguistics-obsessed Harvard freshman who arrives on campus in the fall of 1995.
Paris is doing all this because it needs to. The French capital’s reputation for beauty and charm may still be repeated to the point of cliché, but during the 1960s and ‘70s, this city—like so many others—was profoundly reshaped by car-centric planning. The postwar automotive boom turned the city’s quiet avenues into gasoline-filled arteries, flattening historic buildings and throttling the city core with a beltway that has become a byword for congestion and pollution. That inner Paris survived this onslaught in largely good visual shape is remarkable.
Equally remarkable is the fact that Paris has managed to muster a political movement limiting the future role of cars. It’s a fightback that authorities in London or New York would no doubt struggle to replicate. The story of how Paris let cars eat it away—and then bit back—is worth a closer look.
There’s an old Appalachian saying about this kind of survival that every artist reckons with: root, hog, or die. I like it because it’s imperative rather than formulaic, as the best advice tends to be. I once heard Colum McCann caution against writing what you know. Write toward what you want to know, he said. Standing in his barn between his pot of mash and his gleaming copper still, Sal has somehow accomplished both. He set out to discover what his ancestors had already attempted — a magic concoction of corn, sugar, and fire — and in it, he found his art.
Under “I”, in the index of one of his books, Douglas Hofstadter (of Gödel, Escher, Bach fame) included an entry for “index, challenges of, 598; as revelatory of book’s nature, 598; typo in, 631; as work of art, 598”. As might be said these days: preach! Indexes are challenging to produce; they are revelatory of a book’s nature; and the best ones are works of art. And, as Hofstadter ruefully if wittily recognised (including under “T” “typo in index, 633” in a book that ended on page 632) they sometimes contain typos. But not, you’d hope, those produced by professionals.
Today, the Society of Indexers – the industry body for those professionals (for which, full disclosure, I have the honour to be honorary president) – turns 60 years old. It celebrates its “anniversary, diamond”. “What?” you ask. “Who?” you wonder. No surprise. Indexers are like badgers: they are seldom sighted in the wild, they do their work in the darkness, and when you see one it’s usually because they’ve been run over by an 18-wheeler.
In its sheer expansiveness 4 3 2 1, which is more than twice the length of any book that Auster has published, is unlike anything he has written. Yet it is also commodious enough to encompass everything else he has written. Several times Auster writes playfully of the book of life (“Ferguson sometimes wondered if he hadn’t pulled a fast one on the author of The Book of Terrestrial Life”) and 4 3 2 1 is close to a Book of Auster, studded with allusions to previous novels. Besides the father-and-son relationships, there are various other familiar Austerities: the infatuations with New York City, Parisian culture, and old films; the stories within stories; the search for patterns in chaos; the recurring image of a disoriented man locked in a dark chamber; the bifurcation (or in this case tetrafurcation) of the self, often expressed through alter egos, many of whom share the lineaments of Auster’s biography.
While writing “Richard Nixon: The Life,” John A. Farrell could not possibly have known who would be president on the day his fine book was published. That it happens to be Donald J. Trump is, for him, an extraordinary stroke of luck. To read this biography with an eye only toward the parallels between the two presidents would be lazy and unfair, a disservice to Farrell’s nuanced scholarship.
But the context here is unignorable. The similarities between Nixon and Trump leap off the page like crickets.
It’s certainly not for a lack of effort. Hanging doesn’t work. Slitting his wrists is useless. Shooting himself in the head, overdosing on pills . . . nothing he tries gives him the exit into oblivion he so clearly craves. Each time he succumbs, he witnesses a glowing ring of light, then awakens once again in his motel room. At least it seems like his motel room. What is going on? Maybe if he throws himself in front of a truck . . .
That’s the opening sequence to Demon, Jason Shiga’s bloody brilliant (or brilliantly bloody) action comic, a no-holds-barred assault on good taste and timidity that proves to be as hilarious and captivating as it is incredibly violent and profane.
For two months, as part of an experiment by the Guardian in collaborative reporting, I have been investigating what retirement looks like today – and what it might look like for the next wave of retirees, their children and grandchildren. The evidence reveals a sinkhole beneath the state’s provision of pensions. Under the weight of our vastly increased longevity, retirement – one of our most cherished institutions – is in danger of collapsing into it.
Many of those contemplating retirement are alarmed by the new landscape. A 62-year-old woman, who is for the first time in her life struggling to pay her mortgage (and wishes to remain anonymous), told me: “I am more stressed now than I was in my 30s. I lived on a very tight budget then, but I was young and could cope emotionally. I don’t mean to sound bitter, but I never thought I would feel this scared of the future at my age. I’m not remotely materialistic and have never wanted a fancy lifestyle. But not knowing if I will be without a home in the next few months is a very scary place to be.”
And it is not just the older generation who fear old age. Adam Palfrey is 30, with three children and a disabled wife who cannot work. “I must confess, I am absolutely terrified of retirement,” he told me. “I have nothing stashed away. Savings are out of the question. I only just earn enough that, with housing benefit, disability living allowance and tax credits, I manage to keep our heads above water. I work every hour I can just to keep things afloat. There’s no way I could keep this up aged 70-plus, just so that my partner and I can live a basic life. As for my three children … God knows. I can scarcely bring myself to think about it.”
Juan Pollo has all the hallmarks of a kitschy local chain. There are framed newspaper cutouts from the three decades Okura’s been in business, photos of Okura smiling with generations of Miss Juan Pollos in bikinis, heels and tight dresses, and Polaroids of guests with their testimonials written in Sharpie. (“I eat here all the time. I should be ½ owner,” reads one.) The tables are brightly painted with murals of a pastoral countryside. It’s the kind of roadside spot that travelers are tempted to stop at simply to see how a place so thoroughly un-Instagramable could have stayed in business for so long.
The secret is all in the chicken.
It’s not that I’m ignorant to the bad things that can befall women in public, nor that I’m particularly “brave” to set foot to concrete. Women (especially trans women, and women of color) run risks anywhere we go. But neither “foolish” nor “fearless” tell very much about what happens when female feet hit the sidewalk. There is much more to say, and more for women to gain.
That terrain is the subject of Lauren Elkin’s fine new hybrid work of memoir, literary criticism, and cultural history of women who walk. In these pages, the native Long Islander ditches her ancestral car keys for a life abroad and on foot, in search of a feminine definition of the flâneur, Charles Baudelaire’s famed and always male urban wanderer. In the streets of Paris, Tokyo, London, Venice, and Manhattan, Elkin roams through broken relationships, unexpected career turns, spiritual impasses, and intellectual harvests. The streets resist and affirm her choices and beliefs; they structure her imperfect wandering. In herself and the paths of famous female walkers, Elkin uncovers her flâneuse.
Writing a piece like this, asking such a question, feels a little ridiculous. A little juvenile, if I’m honest, but there’s something compelling in the idea—what would an answer to Lolita look like? If the legal ramifications around the jealously guarded rights to the work were not a consideration, if we didn’t try to make it “modern” in the ham-fisted sense of placing it bang in our time, but just straight-up rewrote the work from that ghost’s voice—what would it look like?
There are more than enough very learned people who have studied Nabokov and literary theory who would say it’s an impossibility. Indeed, when you consider the exquisite workings of the novel, of Nabokov’s entire body of work, its boldness, his rarefied and rare imagination, the magnificent play of idea and reference, pattern and parody, feeling and wit, everywhere at work in the novel, it does seem absurd to imagine there could be an answer. But I feel, still, there should be one. What is it about answering that novel that makes it such a necessity to me, a compulsion?
Michael Cunningham might be the modern master of the fellatio scene, but it took leaving them out to finally win a Pulitzer. "I can't help but notice that when I finally write a book in which there are no men sucking each other's dicks," he told Poz after winning for The Hours, "I suddenly win the Pulitzer Prize."
Cunningham's facility with writing fellatio is a rare talent. In Flesh and Blood, he uses a chapter-long scene running up to a blowjob as a kind of self-contained bildungsroman. Newly arrived at Harvard, Billy Stassos is seduced and fellated, and—although the scene begins with him full of fear and wary—he ultimately finds confidence in his newly assured homosexuality and a trust in men that he never received from his tough father. It is perfectly and succinctly rendered—a self-contained story in a single blowjob.
It was around noon of my third grueling day recording the audiobook of my first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, when my innermost self cried out to be heard. I mean this literally. The disembodied voice of my director burst into my headset to inform me that my disgruntled, empty stomach was grumbling loudly enough to be picked up by the hypersensitive microphone; my solo performance had inadvertently become a duet. To muffle these complaints from within, I finished the chapter with a pillow pressed against my belly.
Truth be told, my cantankerous abdomen spoke for the rest of me, too. For the marathon task of recording my own audiobook over four long days proved far more demanding than I had expected.
Two ideas drive the now decades-old campaign to extend royalty payments to translators. The first is practical: since publishers have tended to resist paying rates that would constitute a decent income for translators, one that corresponds to the professional skill and long hours involved, introducing a royalty clause into the contract ensures that at least in cases where a translated book makes serious money the translator will get some share of it. The second is conceptual: every translation is different, every translation requires a degree of creativity, hence the translation is “intellectual property” and as such should be considered authorship and receive the same treatment authors receive.
In the end, "I believe, you will have to make a stand," Coetzee writes. "You will have to say: We need free inquiry because freedom of thought is good in itself. We need institutions where teachers and students can pursue unconstrained the life of the mind because such institutions are, in ways that are difficult to pin down, good for all of us: good for the individual and good for society." Nowhere does — or would — Coetzee invoke love, but love can provide an important ground for this kind of argument. If, for early modern readers, coming to love books meant coming to treat them not as things to be used but as things to be appreciated, then doubling down on the potency of those emotional commitments and their ethical entailments might be a way to resist the instrumental rationality of market values today. If we are serious about our love of literature, its study can be justified on its own terms, for love needs no justification. We read literature not because it is good for this or that, although there’s little doubt it does us all good.
Before the internet — and its help in building a global economy — discontinuing a cheap plastic toy in an entire country would’ve likely been its death knell. Interest would wane, hobbyists would have a harder time finding people to connect with, and the momentum behind a nostalgia-laced fad would slowly dissipate. But today, with the help of online international marketplaces like eBay and a stream of content catering to ’90s nostalgia, discontinuations are a minor hurdle for dedicated collectors. Alongside TamaTalk, communities on Facebook, Instagram, Discord, and Tumblr have formed an unofficial support system for what appears to be a dying product in the U.S., writing detailed user guides, tracking product announcements abroad, lobbying moderators of the brand’s social media channels to release new products, selling homemade accessories for their pets, and even writing code to translate more recent versions of Japanese Tamagotchi to English. These fans have managed to establish their own folksy Tama-economy, filling in the gaps where the product’s parent company, Bandai, is absent.
