People often ask me whether human-level artificial intelligence will eventually become conscious. My response is: Do you want it to be conscious? I think it is largely up to us whether our machines will wake up.
That may sound presumptuous. The mechanisms of consciousness—the reasons we have a vivid and direct experience of the world and of the self—are an unsolved mystery in neuroscience, and some people think they always will be; it seems impossible to explain subjective experience using the objective methods of science. But in the 25 or so years that we’ve taken consciousness seriously as a target of scientific scrutiny, we have made significant progress. We have discovered neural activity that correlates with consciousness, and we have a better idea of what behavioral tasks require conscious awareness. Our brains perform many high-level cognitive tasks subconsciously.
I’d seen my dad approximately four times over 30 years, but I only remembered two of them: a visit when I was 12 years old, and one when I was 25. When I thought of visiting my father, I pictured the beige rooms, the beige uniforms, and how everything seemed to be nailed down. I always brought bags of change to use at the vending machines. I knew he had a sweet tooth, and I wanted to buy him something sweet. He always got reprimanded by guards for holding my hands too long.
The only real information I had about my dad came in his letters; he sent me dozens. Photographs included in those letters were precious. In the 30 years he was locked away, I only received four. That was the best he could do.
Alongside the end of each war came a new opportunity to never forget. But to what degree do we do anything with these memories besides allowing them to exist simply for their own sake? I recently posed this question to Roy Scranton, a veteran of the Iraq War and the author of War Porn. He chuckled, appending a corollary to the age-old quotation: “War is God’s way of teaching geography.” Added Scranton: “But he has yet to find a way to teach Americans history.”
Scranton and his peers occupy the twisting strands of literature and war that we can trace as far back as we’ve bothered to record history. In fact, if we go back far enough, any distinction between the disciplines nearly ceases to exist. All it takes is one look at the still ongoing debate over whether Thucydides’s central text, History of the Peloponnesian War, is more a work of literature or scientific history, though few would argue over its central place in our understanding of the conflict. Since then, historiography has become a more scientific enterprise, but the connection between memory, history, and literature still retains those fundamental ties forged between the mother Mnemosyne, Titaness of Memory, and her daughters, the nine Muses of art, literature, and science. However, the question stands: as the world and warfare grow more complex and strange, are those who seek inspiration from these figures outgunned by those who corrupt their tools?
My German father would visit my mother’s college room with dough cake and offer it in marriage to her preserve. Little did he know she preferred the strictures of rationing to such sensuous excess.
Indeed, one of the book’s many insights is that the best way to generate success is to be continually, nervily vigilant about failure. Hytner is an astute and unsentimental judge of others’ work as well as his own – and he admits to preferring live drama, where mistakes can generally be corrected, to film, where “you’re lumbered with what you shot for eternity”.
“She was the girl next door,” Savel said. “Everyone loved her, and we were basically shooting it in the foot and hoping it didn’t bleed out.”
Privately, ABC had many of the same fears, and executives said they would not officially approve the episode until they had seen a fully formed script, Green remembered.
But Disney, which had acquired ABC in 1995, loved the idea, and pushed ABC to make it happen. By 1996, Disney’s corporate culture had already become much more LGBTQ-friendly than ABC’s. The company had multiple gay executives. It hosted “gay days at the park,” said Pete Aronson, then an executive vice president at Disney. Dean Valentine, then the president of Walt Disney Television, told DeGeneres that he wanted her team to take the idea as far as they could, and really challenge people.
When people hear that I surf, I get a knowing nod of awesomeness from the terra firma-bound. I know what they’re picturing: me on a thruster, carving up and down a wave face until I casually kick out the back to paddle out to the line up for another. The truth is that most surfers don’t come close to what we see in highlight videos. But pretty’s not the point. The point is the patience and perseverance it requires to get back on the board and try again. After a surf instructor pushed me into my first wave, it took me five years to catch one on my own.
When I do catch a wave and feel the glide, I’ll hold onto that feeling for hours, days or even weeks. I’m hooked on the pursuit of those moments, however elusive they may be. But it’s not the momentary high that has sustained me. In the process of trying to attain a few moments of bliss, I experience something else: patience and humility, definitely, but also freedom. Freedom to pursue the futile. And the freedom to suck without caring is revelatory.
Bausch’s latest book is aptly titled. The 14 stories in “Living in the Weather of the World” inhabit places where the outlook for their characters is uncertain at best and cataclysmic at worst. Here love and marriage are brittle, people are driven by lust and desire they barely comprehend, and a lack of self-knowledge can ruin a man’s life just as surely as a loaded gun. Sometimes the action is galvanic, an explosive moment that puts the reader in mind of Flannery O’Connor’s ability to open out a story into dangerous, unknown territory. And, like O’Connor, Bausch is able to pull a story back from melodrama, no matter how sudden or dramatic the turn of events.
“The Outrun” becomes a kind of personal travelogue of the Orkney Islands, their numinous geology and mystical history, from the unique perspective of one who is both an outsider and a native. One imagines Liptrot writing these pages in the spectacular solitude she finds there, writing as much to stave off loneliness as to mine its many gifts, just as alcohol was once both the problem and the solution. It is a hard battle, and the push and pull, the urge to stay and to go, like the wind and the waves, never stops.
Scrolling through Instagram to see the pictures from the March for Science, I marveled at the protest’s display of teasing American wit. (“Remember polio? No? Thanks, science!”) And then I thought of Neil Postman, the professor and the critic and the man who, via his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, argued preemptively against all this change-via-chuckle. Postman wasn’t, as his book’s title might suggest, a humorless scold in the classic way—Amusing Ourselves to Death is, as polemics go, darkly funny—but he was deeply suspicious of jokes themselves, especially when they come with an agenda.
Postman died in 2003; were he still with us, though, he would likely be both horrified and unsurprised to see protesters fighting for the fate of the planet with the help of a punnified Labrador—or, for that matter, to see the case for women’s inalienable rights being made by people dressed as plush vulvas. He might whisper that, in politics, the line between engagement and apathy is thinner than we want to believe. He might suggest that fun is fun, definitely, but, given its amorality, a pretty awkward ethic. He might warn, with a Cassandric sigh, that there is something delightful and also not very delightful at all about a trio of Tyrannosauri who, in the name of saving the world, try their hardest to go viral on Facebook.
Maybe that’s because the tablet can’t carry food, or handle cash, or convey to the kitchen that I might like my linguine di mare with sauce on the side and meatballs instead of shrimp. It definitely can’t compliment my date’s haircut, or make a joke about the traffic, or answer my questions about whether or not it likes working at a place with tablets on every table. But it can take a normal order, and lets me pay with a card at the precise moment I want to leave, and then fill out a little survey about my meal. If I happen to have a kid with me, or realize with sudden revulsion that I can no longer stand to even look across the table at my companion, I could even pay an extra $1.99 for access to the tablet’s library of games, and then crush some trivia while I wait for my bottomless breadsticks to be replenished.
In the fancier precincts of the food-service world, where watching a barista spend four minutes prepping a pour-over coffee is a customer’s idea of a good time, robots might not seem like the future of food culture. But spend some time at the restaurants where the majority of Americans eat every day, and you’ll catch a distinct whiff of automation in the air.
I’ve been thinking about my failures, especially the ways I’ve failed other people. A year before my novel Binary Star came out, I began interviewing people for a nonfiction book about eating disorders. The protagonist of Binary Star is an anorexic college student and I had drawn heavily from my own history with anorexia to write her. I felt in my writing I was finally able to translate into language what I had been carrying around as a shapeless trauma. But once I was finished, once I’d satisfied myself with a psychological portrayal of the disease, I began to crave a more scholarly understanding.
In retrospect, what I truly wanted was some authority outside of myself to validate what had happened to me. Having relived the trauma of anorexia in my writing, I wanted to verifiably attribute it to some cause other than an inborn deficiency—point to a reason that was larger than me. Give my pain context and meaning.
Over the last few decades, the ideal of the rational individual has been attacked from all sides. Postcolonial and feminist thinkers challenged it as a chauvinistic Western fantasy, glorifying the autonomy and power of white men. Behavioral economists and evolutionary psychologists have demonstrated that most human decisions are based on emotional reactions and heuristic shortcuts rather than rational analysis, and that while our emotions and heuristics were perhaps suitable for dealing with the African savanna in the Stone Age, they are woefully inadequate for dealing with the urban jungle of the silicon age.
Sloman and Fernbach take this argument further, positing that not just rationality but the very idea of individual thinking is a myth. Humans rarely think for themselves. Rather, we think in groups. Just as it takes a tribe to raise a child, it also takes a tribe to invent a tool, solve a conflict or cure a disease. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, an atom bomb or an aircraft. What gave Homo sapiens an edge over all other animals and turned us into the masters of the planet was not our individual rationality, but our unparalleled ability to think together in large groups.
“Borne,” Jeff Vandermeer’s lyrical and harrowing new novel, may be the most beautifully written, and believable, post-apocalyptic tale in recent memory: A considerable achievement, considering “Borne” features not just a near-future, nameless city; an enormous, sentient, cataclysmically destructive bioengineered bear; and the endearing intelligent cephalopod who gives the book its title.
But no one told Mollie Maggia about the match girls before she went to the United States Radium Corporation in New Jersey, just after World War I. She painted glowing numbers on dials with their radium paint, licking her paintbrush for accuracy as she'd been taught, and it killed her.
Maggia was the first of the girls at USRC to die in agony from radium poisoning, but far from the last. And the horror at the heart of Kate Moore's Radium Girls lies in the way doctors, the company, and the law failed these women as they sought justice for the lives they were losing.
First let me try and explain: it’s like falling into deep, deep water. A sudden plunge that knocks your breath away, and once you go under, you forget which way is up. One minute I’m in line at the bank, or crossing the street, or pushing my cart through the Sav-Mart. Then something trips me and my memory opens up and I tumble in. Maybe I see a barrette in someone’s hair and suddenly I’m six years old, at the Gimbels perfume counter. Eight greasy fingerprints on the plate glass front. Eleven atomizers on a tray, piano music tinkling through the store stereo. A poppy seed stuck in the saleslady’s front teeth. She turns her head towards Leather Goods and two wisps fly loose from her tortoise-shell clip and my mother slips a bottle of Chanel No. 5 into her pocket and a snail of sweat creeps down my back and she pulls me away by the hand. I live it again, every little thing, and when I come back to the present the teller is shouting Miss? Miss? through the hole in the plexiglass, cars are honking, a quart of ice cream is melting to soup in my hands. On my back the same wet snail-trail. In my nostrils, Chanel No. 5.
You’d think this memory would’ve made me a straight-A student, a Jeopardy Champion. You might call it a gift. I wouldn’t. In school, when I opened my locker or sharpened my pencil or sat down with a quiz, I’d suddenly fall into some other day, some other moment. Ten minutes later I’d still be standing there, lock in hand as the late bell rang, or my pencil would be ground down to a nub, or the teacher, gently and sadly, would say, “Brianna, time’s up.” Even now, behind the wheel, I get lost in a memory and find myself parked at the Dairy Queen by the train station, or the hospital where Caitlin was born, or on Route 6 halfway to Chatham, and Caitlin, if she’s in the car, says, “Mom, you have the worst sense of direction.” But I can’t help it. Once I heard a story on the radio about a woman like me. She had scientists baffled. “Hyperthymesia,” they called it: highly superior autobiographical memory. They thought there might be forty or fifty people in the world like us, people whose pasts keep opening up and swallowing us down. I went to a doctor once, myself. I thought he would look at me and just know. But he took my blood pressure and told me to take a vitamin and said I was just fine, and I never told him. I never told anyone.
Eleanor Roosevelt never wanted her husband to run for president. When he won, she told friends she might divorce him rather than lose her independence to the honorific role of first lady. “I shall have to work out my own salvation,” she said. She decided to reinvent the role. What should a “first lady” really do? Not host parties, she thought. She went on a national tour to crusade on behalf of women. She wrote a regular newspaper column. She became a champion of women’s rights and of civil rights (in support of racial equality, she was the most outspoken member of her husband’s administration). And she decided to write a book. She called it It’s Up to the Women. She announced her plan in January 1933, two months before her husband’s inauguration. “Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who has been one of the most active women in the country since her husband was elected President, is going to write a 40,000-word book between now and the March inauguration,” the Boston Globe announced. “Every word will be written by Mrs. Roosevelt herself.”
