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Archive for May 2017

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

How The Self-Esteem Craze Took Over America, by Jesse Singal, New York Magazine

It seems mawkish now, even by the standards of children’s books, but The Lovables was published as a runaway cultural trend was cresting across North America: the self-esteem craze. If you grew up, or raised a child, during the 1980s or 1990s, you almost certainly remember this sort of material, as well as goofy classroom exercises focusing on how special each individual child was. A certain ethos took hold during this time: It was the job of schools to educate, yes, but also to instill in children a sense of their own specialness and potential.

It wasn’t just schoolkids. During this span, just about everyone, from CEOs to welfare recipients, was told — often by psychologists with serious credentials — that improving their self-esteem could, as The Lovables put it, unlock the gates to more happiness, better performance, and every kind of success imaginable. This was both a personal argument and a political one: The movement, which had its epicenter in California, argued that increasing people’s self-esteem could reduce crime, teen pregnancy, and a host of other social ills — even pollution.

The Alchemy Of Poetry Plus Criticism, by Colleen Abel, Ploughshares

My first exposure to the hybrid genre that combines the critical essay with the lyric movements and methods of poetry came when I heard Maureen McLane read from her National Book Critics Circle Award-nominated book My Poets. That night, McLane read from a chapter called “My Elizabeth Bishop / (My Gertrude Stein).” I don’t remember how McLane introduced the audience to the book’s project, but various reviewers describe the book as “experimental essays” or “part memoir and part criticism.” My Poets foregrounds what most criticism only briefly (if at all) acknowledges: that a writer’s desire to critically explore the work of another writer often springs from a personal source. The writer-critic wants to explore the work that has shaped them personally, or that their own creative work is in dialogue with. In academia, especially, we are groomed to believe that there is only one method of exploration. McLane’s reading was the first time I realized that this wasn’t the case.

Tour De Raunch, by Christian Lorentzen, Book Forum

Sex that doesn’t happen, sex that’s embarrassing, sex that’s shameful and painful—is that all there is? No, sex is always with us. But in our literature it is subject to cycles of repression and liberation, ecstasy and shame, arousal and quieting. The history of the American novel is a history of sex.

To Denis Johnson, From One Of The Weirdos, by Matt Bell, Electric Literature

Denis Johnson was not my teacher or mentor. We did not have any correspondence; I was never introduced to him by our few mutual friends, and even though he was my favorite writer I never dared to ask for a blurb or any other kind of help. (For me, it would have been like asking God for a blurb: a purely fantastical notion.) I met Johnson only once in person, a brief interaction that was extraordinarily embarrassing for me and probably twice as unbearable for him. (This outcome was my fault, not his. I’m sure he would have been generous, had I given him the chance. I did not give him the chance.)

The relationship I had with Johnson was not a personal one, and yet from my end it was intimate, characterized by the great affection and appreciation we feel toward the writers of the books that mean the most to us. No one’s books have meant more to me than Johnson’s, whose novels and poems I credit with having saved my life when I was twenty years old or so, a perhaps moderately hyperbolic statement that nevertheless feels largely true.

Shirley Jackson's Two Worlds, by Karen Dunak, Public Books

But while Friedan critiqued writers like Jackson for publishing stories in women’s magazines that suggested they were “just housewives,” Jackson was hardly paralyzed by Friedan’s “problem that has no name.” As Franklin notes, the imperfection of Jackson’s family tales, in pulling back the curtain and allowing for a view of domestic dysfunction, served a subversive function. Jackson was not perfect, and her stories suggested other women likewise were not and need not be. The world would not end were a floor unscrubbed or a dish unwashed. Children, while a joy to her life, were not made to be the center of the Hyman-Jackson universe. As for her appearance, Jackson suffered from insecurity, but not enough to stop her from indulging in drink and all the “beautiful and lovely and fascinating foods mankind has devoted himself to inventing.” Women could be aware of the ideal, they could feel its pressure, but as demonstrated by Jackson, they could accept and reject elements to fit their individual proclivities.

‘The Answers’ Runs Down The Rabbit Hole Of Love, by Dwight Garner, New York Times

Small first novels that are as good as “Nobody Is Ever Missing” inevitably make you fear the second. How much more is inside this writer? What are his or her reserves?