Just like the online bodies that worship Beyoncé or obsess over a specific game in the Zelda franchise, the Tamagotchi collectors’ community has its own way of organizing and functioning. To better understand what drives people, from Australia to Minnesota, to convene at one web address in the name of pixilated amorphous monsters, however, it’s helpful to know the Tamagotchi origin story.
When I type in my mother’s village, Balrampur, it gives me two suggestions in India, one in West Bengal. After I click on that option, I ask my mother if that’s the one, and she shakes her head no. Then we type Balarampur instead, and we’re given another result in West Bengal. I click, and the platform zooms in. There are shades of greige that dissolve into each other, as if someone had just poured a bucketful of water onto a finished painting. There are no discernible landmarks. When I zoom in, the picture gets even hazier. I don’t know where I am. My mother, who lived there for over two decades, doesn’t recognize it, either.
The difficulties we encountered in these searches mirror the hindrances Brierley describes facing in his memoir, A Long Way Home. He detailed how protracted the process was, and the despair it inspired within him as he couldn’t get the technology to comply with his demands. He is guided by a monomaniacal desire to find home, and it morphs into something like a sickness. David Kushner’s 2012 Vanity Fair piece also hinted at difficulties Brierley encountered in a search full of false starts. Though Brierley was crippled significantly by his fading memories of home, the platform itself had many failings too: It hadn’t mapped out a lot of India beyond its major cities, and the Anglicization of certain village names differed from Brierley’s phonetic memory.
Of all the arts, writers most envy music, for being both abstract and immediate, and also in no need of translation. But painting might come a close second, for the way that the expression and the means of expression are coterminous—whereas novelists are stuck with the one-damn-thing-after-another need for word and sentence and paragraph and background and psychological buildup in order to heftily construct that climactic scene. On the other hand, it is much easier for writers (and composers, for that matter) to work in subtle, or not-so-subtle, homages to other art forms than it is for painters. Thus Zola gives a friendly nod to Manet in his novel Thérèse Raquin, where a murdered girl in the morgue is described as resembling a “languishing courtesan” offering up her breasts to us, while the black line around her neck (evidence of strangulation) recalls the black ribbon around the neck of Olympia; just to confirm the homage, Zola also includes that rather sinister black cat from the painting.
I’ve never understood clean people or the need to celebrate the coming of Spring by moving everything around. People who care about cleanliness already dominate the airwaves with their advice about having to be insanely clean at all times. Like if you drop a sock somewhere it must be put in a Tupperware container labeled “Dropped Socks.” And then filed somewhere under “Found Socks: Not My Socks.” With some kind of triplicate paperwork to be filled out.
There are whole rooms of my apartment I don’t go in because I’m afraid raccoons may be in them. We used to have a cat that would warn us when things were awry in our living conditions. Now we think the cat is on their side. It’s all very mysterious.
I rise blissfully at 4:30 am, thanks to my Tibetan singing bowl alarm clock. After 20 minutes of alternate nostril breathing, I start my day with a three-minute cold shower. This I follow with twenty minutes of stream-of-consciousness journaling, then another twenty minutes of gratitude journaling.
For breakfast, I always enjoy a half liter of organic, fair-trade, bulletproof coffee (I use a ghee, coconut oil, and yak butter blend instead of MCT oil), which keeps me in ketosis until I break my intermittent fast. By the way, if you haven’t tried it, nothing does the trick like intermittent fasting for maintaining less than 17% body fat. (For my full fasting protocol, see my e-book.)
In the absence of 100,000-year-old writing, historical linguists like Jasanoff have to look for clues hidden in more modern languages to reconstruct this shrouded history. Drawing on connections between related language families to reconstruct their otherwise lost ancestors, they can reach back to ancient languages that faded out long ago. Such work doesn’t just dredge up lost vocabulary but can also reveals the culture of ancient societies and how they interacted with one another. It’s the linguistic equivalent of archaeology, unlocking parts of the human story not revealed in excavations.
But how far back can these reconstructions go? Historical linguistics is a powerful tool, but it can’t peer back 100,000 years to humanity’s primordial speech. There, experts can only speculate. Jasanoff suggests the transition from basic animal communication to complex human languages was likely a subtle one.
He wrote me a letter. That’s how we met. He had read my book, The Anatomist, in proof, and enjoyed it. (“I meant to provide a blurb,” but “got distracted and forgot.”) This was when I was still in San Francisco – early 2008. This was when people still wrote letters regularly and when one got a letter, sat down and wrote a letter back.
“Dear Mr Hayes – ”
“ – Dear Dr Sacks…”
As a kid, I was in awe of my grandmother’s ability to stretch a dollar when it came to food. She always knew the price differentials at the local Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern and white American markets. And she strategized for trips to McDonald’s.
For instance, she realized that the two of us — a child and a senior, both petite females — added up to one extra-large appetite, so ordering a Big Breakfast to share made better sense than ordering separate, smaller meals. We shared quite a few of these over the years. There was a McDonald’s on the way to my elementary school, where she would walk me some mornings. She’d sit with her coffee (the best in America, she always said), and me with my juice. And we’d attack the Big Breakfast from either side.
The noir novel drops us into a world whose contours we know well: an urban sprawl of violence and sex and caustic pith, with a mystery (a murder, usually) at its center. At the level of logic—the how and the why of its wanton, crime-ridden ways—the noir world simply is. For the reader it must remain this way, through a suspension of disbelief, as her immersion in the narrative depends on not calling it into question.
Initially, The City, Awake appears to be no exception to this rule; this gothic noir presumes its dystopic city and motivates only the particulars of the plot that unfurls within it. In fact, though, over the course of the novel Duncan Barlow subtly manages to overwrite these rules with those of his own devising—and with great profit.
Duncan Hines, traveling salesman and future purveyor of boxed cake mix, considered himself an authority on a great many things: hot coffee, Kentucky country-cured ham and how to locate a tasty restaurant meal, in 1935, for under a dollar and a quarter.
By the 1950s, Hines' name would be plastered on boxes of cake mix; housewives would turn to his products for consistent quality and superior taste. Newspaper photographs featured Hines clad in a white chef's apron, hoisting a neatly frosted cake or thoughtfully dipping a spoon into a mixing bowl.
But Duncan Hines wasn't a chef — in truth, he could barely cook. For most of his career, he had just been a businessman, desperate for a decent meal on the road. Through his search for the best restaurants across America, he became an accidental gourmand, an unlikely author and homegrown connoisseur.
As it happens, Ms. Levy’s adventures fit into an older tradition than the memoir/exposes, “the autopathographies,” as James Atlas wrote, introducing the wave of literary memoirs from the early 1990s — Mary Karr, Susanna Kaysen, et al — that have dominated the form for decades. When her marriage finally ends, Ms. Levy strikes up a correspondence with the handsome South African doctor John Gasson, who had treated her in Mongolia.
The memoir ends ambiguously, with Ms. Levy pondering a flight to South Africa. But in real life, she and Dr. J., as she calls him, conducted an epistolary romance through email that continued to blossom. There would be setbacks, as Ms. Levy tried — “400,000 times,” she said — to get pregnant through IVF treatments, until “my heart was broken and I had no money and I was like: ‘Girl, it’s done. Let it go.’”
“Not everybody gets everything, but you get some stuff,” she continued. “You get other stuff.”
I’m no theologian. My professional life has been focused on politics and the ideas that inform politics. Yet I’m also a Christian trying to wrestle honestly with the complexities and losses in life, within the context of my faith. And while it’s fine for Christians to say God will comfort people in their pain, if a child dies, if the cancer doesn’t go into remission, if the marriage breaks apart, how much good is that exactly?
In the introduction of Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales of Animal Brides and Grooms, Maria Tatar talks about how to classify a fairy tale using the Aarne-Thompson system. Developed and refined since the early 20th century, it's a massive taxonomy that cross-references our fundamental stories by subplots and themes. (The sheer volume of folklore would be overwhelming otherwise; Tatar's book alone contains stories from almost two dozen countries.) And stories of loathly brides and grooms generally fall under two types: The Man on a Quest for His Lost Wife, or The Search for the Lost Husband.
Looking at these categories, however, doesn't offer an easy place for Beauty and the Beast. The familiar 18th-century French version (which Disney borrowed for its tale as old as time) fits the letter of the Aarne-Thompson law: The lost husband is the beastly suitor, whom Beauty must return to and rescue at last. But other stories confound the classic about the girl who agrees to live with a gentle Beast until love softens her heart.
i awoke drugged
i remember her
and wanting life to be
as simple as that thought
For over 40 years, I have been asked to justify the arts, to explain why stories are important and useful, to argue for the time and money writers and musicians and dancers need to get good at what they do and realize their dreams. Despite the miracle of stardust making music, dance, and poems, the notion persists that the arts are fun but not essential, an enjoyable luxury but not part of the core curriculum for our continued existence in the universe. And although I have been championing the dispossessed my entire life, speaking for microbial life forms as the subjects of their universe is a more recent engagement.
At this symposium, as I argued for the significance of sacred/mundane play, I had the good fortune to be reading “Because of the Bone Man,” the final novella in Kiini Ibura Salaam’s When the World Wounds, a collection of speculative short fictions. I thanked Salaam for the Bone Man’s inspired response to a wounded child in New Orleans who quit engaging in make-believe at seven. Standing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation and facing the selective neglect of black and poor communities, Bone Man tells the young cynic: “Make believe is the only reason I’m here right now.”
Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all. It’s not even, not really, the feeling that arises when you realize that you missed out on a chance to see something, to know someone, to be a part of some adventure or enterprise or milieu that will never come again. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.
I have a love-hate relationship with writing. First the hate. It’s difficult. Finding language for ideas, then finding better language. During my years as a probation officer I occasionally heard colleagues joke (sort of) that the job would be great if it weren’t for the clients. I sometimes feel the same way about writing and language. Some writers swoon over language: “It’s my muse, my lover”, and so on. Well, it’s my enemy, and I seem to spend all my life arguing and battling with it. Also, sitting down at a desk aggravates my sacroiliac joint, so by the end of a week of solid writing I’m pretty much bed-bound or crawling around on all fours.
If it’s a small marvel that a stamp, a spot of paper backed with adhesive, can send a parcel around the world, it’s incredible that a person might spend $9.5 million to own a single one.