People often ask me whether human-level artificial intelligence will eventually become conscious. My response is: Do you want it to be conscious? I think it is largely up to us whether our machines will wake up.
That may sound presumptuous. The mechanisms of consciousness—the reasons we have a vivid and direct experience of the world and of the self—are an unsolved mystery in neuroscience, and some people think they always will be; it seems impossible to explain subjective experience using the objective methods of science. But in the 25 or so years that we’ve taken consciousness seriously as a target of scientific scrutiny, we have made significant progress. We have discovered neural activity that correlates with consciousness, and we have a better idea of what behavioral tasks require conscious awareness. Our brains perform many high-level cognitive tasks subconsciously.
The saxophone, though, has a much more complex history: Over the past 40 years, it’s gone from pacesetter to gimmick and all but disappeared from modern popular music, with the exception of a few gleaming moments. But that’s not because people hate it. It’s because the way we hear music is changing almost as quickly as the way we make it.
Men in power have always tried to insulate themselves from criticism and punishment. Doree Shafrir’s Startup is a sharp-witted debut novel that peels back the layers of those structures, revealing those in power who grasp to maintain their privilege at all costs. The title signals an ordinariness that acts as a preview of what’s to come, a wink and a nod from a friend who asks if we see this, too. At its core, it’s a book about average men doing bad things and the women who take control of the narrative from them.
Step into any Icelandic gas station or grocer and you’ll find at least 75 percent of the candy contains black licorice. Licorice powders, chocolate-covered licorice gummies, licorice-coated raisins, and thick, lava-like licorice sauces lurk behind the glass at local ice cream shops. You can even order licorice soft-serve with licorice hard-shell dip, if that’s your thing.
While the divisive treat has a cult-like following in all of the Nordic countries (there are festivals), Iceland has made a name for itself for combining licorice with chocolate, and for consuming it in quantities that would keep a dentist awake at night. But how did this bizarre black stuff wind up in nearly every candy bar in the land of fire and ice? The roots of its predominance are at once political, epidemiological, horticultural, and economic—chief among them a climate more favorable to glaciers than humans, and decades of restrictions on candy imports.
What if you are a sensitive and offbeat soul, determined to be an artist, but suspect you have no talent? At what point does fortitude (all those chapters, drawings, songs) pass into life-destroying intransigence?
The Irish writer Sara Baume, in her second novel, “A Line Made by Walking,” picks up these sorts of eternal questions, packs them into her rucksack and carries them quite a long way.
On, on! The next time you encounter on beginning a title, ignore what follows. Recite the glorious syllable to yourself in stentorian tones, revel in its wondrous reverberations. Let your eyes linger on its elegant appearance, take in its curves, appreciate its eternal form and endless content. Soon your own love affair with the sublime word will commence, a romance that, unlike ephemeral passions, will go on and on, powering an inner light that will never turn off.
Baking is handwork, and for me, all that is joyful, comforting, gratifying and even magical about this work is packed into the simple act of making biscuits. I practice a kind of mediation while I make them. I concentrate on how each step feels — not so much because it makes a better biscuit (which it does) or because it’s more satisfying (which it is), but because I like having my senses on high alert, anticipating and responding to the dough’s changes.
We said goodbye to S. last month at a stone church on a side street on the Upper West Side. Actually, we said goodbye to her back in January, when Alison from upstairs called me late one night to tell me that my next-door neighbor had passed away while we were out one day, I’m not sure now for what, perhaps a run to the grocery store or a visit with out-of-towners. What I do remember is the call itself: I was sitting on my couch in my living room with the not-enough light and the too-small rug, my back to the wall that my family’s apartment shared with S's. Our front doors stand side by side, less than a foot away. To say she was the closest thing to me in my building, literally, would not be an exaggeration.
Two winters ago, I stayed temporarily in a bee-infested cottage in the swamplands of Florida while teaching and writing at an artists’ center. Each morning, I opened the cottage door to a swarm of fist-sized carpenter bees so thick it seemed to cloud the humid air, then slammed the door, heart racing. The bees were not my only problem. In fact, they seemed like such a perfect metaphor that I began to wonder if they were real at all. My work had skidded to a painful halt. My mind was . . . well, my mind was buzzing. I was stuck. There was something invisible and dangerous at the center of everything I tried to write, something I didn’t yet understand.
Over the course of three extremely isolated and challenging weeks, my inner world seemed to tilt and reorient itself. I hardly left the cottage except to buy coffee, milk, yogurt and wine. I ripped up the essay I had been struggling with for many months, and realized with a thudding sense of horror what I had been avoiding. The subject of my next book was going to be marriage. As in, my marriage. I was going to write openly and honestly about my marriage to a man I loved and to whom I had every intention of staying wedded for the rest of our lives.
Had I lost my mind? Why would any sane person do this?
It pains me to say it, but I am a failed artist. “Pains me” because nothing in my life has given me the boundless psychic bliss of making art for tens of hours at a stretch for a decade in my 20s and 30s, doing it every day and always thinking about it, looking for a voice to fit my own time, imagining scenarios of success and failure, feeling my imagined world and the external one merging in things that I was actually making. Now I live on the other side of the critical screen, and all that language beyond words, all that doctor-shamanism of color, structure, and the mysteries of beauty — is gone.
I miss art terribly. I’ve never really talked about my work to anyone. In my writing, I’ve occasionally mentioned bygone times of once being an artist, usually laughingly. Whenever I think of that time, I feel stabs of regret. But once I quit, I quit; I never made art again and never even looked at the work I had made. Until last month, when my editors suggested that I write about my life as a young artist. I was terrified. Also, honestly, elated. No matter how long it’d been — no matter how long I’d come to think of myself fully as a critic, working through the same problems of expression from the other side — I admit I felt a deep-seated thrill hearing someone wanted to look at my work.
In addition to its many other virtues, Hourglass underscores the tightrope tension of trying to support a middle-class lifestyle on writing. Shapiro admits she and M have "First World problems." But she's also ruthlessly clear about the trade-offs they unknowingly made in following their literary ambitions: She tells us they work seven days a week and have no savings, no retirement plans, "nothing to fall back on, but each other."
Elizabeth Strout's new novel-in-stories, Anything Is Possible, is welcome literary salve for these alarmingly acrimonious, anxiety-inducing times. These nine linked tales about people who overcome miserable childhoods, severe losses, disheartening marriages, and war trauma to experience moments of amazing grace offer comfort and reassurance. They remind us that a little kindness and compassion can open up surprising possibilities.
Post-apocalyptic fiction too often pays lip service to serious problems like climate change while allowing the reader to walk away unscathed, cocooned in an ironic escapism and convinced that the impending disaster is remote. Not so with Lidia Yuknavitch’s brilliant and incendiary new novel, which speaks to the reader in raw, boldly honest terms. “The Book of Joan” has the same unflinching quality as earlier works by Josephine Saxton, Doris Lessing, Frank Herbert, Ursula K. Le Guin and J. G. Ballard. Yet it’s also radically new, full of maniacal invention and page-turning momentum.
By itself, of course, this does not solve the savings challenge so many Americans struggle with. But it’s remarkable for a couple of reasons. One is its clever appeal to human tendencies recognized in behavioral-economics research but seldom harnessed to socially desirable goals. Another is that it is squarely aimed at the 67 million Americans inartfully described as “unbanked or underbanked”—a massive group that financial innovators have long ignored, even though that group, more than any other part of the population, could use some financial innovation.
Americans’ difficulty saving, Daniel Eckert told me recently, is a textbook example of how brains wired to reckon with short-term threats and opportunities struggle to think about long-term consequences—and struggle even harder to take current action to stave off future disaster. Eckert, who oversees Walmart’s financial-services businesses, became interested in behavioral economics while earning his M.B.A. at the University of Chicago in the early 2000s.
I have talked to a score of Cubs players over the years and carefully asked about . . . this curse stuff. They answer with a kind of monologue of aplomb: I was always the best athlete in my town. I pitched a shutout and hit three home runs in our state championship game. I’ve been a SportsCenter highlight. I’m a winner. I’m lucky. That’s what got me here. Hard work and skill are real, not curses.
But a few minutes later, they might talk about what their first thoughts were when they heard they were coming to the Cubs: Great town. Best park, best fans. You’ll never be more popular in your life than you will be on the north side of Chicago. But you hear these stories . . .
He should have known the book was loaded. Norman Podhoretz started writing “Making It” in 1964. He was thirty-four years old and the editor of Commentary. His idea was to write a book about how people in his world, literary intellectuals, were secretly motivated by a desire for success—money, power, and fame—and were also secretly ashamed of it. He offered himself as Exhibit A. By confessing to his own ambition, he would make it safe for others to confess to theirs, and thereby enjoy without guilt the worldly goods their strivings had brought them. As he put it, he would do for ambition what D. H. Lawrence had done for sex. He would make the case for Mammon.
Now, two years after Goldberg’s death, Sandberg has written a new book, “Option B,” which forthrightly addresses all of these issues. It is a remarkable achievement: generous, honest, almost unbearably poignant. It reveals an aspect of Sandberg’s character that “Lean In” had suggested but — because of the elitism at its center — did not fully demonstrate: her impulse to be helpful.
When people talk about flavour, they usually focus on taste and smell. But there’s a third major flavour sense, as well, one that’s often overlooked: the physical sensations of touch, temperature and pain. The burn of chilli peppers is the most familiar example here, but there are others. Wine mavens speak of a wine’s “mouthfeel”, a concept that includes the puckery astringency of tannins – something tea drinkers also notice – and the fullness of texture that gives body to a wine. Gum chewers and peppermint fans recognise the feeling of minty coolness they get from their confections. And everyone knows the fizzy bite of carbonated drinks.
None of these sensations is a matter of smell or taste. In fact, our third primary flavour sense flies so far under our radar that even flavour wonks haven’t agreed on a single name for it. Sensory scientists are apt to refer to it as “chemesthesis”, “somatosensation”, or “trigeminal sense”, each of which covers a slightly different subset of the sense, and none of which mean much at all to the rest of the world. The common theme, though, is that all of these sensations are really manifestations of our sense of touch, and they’re surprisingly vital to our experience of flavour. Taste, smell, touch – the flavour trinity.
In February of 1880, the whaling ship Hope sailed north from Peterhead, Scotland, and headed for the Arctic. Her crew included a highly regarded captain, an illiterate but gifted first mate, and the usual roster of harpooners, sailors, and able-bodied seamen—but not the intended ship’s surgeon. That gentleman having been unexpectedly called away on family matters, a last-minute substitute was found, in the form of a middling third-year medical student making his maiden voyage: a young man by the name of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Conan Doyle was twenty when he left Peterhead and twenty-one when he returned. On Saturday, May 22nd, in the meticulous diary he kept during that journey, he wrote, “A heavy swell all day. I came of age today. Rather a funny sort of place to do it in, only 600 miles or so from the North Pole.” Funny indeed, for a man who would come to be associated with distinctly un-Arctic environments: the gas-lit glow of Victorian London, the famous chambers at 221B Baker Street, and—further afield, but not much—the gabled manors and foggy moors where Sherlock Holmes tracked bloody footprints and dogs failed to bark in the night.
Back then, mainstream, non-academic pop culture critics often saw a work's political message as unimportant at best, a liability at worst.
Something has changed in criticism since then. Critics working today, whether veterans or newcomers, are more likely to praise a work for having a political or social message, and they'll also criticize a work for not confronting its own implications. Today, a nostalgic, lightweight musical like La La Land can inspire discussions of whether the story is what MTV.com's Ira Madison III called "a white-savior film in tap shoes," because the hero is a white jazz fan whose tastes are portrayed as more authentic than a black character's.
It was a devastating story, quietly told by a writer with a casually worn mastery of structure. Strout is the opposite of a literary show-off: her writing has no ego and the sentences she creates are to serve the characters, rather than the author.