“The Answers” blows those sorts of questions out of the pond — it makes you feel embarrassed for thinking them. This is a novel of intellect and amplitude that deepens as it moves forward, until you feel prickling awe at how much mental territory unfolds.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Water Margin, by Philip Ball, Laphams Quarterly

This is the direction of the mighty waterways that have dominated the country’s topographic consciousness. “A great man,” wrote the Ming scholar and explorer Xu Xiake, “should in the morning be at the blue sea, and in the evening at Mount Cangwu,” a sacred peak in southern Hunan province. To the perplexity of Western observers (not least when confronted with Chinese maps), the innate mental compass of the Chinese points not north–south, but east–west. The Chinese people articulate and imagine space differently from Westerners—and no wonder.

All of China’s great rivers respect this axis. But two in particular are symbols of the nation and the keys to its fate: the Yangtze and the Yellow River. These great waterways orient China’s efforts to comprehend itself, and they explain a great deal about the social, economic, and geographical organization of its culture and trade. The rivers are where Confucius and Lao Tzu went to think, where poets like Li Bai and Du Fu went to find words to fit their melancholy, where painters discerned in the many moods of water a language of political commentary, where China’s pivotal battles were fought, where rulers from the first Qin Emperor to Mao and his successors demonstrated their authority. They are where life happens, and there is really nothing much to be said about China that does not start with a river.

Al Franken Has Been Sitting On Jokes For A Decade. Now He’s Ready To Tell Them., by Molly Ball, New York Times

Franken won his 2008 campaign against an incumbent Republican by the squeakiest of squeakers, finally taking office after an 8-month recount in 2009. He has kept up the charade ever since, avoiding the national spotlight and rarely making so much as a quip in public, determined to convince his constituents back in Anoka and Bemidji that Hollywood Al was a thing of the past.

But now that he’s been comfortably re-elected — in 2014, a dismal year for Democrats, he won by a 10-point margin — Franken can finally drop the mask. In “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate” (the title may be the book’s best joke), Franken admits the truth: His inner clown never went away. It just got suppressed, forcibly and with great effort.

Why I Hate Picnics, by Mimi Sheraton, The Daily Beast

Were modern American picnics at all like the Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the grass) as depicted in the 1862 painting by Édouard Manet, I might rush to join. No impinging crowds or air stifled by clouds of burning grease from grills, no random baseballs or horseshoes, no sticky children needing bathrooms, no fear of food poisoning via overly warm mayonnaise in the potato salad, neither beach sand nor woodland insects to brush off: just two couples in a sylvan hideaway sharing simple ready-to-eat fare that seems to consist only of fruit, bread, and maybe a few chunks of cheese.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Why Are Americans So Hostile To State-Funded Art?, by Josephine Livingstone, New Republic

By contrast, private interest has always had a large stake in the cultural policy of the United States. Before the establishment of the NEA, arts and culture support remained the project of urban elites, business communities, and institutional philanthropy. Not the glorious nation, not the government. When the government did eventually intervene, it supported artists through passive systems like tax exemption for cultural organizations, and of course for the donations of their wealthy patrons.

Considering all this history—why do we wonder at the state of things?

The Day Reading Died, by Charles Chu, Medium

For some reason, there was an awkward silence over dinner that night. My father looked at me for a long while and then spoke…

“Son, don’t you think it’s time you stopped reading fiction?”

Even now, I remember those words with a dull ache in my chest.

Books were a beautiful thing, my only source of joy in a gray world I did not understand — a world full of bullies where I ate lunch alone. Suddenly, books and stories were no longer acceptable. The real world was waiting.

It was time, time to become useful.

Shatner's 'Spirit Of The Horse' Is An Ode To Four-Legged Friends, by Jaym Gates, NPR

The writing itself meanders, chasing tangents and thoughts in a way that could easily be annoying, but with Shatner's gentle charm and curiosity, it finds a balance. There is a sense that you're sitting on a porch with an old horseman, listening to him muse about the horses he's known, the falls he's taken, and the memories he's made.