Imagine sitting on a narrow bench inside a dark room. Your feet are dangling into a floor of water. You’re vaguely aware of the room moving. Your ears start ringing. If you move too much, you feel the room sway, which could bring the floor rushing in to fill it. You take a breath and dive down, swim outside the room, groping the water, looking for its bottom, reaching for something valuable enough to take back with you.
If you’ve ever pushed an upside-down cup into water, reached inside, and found it still empty, you’ve encountered a diving bell. It’s a simple concept: The water’s pressure forces the air, which has nowhere else to go, inside the “bell.” Once people realized that trapped air contains breathable oxygen, they took large pots, stuck their heads inside, and jumped into the nearest body of water. In the 2,500 years since, the device has been refined and expanded to allow better access to the ocean’s depths. But that access has not come without human cost.
The panic starts in London. I’m there publicizing my last book, and at a small press lunch, my British publicist tells me that she’s just read the novel I’ve recently finished writing. She leans close to me and says, quietly, “You should prepare yourself for invasive publicity.”
Oh, dread, I remember you. There are authors who blur the boundaries between themselves and their work: Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner come to mind. Elif Batuman has described her new novel, “The Idiot,” as a “semi-autobiographical novel.” But I’ve always found the presumption of autobiography when applied to my work a little lazy and a lot unfair.
Normally, I’m a very focused writer. I work to a schedule: five days a week, 5,000 words a day. I work until I finish a project, I take a little time off, and then I set to work on a new project. Some of these projects get published, others languish on the collection of external hard drives that have begun to clutter my apartment. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m writing.
I like to tell aspiring writers that talent, by itself, isn’t the great arbiter of who succeeds in this business—and I’m living proof. I’m proud of my books, and I’m not trying to pretend to be modest, but I’ve always believed that raw talent doesn’t mean a thing without discipline. And until last spring, I had that in droves.
Then it happened. I handed in the final draft of The Forgotten Girls, my upcoming novel, and instead of turning my hand to next year’s novel, as I’d normally do, I turned off the computer, bought a camera and a radio scanner, packed up my Jeep and drove off to the woods. And there, instead of writing, I took pictures of trains.
Canadian English, like other varieties of the language, is decidedly a real entity, despite a certain perception among Americans (and even some Canadians) that it is more or less an exaggerated version of Minnesota speech, peppered with “eh” and a funny way of saying “about.” Canada is a huge country, with many influences, chiefly British English, American English, French, and various native languages. Tracing the patterns of these influences is the job of the historical lexicographer.
Which leads to an important point. Dictionaries are often seen as argument-settling arbiters of truth. But their job, Ms. Stamper notes, isn’t to say what something is, but to objectively and comprehensively catalog the many different ways words are used by real people.
Ms. Stamper has no patience for self-styled purists who quail at “irregardless” — an actual word, she notes. (She is O.K. with ending sentences with prepositions as well as — brace yourself — split infinitives.) But she also describes being caught up in some higher-stakes fights.
In the general run of things, few of us sip tomato juice for breakfast or as an aperitif, yet this savoury beverage forms 27% of all drinks orders on planes, with or without added vodka. According to one survey of more than 1,000 passengers, nearly a quarter of people will choose tomato juice when flying, even though they never drink it under other circumstances. This is exactly the kind of puzzle that interests Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology. In Gastrophysics, Spence notes that the “really special thing about tomato juice and Worcester sauce (both ingredients in a good bloody mary) is umami, the proteinaceous taste”. When Spence and colleagues investigated, they found that the blaring sound of being on an aeroplane – around 80-85 decibels of background noise – interferes with our ability to taste sweetness. That gin-and-tonic which tastes so sweet back on land is dulled in the air. By contrast, the noise actually increases our perception of the intensity of savoury umami flavours such as tomato juice. As we merrily ask the flight attendant to pour us a bloody mary, we have little notion that we may be driven to do so by what is happening to our ears as much as to our mouths.
To Be a Machine implicitly recognises that there is a vast, less extreme territory of bodily enhancement to be navigated – involving smart drugs, wearable technologies and other small steps towards bioengineered “post-humans”. But O’Connell chooses to zero in on the transhumanists’ desperation to escape what one biohacker refers to as “miserable biological lives”. With the help of anecdotes about his very young son, he signals his contrasting belief that our animal, fallible, bodily nature is the essence of being human. And isn’t it the very fact that we are here for so brief a time, he writes, that makes “life so intensely beautiful and terrifying and strange?” The privileged white male gods of Silicon Valley are obsessed with their own mortality, but is “dying of old age not … the ultimate First World Problem?”
So masterful is Chaon's command of this story that the character's abuse needs only the roughest of scenes sketched out for readers to know it was horrific. One of the author's lodestones in this book seems to be that even the kindest people can mete out the unkindest cuts.
I started touring through New Orleans almost 10 years ago, playing clubs like One Eyed Jacks, House of Blues and Tipitina’s. Most of my experience of the city has been nocturnal. If I spliced all my waking hours in New Orleans onto a continuous reel, it would play like footage from an Arctic observatory in winter: 20-some hours of darkness, then a paltry bit of daylight before the next 20-hour night.
This time I didn’t have a gig. I wanted to see what the place looked like open, with kids and commuters, sun and sober pedestrians. I wanted to select my own meals and eat them sitting down, in a chair without a seatbelt.
Hawaii is notoriously nice, and unremitting niceness is what I do not want out of a vacation. This is because I’m cheap. I want a maximum memory harvest for my travel dollar, and a trip rarely sticks in my long-term storage cache without the sharp edges of mishap and discomfort to snag on. I do not, for example, remember nice meals I have eaten so clearly as the wet duckling I disgorged on a street in the Philippines, and the delight this brought the locals. I cannot recall the nice hotels I’ve stayed in half so well as the New Zealand jungle cabin where I inadvertently slept on the rotting carcass of a rat and woke up with a heart murmur.
But in a political moment so well supplied with nastiness, I don’t need to bunk with carrion. Give me a slack-keyed, macadamia-dusted holiday where things are pretty and people are smiling, if only because it’s in their job description. In a gesture of spiritual surrender, I have booked a five-day stay in the Hawaiian Islands with no greater hope for the voyage than that it may be merely nice.
Being a regular isn’t necessarily easy. It requires unwavering commitment and physical effort. A neighborhood restaurant is a convenience; a restaurant where you’re a regular is a compass. At first, getting to Bianca was a breeze — either by subway, when I lived at 50th Street and Second Avenue, or by foot, when I moved into a shoebox studio near New York University. Things got more difficult when I decamped to Princeton, NJ for two years for my first job as an editor — what was once walking distance became a trek involving a car, two New Jersey Transit trains, and two subways. When I moved back to the city, the downtown-bound B or D from Columbus Circle was quick and painless, as was the ride on the Manhattan-bound F from Downtown Brooklyn. Then, in 2010, when I was hired to launch the national edition of Curbed, Eater’s sister site, I was just as excited about the office’s location — five blocks due north of Bianca — as I was about the promise of a new professional challenge.
The best thing about being a regular, especially in a city that values exceptionalism, is that it allows you to be regular. You can embrace a truly unexceptional set of goals: show up, be nice, tip well. Whether you’re wearing gym clothes or a miniskirt, it doesn’t matter, because you are just a regular person. Cry at the table if something has made you sad, because regular people cry when they’re sad, or cackle loudly at a joke, even if your voice carries across the room, because regular people laugh when something’s funny. As a regular, you don’t need to put on airs; you can forgo the theatrical mannerisms of dining out — composure, anonymity, restraint — and just be yourself.
I’ve taken to reading old media criticism about television, the earlier and more hysterical the better. It helps me in gauging how much hysteria is in my assessment of social media. Any new medium seems to prompt similar fears, similar predictions of widespread dehumanization and authoritarian control, and who is to say they have been wrong? Much of what I mistake to be novel about social media is just an extension of aspects that critics had perceived about TV: the greater sense of intimacy and of participation that blurs and erodes traditional borders between work and leisure, public and private; the sense that “real” things are being rendered indistinguishable from their images or representations; the elitist fear that people are being widely stupified and rendered into witless automatons. No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet.
For all of its existential searching, “Edgar and Lucy” ends up being a riveting and exuberant ride, maybe best described by its young protagonist’s musings about his nascent life. “He was bound to this world by a chain of wonder,” Edgar thinks, “each link an unanswered question that surely only a long life would be able to undo. Always one had to ask: What happens next?”
My two favorite rides is a tie between the Roosevelt Island Tram in New York and the Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh. Neither one of them goes anywhere in particular. But the view of New York is pretty amazing from the Tramway. It is like you are floating away past the bridge. The Incline is a house that goes up a hill. That is pretty awesome. I have always wanted to live on a house on a bridge, like the one in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But a house that goes up a hill is even better. You get a nice view of Pittsburgh from the top of the hill. Pittsburgh has lots of bridges. And they put French fries inside of sandwiches for some reason.
Most of the time, I’m not riding the subway for fun. I’m riding it because I have to go someplace. Like the dentist. Or court. So I’m really in it for speed and ease. And not for thinking lyrically about traversing the clouds. I used to be big about leaning against the doors. I used to think the doors were the only place to be. I don’t sit on the New York subway unless it is absolutely necessary. Like I’ve had a rough day in the dentist’s chair. There is just too much of an emotional battle for every seat, I can’t be a part of it. So much attention is paid to where are there seats, how can one get a seat, who should be sitting, manspreading, etc. The seats are basically like the Korean border. And I just can’t participate in that kind of tense warfare.
Bread, of course, had a radical symbolism in a novel set in the shadow of the French Revolution. Whether or not the doomed Marie Antoinette said, 'Let them eat cake,' the rumblings that led to the storming of the Bastille in 1789 started with bread riots.
Despite the undeniable popularity of Chinese food in the United States, book-length histories have only appeared in the past 10 years. That long void isn’t unique to Chinese-American cuisine; most “ethnic food,” especially when connected to communities of color, has suffered similar neglect by culinary historians and (non-cookbook) writers. I’ll return to this point later. For now, it’s worth noting that, after decades of being starved, American Chinese food aficionados finally have much to feast upon (bad food puns intended).
The official kick-off to Twins Days, a festival celebrating twin-dom, is a wiener roast held at Twinsburg High School in the aptly named town of Twinsburg, Ohio. Next to moon bounces and corn-hole boards, an out-of-place jazz trio performs to a crowd of no one. The parking lot is full; inside, it’s packed. We’re wearing identical blue denim button-downs, boat shoes, and pink shorts. Framed together in the dim glow of our Super 8 motel room mirror an hour or so earlier, we’d laughed uncomfortably: this was, after all, the first time since kindergarten we’d dressed exactly alike, when we both wore Old Navy overalls and tried to switch places, only to get caught just as lunch was being served.