In these aspects, science resembles those other human activities, like art, music, and literature, that distinguish humanity as a species. We don’t—or shouldn’t—ask what the utility of a play by Shakespeare is, or how a Mozart concerto or a Rolling Stones song upholds “the common good,” or how a Picasso painting or a movie like “Citizen Kane” might be in “the national interest.” (Perhaps it’s because we insist on thinking in such terms that support for art, music, and literature is also under attack in Congress.) The free inquiry and creative activity we find in science and art reflect the best about what it means to be human.
Ten years ago Random House published a wonderful anthology of food writing, Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink. All essays, articles, and fiction featured in the book had earlier appeared in The New Yorker. I bought the book a couple of years after its publication and have since been consuming it bit by bit like a child hoarding something delicious. I have written posts about nonfiction food writing and references to food in fiction. Virginia Woolf’s novels have delectable descriptions of gourmet fare. But what about depiction of food in short stories? The section in Secret Ingredients that most intrigues me is “Fiction,” containing nine short stories. What’s most salient in these food-centered short stories?
After reading five of the nine stories—I have preserved some for later!—I have found a way to begin describing what constitutes the “genre” of food fiction. The food fiction story centers on food and drink, but not necessarily on gastronomy, with associations with passion, craving and desire for either food or something that mirrors the satisfaction—spiritual or carnal—that food provides. In other words, food or drink must play a key role in the theme or plot. Often craving for food or drink brings about disaster in characters’ lives or sates a primordial or elemental hunger.
Part time-slip novel, part ghost story, Michèle Roberts’ latest book flits butterfly-like between 1851 and 2011 to link a man and woman with very different attitudes but perhaps twin souls.
In May, MIT Press will publish a new edition of the original text, “annotated for scientists, engineers, and creators of all kinds.” As well as the explanatory and expository notes throughout the book, there are accompanying essays by historians and other writers that discuss Frankenstein’s relevance and implications for science and invention today.
It’s a smart idea, but treating Frankenstein as a meditation on the responsibilities of the scientist, and the dangers of ignoring them, is bound to give only a partial view of Shelley’s novel. It’s not just a book about science. Moreover, focusing on Shelley’s text doesn’t explore the scope of the Frankenstein myth itself, including its message for scientists.
I didn’t know what the Weird was when I wrote my first book. All I knew was that there was this crazy story I wanted to tell, that involved immigrants and dive bars and aliens and underground cities and a whole mess of music, and I wanted the prose to be part of the craziness. I wanted form to follow function—just like I do now, writing this essay. The decision seemed easy enough, and I wrote like my hair was on fire over the space of eight months while I was in graduate school for public policy, grabbing spare hours where I could. I wrote most of it on the New York subway. Some of it on buses. The last part of it in Guatemala. When I was done, all I knew was that I’d either written a literary novel with lots of genre elements in it or a science fiction story that leaned pretty heavily into the language. I didn’t know there were any other choices.
In the end, and for all its narrative leaps and disquieting gestures toward genre, the novel makes most sense as a piece of regional portraiture, an eerie but lovingly detailed delineation of a landscape that, like all landscapes, is part external reality and part memory.
“Charming” would seem to be the wrong word to use of such a dark book. Yet this is a fairytale of a sort, and Brooks is clearly interested in the meaning of enchantment.
Jurong Island, a man-made smear of sand, lies just off the southern coast of Singapore. A quarter the size of Nantucket, it is thoroughly given over to the petrochemical industry, so crowded with spindly cracking towers and squat oil-storage tanks that the landscape is a blur of brand names — BASF, AkzoNobel, Exxon Mobil, Vopak. One of the island’s most distinctive features, though, remains hidden: the Jurong Rock Caverns, which hold 126 million gallons of crude oil. To get there, you ride an industrial elevator more than 325 feet into the earth, and that brings you to the operations tunnel, a curving space as lofty as a cathedral. It is so long that workers get around on bicycles. Safety goggles mist up with the heat and the humidity; the rock walls, wet from dripping water, look so soft they might have been scooped out of chocolate ice cream. This is as far as anyone — even the workers — can go. The caverns themselves are an additional 100 feet beneath the ocean: two sealed cylindrical vaults, extending away from Jurong. They opened for business in 2014. Next year, three new vaults will be ready. Then, if all goes according to plan, there will be six more.
As a concept, underground reservoirs are not new. Sweden has been building them since the 1950s; a pair in the port of Gothenburg has a titanic capacity of 370 million gallons of oil. So the Jurong Rock Caverns are less an emblem of the marvels of technology than of the anxiety of a nation. Singapore is the 192nd-largest country in the world. Tinier than Tonga and just three-fifths the area of New York City, it has long fretted about its congenital puniness. “Bigger countries have the luxury of not having to think about this,” said David Tan, the assistant chief executive of a government agency called the Jurong Town Corporation, which built Jurong Island as well as the caverns. “We’ve always been acutely aware of our small size.”
But as 2014, 2015, and 2016 ticked by, Evans faced a different reality. He could barely get his plants to glow at all. Taxa Biotechnologies was running out of money. A cofounder quit. What had seemed scientifically straightforward had turned into a lonely, multi-year slog.
So he changed tack, setting aside the glowing plants and throwing his energies behind scented moss instead. By mid-2016, the company had grown patchouli moss that Evans considered ready for consumers. At last he could start planning for a product launch, and he picked the week of March 27, 2017. Evans had summoned me to his lab to help him tell his redemption story. He’d show the world just how amazing bioengineering could be.
Except…he didn’t. Instead, he ended up killing off the four-year-old dream that he’d shared and nurtured with his thousands of supporters.
Unlike Harry in When Harry Met Sally, I do not read the end “in case I die before I get there”. I do it because I am a literary flâneuse: not only does knowing the end mean I can enjoy the scenery, but it means I am insured against that dreadful crime – the Bad Ending. I don’t mean heartbreaking goodbyes to characters I love, I mean the dreadful realisation that everyone, including the writer, has basically gone home in the last 50 pages. Bad endings don’t just betray the characters, they betray the reader.
An Overcoat takes intellection as seriously as, say, being able to make a three-point turn in traffic; perhaps less so (“I’m beginning to go off her,” says the narrator about M.; “at heart she’s just another puritan, one of the tribe that insists that literature is good for you.”) This is the book’s charm, and possibly its point. It’s a mind at play, and Boyle’s silly pseudonym is a deliberate act of self-sabotage – as well as a nod to Stendhal’s fondness for different identities. I can’t think of a wittier, more engaging, stylistically audacious, attentive and generous writer working in the English language right now.
One of the pleasures of The Book of Joan is its take-no-prisoners disregard for genre boundaries. Its searing fusion of literary fiction and reimagined history and science-fiction thriller and eco-fantasy make it a kind of sister text to Jeff VanderMeer's ineffable Southern Reach trilogy. Yuknavitch is a bold and ecstatic writer, wallowing in sex and filth and decay and violence and nature and love with equal relish.
The most amazing thing about the entry is not how useful or detailed it is, however, but how it came to be. This Wikipedia definition is the result of nearly 6,000 edits by over 3,000 users (including some bots) to the page. In this way, Wikipedia understands something that most philosophers after Socrates didn’t—definitions are not static, and cannot be perfected and finalized. They must be constantly challenged, updated, reverted, and discussed. Wikipedia is like a Socratic dialogue on a massive scale.
To understand how the definition of an essential but abstract concept went from a throwaway truism to a carefully worded introduction, I downloaded, read, and analyzed all of the Wikipedia revisions on “happiness” over the course of 14 years. The journey is not pretty—the page endures a continuous barrage of hate speech, vandalism, assertions that happiness is not real, or more sorrowfully, that it is unknown to the person making the edit. This reveals that the process of defining something like “happiness” is even more important than the definition itself.
Emily King and Corey Smith had been dating for five months when they took a trip to Central America, in February, 2012. At a surf resort in Nicaragua, Smith helped a lanky American named Foster Huntington repair the dings in his board. When the waves were choppy, the three congregated in the resort’s hammock zone, where the Wi-Fi signal was strongest. One afternoon, Huntington listened to the couple have a small argument. Something about their fond irritation made him think that they’d be suited to spending long periods of time together in a confined space. “You guys would be great in a van,” he told them.
The year before, Huntington had given up his apartment in New York and his job as a designer at Ralph Lauren, and moved into a 1987 Volkswagen Syncro. He spent his days surfing, exploring, and taking pictures of his van parked in picturesque locations along the California coast. It was the early days of Instagram, and, over time, Huntington accumulated more than a million followers. He represented a new kind of social-media celebrity, someone famous not for starring in movies or recording hit songs but for documenting an enviable life. “My inspiration,” went a typical comment on one of his posts. “God I wish my life was that free and easy and amazing.” Huntington tagged his posts with phrases like #homeiswhereyouparkit and #livesimply, but the tag he used most often was #vanlife.
King and Smith left Nicaragua for Costa Rica, but the idea of the van stuck with them. King, a telegenic former business student, had quit her job at a Sotheby’s branch when she realized that she was unhappy. Smith, a competitive mountain biker and the manager of a kayak store, had never had a traditional office job. They figured they could live cheaply in a van while placing what they loved—travelling, surfing, mountain biking—at the center of their lives. When King found out that she’d been hired for a Web-development job that didn’t require her presence in an office, it suddenly seemed feasible.
Mr. Ahmed, 46, is in the business of chicken and rice. He immigrated from Bangladesh 23 years ago, and is now one of two partners in a halal food cart that sets up on Greenwich Street close to the World Trade Center, all year long, rain or shine. He is also one of more than 5,000 people, most of them immigrants, who make a living selling food on the city’s sidewalks: pork tamales, hot dogs, rolled rice noodles, jerk chicken.
These vendors are a fixture of New York’s streets and New Yorkers’ routines, vital to the culture of the city. But day to day, they struggle to do business against a host of challenges: byzantine city codes and regulations on street vending, exorbitant fines for small violations (like setting up an inch too close to the curb) and the occasional rage of brick-and-mortar businesses or residents. Not to mention the weather, the whims of transit and foot traffic, and the trials of standing for hours, often alone, with no real shelter or private space.
The jungle, though, does not take naturally to cultural preservation. The obscuring overgrowth never stops; the landscape digests all. Excavating a 5-year-old site, let alone a 500-year-old one, can be like sifting through a well-advanced compost pile in search of something edible. And yet, we try—especially when inspired by a figure as captivating as Colonel Percy Fawcett.
Fawcett was an intrepid British explorer who disappeared in the Brazilian Amazon in 1925, presumably killed by Indians. He’s the subject of a new biopic, The Lost City of Z, an adaptation of David Grann’s 2009 book of the same name. The Amazon’s greatest cover-up, Fawcett believed, was an utterly forgotten civilization named Z. He aimed, in his quasi-invincible, slightly nutty way, to find it.
The secret is to not think of reading as a precious thing. If you’re only going to open a book on the off chance you have several hours to kill in a comfy chair with a glass of scotch, it’s only ever going to happen when you have several hours to kill in a comfy chair with a glass of scotch.
Being well read means making it a part of your daily life—not treating it as a luxury. And it’s not that hard. Like all things, it just takes a little bit of discipline and a little bit of trickery.
As women in a society of horny animals masquerading as “developed” people, we are probably used to eschewing a utilitarian wardrobe to appeal to a sexual partner’s tastes. We can blame the media or the patriarchy (or both!) for the ease with which we willingly slip into things that start with “miracle,” end with “enhancing,” or demonstrate our ability to conceive and deliver a child with the maternal strength of all of Zeus’s lovers combined, but that doesn’t negate the fact that we do it. But for whom? And perhaps more importantly, why?
A woman putting on a man’s button-down shirt after sex is just one example from the canon of idiotic fashion tropes that has yet to die. Sure, the boxiness serves to accentuate women’s curves and general petiteness, and yes, it helps keep a lady covered, appealing to the standards of our puritanical society. But none of that excuses it for being illogical.