“What Use Is Knowing Anything If No One Is Around”, by Kaveh Akbar, New Yorker

What use is knowing anything if no one is around
to watch you know it? Plants reinvent sugar daily
and hardly anyone applauds. Once as a boy I sat
in a corner covering my ears, singing Quranic verse

after Quranic verse. Each syllable was perfect, but only
the lonely rumble in my head gave praise. This is why
we put mirrors in birdcages, why we turn on lamps

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Case For Preserving — And Improving — Brutalist Architecture, by Amanda Kolson Hurley, Washington Post

Clearly, the beleaguered Metro system has bigger things to worry about — safety, reliability, plummeting ridership — than the color of its stations. Yet “Paintgate” does prompt tantalizing questions about the future of perhaps the world’s most polarizing architectural style: brutalism, derived from the French béton brut, meaning “raw concrete.” And few big cities in the United States or Europe have as much brutalism per square mile as Washington — thanks to the Metro, the FBI headquarters downtown, the Hirshhorn Museum on the Mall and the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Southwest Washington, among other federal buildings, as well as privately built structures like Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library.

Brutalist architecture in the United States emerged in the 1960s, the era of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, when progressive designers wanted to create buildings that fit their vision of a strong and benevolent public sector. They were also bucking the previous generation and its cool, glassy modernism, which by that point had become the architectural language of the corporate world. By contrast, brutalism showcases stark or rough exterior walls; deep-set, sometimes small windows; a sculptural or blocky form (often top-heavy); and a monumental scale.


As brutalist buildings have started to suffer the aches and pains of middle age, many are being torn down. Preserving them just as they are can be expensive and impractical. But for all its ham-fistedness, the painting of the Metro vault at Union Station raises the possibility of a middle way: Perhaps we can save brutalism by making it more lovable.

Phone By Will Self Review – A Triumph Of Joined-up Thinking, by Jon Day, The Guardian

Phone is the final instalment in what has shown itself to be one of the most ambitious and important literary projects of the 21st century. Its style, as well as many of its characters, will be familiar to Selfians. The novel opens with Busner (now 78, and faintly baffled by a world “where there could be such a procedure as anal bleaching”) mid-breakdown in a hotel restaurant. He’s suffering from the early stages of dementia, but doesn’t think himself unwell: “Whatever they say, there’s not much wrong with my memory – its only that I have to … sort of … download things,” he thinks. Besides “Alzheimer’s itself may be a form of good mental heath – after all, what could be saner in a world in which every last particle of trivia is retained on some computer than to … forget everything.”

During Ramadan, Home Cooks Shine, by Tejal Rao, New York Times

For Amanda Saab, the flavors of Ramadan are baked into sweet, tender bites of namoura. Her Lebanese grandmother used to make the cake, folding together frothy, aerated yogurt and semolina flour. Now Ms. Saab makes it the same way, soaking the cake in a floral-scented sugar syrup while it’s still warm from the oven, and cutting it into diamond-shaped pieces.

“While I’m not consuming food all day, I’m thinking about food,” said Ms. Saab, a social worker who lives near Detroit. “Not about how I’m missing out, but about how to make the best thing to fulfill everyone’s cravings after a long day of fasting.”

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Desert Racing Broke My Brain And Las Vegas Ate My Kia, by Andrew P Collins, Jalopnik

I really did not want to abandon a 2017 Kia Niro in the Nevada desert.

It was a perfectly decent car, hardly deserving of such disrespect. But there I was, confused, exhausted, emotionally broken and vowing never to go back to Las Vegas again.

Lines Of Spines, by Tim Gorichanaz, The Smart Set

We have undervalued the library all this time, I think, in part because we have overvalued the written word. Since our Judeo-Christian roots, we have ascribed mythic power to books. God Himself, it is said, is the Torah. And though popular culture has lost some of this mystical veneer since the Enlightenment, the fetishization of books has not abated: In the modern scientific tradition, we have come to consider knowledge to be only that which is communicable via text. But that is a terribly impoverished view of what human knowing can be.

In ‘Shtum,’ Parents Wreck Their Home To Find A Better One For Their Autistic Son, by Eli Gottlieb, Washington Post

What “Shtum” does do well, and memorably, is describe the ferocity of attachment a parent feels toward a disabled child. It unsentimentally lays out the terrain such a parent must negotiate both at home and institutionally, and paints a vivid portrait of a family under siege by this most mysterious of contemporary maladies. To its credit, “Shtum” proposes humor as a balm in even the darkest of situations. If paying detailed attention to one’s characters is a form of love, it is also a powerful, and even remarkable, love letter to a child.