Of course, this whole twin interchangeability trope has been a reliable pop culture staple since Shakespeare. From a young age, the cultural powers that be have implied that there are really only a few ways to be a twin: you can either look alike, act alike, and so essentially live your life as the same person (see: the creepy twins from The Shining, Fred and George Weasley, and those twin girls in college romps who are always fodder for fantastical threesomes that flagrantly ignore societal norms re: incest); you can look alike and have — at least on the surface — diametrically opposite personalities (see: The Parent Trap, Comedy of Errors, Romulus and Remus, and the criminally underrated last gasp of Mary-Kate and Ashley, New York Minute); or you can just be evil.
And yet, something about the endeavor has always repelled us. Those of you (Mom; and moms, in general) who assume that dressing up in the same clothes is somehow a natural thing to do, or that it feels at all right — well, you’re wrong. Dressing up in the same clothes — playing up one’s identicalness — accomplishes the opposite. Which is to say: It makes you feel like you’re someone else entirely. Or, more precisely, like no one at all. When you look in the mirror and see someone else exactly like you, and you also know that that person has the same DNA, it’s such that you really can’t even stand to look at the other one; for a moment it’s like you’re literally canceling each other out of the world. A part of you wants to disappear, is disappearing, as the pre-existing conception of your individual self departs from a reality that’s much more intent on grouping you together than allowing you to remain apart.
In Havana, Ernest Hemingway’s restless ghost lingers more palpably than in any of the other places in the world that can legitimately claim him: Paris, Madrid, Sun Valley, Key West. Havana was his principal home for more than three decades, and its physical aspect has changed very little since he left it, for the last time, in the spring of 1960.
I’ve been traveling to the city with some regularity since 1999, when I directed one of the first officially sanctioned programs for U.S. students in Cuba since the triumph of Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution. As an aspiring novelist, I’ve long been interested in Hemingway’s work, but I had no idea how prominently Havana figured in the author’s life — nor how prominently the author figured in the city’s defining iconography — until I began spending time there.
A few years ago, I began research for a book on the back-to-land movement — a subject I knew surprisingly little about, given that I was raised in a geodesic dome my city-born parents built at the top of a Vermont hayfield in 1971. During the course of my reading and interviewing, I was continually surprised by the echoes I found of the goals and motivations expressed by the idealists and utopians of previous eras. And, as helpful friends forwarded me articles about rooftop farms, Tiny House communities, and off-the-grid CSA (community-supported agriculture) operations run by Wesleyan philosophy majors, I also became aware of a new wave of utopian movements underway in our own time.
If it has a fault, it lies in the quality of the prose. The title The Scarlet Letter, we are told, radiates “an artsy frisson of vice”, while the Dupin tales give off a “seductive reek of depravity”. Sims, an anglophile American with a taste for gas-lit murders, need not have cranked up the adjectives. Arthur and Sherlock remains an absorbing tribute to the world’s greatest investigator and his troubled maker.
Look closely at a map of southwestern France and you’ll notice it: a blank spot just west of Toulouse where the place names thin out and the train lines and expressways veer away, like a stream flowing around a boulder. That blank spot is Gascony, one of the most rural regions in all of France. Gascons are for the most part proud of their provinciality, and many of them have developed the curious habit of describing their bucolic land in terms of all the things it doesn’t have: big cities, mass tourism, traffic, urban stress, high-speed rail service, autoroutes, soaring real estate prices, hordes of Parisians snapping up summer homes and so on. I spent most of a year there to gather material for a culinary memoir and can confirm the absence of all those things.
One sometimes hears Gascony referred to as “the other South of France” by boosterish types mindful of the immense popularity of Provence and the Côte d’Azur, which lie some 250 miles to the east. And to be sure, if you plant yourself on a restaurant “terrasse” on the main square of Auch (pronounced OWE-sh) — Gascony’s historical capital — in, say, late September, you might easily convince yourself you’re in Mediterranean France, what with the date palms and the nice-looking people in sunglasses sipping rosé and talking in the bouncy accent of the Midi.
But then your meal arrives, and the illusion vanishes faster than a cold pastis on a hot day. For Gascon food is richer than the sunny cuisine of Provence. It is unabashedly, defiantly rich. Duck fat, not olive oil, is the local currency. Everything gets cooked in it: potatoes, sausages, eggs, and — in the case of confit, that pillar of Gascon farmhouse cooking — duck itself. Gascons consume foie gras, which is made on family farms all over the region, with casual regularity, and consider the delicacy about as decadent as a pork chop.
‘Imagination is more important than knowledge” — so goes Albert Einstein’s oft-quoted remark. Less well known is how the great physicist’s observation continues: “Knowledge is limited, imagination encircles the world.” Some species of world-encircling lies at the heart of Lawrence Weschler’s new book, “Waves Passing in the Night,” a delightfully offbeat narrative about a man with no science training who has developed a theory that he believes reveals lapses in our understanding of gravity and suggests extensions to Einstein’s general relativity.
What makes Weschler’s hero intriguing, even more than his claim, is his pedigree, for the man in question, Walter Murch, is a legendary Hollywood film-and-sound editor, nominee for nine Academy Awards and winner of three. Movie aficionados revere him for his work on “Apocalypse Now” and “The Godfather” series, and his role in helping to create Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece “The Conversation.” Over two decades, when he hasn’t been editing films like “The English Patient” and “Cold Mountain,” Murch has been developing a theory about how planets become arranged around stars and moons around planets. His labors have led him to conclusions that, in his mind, constitute a potential revolution in cosmology.
Borrowing the title of one of Turgenev’s best-known works is a bold statement, directly implying a kinship between Gwendoline Riley’s fifth novel and the Russian master’s tale of an ill-fated love affair. But while Turgenev’s First Love is a linear exploration of the liminal state between childhood and maturity, Riley’s First Love is a more elusive, chronologically chaotic take on the power dynamics of love.
SATAN: Welcome to my Hell! Great to meet you!
WRITER: We actually met last week, at Bob’s party? You invited me to come here and “kick around some movie ideas.”
SATAN: That’s what I said! It was great to meet you then. Listen, I’ve got a golf game with a few former Halliburton execs in ten minutes, so if you don’t mind giving me the down-only elevator pitch . . .
WRITER: “Mothers and Daughters of Omaha” is about the unbreakable bond between three generations of Nebraska mothers and daughters, during war and peacetime. It’s a quiet film, focussing on the small, tender moments that make a family.
SATAN: Scans a little Lifetime-y.
Although drive-ins never gained much popularity here, Mexico always had its own version of cinemas-on-wheels, what could be called drive-outs. With more screens than all the multiplex cinemas together, and with a captive audience of millions of viewers per month, movies screened on buses were an important point of distribution for low-budget Mexican movies for decades. In the early 90s, on a bus ride from Mexico City to Tlaxcala, I saw the curvaceous Rosa Gloria Chagoyán kick butt in Lola la trailera (Lola the Truck Driver), one of the highest grossing films of the era and classic cine de carretera. On a trip down to Oaxaca, I got to see La India María, Mexico’s indigenous Charlie Chaplin, in Ni de aquí ni de allá (Not From Here, Not From There), the misadventures of a campesina traveling by bus to the US border.
It made perfect sense that Mexican buses, the most popular means of transport in the country, showed working-class, regionally produced movies on-board. Not only did these movies represent the lifestyle of the largest segment of the population, the ones who most traveled by mass transportation, but these movie often had scenes shot in buses or on highways, a perfect way to promote this form of transport to a huge captive audience.
Death really is the manifestation of the ordinary to everyone except the griever. Barthes’s experience of looking at the Winter Garden image cannot be reproduced because his loss cannot be reproduced. If by merely looking at Henriette as a child we could feel what Barthes feels, grief would be translatable in a way that anyone who has grieved knows it is certainly not. Barthes describes looking through the many photographs of his mother as a “Sisyphean labour” whereby he finds himself “straining toward the essence” of her. He draws an analogy between this straining and having dreams of his mother— she is always there, but never quite. He dreams of her, but he does not dream her. The distinction might seem arbitrary, but it is not. He always falls short with this straining until he comes upon the Winter Garden image. The labour of mourning is much like this way of looking. We push the heft of our grief interminably upward and just when we think there might be some respite, or a pause in our loss, it rolls all the way back down and our mourning becomes as fresh as ever.
Having said all this about short stories and novels, we must recognize that poetry also requires revision. And there is no end to how often a poem must be revised. Meter, rhyme, rhythm, diction, alliteration, assonance, consonance, parallels and opposites, meaning and cartoons, caesurae, formal and free verse, past, present, future, the speaker and the poet (who may be one or two), the universal “we,” the particular “I,” even the aggressive “you,” line breaks, stanza breaks . . . for a longer list, check out Aristotle’s. Each line must be knitted with patience and with the broader subject in mind. Each line must be unified by technique. Yet technique is not the whole of what is wanted. You want the poem to dance, sing, praise, acknowledge, grieve, sigh, console, express alarm, express surprise, express peace, enlighten, disturb, recall, and, well, just and. A short poem can contain the world. A long poem can inspect the world. Poems have to be written with love. Otherwise, they may turn slightly stale or even rotten. The poem must not preach. Silly poems are good only if they are really, really good, and some are. Poems, in general, are about — dare I say it? I do — freedom. All the restrictions, all the knitting and sewing, all the punctuation is about making a thing that flies freely into the sky and the canon.
The more I worked on listening and looking at Walcott’s poetry, the more love I found for a poet I once resented. His lack of humility, something I’d originally misinterpreted as arrogance, became a form of resistance. I found his language choices unexpected and the images he presented familiar, but made new through his language.
Sensing a now-or-never opportunity to get a firsthand glimpse of the place, I pitched a story on Grey Gardens and assailed Sally Quinn with a request to stay there. She kindly granted me a couple of days at the house. As I was then five months pregnant and terrified of running into Little Edie’s ghost in the bathroom in the middle of the night, I toted along my research assistant, my reporting partner, and my French bulldog. (Everyone knows dogs can detect ghosts.) Our luggage, to convey the spirit of homage, included a bevy of fur coats, turbans, and Fred Astaire records.
The main difference between where I keep my tea wares and where I keep my coffee equipment is one of scale. My coffee cabinet is constantly overflowing with products— ceramic pour-over cones, a plunger brewer designed by a Frisbee magnate, various grinders, a Danish immersion pot with a neoprene jacket, and so forth. My tea drawer, on the other hand, has only three brewers—a glass pot with a filter, a handled clay pot with a fine-mesh screen, and a lidded ceramic bowl, called a gaiwan—all of which rely on the same basic method: steeping.