In the introduction to his new coffee-table book of oil paintings, Bush readily — perhaps pre-emptively — admits that he’s a “novice.” Three years after leaving the White House, he set out to adopt the pastime of Winston Churchill, who painted to relieve the “Black Dog” of depression. But age 66 is awfully late to achieve proficiency, especially for a man with a famously short attention span. Bush recalls playfully informing his first art instructor, Gail Norfleet, of his objectives. “Gail, there’s a Rembrandt trapped in this body,” he told her. “Your job is to liberate him.”
Norfleet and Bush’s other talented tutors fell short of that ideal, but they did liberate an inner Bush we — and maybe he — never knew existed: An evocative and surprisingly adept artist who has dramatically improved his technique while also doing penance for one of the greatest disasters in American history.
A Little More Human is a dense, complicated, and funny novel. While some writers, like Rachel Cusk or Sarah Manguso, are finding ways to dispose of conventional plot altogether, Fiona Maazel’s plot barely stops.
After the Blue Hour might be best understood as a novel characterized by the concerns of late style. If the illusion of representational control is the stuff of a younger career, a reckoning with the stakes of representation defines the latter stages of an author’s life. In returning to the moment before he wrote City of Night, Rechy gives us a fictional account of its composition at a time of crisis and confusion — one no less true for avoiding strictly factual autobiography, as his narrator tells us.
In 2000, when the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina statehouse dome, Bessinger raised Confederate flags over all his restaurants. (By then, there were nine.) A king-sheet-size version went up over the West Columbia location, where he had long distributed tracts alleging, for example, that “African slaves blessed the Lord for allowing them to be enslaved and sent to America.” He was a figure whose hate spawned contempt, leading a writer from the Charleston City Paper to fantasize about how “Satan and his minions would slather his body in mustard-based BBQ sauce before they dined.”
In 2007, Bessinger, who suffered from Alzheimer’s at the end of his life, handed the business over to his two sons, Paul and Lloyd, and a daughter, Debbie. In the months before his death, in 2014, they took down the flags and got rid of the slavery pamphlets. “Dad liked politics,” Lloyd, who serves as the public face of the operation, told a reporter. “That’s not something we’re interested in doing. We want to serve great barbecue.”
By the time the news reached Kathleen Purvis, she hadn’t eaten Bessinger’s barbecue in nearly three decades. She grew up in Wilson, North Carolina, where her father was an R.C. Cola salesman and barbecue sauce is made with vinegar. Early in her career, she’d become a fan of the Bessinger family’s line of packaged foods—“handy for a quick dinner when I was working nights”—but, she wrote, in an article in the Observer in December, “When I learned about Bessinger’s history, I stopped buying his products. I followed a simple policy on the Piggie Park: I didn’t go there. Ever.” During the flag scandal, thousands of South Carolinians made the same call, going cold turkey. “I first made Maurice’s acquaintance when I was a child,” the barbecue expert William McKinney wrote, on the Web site of the Southern Foodways Alliance. “His barbecue was sold in the freezer aisle of the grocery store. It would bubble up in our family’s oven, its orange sauce as vivid as a river of lava. My mother would pack his barbecue in my lunch bag routinely, and I ate those sandwiches all the way through high school, wrapped up in aluminum foil and still a touch warm once lunch time came around.” It was as though Jif peanut butter or Katz’s Deli had become irredeemably tainted.
One January evening a few years ago, just before the beginning of the spring term in which I was going to be teaching an undergraduate seminar on the Odyssey, my father, a retired computer scientist who was then eighty-one, asked me, for reasons I thought I understood at the time, if he could sit in on the course, and I said yes. Once a week for the next fifteen weeks, he would make the trip from the house in the Long Island suburbs where I grew up, a modest split-level he and my mother still lived in, to the riverside campus of Bard College, where I teach. At ten past ten each Friday morning, he would take a seat among the freshmen, who were not even a quarter his age, and join in the discussion of this old poem, an epic about long journeys and long marriages and what it means to yearn for home.
It was deep winter when the term began, and my father was worrying a great deal about the weather: the snow on the windshield, the sleet on the roads, the ice on the walkways. He was afraid of falling, he said, his vowels still marked by his Bronx childhood: fawling. I would stay close to him as he crept along the narrow asphalt paths that led to the bland brick building where the class met, or up the walkway to the steep-gabled house at the edge of campus which was my home for a few days each week. Often, if he was too worn out after class to make the three-hour drive back home, he would sleep over in the extra bedroom that serves as my study, lying on a narrow daybed that had been my childhood bed. This bed, which he had built himself fifty years earlier, had a little secret: it was made out of a door, a cheap, hollow door, to which he’d attached four wooden legs that are as sturdy today as they were when he built it. I would think of this bed often a year later, after he became seriously ill, and my brothers and sister and I had to start fathering our father, anxiously watching him as he slept fitfully in a series of enormous, elaborately mechanized contraptions that hardly seemed like beds at all.
Worry, like attention, is a limited resource; we can’t worry about everything at once. That means most of us are worrying about immediate threats — like losing our jobs or our health care — rather than nebulous threats that may or may not occur at any point over thousands of years, even if those are ultimately greater threats. One way to conserve our worry, as it were, is to offload it to others — experts who presumably know better than us the appropriate level of fear, and when to apply it. This may be an effective means of reducing personal anxiety, but it doesn’t necessarily make us safer. Before 2011, most seismologists believed that earthquakes with magnitudes higher than 8.4 were not possible in Japan. This is why Japan, where earthquakes and tsunamis are common, was unprepared for the consequences.
Every once in a while a novel does not record reality but creates a whole new reality, one that casts a light on our darkest feelings. Kafka did that. Bruno Schulz did that. Now the Spanish writer Andrés Barba has done it with the terrifying Such Small Hands, which introduces us to the psychosis of childhood emotions and midnight rituals. This is a unique book.
Me: O.K., O.K., I’m plugging you into the car charger—happy?
iPhone: It’s going to take you seventeen minutes to get to Target.
Me: Why do you always assume I’m going to Target? Maybe I’m going to brunch at that new place. Or the opera.
iPhone: Sure, with all the operas you go to on Tuesday mornings. Or ever.
By the time his mother died, at age 74, she spent her days, in silence, staring out a window. She didn't recognize her son. Once an accomplished musician, she didn't know what to do with a piano.
Now, it was his turn.
A grim fear took hold within Steve.
The piano, once Steve's friend, now mocked him. He'd sit at the keyboard, waiting until he was alone so others wouldn't witness the loss. He'd start a song, get a bar into it and then. ...
We all know that art, music and nature are beautiful. They command the senses and incite emotion. Their impact is swift and visceral. How can a mathematical idea inspire the same feelings?
Well, for one thing, there is something very appealing about the notion of universal truth — especially at a time when people entertain the absurd idea of alternative facts. The Pythagorean theorem still holds, and pi is a transcendental number that will describe all perfect circles for all time.
But our brains also appear to respond to mathematical beauty as they do to other beautiful experiences.
This is not about reading a book you know is bad, a pleasure in its own right, like an exceptionally dashing villain. It’s about finding a book that affronts you, and staring it down to the last word.
But reading what you hate helps you refine what it is you value, whether it’s a style, a story line or an argument. Because books are long-form, they require more of the writer and the reader than a talk show or Facebook link. You can finish watching a movie in two hours and forget about it; not so a novel. Sticking it out for 300 pages means immersing yourself in another person’s world and discovering how it feels. That’s part of what makes books you despise so hard to dismiss. Rather than toss the book aside, turn to the next page and wrestle with its ideas. What about them makes you so uncomfortable?
It’s a performance. You must never forget that. However much thinking and research come beforehand, however much editing and correction afterwards, the actual writing is performance. There is a moment when you have to do it. You have to put down the rhythms of the voice you’re searching for, you have to find the right succession of detail and event, description and dialogue. Get it wrong and no amount of fiddling will salvage the situation.
Unlike those writers, I chose an unromanticized country (for romantic reasons) that I knew almost nothing about. But my timing was excellent: Hania and I were married two months after the founding of Solidarity and the emergence of Lech Wałęsa as its leader. I settled in — teaching English, learning Polish, reading writers I’d never heard of: Mickiewicz, Norwid, Prus, Tuwim. The satisfaction of getting to know a place through its language, literature, and everyday life was heightened by the fact that the place, and the life, were so far removed from what I had known. I stood in lines for food and every month received ration cards at school. The political situation — strikes, demonstrations, rumors of invasion — added to the intensity. I kept a detailed journal, an act that turned clandestine when martial law was declared in December 1981. Nine months later, through a friend’s kindness, the two loose-leaf notebooks were spirited out of the country in the Dutch diplomatic pouch after officials at the American embassy told me I was not entitled to such privileges.
I returned home with a story to tell and found, to my delight, the perfect climate in which to tell it. Unbeknownst to me, while I was in Poland, the commercial and critical success of The Great Railway Bazaar had created a rage for travel writing in the United States. With In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin had become Theroux’s erudite confrère at the forefront of the genre’s renaissance.
When Kostova focuses on that beauty, through characters' reminiscences, folktales, poetry, and news, her book transcends its covers and offers readers a glimpse of her own heart.
For the most part, creative success has little to do with talent or hard work. Lots of people are talented and hard-working. Talented and hard-working people are nothing special, for better or worse. To be successful, you need more than just talent and hard work. You need luck. Or, even better than luck, you need connections.
And yet artists persist in the belief that their success, or lack thereof, reveals something deeper about their worth. Writing in The Guardian, an anonymous author and self-proclaimed failed novelist recently published a mournfully angry piece about their lack of success. “I … avoid literary debuts by British female writers, which all seem so safe and samey,” the writer declared. “I feel pity and scorn for people with dreams.” In a follow-up piece, novelist David Barnett responded with scorn, albeit not with pity. “Dear Anonymous, you’re not a failure. You’re a quitter.” Bennett goes on, with sententious enthusiasm, “I failed over and over again; but each time, I failed better.”
I was skeptical that The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat: A Young Woman’s Search For Ethical Food was going to be too preachy and righteous. I wholly expected a 256-page, drum circle-led PETA rally about why the world needed to boycott hamburgers once and for all. Instead, Marissa Landrigan’s modern American omnivore odyssey is a thoughtfully curated coming-of-age memoir about choice. It’s much more than a tribute to vegetarianism and the bone she has to pick with slaughterhouses and factory farms. Landrigan is transparent about her chronic existential crisis and the resulting shifts in her diet and thoughts on elk hunting.
If you're in the mood for a snappy romance to vicariously bathe you in the pain and elation of first love, Becky Albertalli's The Upside of Unrequired provides.
In a way, hate functions like a Geiger counter, signaling where there are serious disruptions of the social fabric or where cultural beliefs are under the most stress — whether it be from a new awareness of inequality, diversity or the radical redefining of gender.
Those who fail to hear these warnings and address the cultural dislocations they represent will end up paying a steep price. They may even be hated.
When it comes to geothermal features, Yellowstone National Park holds an embarrassment of riches. Located largely inside the massive caldera of an ancient volcano, the park is home to thousands of geysers and hot springs, including Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring. But of course humans just can’t have nice things, and pretty much ever since Yellowstone’s one-of-a-kind geysers and pools were first discovered, people have been throwing shit into them.
I’m sure there was a time when I was not hairy, but I can’t remember it. I have an early memory from middle school where a doctor examined my sideburns, which stretched almost down to my jawline, and suggested some pills to slow the growth. She told me they were for people with a lot of facial hair, like me. I recall inspecting the black hairs on my legs with serious fascination; my mother would use sticky sugar to rip them out from their stubborn roots. “Beauty requires strength,” she would say, deploying an Arabic take on the more common proverb: Beauty is pain.
In the past, women whose lives included selling sex were rarely the subjects of their own histories, but were glamorous, vicious or pitiable objects in others’ accounts. One particular alluring figure turns up in the Christian story of sin, redemption and resurrection recounted in the frescoes of medieval western art. Mary Magdalene, the former prostitute, recognisable by her rippling yellow hair and red cloak, kneels at the foot of the cross, weeping. A mythical figure conflated from three different characters in the Gospels, she also turns up in the Apocrypha.