Diamond Hill, by Sonia FL Leung, Cha

My parents had an arranged marriage. Father fell fervently in love with Mother at first sight. But his love was never reciprocated.

Growing up, Mother lavished most of her love on my elder brother and treated him like the man in her life. It was partly due to gender preference, but more because of her discontent with Father. It was her way of telling him that he could never be as close to her as their son. Elder Sister tried to avoid the chaos of our family by staying away whenever she could. Younger Sister was the youngest and loveliest, so she could get away with anything.

As for me, I was a shadow in front of Mother. It was as if she had to direct her antagonism—her disastrous relationship with my father, her stress at work and of raising a relatively big family—against someone. And that one had to be me. Being a dark-skinned, super sensitive and most Father-like daughter, I became her target.

Friday, May 26, 2017

This Is The Comedy Godfather Of Television, by Michael Paterniti, GQ

When you're as old as Norman Lear, you go to a lot of funerals—even in Plastic Town, U.S.A., where people often embalm themselves prior to death. On a spotless L.A. spring day, he's just back from one, of a dear friend, and ever the producer, he doesn't love the way it played. In fact, it's left him a little stunned, the part where they stuck the coffin in a slot at the mausoleum.

“I saw a coffin put in a wall,” he says. “I'd never seen that before. God, I thought it was much less pretty than scattering ashes over some beloved terrain. I would prefer the prettier ending.” That we don't know how “the game of life” ends drives us “fucking crazy,” he says. But this is part of “the foolishness of the human condition,” as he sees it, the built-in absurdity of life that he learned at the tender age of 9 (more on that later) and that he's reflected and exploited again and again in his 67-year career, showing us our worst foibles while making us spit-up laugh at ourselves.

What Would The World Look Like Without ‘Star Wars’ Sequels?, by Will Leitch, ScreenCrush

Today, Star Wars is much more than a movie. But it is worth noting that it all could have ended in 1977. In Michael Kaminski’s 2007 book The Secret History of Star Wars, it’s revealed that Lucas considered ending the series after the first film, even after it became such a massive global hit. Star Wars could have been the ultimate one-and-done.

We think of the world of Star Wars as vast, nearly infinite. This is, after all, the saga Wired called “The Forever Franchise.” But what if it had stopped right there? What if there were no sequels at all? What if Star Wars was the only Star Wars?

How To Find Out What People Really Think, by The Economist

The empirical findings in “Everybody Lies” are so intriguing that the book would be a page-turner even if it were structured as a mere laundry list. But Mr Stephens-Davidowitz also puts forward a deft argument: the web will revolutionise social science just as the microscope and telescope transformed the natural sciences.

Wasted State, by Lena Valencia, Joyland Magazine

It’s the night before Thanksgiving and I’m at the Meals-2-Go section in the Western State University Center Café stuffing saran-wrapped turkey sandwiches into my backpack while the cashier stares at her phone. I was supposed to have driven back home to Colorado Springs that morning before the storm but last night Chelsea stole a handle of Old Crow from the senior suite and we stayed up drinking and watching clips from nineties dating shows on YouTube and next thing I knew it was noon today and Chelsea was shaking me awake to say that her car was here to take her to her flight home to LA. By the time I got my shit together the roads were closed and the snow was beginning to really fall. I lied and told my mom I had a last-minute project that I had to work on for class because I figured it was a better excuse than sleeping in. The truth is I don’t really care that I’m missing Thanksgiving, I’m mostly bummed that Chelsea won’t be around to drink and gossip and watch movies with for five whole days.