Why is tea prepared in such a consistent style, while the market overflows with different coffee-brewing products? The easy answer is that tea production is a millennia-old practice in China, Taiwan, and Japan, with long-standing qualitative ideals that apply to farming, processing, and preparation.* In short, tea is well figured out. Coffee, by contrast, has spent most of its commercial life being grown in Central and South America, East Africa, and Indonesia, primarily to be shipped off to North American and European markets; it's an export crop whose consumers have long prioritized low cost and high caffeine. Only in the last few decades has the specialty-coffee industry been able to focus on quality at every stage of the process, from farm to cup, which means that the same industry is still tweaking new ways of brewing coffee every year.
Michael Finkel’s “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,” an account of Knight’s self-imposed exile from civilization, started as a phenomenally popular magazine article in GQ. This expanded version will no doubt have the same mass appeal. It’s campfire-friendly and thermos-ready, easily drained in one warm, rummy slug. It also raises a variety of profound questions — about the role of solitude, about the value of suffering, about the diversity of human needs.
But it is in the broad world outside museum culture where the phenomenon we might call curatolatry (as in the worship of curation and curators) is really booming. Everyone wants to curate things these days—to choose what to welcome and what to exclude—whether they work for an art gallery or not. “Curator,” for example, is the name of a PR agency in Seattle. “Curate” is the name of at least four different software applications. “Curate” is a data-gathering firm based in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a kind of flavored water available at a grocery store near you. It’s also a brand of snack bars, whose maker explains the name as follows: “Curate means to bring things together to share them as a collection.”
It was an early May evening at the Rock Gardens, a popular climbing crag in Whitehorse, the small capital city of the Yukon Territory, where I live. By attempting to climb a steep stone wall, I was deliberately terrorizing myself, creating a situation I knew would induce something similar to a panic attack. But if I could learn to be less afraid while harnessed up and clinging to a rock face, I had decided, I might learn to control my debilitating fear of heights more generally.
2016 was a bad year for most people, but it was especially so for Gay Talese. Now 85, he is at an age when most of his time should be spent collecting the thin portfolio of lifetime-achievement awards available to journalists. Instead, Talese continues to work, which has gotten him into some trouble. Last April, a long reported piece of his appeared in The New Yorker called “The Voyeur’s Motel.” It was clearly intended as a jewel in his already bejeweled crown. It turned out to be something of cubic zirconia.
Today we are less troubled by the homogenizing effects of entertainment than by our deep partisan divisions in both politics and art. And the cultural shift that today’s literary writers struggle to parse is not the impact of TV sitcoms, but of social media and the internet. Even the notion of escape means something very different in the age of Trump than it meant during the Clinton years. In response, some of these writers have shifted their narratives into a safer, more myth-friendly past; others continue to deliver the hopeful feelings of a simpler time. You might call them the last escapists: If their books still resonate, it is not because they reflect the zeitgeist, but because they run so profoundly against it. And as long as their brand of exuberant nostalgia holds appeal, there’s a danger of being left with a literature that tells us only what we already know, however enchantingly.
Early in Patty Yumi Cottrell's Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, a co-worker tells our narrator, Helen, that she developed post-traumatic stress disorder after she saw a person get hit by a truck in Tribeca. She says the person exploded: pieces of the body flew everywhere, and some of it sprayed her in the face. She asks: “How am I supposed to live with that?”
The question hangs over the entire novel. Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is a stylized contemporary noir. It’s detached, lush, pulpy with contemporary references, and led by an outsider who feels alienated even from her own reality. 32 years old and partially employed, she ekes out an almost-homeless existence in New York City. One day while waiting for a delivery for her roommate, she gets a call telling her that her adoptive brother has killed himself.
In 2012, Lucky Peach published a story, purportedly based on a series of emails from a writer named Sydney Finch, who claimed to have found evidence that the Chinese invented spaghetti with tomato sauce. It was an amusing, irreverent spoof on the transcontinental noodle rivalry between China and Italy, as well as a loving paean to China’s remarkable culinary contributions to the world. Nerdy and weird in all the best ways, it was also the kind of story Lucky Peach published in each of its quarterly issues. But this week, Eater reported that the critically acclaimed magazine will lay off all its staff and probably fold in May. (Today, editorial director Peter Meehan confirmed the news on Lucky Peach’s website.) When that happens, it will be a loss not just for food lovers, but for people everywhere who appreciate deep, idiosyncratic storytelling.
I knew something was amiss when I began to see men and women on the street as trees. Their arms were branches and their fingers twigs. Some were sprouting little green buds that looked like lima bean fingernails. Every shoestring was a rat snake. Every breast an eggplant, every swinging dick a banana.
Yes, to me, in those times, everyone was nude except for their footwear.
Knight parked the car and tossed the keys on the centre console. He had a tent and a backpack but no compass, no map. Without knowing where he was going, with no particular place in mind, he stepped into the trees and walked away.
Why would a 20-year-old man abruptly abandon the world? The act had elements of a suicide, except he didn’t kill himself. “To the rest of the world, I ceased to exist,” said Knight. Following his disappearance, Knight’s family must have suffered; they had no idea what had happened to him, and couldn’t completely accept the idea that he might be dead.
His final gesture, leaving his keys in the car, was particularly strange. Knight was raised with a keen appreciation of the value of money, and the car was the most expensive item he had ever purchased. Why not hold on to the keys as a safety net? What if he didn’t like camping out?
In the journalism culture itself, it’s different: liars, hoaxers, fabricators, plagiarists, truth-stretchers, and cons are banished to the outer darkness. Michael Moynihan, the journalist and blogger who called out Lehrer’s Dylan quotes as fake, put it this way: “Ours is the only profession in which any transgression, big or small, means the end not of your career at a certain outlet—it means the end of your vocation.”
The surprise isn’t that journalists are hard on journalists who fake it: that’s right and just. The surprise is that the punishment is applied so consistently in a field where the practitioners agree on little else about how they do what they do.
The trouble is, once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts. There is no longer any justification for giving space to classical music, jazz, dance, or any other artistic activity that fails to ignite mass enthusiasm. In a cultural-Darwinist world where only the buzziest survive, the arts section would consist solely of superhero-movie reviews, TV-show recaps, and instant-reaction think pieces about pop superstars. Never mind that such entities hardly need the publicity, having achieved market saturation through social media. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a tax cut for the super-rich.
It is the fortunes of this humdrum test that Damion Searls charts in his impressively thorough, if somewhat dry book. “The Inkblots” is part biography of Hermann Rorschach, psychoanalytic supersleuth, and part chronicle of the test’s afterlife in clinical practice and the popular cultural imagination.
Molly McCully Brown’s first book of poems, “The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded,” is part history lesson, part séance, part ode to dread. It arrives as if clutching a spray of dead flowers. It is beautiful and devastating.
These trees treasure up their carbon in dark abundance, in compounds that compose fungible resources of elemental matter and overflowing possibility. A century ago, from the dizzy imperial heights of industrial progress, it was possible to envision the city after us returning to wild forest; today, we might do better to acknowledge that a city is a feral forest, always and already; to know that forms of life are forever branching, and that bewilderment is our natural habitat.
Modeling stopped being fun when I had to do it. Financial desperation put me in a position that forced me to bargain with my body, but with no bargaining power. If I couldn’t book a shoot one week, I’d go hungry. I was forced to say yes routinely to projects that didn’t interest me, or people who made me feel unsafe, or who produced subpar images that I found embarrassing. I walked into each of these shoots knowing what I was doing and that I hated it, but needing to go through with it for the money. I had to feed myself and my partner.
I said that I’d tell you a story about shame. What I actually want to do is take this story beyond the point of shame. I’m a struggling artist in New York City. These are the lengths I’ve had to go to in order to feed myself.
“Running, friends, is boring,” to tweak a line from John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. I’ve been boring myself — that is, running regularly — for more than 20 years now, competitively, then somewhat competitively, then by-no-stretch-of-the-imagination competitively. It’s a generally invigorating but lonely endeavor. Gone are the days when I hit the trails with boisterous teammates, and only rarely do I jog with running companions (otherwise known, somewhat euphemistically, as friends). And as for musical accompaniment? Never, not so much for purist reasons — “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” etc. — but because I fear that if I rely even once on an up-beat song to get me through a run, I’ll never be able to lace up without an iPod again.
Thus deprived of the pleasurable distraction of conversation, as well the pulsating beats of pop music, I’ve had ample time over the course of thousands of runs to think. Or not to think. Or, as I’ve started doing over the past couple years, reciting poetry to pass the time.
“Organisms are algorithms,” Yuval Noah Harari asserts in his provocative new book, “Homo Deus.” “Every animal — including Homo sapiens — is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution. . . . There is no reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that nonorganic algorithms will never be able to replicate or surpass.” In Harari’s telling, the human “algorithm” will soon be overrun and outpaced by other algorithms. It is not the specter of mass extinction that is hanging over us. It is the specter of mass obsolescence.
It was a breezy afternoon in Hong Kong’s central business district, and the view from the roof of the Bank of America Tower, thirty-nine floors up, was especially fine—a panorama of Victoria Harbour, still misty from the previous day’s rain, bookended on either side by dizzying skyline. Andrew Tsui nodded at the billion-dollar vista—“no railings,” he said—but he was thinking of the harvest. Specifically, he was examining a bumper crop of bok choy, butter lettuce, and mustard leaf, all grown here, at one of the most prestigious business addresses in the city.
Every watch geek has an origin story. During childhood, my first best friend was a watch, a Casio H-108 12-Melody-Alarm. True to its name, the digital watch played twelve melodies, including “Santa Lucia,” “Happy Birthday,” “The Wedding March,” “Jingle Bells” (played only in the bathroom of my Hebrew school, when no other Jewish boys were present), and even a song from my native Russia, “Kalinka” (roughly, “Red Little Berry”), which I listened to every hour on the hour to make myself feel less homesick and scared. I spoke English miserably, but the watch had its own language, a computerese series of squeaks issuing from a tiny Japanese speaker to form passable melodies. My parents had bought me the watch at a Stern’s department store in Queens for $39.99, a significant part of their net worth at the time, and it was easily my favorite possession, until it caught the eye of a Hebrew-school bully. My grandmother marched into the principal’s office and used the hundred or so English words at her disposal—“Bad boychik take watch!”—to lobby for its safe return.