A city’s health is measured in many ways, but there is no surer vital sign of an Asian metropolis than the old-fashioned, swap-meet-style market. In Seoul’s above- and below-ground bazaars, street vendors and stall merchants deal their endlessly catholic wares. I daydream about these sellers of kimchi stew, bootleg ’70s CDs, dried anchovies, vintage postage stamps, jeggings, and handmade paper, and the tailors, woodcarvers, jewelers, and technicians whose skills are belied by their concrete-and-linoleum surroundings. The noisy, crowded space of the bazaar reminds us just how massive and vital the working class is.
If you do a Google search for "card catalog" it will likely return Pinterest-worthy images of antique furniture for sale — boxy, wooden cabinets with tiny drawers, great for storing knick-knacks, jewelry or art supplies.
But before these cabinets held household objects, they held countless index cards — which, at the time, were the pathways to knowledge and information. A new book from the Library of Congress celebrates these catalogs as the analog ancestor of the search engine.
Preparing a special meal is a fortifying experience, requiring strategic planning and long-term thinking. In this particular case, I not only have to give up time, but find certain ingredients that don’t have English names. The radishes that make radish soup aren’t sold in many of the usual grocery chains, so I head for the Q train to Canal Street, the one place I can trust to have every type of produce.
I begin to see Chinatown’s thumbprints around the subway station, its signature in those vibrant, red plastic grocery bags. Sanguine has two meanings. One is a shade of red like that of blood, and the other is comparable to being hopeful in times of strife. Both sentiments chronicle the shared bloodshed and poverty of our ancestors, through generations of conquest and resistance. Thanks to Confucian ideologies the dynasties shared, there was little resistance when the Hans invaded Korea in the 12th century. Aside from the way it’s remained largely homogenous, when I arrive to today’s bustling markets between Canal and Pell, there seems to be no room or time for resistance.
As long as I can remember, I’ve thought that this image perfectly captured how even at an early age I was always plotting an exit strategy. So much so that it’s the cover of my book about my family and the families I’ve joined by accident or on purpose. Now, I’m questioning that premise.
There is someone in the shot who wasn’t there when the picture was taken — my cousin Monique. Monique isn’t the name of any of my cousins. Monique isn’t a person at all. She’s the name my two real cousins and I have christened the woman pictured with us, their sister who is not their sister but a simulacrum, standing in for her. Monique, name withheld by request, did not want her image to appear on my book cover.
One fantasy of modernism is telling all there is to tell about the most ordinary of lives. On a train journey from Richmond to Waterloo Station, Virginia Woolf watched “an old lady in the corner opposite” in her carriage. She was “one of those clean, threadbare old ladies,” whom Woolf imagined might well be called “Mrs. Brown.” By the time her train pulled into Waterloo, Woolf had created an entire possible life for “Mrs. Brown.” She put her at home “in a seaside house … perching on the edges of chairs,” and imagined her making a “heroic decision” at a moment of crisis. Then she watched her fellow passenger “disappear, carrying her bag, into the vast blazing station.”
But when an ordinary person writes exhaustively about her own life, it can be something of a nightmare. Alexander Masters also wants to know what the women he passes in the street or sits beside on the train are thinking. Where Woolf imagined her way into the lives of others whom she names, Masters immerses himself in 148 diaries rescued from a literal trash heap, written by one person between 1952 and 2001, but offering no clue to their author’s identity. Masters’s account of what it was like to read these diaries, and to attempt to piece together the diarist’s life, becomes one writer’s way to respond to Woolf’s 1924 injunction, in which she urged modernist writers to “come down off their plinths and pedestals, and describe beautifully if possible, truthfully at any rate, our Mrs. Brown.”
In a patch of east London, somewhere between the urban and the wild, a love triangle emerges—between a woman, her ex-boyfriend and a fox. This is the premise of “How to be Human”, a debut novel by Paula Cocozza, a British journalist. It is a thrilling psychodrama that twists and turns with the residents of a few houses and their adjacent woods.
Mary, the story’s protagonist, has broken up with Mark, her domineering fiancé, but their destructive relationship has sucked her life dry. Then a fox arrives in her unkempt garden; at first he is a pest and then a friend. He brings her “gifts”, which she finds increasingly full of meaning: a pair of boxer shorts, a gardening glove, an egg. Everything normal in her life starts to slip, but she has something far more valuable, “her fox”.
Sunshine State doesn't confine itself to its titular locale. It also ventures into other places, both real and virtual, from Cleveland to Reddit. But all those roads lead back to Florida, which Gerard imbues with the eerie gravitational pull of both hometowns and black holes. In an age where the crazy-from-the-heat, ripped-from-the-headlines "Florida Man" has become a popular meme, and where the state as a whole has become in increasingly contentious political hotbed, Gerard crafts a nuanced and subtly intimate mosaic.
Exes, among other things, is an amazing feat of plotting and engineering, an elaborate puzzle of a book that brings to mind Alan Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests for the intricacy of its carefully calibrated interlocking connections.
To try to understand what it might be like to be blind, think about how it “looks” behind your head. When you look at the scene in front of you, it has a boundary. Your visual field extends to each side only so far. If you spread your arms, and draw your hands back until they are no longer visible, what color is the space that your hands occupy? This space does not look black. It does not look white. It just isn’t.
Harlem has long had a romance with France. Well before the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, African-American artists and musicians traveled to France to broaden their artistic vision or to escape the daily oppression of American racism.
Not widely known, however, is that the traffic went both ways, with French tourists visiting Harlem because of their fascination with jazz, gospel and black culture, even through the rough years of the 1970s and 1980s, when fear of crime kept away many Americans. During that era, my French came in handy more than once, giving directions to bewildered visitors.
French-speaking Africans have settled and opened businesses on and around West 116th Street since the 1980s, with Petit Senegal lending the bustling thoroughfare a distinctly international air with passers-by in flowing boubous, shops selling phone cards for cheap calls to Africa, and Franco-African restaurants and vegetable stands offering tropical products like hot peppers, plantain and palm oil. But since the 1990s, a small French expat community, attracted by the romanticism of Harlem, its strong sense of community and colorful history, as well as by comparatively lower real estate prices, has sprung up, and, inevitably, so have French restaurants.
True crime, of course, comes in a number of forms and styles, all of which are subject to the same value judgement as any other genre. But, as I understand it, good true crime extends beyond the actual crime.
It is a prevalent fantasy among writers that if only one had a quiet place to work, equally free of onerous responsibilities and of pleasurable diversions, one would be able to bring forth the book that it is otherwise impossible to produce. We complain to our partners or spouses or even our children about the obstacles to writing, even when our partners and spouses and children may be less than sympathetic, being, in some sense, among those very obstacles to our progress that we lament. We imagine that, if only we rose an hour earlier in the day, or watched an hour less television in the evening, or gave up Twitter during the many hours that come between rising and television watching, the hitherto unwritten book would, almost effortlessly, become manifest in the liberated time. We try to refrain from citing Virginia Woolf on the necessity of having a room of one’s own, her precise formula for literary creativity having failed to anticipate the presence, in that room, of an Internet-enabled computer with its myriad distractions and opportunities for procrastination, its offering of endless other virtual rooms to poke around in. If we find it impossible after all, not to cite Woolf’s maxim, we grumpily point out that the part of her prescription for succeeding as a writer that everyone neglects to mention is the bit about needing an independent income: “It is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry.” Then we start wondering how much five hundred pounds a year in 1929 would be worth now, adjusted for inflation, and whether the amount would come anywhere close to covering the cost of living in, say, Brooklyn in 2017, and then we start Googling, and then, wouldn’t you know it, the writing day, or any kind of day, is over, and we haven’t even opened the file dubiously titled “Secret Project” on our laptop.
We need, absolutely, to understand and value a heritage of correspondence; and we should preserve and guarantee a robust public infrastructure for private exchange. But we also need to understand how the ‘personal’ has always been a category ripe for co-option by the very forces it is meant to mitigate and assuage. Perhaps the most useful lesson of the personal letter is in the way it shifts and changes, proving that what we call intimacy, individuality or authenticity does not transcend time – or remain locked in history. The ‘personal’ is what its genres do. Those genres, letters included, continue.
This book is an excellent way of getting a purchase on the man who could be said to have almost single-handedly revived the comic genre, or made it respectable. It is also a great way of learning about the history of comics, science fiction and fantasy.
Hello men! I thought this would be a good time to remind you that anything you can do, I can do bleeding. That’s right, whatever it is you did today, I can probably do it while hemorrhaging from the most sensitive part of my body. And I won’t die! Remember that when you’re standing on the train in the morning surrounded by bodies — roughly half of them female bodies. They could be bleeding. Standing and bleeding. Walking and bleeding. Smiling and bleeding.
I can still see Dr. Calhoun’s two index fingers intertwining and then untangling. In that moment, a new idea presented itself to me: Perhaps the point of life was not to achieve some kind of perfection. Perhaps illness was an integral part of life’s dance. Perhaps fragility was built into our very design. Perhaps fragility was also strength. Through the neutral lens of science, my kid’s genetic deletion was a product of diversity, and who could be upset about that?
That night I danced to a live funk band with my daughter’s peers, sweating fiercely on a dance floor, holding the hands of a grown woman several inches shorter than me, a woman who didn’t speak words but had an excellent sense of rhythm.
Let me tell you about my girl. Today, at five years old, Fiona too loves dancing. She loves reggae and Elmo and ham sandwiches. She is a hat aficionado, and she owns a denim baseball cap, a penguin ski cap, a white chef’s hat, a camouflage pageboy, a sequined raspberry beret, and a straw bolero. She has been hovering at the twenty-pound mark for a year and can eat a half-block of cheese in one sitting. She loves to color, and she will bully you into joining her by thrusting colored pencils toward your nostril.
But the mythos of Lucky Peach is great — greater, at times, than the magazine itself — and nothing casts a legacy into the stratosphere quite like an unexpected, yet agonizing death. Since the publication’s demise was first reported a month ago, with editor Peter Meehan confirming Eater’s break via parental divorce announcement, the accounting of its legacy has largely taken the form of reading lists of its most memorable pieces of writing.
Honoring the words that appeared in Lucky Peach is a fine and proper thing; the writers and stories the magazine showcased were always fresh, and frequently thrilling. The troika of editor-in-chief Chris Ying and editors/polestars Peter Meehan and David Chang created an expansive, well-lit space for writerly experimentation and muscle-stretching. You always knew a Lucky Peach story when you read it, with its long sentences and cockeyed-conoisseur perspective and inevitably macho denouement. But in the end, stories are stories are stories. Good writing will find its reader, no matter what masthead it runs under. It wasn’t the words in Lucky Peach that blew up the stagnant world of food media. It was the design. Lucky Peach looked like nothing else out there — that is, until everything else out there started to look like Lucky Peach.
Independent cinema is moving out of the art house and into every house. The collapse of this viewing window and the bidding-war armistice has been by mitigated by prefab dealmaking. Technocratic distribution companies like Netflix and Amazon have upended the state of independently produced movies. Film festivals that screen these movies were once the bastion for work created beyond the perception of Hollywood’s studio structures — films that were either unable or unwilling to penetrate the cast iron gates that lead to the moviemaking seats of power. The festivals were a home for insurgents, temples that hoisted Tarantino, Michael Moore, Sofia Coppola, Kevin Smith, Allison Anders, Robert Rodriguez, Todd Solondz, Todd Haynes, Ava DuVernay, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and dozens more into the frame. Today, a movie that has been bought, paid for, and strategized against a global calendar by a massive public company is dissonant with the spirit of independent movies.
What is happening is not an erosion of indie cinema, per se, nor a dissolution of risk-taking work — Saulnier’s and Blair’s films are unforgiving and uncompromising genre movies, as likely to bleed and wail as anything from 1992. But their parentage raises some fascinating questions about origins, funding, and accessibility in an evolving movie culture. Netflix and Amazon are eating yet another part of the entertainment community. But what happens when everything has been swallowed up?
“I’m not actually writing this book to discuss my work, my opinions or my life,” Baldwin declares right off the bat and soon adds, “I’m writing it because I was paid to write it.”