I pay for one sandwich and go back outside where ice crystals attack my eyes. Squinting, I trudge on, thinking of the sandwich I’m about to eat and the half-bottle of Old Crow waiting for me. I can just barely just make out the path to the dorms. Chelsea’s sleeping bag coat that she let me keep for the break feels like a freaking t-shirt in this weather, and immediately my nose begins to run and my snot to freeze. I take the long way to see if Paul Brewer’s light is on. He’s a transfer student from some East Coast liberal arts school and super-hot, and he told Chelsea he was staying on campus over Thanksgiving. Maybe, I think, this is the weekend to make my move, though I’ve hardly spoken two words to him and am an awkward mess whenever he comes into our room to talk to Chelsea. She says he visits to see me but I know that he’s definitely there for her. I see a light on and call his name but the wind swallows it up. It’s cold and I feel like a loser so I keep on walking.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Exquisitely English (And Amazingly Lucrative) World Of London Clerks, by Simon Akam, Bloomberg

Clerks—pronounced “clarks”—have no equivalent in the U.S. legal system, and have nothing in common with the Ivy League–trained Supreme Court aides of the same spelling. They exist because in England and Wales, to simplify a bit, the role of lawyer is divided in two: There are solicitors, who provide legal advice from their offices, and there are barristers, who argue in court. Barristers get the majority of their business via solicitors, and clerks act as the crucial middlemen between the tribes—they work for and sell the services of their barristers, steering inquiring solicitors to the right man or woman.

Clerks are by their own cheerful admission “wheeler-dealers,” what Americans might call hustlers. They take a certain pride in managing the careers of their bosses, the barristers—a breed that often combines academic brilliance with emotional fragility. Many barristers regard clerks as their pimps. Some, particularly at the junior end of the profession, live in terror of clerks. The power dynamic is baroque and deeply English, with a naked class divide seen in few other places on the planet. Barristers employ clerks, but a bad relationship can strangle their supply of cases. In his 1861 novel Orley Farm, Anthony Trollope described a barrister’s clerk as a man who “looked down from a considerable altitude on some men who from their professional rank might have been considered as his superiors.”

What I Learned Talking People Out Of Suicide, by Mark Hill, Cracked

But the key was always letting people talk. There's no magic word you can say, no cheat code that hacks the human brain into wanting to live again. They need someone who's willing to listen to them because they probably haven't had that in a long time.

"I like to get them talking a lot more than I'm talking. If they will talk like 80 percent of the time, then I'm doing good. I also take a lot of breaks. I will step back and let them think, and it gives me a chance to contemplate. 'What's my best route here?' You don't want to keep pressing them and chatting, chatting, chatting. They get tired! It's cold, and 99 percent of the time they're not dressed for it. And they're thinking about what might be their last few minutes on Earth. So I give them some time."

Curating A New Literary Canon, by Rebecca Makkai, Electric Literature

Walking through Chicago’s new American Writers Museum a week before it opened to the public, I felt like a cross between that eleven-year-old (wide-eyed, thirstily trying to absorb the canon, inspired by history) and that twenty-one-year-old (tallying up gender and race and queerness on the 100-author “American Voices” wall of fame and doing some quick math).

The museum’s creators faced an impossible task, the same one undertaken perennially by anthologists and English professors: How can we represent four hundred years of American literary history in a way that doesn’t reinforce the unfortunate hierarchies of those four hundred years?

‘Aliens’ Asks: If The Universe Is So Vast, Where Is Everybody?, by Jennifer Senior, New York Times

Perhaps my favorite essay in “Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life” is by the astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell, who patiently explains why aliens would not come here to have sex with us or eat us for supper.

I can only assume that he gets these questions a lot.

The Gastronomical Me By MFK Fisher Review – A Food Writing Classic, by Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian

Fisher always said that her greatest achievement in life was learning how to walk into a restaurant and treat herself as her own honoured guest, ignoring the hostile stares of resentful men and the covertly admiring glances of other women. And this is exactly what she achieves in The Gastronomical Me. To read Fisher is to feel, in Wilson’s words, that “we too should be a bit bolder in feeding ourselves” and a little less bothered by what the world, with its rotten innards, thinks about it all.

Mary Gaitskill And The Dignity Of The Nowhere Girl, by Mark Cecil, The Millions

In these brilliant essays, which stretch back to the early 1990s and run up to the last few years, Gaitskill explores emotionally charged situations, catalogues conventional responses to them, then reveals their hidden, psychological underpinnings. Her explorations are incisive and unpredictable — she sticks up for Axl Rose, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Céline Dion, and Linda Lovelace, to name a few of the unexpected; she even sticks up for the philandering politicians mentioned above. The last thing you want to do with any topic is say, “I know just what Mary Gaitskill will think of this.”