Eventually, I made human friends, and my musical Casio disappeared for good. My relationship with watches from that point on coincided with the women in my life. In high school, my mother bought me a quartz Seiko, which pinched my budding wrist hair with its loose gold-plated bracelet, and was a bit out of place at my next stop, Oberlin, where comrades were not encouraged to have gold-plated things. After college, a girlfriend bought me a Diesel watch with the image of at least six continents on its dial, to indicate just how “worldly” I was, and a subsequent girlfriend had it repaired after we had broken up, a gesture of unusual kindness.
More recently, my husband and I went through a rough patch — our beloved dog had died. I was growing more and more depressed, the election results didn’t help — and we’d been coping by zoning out in front of Netflix with a bottle of wine. Then, I spent one night reading aloud to him, just on a whim. I plucked Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris from the shelf, since I knew I could count on Sedaris for humor. My husband lay on the floor underneath the loveseat where I perched (someday, when we’re rich, I always say, we’ll buy a full-sized couch that fits both of us) and he listened as I read. He didn’t play around on his phone. When we went to bed that night, I felt like we’d solved something. I didn’t feel so sad, and somehow life didn’t feel as meaningless. It was a way to connect that I’d forgotten about. It launched something healing for me, like a heaping serving of a comfort food. It was a bonding tool I’d been taught when I was young, back when it didn’t matter what size couch you had, because we always sat on the floor anyways, legs criss-cross applesauce.
It was about three years ago now that my boyfriend and I met the broker of our current apartment. On that December morning, we walked down 84th Street, scanning the building numbers until we found our destination. I felt mildly disappointed as the broker brought us inside the old walk-up building. There was no charming stoop or elegant façade, nothing to distinguish it from the outside. The building itself seemed to recede behind the commercial enterprises on the ground floor: barbershop, dry cleaner, piano bar. This is a building where one glances up to the higher floors and thinks: oh, right, people actually live here.
I should have been used to the sensation by that point. Perhaps because New York has so little space to go around, there is a fierce delineation between the public and private. I’d visit a friend’s apartment for the first time and be depressed by the building’s exterior, the hallways with bad lighting and flaking paint and shabby floors, wondering what it was like to call this place a home. But it always changed when the apartment door itself swung open. The lighting was warm, something in the kitchen smelled good. A separate world was revealed, one created with love and attention, a life carefully built within an indifferent structure.
So, set aside doubts about whether this is just more posturing. Many of the things that trouble people about our new president, and the precedents he is setting, have nothing to do with the presidency or the president. They are about the character of the man. No matter what you think of George W. Bush, he demonstrates in this book and in these paintings virtues that are sadly lacking at the top of the American political pyramid today: curiosity, compassion, the commitment to learn something new and the humility to learn it in public.
Sigmund Freud spent most of his life asserting that the biological instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain was the motive force of all human action. Civilization was nothing but the process by which the instinctual id — all drive, all desire — learned to accommodate itself to the “reality principle,” to accept “pleasure deferred or diminished” in exchange for a place at the table of polite society. We are all programmed to chase after pleasure, in however muted and sublimated a form. Yet in examining the therapeutic situation closely, Freud observed, we stumble upon a “remarkable fact”: all manner of childhood experiences, even those that could never have been pleasurable in the first instance, are subject to compulsive repetition in analysis. Patients doggedly reenact all their earliest narcissistic wounds in therapy, scheming with “the greatest ingenuity” to revive the specter of parental rejection in the person of the analyst. What, Freud wonders, could account for the mysterious pull of this pain?
On a particularly windy day in the Crutchfield neighborhood here, the writer S. E. Hinton was touring the renovations of the future Outsiders House museum. The rundown Craftsman bungalow was where the Curtis brothers — Darry, Sodapop and Ponyboy — lived in the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola movie based on Ms. Hinton’s book “The Outsiders.”
The book, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, was arguably one of the most influential young adult books of its time, and leading this tour was the self-described fanboy Danny O’Connor, 48, who made his own contribution to pop-culture history as a member of the 1990s hip-hop group House of Pain.
But in the roughly year and a half that it took the French to process my paperwork, America and the world had changed. In this new nationalist era, having a second passport no longer seems like a party trick. For a foreigner, it’s an attempt to ensure that you won’t suddenly become unwelcome. Yet there’s less room for people who belong to more than one place.
Vengo may be selling a digital iteration of a classic product, but it is just one of many companies to recognize that people enjoy buying things from robots. The first vending machine’s draw, however, wasn’t instant gratification but regulation. And it was not designed to hold condoms, chapstick, or 100 Grand bars, but holy water. In the first century BC, a Greek mathematician and engineer, Heron of Alexandria, was confronted with a problem in his Egyptian city: Denizens of the local temple were taking more holy water than they’d paid for, like college students drunk with power in a Whole Foods prepared-food section. So he invented an apparatus that required tokens to access the liquid. Drop a coin in, and its weight would push against a lever that opened the spout, where holy water would run out. The coin would eventually fall so that the spout would be cut off. According to Vending Machines: An American Social History, there’s no evidence that the dispenser ever made it past a sketch in Heron of Alexandria’s stack of parchment. But it is indisputably the first record of an “automated retail solution,” as the brands call it these days.
Jet lag makes everyone miserable. But it makes some people mentally ill.
There’s a psychiatric hospital not far from Heathrow Airport that is known for treating bipolar and schizophrenic travelers, some of whom are occasionally found wandering aimlessly through the terminals. A study from the 1980s of 186 of those patients found that those who’d traveled from the west had a higher incidence of mania, while those who’d traveled from the east had a higher incidence of depression.
I saw the same thing in one of my patients who suffered from manic depression. When he got depressed after a vacation to Europe, we assumed he was just disappointed about returning to work. But then he had a fun trip out West and returned home in what’s called a hypomanic state: He was expansive, a fount of creative ideas.
As a one-time obituary writer for The Times, I was miffed by all this, and especially by Harriet’s suggestion that obituarists aren’t “real” writers. So I leap here to the defense of my noble former colleagues at this paper and others. People who see this movie unawares should be told that it’s fake news, and that it’s the obits themselves that are real news. The kind of article that Anne started writing and that Harriet was trying to orchestrate is more suited to the tiny-type paid death notices placed in newspapers or on Legacy.com by bereft families who wish to announce publicly their bereftness.
Clothing is communication; it's a language we unconsciously absorb. And as with any language, the finer points bring the vocabulary together. When Janelle Monae walked the red carpet at the Oscars, we recognized the 18th-century influence in her dress. But that's not just for geometric effect. Wide French panniers indicated aristocracy; the neck ruff was an Elizabethan signal of leisure; the embroidered net suggests Empire gowns that ditched dress architecture in favor of gauzy embellishments. Through this lens, Monae's gown becomes a statement of luxury and celebration that deliberately reclaims and challenges a predominantly-white historical narrative and draws on three centuries of fashion history. It's just the sort of garment How to Read a Dress would love.
In other words, most recipes invite us to think of cooking projects in terms of discrete meals: a pork roast that feeds six, a veggie pasta for four. But as Liaw notes, "No cuisine in the world could ever have been created in discrete packages." A standard Japanese meal, for example, rests on three elements: soup, rice and pickles. "To make that from scratch three times a day would be impossible, but with good kitchen craft it’s possible to eat a full meal every time with a minimum of effort," he writes.
At the Snow Canyon, the non-human star of the show is the HTR608, a rotary snow blower made by the Nichijo company—the 608 refers to the 608-horsepower engine. The HTR608 can plow through snow up to six feet high. The rotating bar helps pull snow into the machine, and a powerful propeller ejects it out of an aerodynamic pipe that can spray the snow nearly 50 feet high and half a football field to the side. But before this monster can even begin its job on the Snow Canyon, a series of prior snow-clearing events must take place.
In the spring of 1984 I began to write a novel that was not initially called “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I wrote in longhand, mostly on yellow legal notepads, then transcribed my almost illegible scrawlings using a huge German-keyboard manual typewriter I’d rented.
The keyboard was German because I was living in West Berlin, which was still encircled by the Berlin Wall: The Soviet empire was still strongly in place, and was not to crumble for another five years. Every Sunday the East German Air Force made sonic booms to remind us of how close they were. During my visits to several countries behind the Iron Curtain — Czechoslovakia, East Germany — I experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing. So did the repurposed buildings. “This used to belong to . . . but then they disappeared.” I heard such stories many times.
Here’s a challenge: tell me a story, without knowing the beginning, middle, or the end. Now, tell it in your second language, or one where the handful of words you know transforms you back into a child. No, let’s say you are a child. Let’s say this conversation will be recorded, and what you say—and how you say it—will determine where you are allowed to live. Let’s say you came alone.
This situation happens every day at the immigration courts in New York City, where novelist and essayist Valeria Luiselli volunteers as an interpreter. In her expanded essay Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, Luiselli outlines the intake form for undocumented minors. The procedure, on paper, is simple: Luiselli presents the questions, the children speak, and Luiselli transcribes their answers in English for the lawyers who will fight to secure their legal status.
The author of two previous memoirs, in “The Middlepause” Benjamin deftly and brilliantly examines the losses and unexpected gains she experienced in menopause. She reached that milestone more suddenly, and surgically, than most women do — the process usually spreads out over many years — but the timing of her hysterectomy came close to the average age of menopause, 51.
It’s a crisp fall day in 1968. A man in a beige fedora and grease-stained trench coat sits on a New York City stoop, eating a hot dog and singing the first lines of a Beatles song. As a female office worker walks by, he whips open his coat to reveal “the shriveled purple stump of his penis.” Down the street, Yuki, a sensitive and lonely Japanese teenager living with her parents on the edge of Greenwich Village, watches in fascination, so hungry for experience of any kind that she envies even a mildly repellent one.
This early scene sets the tone of Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel, “Harmless Like You.” Though it alights briefly on a variety of themes, the book is chiefly preoccupied with the romance of New York City in the 1960s and ’70s, a place and time imagined as a bohemian paradise full of both danger and opportunity. Within 50 pages, Yuki has been befriended by a glamorous, feral blonde named Odile, who teaches her how to skip meals and glue Twiggy-style nylon eyelashes onto her bottom lids; has received her first kiss in a bar near Washington Square Park; and has persuaded her parents to let her remain in New York to pursue a career as an artist when they return to Japan.
That was half a lifetime ago for Mr. Shaffer, 67, who came from Fort William, Ontario, to New York in hopes of becoming a great session musician. Instead, he spent more than 30 years alongside David Letterman as his wisecracking sidekick, keyboardist and bandleader on NBC’s “Late Night” and CBS’s “Late Show.”
Now, nearly two years after Mr. Letterman stepped down from “Late Show” in May 2015, Mr. Shaffer is about to step out with his first major post-TV project. On Friday, March 17, Sire Records will release a self-titled album from Mr. Shaffer and his longtime colleagues, who are once again calling themselves the World’s Most Dangerous Band (as they did on NBC).