After that start, you feel the needle on your Baldwin-appreciation meter trending downward. But to his surprise (and ours) he pulls himself together and delivers a thorough and sophisticated effort to answer an interesting question: How did an indifferently raised, self-flagellating kid from a just-making-ends-meet, desultorily functioning Long Island family, in Massapequa, turn into Alec Baldwin, gifted actor, familiar public figure, impressively thoughtful person, notorious pugilist?
Water availability is a primary environmental concern of our age. It was a determining factor in development of the American West, from the forced displacement of Native American nations to the establishment of the Colorado River Compact across seven states and Mexico. That "Law of the River" has shaped the policy and practicalities of the West, and Where the Water Goes traces all 1,400 miles of it, trying to understand how fragile a web we've woven.
It's a staggering glimpse of just how complex the situation is — and how long the river has been a concern. In 1893, long before "conservation" had anything but economic implications, geologist John Wesley Powell warned the National Irrigation Congress, "When all the rivers are used ... when all the wells are sunk or dug that can be dug, there is still not sufficient water to irrigate this arid region." (Owen notes dryly: "He was booed.") And while we laugh at 19th-century blowhard Horace Greeley's assertion that "rain follows the plow," the current administration is rolling back environmental protections with similarly inaccurate bluster. The reality is something else entirely, and Where the Water Goes is, if nothing else, a crucial admission of the mess we're in.
That said, the most fun of having an affair is sneaking around. And getting away with it. Those are both pretty fun. Sneaking around makes you a spy in your very own Charles McCarry novel. Maybe you get a burner phone. You are constantly lying to someone and maybe getting good at it. It may only be a matter of time before you’re caught. But it’s the chase, the adrenaline rush. The sugary feeling. Chemicals. That’s what gets us off. Kafka knew this when he wrote ”You are incapable of loving. Only fear excites you.”
When Margaret Atwood was in her twenties, an aunt shared with her a family legend about a possible seventeenth-century forebear: Mary Webster, whose neighbors, in the Puritan town of Hadley, Massachusetts, had accused her of witchcraft. “The townspeople didn’t like her, so they strung her up,” Atwood said recently. “But it was before the age of drop hanging, and she didn’t die. She dangled there all night, and in the morning, when they came to cut the body down, she was still alive.” Webster became known as Half-Hanged Mary. The maiden name of Atwood’s grandmother was Webster, and the family tree can be traced back to John Webster, the fifth governor of Connecticut. “On Monday, my grandmother would say Mary was her ancestor, and on Wednesday she would say she wasn’t,” Atwood said. “So take your pick.”
Atwood made the artist’s pick: she chose the story. She once wrote a vivid narrative poem in the voice of Half-Hanged Mary—in Atwood’s telling, a sardonic, independent-minded crone who was targeted by neighbors “for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin . . . a weedy farm in my own name, / and a surefire cure for warts.” Webster’s grim endurance at the end of the rope (“Most will have only one death. / I will have two.”) grants her a perverse kind of freedom. She can now say anything: “The words boil out of me, / coil after coil of sinuous possibility. / The cosmos unravels from my mouth, / all fullness, all vacancy.” In 1986, Atwood made Webster one of two dedicatees of her best-known novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian vision of the near future, in which the United States has become a fundamentalist theocracy, and the few women whose fertility has not been compromised by environmental pollution are forced into childbearing. The other dedicatee of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was Perry Miller, the scholar of American intellectual history; Atwood studied under him at Harvard, in the early sixties, extending her knowledge of Puritanism well beyond fireside tales.
Having embraced the heritage of Half-Hanged Mary—and having, at seventy-seven, reached an age at which sardonic independent-mindedness is permissible, and even expected—Atwood is winningly game to play the role of the wise elder who might have a spell up her sleeve. In January, I visited her in her home town of Toronto, and within a few hours of our meeting, while having coffee at a crowded café, she performed what friends know as a familiar party trick. After explaining that she had picked up the precepts of medieval palmistry decades ago, from an art-historian neighbor whose specialty was Hieronymus Bosch, Atwood spent several disconcerting minutes poring over my hands. First, she noted my heart line and the line of my intellect, and what their relative positions revealed about my capacity for getting things done. She wiggled my thumbs, a test for stubbornness. She examined my life line—“You’re looking quite healthy at the moment,” she said, to my relief—then told me to shake my hands out and let them fall into a resting position, facing upward. She regarded them thoughtfully. “Well, the Virgin Mary you’re not,” she said, dryly. “But you knew that.”
The only warning to be given about “Somebody With a Little Hammer” is that it’s not “binge”-worthy. Gaitskill is not light reading, and consuming too many of these essays in a row can have a numbing effect. Her blunt presentations of fact and deep wades into unsentimental emotionality are like bites of a rich, dense meal. Too much at once can be repellent. But Gaitskill’s writing is somehow crucial in a way few of her peers can achieve. She says the things you didn’t know needed to be said until she says them, and only then do you know what you’ve been missing.
On a divergent but perhaps also parallel trajectory, the first written version of Beauty and the Beast slid itself into print at the dawn of the Enlightenment. Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s “Le Belle et la Bête” (1756) attempted to prepare girls for an arranged marriage that required them to abandon their own desires — to ignore them, to neither know nor own them — for the sake of their future husbands. Men, in this story, are always potential monsters. By the time the tale reached the ears and quills of the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century, it had become a celebration of the civilizing power of feminine virtue and its triumph over base, carnal desire.
Fast-forward a few hundred years and we land here, at Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. Ferris’s epistolary graphic novel is a bildungsroman. Karen Reyes, Ferris’s young narrator, visualizes herself as a monster. A literal monster — something of a vampire, perhaps, although she defies simple categorization — she is even equipped with an under-bite fang. Karen’s obsession with monsters and monstrosity stems, however, not only from feeling like a monster, but also from her desire to bond with her brother Deeze. He gives her comics about monsters, and the covers of these comics form an interstitial narrative that interrupts and complicates the main story. While Karen’s monstrosity makes her feel like an outsider, she also has a deep faith in monsters. To her, monsters are saviors.
When you move to another country as an adult, the language flows around you like a river. Perhaps a child can immediately abandon himself to the current, but most older people will begin by picking out the words and phrases that seem to matter most, which is what I did after my family moved to Cairo, in October of 2011. It was the first fall after the Arab Spring; Hosni Mubarak, the former President, had been forced to resign the previous February. Every weekday, my wife, Leslie, and I met with a tutor for two hours at a language school called Kalimat, where we studied Egyptian Arabic. At the end of each session, we made a vocabulary list.
I too remember a high school creative writing class in which I was told that I should know all of my characters’ telephone numbers. But now I see that kind of advice for what it is: a shorthand used to try and trick fully-realized characters out of inexperienced writers. The thinking being, if you know your character’s phone number, you might also know what her relationship with her parents is like, what her secret dreams are, who she loves most in the world. “But,” Michel asks, “do we need ‘worldbuilding’ as a concept to explain why moral simplicity, characterization without nuance, or a lack of a tactile sense-of-place can be a problem?” Well, yes. We need whatever term will work for whatever writer at any given time. If we widen our understanding of worldbuilding—and most of the guides Michel links to do have rather wide versions of the term—and use it to refer to a fictional universe characterized by complexity, nuance, a tactile sense of place, an internal logic, a story that fulfills its own promise, then why not?
I wondered if it was comforting for Lily to hear stories about fairy-tale children who had lost what she had lost — unlike most of the kids at her school, or in her ballet classes, whose mothers were still alive. Or perhaps it brought the stories dangerously near, the fact that she shared so much with them. Maybe it peeled away their protective skins of fantasy, made their pepper water too literal, brought their perils too close. When I read her the old fairy tales about daughters without mothers, I worried that I was pushing on the bruises of her loss. When I read her the old fairy tales about stepmothers, I worried I was reading her an evil version of myself.
I sought these tales avidly when I first became a stepmother. I was hungry for company. I didn’t know many stepmothers, and I especially didn’t know many stepmothers who had inherited the role as I had inherited it: fully, overwhelmingly, with no other mother in the picture. Our family lived in the aftermath of loss, not rupture — death, not divorce. This used to be the normal way of being a stepmother, and the word itself holds grief in its roots. The Old English “steop” means loss, and the etymology paints a bleak portrait: “For stepmoder is selde guod,” reads one account from 1290. A text from 1598 says, “With one consent all stepmothers hate their daughters.”
The latest art exhibition at R. Michelson Galleries on Northampton’s Main Street has a few things to say about the current state of American politics. The images, however, are anything but angry. They’re inhabited by cartoon dogs, smiling bears, and multicolored fish, accompanied by gentle captions, such as “We Are All in the Same Pond.” The art expresses its concerns in terms even a small child could understand.
But, then, the creator of these charming political doodles is adept at communicating across generations. Striding into the gallery for a reception in his honor, he’s a bearded and bespectacled character wearing a turtleneck and green Doc Martens boots. His graying, shoulder-length hair is tucked behind his ears and beneath a fiddler cap. Scampering at his heels is his family’s miniature schnauzer, Vincent. The dog looks an awful lot like his master.
Soft City is a compelling storehouse of midcentury anxieties. Even if these anxieties are no longer quite the same — if we now inhabit a world in which the absence of work is more terrifying than its overbearing presence — there is still value to Pushwagner’s vision. Ware may perhaps overstate the case when he writes, in his introduction, that “now, forty years later, [Soft City] still feels revolutionary.” But revolutions in art are not quite the same as revolutions in political consciousness: we don’t need to share each and every one of an artist’s fears to understand the significance of his or her work. Today we are differently alienated. But in depicting a world that was a precursor to our own, even if that world is now less recognizable, Soft City turned an era’s apprehensions into art.
And from “The Happiest Kids in the World,” I’ve picked up a Dutch mantra: “Doe maar gewoon dan doe je al gek genoeg.” In other words, Acosta and Hutchison explain, “Just act normal, that’s crazy enough,” or “Calm down.”
For American parents reading too many of these books, that may be the most important advice of all.
Autism Awareness Month, now in its 13th year, does raise awareness, or at least boosts Web searches on autism. But awareness is different than recognition. Awareness doesn’t increase the number of places where parents like me can take our behaviorally challenged children, for example. My son can’t sit still in a movie theater for the length of a movie. He gets overstimulated in children’s museums. In most restaurants, his yelps and difficulty staying seated draw sharp looks. People want to eat in peace. I get that, but I don’t want to be a prisoner in my home either. And I can only spend so much time at the laundromat, where Finn can generally bang on the machines and push around the ancient carts without disturbing anyone.
It’s not an assignment that comes with a deadline. It took years for me to gather books for my sons — not to mention the accumulated wisdom of librarians and other bibliophiles who, over the years, slipped titles into my hands with a knowing nod, or with the question “Have you seen this one?” And it will take me years to build this collection I’ll bequeath to my sons, and any new little readers who will come toddling along. But how could it be otherwise? Home, I now know, is where my children’s books are.
This leads to “bickering, desertion, subterfuge and rivalry”. It also leads to a story that could be read as a disguised retelling of the Russian revolution, or the Reformation, or the Sunni-Shia schism, or any great human falling out. As soon as you form any kind of “us”, Mills suggests, a “them” will form in response. In this, The Forensic Records Society is like Animal Farm but with blokes for pigs, and much better songs.
Nearly 170 years and untold tons of carbon dioxide emissions separate the world of the Crystal Serenity from the world of the Terror and the Erebus. The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen completed the first successful navigation of the Northwest Passage in 1906, but it is only in the last decade, with the dramatic shrinking of summer sea ice because of man-made climate change, that large-scale luxury tourism in the High Arctic has become a realistic possibility. The differences are stark and obvious, yet Paul Watson’s intriguing new book, “Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition,” also points to a surprising area of continuity.
To conservators and historians, smell has always played an important role in assessing the origin and condition of historic books, and in working out how to look after them. “I have no vocabulary to define this, but there is a curious warm leathery smell to English parchment, unlike the sharper, cooler scent of Italian skins,” wrote the Cambridge University don and librarian Christopher de Hamel in his bestselling Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.
But that lack of vocabulary could be about to change, thanks to a groundbreaking project by researchers at UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, who have devised a way of relating such apparently subjective descriptions directly to the chemical composition of books. In a paper published this week in the journal Heritage Science, Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič describe how they analysed samples from an old book, picked up in a second-hand shop, and developed a “historic book odour wheel”, which connects identifiable chemicals with people’s reactions to them.
My fingers twitched. My pulse spiked. I was so close. I’d brought my technology bag. I’d brought my hard drives and my soft drives. Hacking, bandwidth, a computer with adequate memory, and the superior hacking chops of a pro hacker—I was the only one who could stop the cyborg terrorists.
Now a mere click away from hacking into the hackosphere, I knew I would uncover the truth about who really leaked the spyware. Still, I was plagued by a virus, by a byte of uncertainty. A bead of sweat slipped from my brow and splashed onto my Dell keyboard.
We’ve been imagining the end of the world since we inherited it, and in most of our mythologies the world ceases to exist before it can begin. Zeus and Odin had to wage total war on their forebears to make way for man. The story of Noah’s ark prefigures many modern fantasies of interstellar colonization. Paleontologists tell us of five major extinctions, the last of which was brought to a head, in theory, by a mischievous asteroid that did in the dinosaurs and coated the world in a thin layer of iridium-rich sediment 66 million years ago.
That we’re now in the midst of a sixth extinction, as the title of Elizabeth Kolbert’s best seller has it, is accepted by those not in denial, and the best we can say about the Anthropocene is that we’ve matured enough as a species that we no longer need the intervention of a god, an asteroid or belligerent aliens to bring about the end of the world. Whether we’re mature enough to save ourselves from ourselves is an open question.
In contrast to “worldbuilding,” I’ll offer the term “worldconjuring.” Worldconjuring does not attempt to construct a scale model in the reader’s bedroom. Worldconjuring uses hints and literary magic to create the illusion of a world, with the reader working to fill in the gaps. Worldbuilding imposes, worldconjuring collaborates.
Let me make a necessarily incomplete analogy to another platform. In painting, worldbuilding is like Renaissance art that attempts to create realistic figures even when they are cherubs, demons, or god. Worldconjuring is a spectrum of other techniques: Matisse implying dancing figures with a few swoops of the brush, Picasso creating a chaos of objects to summon the horrors of Guernica, Magritte shattering our vision with impossible scenes. We should enjoy realistic paintings, but we shouldn’t impose their standards on every school of art.
Anecdotes often shed light on the way we see art and literature. A few weeks ago, I was skimming through Rachel Corbett’s book in the Paris metro when a young man came toward me and asked me whether the title, You Must Change Your Life, referred to some sort of self-help book. I first smiled at his comment and then thought that the title was somewhat deceptive. As the young man was still staring at me, I had to explain that Corbett’s book was actually about the story of renowned French sculptor Auguste Rodin and Prague-born poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The man was still unsatisfied, so I further explained that the title, derived from a famous Rilke poem, hints at the way creation requires the young artist to overcome his fears and reshape his life. In what I took for a sign that creation, effort, and culture are all intertwined notions, my conversation with the stranger ended at the station Bibliothèque François Mitterrand as he stepped off the metro and gave me a last nod of gratitude.
Later on, when I finished reading Corbett’s book, I thought again of my hasty reply to the stranger and realized that his guess was probably right. Indeed, the moving story of Rilke and Rodin is worth as much as the best self-help books and manuals, and one could definitely learn a lot from their relationship. If Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet stands as an acclaimed and oft-cited work, his encounter with Rodin is definitely less known.
“Hamburgers,” my uncle said, pointing at me from across the table at New Jersey’s only decent Chinese restaurant. “Lisa loves hamburgers. Right, Lisa?”
It didn’t matter whether I said yes or no. I was the first in my family to be born in the United States, so the decision had been made for me. I was expected to betray Chinese food for American food: junior Whoppers, Quarter Pounders with cheese, White Castle sliders with onion breath. And that I did. For my relatives, Chinese immigrants from the Philippines, this was evidence of how I’d assimilated and they hadn’t.
I was a victim of laughter.
They set the alphabet
like a river
into which the names of God
bound by letters
We are living in an age in which the behavioral sciences have become inescapable. The findings of social psychology and behavioral economics are being employed to determine the news we read, the products we buy, the cultural and intellectual spheres we inhabit, and the human networks, online and in real life, of which we are a part. Aspects of human societies that were formerly guided by habit and tradition, or spontaneity and whim, are now increasingly the intended or unintended consequences of decisions made on the basis of scientific theories of the human mind and human well-being.
The behavioral techniques that are being employed by governments and private corporations do not appeal to our reason; they do not seek to persuade us consciously with information and argument. Rather, these techniques change behavior by appealing to our nonrational motivations, our emotional triggers and unconscious biases. If psychologists could possess a systematic understanding of these nonrational motivations they would have the power to influence the smallest aspects of our lives and the largest aspects of our societies.
While writing her first memoir, The Liar’s Club, Mary Karr was so exhausted she napped every day like a cross-country trucker. This was unusual for her, a single mom and a full-time college professor who usually needed just a few hours of sleep at night. Eventually, she identified the cause: The intense emotional workout of writing a memoir was causing her actual, physical exhaustion.
“I’ve heard that from other writers, too,” she told me. Compared to writing fiction, revisiting your own past just beats you up, she said. And a newfound urge to sleep is only one side effect of drafting a memoir: People who are long dead can slowly come alive in your mind; you can hear and smell them almost as vividly as if you were having a full-blown hallucination. Your memories will change, as truths you long held about your life begin to unravel. Ultimately, you may end up a different person altogether. “In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right,” Karr writes in her most recent book, (The Art of Memoir*, which was released in paperback last fall. “The form always has profound psychological consequences on its author.”
The book’s cover depicts an anonymous capped crusader: a carpenter waving triumphantly from the steel skeleton of the Empire State Building, rising from the heart of Manhattan in 1930 to defy the Depression.
This was the decade that defined the skyline, that delivered New York personalities like Barbara Hutton, Fiorello H. La Guardia, Eugene O’Neill and Walter Winchell to global audiences, and that experienced intellectual foment in the Harlem Renaissance and an infusion of refugees from Nazi persecution.
It’s not that I don’t sympathise with your frustration at being unable to fulfil your dream and be published. I’ve been there, as have many now-published authors; the many more who still wish to be published will share your despair. We’ve all felt “bewildered” that the publishing industry failed to recognise our genius. We have all looked at our work – our “masterpieces”, in your words – and wondered the same as you: “How can I fail?”
And we have all failed. But you aren’t a failed novelist. You’ve had precisely two books on submission to publishers. “Years of work and emotional investment wasted,” you write. “I finally gave up, to save my sanity.”
Dear Anonymous, you’re not a failure. You’re a quitter.
The physical objects known as books have a call I cannot ignore. A true addict, I often enter a book store and experience a momentary lapse of consciousness before coming to with my arms full of new books as I try to forget my to-read pile at home. This guilt was assuaged for a few years when I had a specific mission: to find the fairy tales, specifically a large bluish book with Rose Red and Snow White painted on the cover, called My Bookhouse; Up One Pair of Stairs, a collection edited by Olive Beaupré Miller. When I was a child, the greatest treat in the world was spending the night at my grandparents’ because my grandmother would read me to sleep. After she passed away, my extended family swiftly packed up her belongings, and I believed My Bookhouse lost.
I used to love Frappuccinos. But now I hate them. There’s a lot of barista-hate against the Frappuccino. They throw off your whole routine. They’re not that hard to make, but if you’re by yourself and you have to run back and forth between making hot-bar espresso drinks and doing a Frappuccino, it’s tricky, timing-wise. Espresso drinks take like 15 to 30 seconds, but the Frappuccino takes about ten seconds.
And people order the most ridiculous Frappuccinos, which makes you want to cry all day on the inside. The other day, someone ordered extra caramel drizzle and ten pumps of caramel. Usually, it only comes with two in a venti size. So a venti with ten pumps of caramel, extra caramel drizzle, whipped cream, and nonfat milk. People order a Java Chip Frappuccino, but they’ll put like 20 different syrups in it, and they’ll want to make it like decaf — or they’ll want to add extra shots to it. Today, someone ordered a Frappuccino with five extra shots. I don’t understand why, at that point, you don’t just order an espresso.
For years, the 213-acre site was a destination for Halloween thrill seekers and bird watchers, a haven of green in an overcrowded land. But in recent years it has become something much more powerful: a pilgrimage site for Singaporeans trying to reconnect with their country’s vanishing past.
That has put Bukit Brown at the center of an important social movement in a country that has rarely tolerated community activism — a battle between the state, which plans to level part of the cemetery, and a group of citizens dedicated to its preservation.
Stepping onto the marinara-red carpet of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s north hall, I inhaled a whiff of baking dough and followed the call of a gentle legato tune. Past a towering display of insulated delivery bags, I found the music’s source: at the Stanislaus Food Products stall (“Home of the Real Italian Tomato Since 1942”), a guitar duo plucked and strummed a Neapolitan jingle by a low white fence. As the players painted the coda, I took a few steps backward. A woman from Tyson Foods patted my arm and said she wanted to show me how they are so much more than chicken. “Would you like to try our Hillshire Farm all-natural pepperoni?”
“I am a person who often chooses pain,” Gaitskill writes in one essay here. Yet an observer can’t help noticing that she has begun, for the first time, to smile in her dust jacket photographs.
What’s more, her most recent novel, “The Mare” (2015), was a tear-jerker at times, with an upbeat ending. Is American literature’s dark swan, its Odile, mellowing?
The news these essays bring is, I am happy to say, not at all. She continues to wield a remorseless little hammer.
In the opening chapter of his extraordinary and courageous book, the author and critic Ron Powers writes about a recurring dream in which he imagines his sanity as resting atop “a thin and fragile membrane that can easily be ripped open, plunging me into the abyss of madness, where I join the tumbling souls whose membranes have likewise been pierced over the ages.” The “horror and helplessness of the fall,” he goes on, “are intensified by an uncaring world.”
In “No One Cares About Crazy People,” he joins those tumbling souls, two of whom are his beloved schizophrenic sons. He writes with fierce hope and fierce purpose to persuade the world to pay attention.
I knew exactly why it wouldn’t work to write an essay explaining why it took me 15 years—or an exact third of my life—to complete my debut novel, Exes. Think of a map where 1 inch equals 1 inch. (“Take a left at last week, head to six months ago, and it’s just on your right, where 2004 used to be. You can’t miss it!”) Even so, I stared at a blank screen long enough for the sun to reach my side of the house and burn my left eye through the makeshift blinder of my cupped hand. (Do you start feeling glaucoma right away? Does it make your eye water and twitch?) But 15 years is a long time, and the imitative fallacy isn’t always that, plus I could’ve really used an account like this at some rocky point in year eight, say. Or seven. Six, or five even. Hell, at any point, really. Writers feel mostly alone and half-mad enough as it is, is all I’m saying.
One memorable challenge came when I was translating Lord Edgware Dies, which took me 10 years because of one almost impossible hurdle: a particular two-word clue, which to me felt inextricably bound to the English language. The words used in English sounded different in Icelandic, dissolving the clue entirely. In the end I resorted to simply referring to the English words as well, after trying dozens of alternative methods.
I’ll tell you this much about him: He has soft eyes and a wonderful smile. He’s taller than me. He’s very good with computers. His accent in English is terrible. He likes his privacy.
In 2016, after several years of a simple and warm love affair, we hit a snag. We had decided to live together, and that I would emigrate to Europe. But to do this, we had to prove our relationship to the government. The instructions on how to do this skewed toward the modern forms of relationships: social media connections; emails; chats; pictures of the happy couple. He read through this, and showed it to me. We both laughed. Our relationship had left few traces in the digital world. We had none of these things.