Biologists know how chance events in the environment (such as getting hit by a bus) impact lifespan. And they understand the role of chance in genetics (such as inheriting genes for Huntington’s disease and certain cancers). But it now seems a third realm of uncertainty emerges as animals grow older, causing them to age in different ways. Researchers are only beginning to figure out the basis of biological fluctuations that build up over time. Some result from mutations that slip into the genomes within cells as they replicate. Others occur because of changes in molecules that either shut off or activate genes.
Though we gaze at each other across a socioeconomic divide, I’ve discovered over time that my dreams are similar in form, if not substance, to those of the students who enter my developmental English classes each semester.
Reggie was one of them, an aspiring nurse and a student in my accelerated English classes, which are designed to help students quickly catch up to their peers. The courses appeal to adults returning to school who are at a bend in the river and eager to put some difficult passages behind them. In Reggie’s case, this included a two-year prison sentence and a relocation from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.
At first, the Southern evangelical setting of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection of short stories, Virgin and Other Stories, might seem a strange fit with the questions of sex and desire that are ubiquitous throughout the book. Unlike other writers who focus on American Christianity — Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’Connor, Hanna Pylväinen, etc. — Lawson does not use faith and doubt as the main source of motivation for her characters. In spite of the fact that the characters attend Christian colleges, are homeschooled, and attend weekly church services, thoughts of God or discussions of theology are largely absent.
Instead, the characters in these stories spend prodigious thought and energy contemplating and anticipating sex. Some try to overcome past sexual traumas. Others wonder if they are being cheated on, and, instead, end up being cheaters. A few learn how to masturbate to images in stolen library books. Throughout these stories, Lawson repeatedly returns to the same questions: How is desire created, and why do we desire what we desire?
Some opening lines are so good, you worry that what comes after will disappoint. This is how The Possessions starts: “The first time I meet Patrick Braddock, I’m wearing his wife’s lipstick.” It’s a perfect mystery in miniature. Who is Patrick? Who is speaking? Why is she wearing another woman’s lipstick? Is it all as sleazy as it sounds? The answer to that last question is yes, but not in the way you’d expect, as Sara Flannery Murphy unspools a creepingly clever ghost story that encompasses thriller, horror and literary fiction with seductive swagger.
I went to Iceland to see a volcano. Instead the tour guide took us to Volcano House, where images of gushing lava and smoking craters played on a movie screen. My sister said it was probably as good as the real thing. This was in Reykjavik, on a broad street near the port. Outside I could smell the rot of fish and salt.
As military and civilian commanders clamoured for information on a minute-by-minute basis, computers such as the IBM 473L of the United States Air Force were being used for the first time in the midst of a conflict to process real-time information on how, for example, to allocate military forces. Yet even with the growing availability of computers, sharing that information among military commanders involved a time lag. The idea of having the information travel between connected computers did not yet exist.
After 13 days of scrambling forces to carry out a potential attack, the Soviet Union agreed to remove its missiles from Cuba. Nuclear war was averted, but the standoff also demonstrated the limits of command and control. With the complexities of modern warfare, how can you effectively control your nuclear forces if you cannot share information in real time? Unbeknown to most of the military’s senior leadership, a relatively low-level scientist had just arrived at the Pentagon to address that very problem. The solution he would come up with became the agency’s most famous project, revolutionising not just military command and control but modern computing too.
Last November, Texas health officials imposed a new rule requiring funeral arrangements—either burial or cremation—to be made for fetal remains. The rule, which also applies to miscarriages in a doctor’s office (though not to those that occur at home), was roundly and rightly condemned as both nonsensical and inhumane. (In late December, it was temporarily blocked by a federal judge, and the case is still in the courts.) But I couldn’t help thinking of it in a somewhat different light as I read A Book of American Martyrs, Joyce Carol Oates’s slippery, searching new novel, which brings the reader deep inside the mind of a militant anti-abortion crusader and, in so doing, relentlessly dissects the liberal pieties surrounding the subject.
Jaroslav Kalfar’s “Spaceman of Bohemia” is not a perfect first effort. But it’s a frenetically imaginative one, booming with vitality and originality when it isn’t indulging in the occasional excess. Kalfar’s voice is distinct enough to leave tread marks. He has a great snout for the absurd. He has such a lively mind and so many ideas to explore that it only bothered me a little — well, more than a little, but less than usual — that this book peaked two-thirds of the way through. Sigh. Don’t we all.
When she called him, about a week later, he was apologetic and baffled. He just couldn’t fathom how this had happened, he told her. The only thing he could think of was that he’d bought a new sperm counting machine that same year, and perhaps he had contaminated it when he was testing it with his own semen.
Palmer asked for a paternity test and, to her surprise, Barwin agreed. In autumn of 2015, they both swabbed their cheeks and sent the samples off to a lab. Not long after, Barwin emailed her with the confirmation. He was, he said, her biological father.
In 1883, the brilliant German mathematician Georg Cantor produced the first rigorous, systematic, mathematical theory of the infinite. It was a work of genius, quite unlike anything that had gone before. And it had some remarkable consequences. Cantor showed that some infinities are bigger than others; that we can devise precise mathematical tools for measuring these different infinite sizes; and that we can perform calculations with them. This was seen an assault not only on intuition, but also on received mathematical wisdom. In due course, I shall sketch some of the main features of Cantor’s work, including his most important result, commonly known as ‘Cantor’s theorem’. But first I want to give a brief historical glimpse of why this work was perceived as being so iconoclastic. Ultimately, my aim is to show that this perception was in fact wrong. My contention will be that Cantor’s work, far from being an assault on received mathematical wisdom, actually served to corroborate it.
We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.
The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.
I sometimes worry that there will come a point in my reading life where I won’t be able to have the kind of visceral, unmanageable reaction to a book that I’ve often felt was made possible by my being young, hypersensitive, and — frankly — unmedicated. I worry that it’s behind me now, the time where I can be positively torn asunder by a text the way that I was when I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation at sixteen, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway at eighteen, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets at twenty-one. I never have the opportunity to worry about this for very long, however, because invariably what happens is that a book will land in my lap that proves I’m still (and hopefully always) alive and vulnerable to language, wielded expertly, which brings into being new, singular cartographies of emotional landscapes.
Allison Benis White’s Please Bury Me in This is such a book. Its effect in my first reading cannot be overstated. I texted a photo of a page — of which I’d highlighted the entirety — to a friend and wrote, simply, “I’m gutted.”
But while “Exit West” seems like a dark reflection of our tumultuous times, Mr. Hamid said the novel grew out of a hopeful impulse.
“What if we look at a very difficult future — can we still find hope and beauty and love and things that we want?” he said. “For me, this is not a novel about dystopia; actually it’s about looking for signs of hope and optimism in the future.”
Dashing, playful and cleverly imagined, “The Night Ocean” emerges as an inexhaustible shaggy monster, part literary parody, part case study of the slipperiness of narrative and the seduction of a good story.
What possible relevance could a story about a Welsh mining family have to my own life? Furthermore, much of the dialogue was in Welsh and therefore impossible to follow for someone like me, who’d previously subsisted on sports biographies and watered-down history books, to understand.
It turns out the Jesuits knew what they were doing. While I never reconsidered How Green Was My Valley as a book, while viewing the film version many years later, I recognized the similarities between the setting of the story and the part of Pennsylvania where I grew up. Once upon a time, Scranton and the surrounding area had been an anthracite coal super-power. The men who mined the coal were able to provide for their families, but the work was often dangerous and unpredictable, as How Green Was My Valley demonstrated.
It was August when Mom’s body finally showed up, caught in the dam at Goat Rock, twelve miles from home. She had floated across the state border to Georgia, so Dad had to fill out extra paperwork to bring her back to Freedom, the town where we live in Alabama. I wonder sometimes how many miles Mom swam before she drowned; she could hold her breath underwater for a long time. She was an excellent swimmer in her sleep.
We’d already known Mom was dead, of course, we’d felt it for most of the summer. We felt it from the moment we found her swim goggles on the bank of the Chattahoochee River, at the beach down the road from our house, the place where Mom swam. There had been flooding that June, the river running fast and lathered up.
At the police station, two officers took Dad away first to ask him questions, just to be sure he hadn’t killed Mom and dumped her in the river. It didn’t occur to Lizzie or me then that we might be suspects. It was two years ago; I’m twelve now, but I was still only ten then. Lizzie was fifteen and most people thought she was too pretty to hurt anyone, unless you knew her well enough to know better. The police officer already knew Lizzie.
Bring back those full-page portraits that pronounced I wrote a book, damn it.
So often the body becomes a distraction—
delicate husk, inconvenient hair,
the bizarre need to recharge. I’ve heard
you die young if you don’t sleep, but if you do
you’ll just snooze through your extra time.
So I began to wonder about what had existed before the strip malls: about what had been paved over. I learned all kinds of things. But the most striking, the thing that haunts me now more than ever, was that my hometown had hosted not one but two Japanese prison camps. More precisely, I learned that the Mexican restaurant I so often came back to when I returned home — the space whose tastes and smells I associated most with my return trips — was built on top of a concentration camp.
The disjunction was jarring, even perverse. I’d never heard of these camps, never talked about them, had no recollection of any detailed lessons about them in school. When I talked to her by phone last month, Gale Nakai, the director of the Central California Nikkei Foundation, a center for Japanese cultural heritage, reassured me that it was perfectly normal not to know much about internment in Fresno. “You shouldn’t feel bad about not knowing about it,” she said kindly, wanting to put me at ease. “Really, don’t. I’m a Sansei [third generation] Japanese American, and even I didn’t know about the camps until much later in my life.” This seemed easy to understand until I learned that Gale’s own parents had been incarcerated. Her mother had been a young girl in Gila River (Arizona), Gale thought; her father a teenager in Rohwer (Arkansas). “But I don’t really know for sure where they were,” she said, “or really any details about that time — we never talked about it.”
When we look at things, most of us simply register what they are: a crack in the ceiling, a person crossing the street. But truly seeing is not simply identifying the name of the object one sees; in fact, it’s just the opposite. It means taking the object in so completely that you forget what it is you’re looking at. For example, I keep a pen on my desk where I write. When I hold it up and rotate it in my fingers, I become lost in the way the light rolls over its polished black surface. For a brief moment, the object I am holding ceases to be a “pen” and becomes a collection of traits: the movement of light, the polished sheen, etc. I am released from the language that describes it and I become solely involved with the sensation of seeing it.
In her last novel, The Virgins, Pamela Erens created an unreliable narrator without rival, so it comes as no surprise that her latest offering, Eleven Hours, demonstrates similar audacity. Her subject is childbirth, an experience it’s near impossible to capture, but Erens rises admirably to the challenge, this slim novel pulsing with an urgent life force.
These days, my husband smiles more and grumbles less. He now looks at the trees in the neighborhood and talks about how important they are.
“For the birds, you mean?”
“For us,” he says quietly.
And perhaps that’s it. You reach a stage in life when you yearn to do something new. You yearn to do something good. To give back. To find yourself. To rediscover love. In order to live better.
Idaho is a meditation on the power and limits of the individual imagination, as well as on memory and its aberrations. What can we understand or intuit about other people, given that our knowledge owes so much to subjective guesswork? Ann, labouring to reconstruct the unthinkable murder, recognises her imaginings as a form of fiction, projected on a world of multiple truths.
Ultimately, O’Connell isn’t shy in stating his belief that death is what gives life meaning. He invokes the gravity of death in the book’s penultimate chapter by sharing a cancer scare, a choice that echoes the words of his dramatic opening: “All stories begin in our endings, we invent them because we die.” What he does less well is convince us that life is also something that needs solving. And this is where O’Connell wants to lead us. Despite his detailed portraits of the forbearers of the movement, with their “airtight logic” and jazz hands, we simply can’t depart from the ultimatum of death itself. Most of us can’t fathom a life that isn’t given meaning specifically because we will one day no longer have it.
For example, do you see how I wrote my name in crayon on your table? That’s something that you’ll find only here, at Finuccio’s. Seeing my playfully written name in your periphery throughout your meal will make you feel instinctively close to me. And this is just one of the many things we do at Finuccio’s to make your experience a little more personal.
I have been trying to write this for a while, but the morphine and lack of juicy cheeseburgers (what has it been now, five weeks without real food?) have drained my energy and interfered with whatever prose prowess remains. Additionally, the intermittent micronaps that keep whisking me away midsentence are clearly not propelling my work forward as quickly as I would like. But they are, admittedly, a bit of trippy fun.
Still, I have to stick with it, because I’m facing a deadline, in this case, a pressing one. I need to say this (and say it right) while I have a) your attention, and b) a pulse.
Ellen Umansky’s first novel, “The Fortunate Ones,” borrows the architecture of the art mystery, but leaves aside the obligatory magic in favor of a quieter and more earthly examination of how art serves us in the here and now.
London’s tube lines, though, have names, and that gives them a degree of personality. What’s more evocative: Line 8, or the Bakerloo? The C train, or the Jubilee? Names are great, right?
Except – the names don’t. Make. Any. Sense. The Circle line isn’t a circle. We call the line that goes further south than any other the Northern line, and the Central line is one of literally all the lines that serve central London. The Victoria line goes to Victoria station, but so do two others, and which District exactly are we talking about here?
Consider the pillowy consistency of a bun pulled from a package of so many identical buns. Consider the ladle of brown chili draped over the top. Consider the sprinkle of cheddar cheese or the stripe of mustard, both the same artificial yellow.
The chili dog’s story is actually many stories: not only one about American fast food and appetites, but also about American industrialization, immigration, and regionalism. And each component—the hot dog, the chili, even where we eat chili dogs—adds another twist.
Cosmologists tell us that the temperature of space is two point seven Celsius above absolute zero. Certainly, many of Hultberg’s works, such as Twilight: Down The Drain and Dark Egypt, have icy light blue or very cold, dark blue skies. Demon Cloud, more demon angel than cloud, is certainly an exception with its infrared emissions glowing with the hot radiance of an unexplained fog of ions, or charged particles, over an accumulation of detritus. At right is a geometric plane with double circles, and at left is an easel-like speaker stand, both linked together by a single, cool, azure color. The demon cloud/angel, with its flurry of elegant brushstrokes that meld into the terrain, hovers over a landscape of tachist openings (and closings?) like dark kinetic energy escaping the gravitational field of earth. With his extraordinarily unique use of perspective, Hultberg expands his art into something more spatial, more astronomical, more cosmic.
Imagine a miracle drug that could ease many of the stresses of modern life — a combination mood enhancer and smart pill that might even encourage the remission of cancer. Now imagine that this cure-all was an old-fashioned folk remedy: Just take a hike in the woods or a walk in the park. No prescription necessary.
That’s the proposition of Florence Williams’s fascinating “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.” We suffer from an “epidemic dislocation from the outdoors,” Williams writes, and it’s destructive to our mental and physical health. The therapy is straightforward. “The more nature, the better you feel.”
In a sense, Elkin’s book is itself a flânerie, a stroll where the reader may come across an unexpected person — say, the film directors Sophie Calle in Venice and Agnes Varda in Paris, looking for locations — or get some ideas about May 1968 or the Situationists. Or marvel over an intriguing bit of research: like the discovery that one of the inspirations for George Sand’s cross-dressing came from her own mother, who confided that in childhood Sand was outfitted in boy’s clothing by her father to cut down on the family’s expenses. “Sand’s trouser-wearing was in its way an act of revolution,” Elkin remarks. “At the very least, it was illegal. In the year 1800, a law had been passed forbidding women to wear them in public.”
Somehow, even though it is clearly not a cake, there are people in the world who still believe that cheesecake is a cake. It’s not a cake: It is a filling that is either on top of or surrounded on three sides by a crust, which is definitely not a cake.
That issue being settled, a further question remains: Is cheesecake a pie? Or is it a tart? Here to present their arguments are impassioned cheesecake-semantics experts Helen Rosner, executive editor, and Emma Alpern, copy editor, who each take different (and perhaps surprising) sides in this battle.
This feeling of unsettling intimacy was familiar from every Sam Gold production I’ve seen — from his downtown tragicomedy “The Flick,” to his Tony-winning Broadway musical “Fun Home,” to his wrenching “Othello,” which played this winter at the New York Theater Workshop. At 38, Gold is one of the most celebrated theater directors in New York, a master at gently stripping both audience and actors of their expectations and creating a sense of collective interdependence. He does this by dispensing with theatrical conventions — showy sets and costumes, a clear separation between stage and audience, acting that titillates or entertains — so that the focus stays fixed on the bodies of the actors and their words. “I’m not very interested in pretend,” Gold told me. “I’m interested in putting people onstage. I want people. And I want a world that reflects the real world.” His pared-down worlds are, paradoxically, inviting: They corral everyone in the theater toward maximum receptivity. Once you learn the rules and submit to them, it’s as if you’ve been initiated into a family.
For fifty years the philosopher Daniel Dennett has been engaged in a grand project of disenchantment of the human world, using science to free us from what he deems illusions—illusions that are difficult to dislodge because they are so natural. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, his eighteenth book (thirteenth as sole author), Dennett presents a valuable and typically lucid synthesis of his worldview. Though it is supported by reams of scientific data, he acknowledges that much of what he says is conjectural rather than proven, either empirically or philosophically.
Not long ago an editor asked me for one of those end-of-the-year pieces predicting “the kale of 2017.” That I knew exactly what she was talking about is less a comment on my clairvoyance than on the current ubiquity of food trends — those “hot” ingredients and photogenic dishes that populate our Instagram feeds and drive editorial calendars. Yet the notion of a breakout food isn’t new. And just as our infatuation with kale salads was born of phenomena like the farm-to-table movement and the elevation of the chef to social arbiter, the culinary fads and innovations of previous eras reflected their own concerns and conflicts.
In the years that I was sucking at life, I learned how to garden. For someone with an obsessive personality, a garden is a godsend. There is no end to the amount you can care about a garden. No limit to the work you can pour into plants and dirt. As an added bonus, humans have been writing about gardens and plants for as long as they’ve been writing about anything. The literature is boundless and colorful, both historical and contemporary. And the names! For every plant, there is a Latin botanical name and at least one common or whimsical name: foxglove, botanical name Digitalis. Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum. And every plant has subspecies and cultivars—Digitalis grandiflora, Digitalis lutea, Digitalis purpurea—words upon words one can stuff into a stressed-out brain and feel incrementally calm, like being surrounded by clever and useful friends who arrive well-dressed, bearing fun recipes.
Nowadays, when we see giant creatures stomping across our screens, it goes without saying that there’s some nifty computer graphics behind the action. And that’s certainly the case in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island, which features incredible visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic.
You can track the history of visual effects through the 80+ years of King Kong movies; creating the massive ape has often pushed the limits of VFX and been the inspiration for new techniques and technologies.
The cashless society – which more accurately should be called the bank-payments society – is often presented as an inevitability, an outcome of ‘natural progress’. This claim is either naïve or disingenuous. Any future cashless bank-payments society will be the outcome of a deliberate war on cash waged by an alliance of three elite groups with deep interests in seeing it emerge.
I don’t think that the business of having babies and tending the hearth has much to do with the dearth of female travel literature. You can scale down on extreme environments and cart the tots along with you (I did), or take a break to write something else for a few years – biographies of travellers, say. A change of gear can stoke creativity.
Television has a lot to answer for, churning out endless programmes depicting random blokes with beards yomping across the jungle. During the six months I spent in both the Antarctic and the Arctic, I observed that men perceived the landscape as a beast to be beaten into submission, like a mammoth outside the cave.
It was at my first event for Shtum, almost exactly a year ago at Dulwich Books in London, when I first got a taste of the impact the book would have. Almost everyone asked me about autism. It may seem naive but I didn’t expect it. Despite having been a father to a non-verbal autistic son for almost 16 years, I had never had an in-depth conversation with anyone about the subject, apart from solicitors, barristers and doctors.
The event at the bookshop was something of a watershed in my life – and not an altogether comfortable one, for I had never been a joiner. No groups, no clubs, no societies, no Facebook groups, nothing. I had guarded my privacy and opinions. This had nothing to do with shame surrounding my son’s autism – far from it. But it was based on two long-held realisations of my own character: I hated confrontation and felt my opinions were of little value. And when one is crippled by the first, the second feels like pulling teeth. The first has not changed; the wrongness of the second, I am still coming to terms with.
The prolific Scottish novelist Alison Kennedy once observed that while children’s authors can say they “just make things up” because “it’s great fun”, other novelists have to dress up writing as something much more serious. In this, Kennedy’s first book for children, the sense is of an author gleefully letting herself off the leash. From the opening scene in which Bill – a shy, fastidious badger – finds himself trapped inside a bag which smells “as if someone had been crying inside it … and then maybe after that had been sick” and is being carried by someone with “a heart full of nails and sand and nastiness”, we are in a surreal, funny and vividly imagined world.