Debt and depression — surely these demons don’t haunt writers any more than they do the rest of the population, but it falls to writers to describe the experience of poverty or melancholy in ways that bankers or doctors never will. That becoming a writer requires something alternately called confidence or courage or self-delusion lends the sting of penury extra venom and makes the paralysis of depression all the more existential. If you can command words on a page that editors want to publish, why is your bank account empty? If your name is on the cover of books people buy in shops, why can’t you get out of bed in the morning?
His blog, Dying for Beginners, which started as an email to friends, and his columns for what he (and I) called the Sindy have now been collected and published as a book. It is very good, and it is easy to read. Courtauld was a fluent and enthusiastic writer, thinker and wit. Even with one finger of his wrong (right) hand on an iPad, as his multiple sclerosis became worse, and when he could hardly see, the energy of his mind comes straight through to the reader.
Its recipes may not change your life, but some dish has, somewhere along the line; if you’re fortunate you remember who made it for you as clearly and lovingly as this book does.
A little over a year ago, in a small building at the corner of East 103rd Street and Anzac Avenue in South Los Angeles, chef Daniel Patterson zigzagged among trainees in the bright clean kitchen of what was about to become Locol, the fast-food restaurant with a mission. Patterson was 47 years old, bone-pale and wiry, and among the most creative American chefs of his generation. He owned five restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area and had another on the way. He was also one of the cool kids of international fine dining, invited to speak at the most prestigious culinary conferences and part of a circle of friends that includes the Italian chef Massimo Bottura, the Danish chef René Redzepi, and the Australian chef Ben Shewry, owners of, respectively, the restaurants currently ranked first, fifth, and 33rd in the world.
Patterson’s trainees were almost entirely from Jordan Downs, the 714-unit public housing project in Watts. Many had never been employed before, and those with prior cooking experience had worked mostly in conventional fast food or prison cafeterias. They paid rapt attention as Patterson showed them how to weigh out patty-size balls of Locol’s signature burger blend, a pale pink combination of ground beef, tofu, barley, quinoa, and seaweed.
In an attempt to view its treasures in less than nine minutes and 43 seconds, three youths run recklessly through the Louvre, laughing breathlessly. The scene, from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 Bande à part, is one of French cinema’s most famous. Invoked in the conclusion to Michelle Boulous Walker’s Slow Philosophy: Reading Against the Institution, it is made to capture the malaise that grips contemporary philosophy in its institutional context, where the demands of speed and efficiency dominate at the expense of considered contemplation, and where the rapid production and consumption of knowledge have almost completely displaced the pleasures of the text. As Boulous Walker bluntly asserts, “this is not how we look at art.”
Godard’s image is striking for its visual poetry. By contrast, the dominant if somewhat covert image of Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy is striking for its banality. Teenagers working casualized jobs on a minimum wage serve homogenized products devoid of nutritional or aesthetical value to obese, diabetic, and utterly docile consumers. Fluorescent lights accentuate garish plastic furniture and everybody smiles, although nobody knows why. Welcome to McUniversity.
In Albrecht Dürer's famous — and famously inaccurate — engraving of a rhinoceros from 1515, there is a caption above the animal that reads, in part, Das ist hie mit aller seiner gestalt Abcondertfet. The phrase is often translated as “Here is an accurate representation,” or “It is here shown in its full stature,” but the German word Abcondertfet is more properly translated as “counterfeit,” and a more literal, if less idiomatic, translation might read “It is here counterfeited.” As with its English counterpart, Abcondertfet has a dual meaning: it denotes both a faithful, exact reproduction and a forgery or fraud.
There is perhaps no better word than “counterfeit” to describe cultural representations of the natural world. This is the duality that the Spanish historian Juan Pimentel explores in his 2010 book, The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium: An Essay in Natural History, now translated into English for the first time by Peter Mason. The book follows the lives of its two titular animals: the first rhinoceros brought to Europe in captivity and the first discovered bones of the Megatherium, a massive sloth-like beast that went extinct around 8,000 years ago.
In 2010, violinist and erstwhile child prodigy, 31-year-old Min Kym was with her partner in a Pret A Manger at Euston station, when her 1696 Stradivarius was stolen from under the table. Kym was so devastated at the loss of “her” instrument, that she descended into a depression and, for a while, couldn’t bear to play. Three years later, the story hit the headlines again, when the Stradivarius was recovered. Seemingly, it was a wonderful fairy tale ending, though, as Kym details in this powerful bruising memoir, the reality was far more complex.
He is breathing better and the doctors say his lungs will recover, but he can’t remember his appointments or where he put his keys.
It has been months since the surgery and the scars are fading, yet she still wakes almost nightly to the sound of phantom alarms.
Those are the sorts of stories I heard one morning at a support group for patients who had survived a critical illness and their family members. It seems simple — a few doctors, a social worker, a psychiatrist, former patients and their husbands and wives, a conference room, pastries, coffee. In a way it was. But this was the first time that many of these men and women had been asked to talk about their struggles after critical illness with those who’d shared similar experiences.
And it was among the first times that I — then a doctor in my final year of critical care training — had heard directly from them about their lives after the I.C.U.
I don’t eat fish. And before I explain why, let me state upfront that I’m not aiming to shame fish eaters. I’m not an activist or an alarmist. I’m an early-career fish biologist—specifically, a physiologist who studies the impacts of environmental stressors on fish energetics and behaviour.
My fieldwork has taken me to the Caribbean, to oil-contaminated rivers in Trinidad, to small lakes in Uganda, and to the Great Lakes. I spend most of my days in a laboratory in Montreal, measuring swimming and metabolic performance in African fish species, and catching up on the latest studies in marine and freshwater biology. Many of my friends work in related fields, such as fisheries management, hydropower, and pollution and sustainability in aquatic systems. Over the past nine years, I’ve seen, read, and heard about what happens to fish before it ends up on our plates. And now, whenever my friends order sushi takeout, or my dad enjoys his breaded fish fillets, or even when my cat eats his “seafood medley” dinner, I get nervous—not just for the fish, but also for my loved ones.
“Hey, wanna see something cool?”
Allan Stypeck, barreling down the bookstore aisle.
Big guy, barrel-chested, pushing 70, thinning white hair, heavy with the New York accent (Brooklyn, with a shade of Long Island). Leans in close, a little conspiratorial thing going on: “Wanna come see this?”
Look, hey, it’s an invitation I can’t refuse.
One of the great lessons of Madame President is that an enormous step backward sometimes motivates nations, and women, to press forward. “Little girls do not come out of the womb vowing to become activists for female power,” Cooper writes in the book. “They don’t spend their childhood thinking about how they will repair the indignities, large and small, that bleed women daily. It’s a series of things that multiply and turn ordinary women into movements of female determination.”
“There are more and more women politicians across the continent,” said Cooper. “To understand how big a deal [that is] you have to understand how patriarchal the continent is. But at the same time, it’s always been the market women — the women with the buckets of oranges on their heads — who have run the economy throughout all these wars, throughout all of this. And now they’re realizing that they can translate some of that energy into politics, and that’s happening all across the place.”
Cooper’s voice is perfectly calibrated for this story, balancing cultural analysis, humor, beautiful turns of phrase, and a reporter’s objective detachment. This blend makes the toughest narratives in the book bearable and brings readers directly into the life of the girl who would be president.
Burdick ultimately is less concerned with external time — with the physics and math of cosmology — than with the biology, neuroscience and psychology of time. An award-winning science writer rather than a scientist, he feels emboldened by the current limits of scientific understanding. “If scientists agree on anything, it’s that nobody knows enough about time and that this lack of knowledge is surprising given how pervasive and integral time is to our lives.”
Not schooled in art history or appreciation, my way of overcoming the knee-jerk "a child could've scribbled that" response to abstract and experimental gallery work is to appreciate the way it forces me to interact with it. How does it linger against my eyes in after-image? How is it hijacking my senses, making me see things that aren't there? How does an artist's subtle engineering of space, light, colour, extend the canvas into my body and make material of me?
I think of this, among other things, while reading Frontier, because its subtlety is so careful and precise and its effect so wild and diffuse. It's difficult to talk about it except in effect — I find it necessary to write around it, to speak in spirals, because it isn't a story so much as an experience of walking through spider-webs and dew.
So: the last London. It has to be said with a climbing inflection at the end. Every statement is provisional here. Nothing is fixed or grounded. Come back tomorrow and the British Museum will be an ice rink, a boutique hotel, a fashion hub. The familiar streets outside will have vanished into walls of curved glass and progressive holes in the ground. The darkened showroom of the Brick Lane monumental mason with the Jewish headstones will be an art gallery. So? The Victorian theatre on Dalston Lane is already a windblown concrete slab with optional water jets propping up a reef of speculative towers nobody can afford on a buttress of failed enterprises, themed restaurants forever changing their allegiance and retail opportunities nobody is rushing to take up, despite those elegantly faded CGI panoramas of satisfied customers who never lived in the world as we know it. So? I’m trying to teach myself the grammar of a terminated city in which every sentence begins with a confident clearing of the throat: ‘So …’ That’s the entry code. It’s as if you’ve been shoved onstage, without lines, in a play you’ve never read. Smile brightly. Bluff like a politician in a glass booth being manipulated by semaphoring black-suited attendants with clipboards. So? ‘All for the best in the best of all possible Londons,’ says the mayor, says the minister, says Joanna Lumley. ‘All for the best,’ say the entitled, the connected, the stakeholders, the investors and the profit-takers.
That insignificant ‘so’ has moved with the times. When my children were teenagers, ‘so’ meant ‘so’. So!!! So what? A hormonal challenge. Now it’s a signifier, a warning bleep letting the recipient know that nothing that follows has any billable consequence. The speaker, the spokesperson, the hireling expert, is not accountable. Language in the last London is a negotiation, a spin of terminological inexactitudes. We are losing the ground beneath our feet. Slipping and sliding on subordinating conjunctions, we are disorientated. We feel as if we are falling as we walk, reaching out for anything cold and hard and more than a week old. In his book Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers, the geographer Stephen Graham quotes Hito Steyerl, a German video artist: ‘Many contemporary philosophers have pointed out that the present moment is distinguished by a prevailing condition of groundlessness.’ Call it ground-zero vertigo. Non-specific paranoia. Territory, as soon as it can be adequately surveyed by drones, or hard-hat visionaries in helicopters, from heights where even the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park looks great, is only there to be explained, improved, colonised and captured. So? So? So what?
Figures as different as Charles Dickens, Henri Poincaré, and Ingmar Bergman, working in disparate fields in different times, all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking. Their creativity and productivity, in other words, were not the result of endless hours of toil. Their towering creative achievements result from modest “working” hours.
How did they manage to be so accomplished? Can a generation raised to believe that 80-hour workweeks are necessary for success learn something from the lives of the people who laid the foundations of chaos theory and topology or wrote Great Expectations?
I think we can. If some of history’s greatest figures didn’t put in immensely long hours, maybe the key to unlocking the secret of their creativity lies in understanding not just how they labored but how they rested, and how the two relate.
Katie Kitamura’s third novel, A Separation, is about the end of a marriage between two wealthy white people, both of whom are writers. On its face, this premise sounds like a joke about clichés of the literary novel. The easiest way to make fun of an MFA student is to depict someone who has never been married, writing about the breakdown of a rich middle-aged couple’s marriage. And little reveals the insularity of novelists’ social backgrounds than the insistence on writing about people with their same unlikely job, as though being an author were some everyman profession. If anything at all shouldn’t still work, it’s both of these premises.
When Alys Fowler set out to paddle around the waterways of Birmingham, her home city, in an inflatable pack raft, she knew only that she needed an adventure. She had been stuck in a city too long, stuck in a job, stuck in that happyish way that is almost enough. She dreamed of taking off to explore the far reaches of Bolivia or the mountains of Central Asia, but this was real life, and she had tight finances and a chronically ill husband; she had to scale it back. Perhaps, she told herself, she could discover a new world right there on her doorstep. She bought herself a boat and a bus ticket and went to find out.
There is truly an astounding wealth of material here, cultural artifacts that add up to an ironclad allegory for the plight of urban African Americans in the ’80s, which serves to point the way to where we are now.
These poets ask how can we escape or overcome the past. By staring at it, they seem to answer, as into a mirror, until we catch up to what made us.