An Inquiry Into Brilliance: One Last Ride With Robert Pirsig, by Shawn Drury, Ploughshares

However, labeling Pirsig “just” a writer ignores the experiences and contributions of his life, especially since they informed his writing so deeply. With an IQ of 170, he was cast as a boy genius, which allowed him to skip several grades and enroll in college at age fifteen. Pirsig was a soldier in South Korea. He studied in Minnesota, Chicago, and India. He taught in Montana. He was a philosopher, sailor, and recluse, rarely granting interviews. His high intelligence did not mitigate a lifetime of mental health issues. He spent time in psychiatric hospitals in his mid-thirties, before he wrote Zen, which cost him his first marriage. During this time he received electroconvulsive therapy. His son, Chris, was murdered at the age of twenty-two. Pirsig’s life was full, very full. He was more than the author of a best-selling book (and a less popular companion piece seventeen years later).

But, oh what a book it is. I’ve never seen ZAMM in a bookstore, which may be because it’s a work of autobiographical fiction, which is oxymoronic and impossible to place in a genre. The plot, such as it is, is the story of a man (who also narrates) and his preteen son’s motorcycle trip from the upper Midwest to the Rockies and ultimately to the West Coast. They are joined by the man’s friends for part of the journey. This resembles a trip that Pirsig actually took with his preteen son Chris. Readers soon realize, however, that the trip and the vehicles being used to make it are really a pretense for a series of philosophical discussion, or Chatauquas, as the narrator describes them.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How The Owner Of The Greatest Mystery Bookstore Pulled The Genre Out Of The Muck, by Dan Nosowitz, Atlas Obscura

Mysteries have always been around and always been popular, but they haven’t always been respected. Otto Penzler has had a significant hand in that transformation. He’s probably the most important figure in the history of mystery fiction who’s never written a mystery story.

You get to Otto Penzler’s New York office through a door in the Mysterious Bookshop, the world’s oldest and biggest bookstore focusing on mystery, crime fiction, espionage, and thrillers. The door is roped off with a big X made of yellow police tape reading CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS. Down a flight of stairs, his office is a low-ceilinged basement cube with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on all four sides, stocked with anthologies and first editions as well as a random sampling of mass-market hardcovers and paperbacks. If his office was a store by itself, it would be the second-best mystery bookstore in the world.

Nor Any Drop To Drink?: Why The Great Lakes Face A Murky Future, by Robert Moor, New York Times

Dipping into this book was like opening the secret diary of a mercurial and mysterious parent. I learned that the reason the lake had become so clear was that it had been invaded by a dastardly pair of bivalves — the zebra and quagga mussels — which had hitched a ride on a shipping barge from either the Black or Caspian Seas and then quietly but ceaselessly colonized the lake. They set about cleaning up the water with hyperactive single-mindedness, eventually sucking up 90 percent of the lake’s phytoplankton. The water is now three times clearer than it was in the 1980s. But “this is not the sign of a healthy lake,” Egan warns. “It’s the sign of a lake having the life sucked out of it.” Since the Great Lakes are essentially “one giant, slow-motion river,” the mussels have since spread to every one of the Great Lakes, proliferating “like cancer cells in a bloodstream.”

Never Write A Novel With An En-dash In The Title, by Nicole Dieker, The Awl

Never write a novel with an en-dash in the title. You’ll finally learn the alt code, after months of searching “en-dash” in another tab and copying the result every time you type your own novel’s name, but the real issue is that you’re going to be filling out a lot of forms, on Kirkus and Indiebound and Amazon, and half the forms will automatically convert your en-dash into a hyphen, and you’ll wonder if everyone who reads your title on one of those websites with one of those forms will assume you don’t know how to appropriately punctuate a date range.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Secret Life Of Urban Crows, by James Ross Gardner, Seattle Met

From the old shopping bag she unsheathed the dead crow and turned it in what little sunshine strained through the fibrous clouds. The black feathers sparkled in the light, and close inspection revealed iridescent blues and purples. She covered it back up with a tan cloth and, with the draped bird lying breast down on her two upturned palms, stepped gingerly onto a patch of grass. She tore the linen away and unveiled the corpse to the gray heavens.

There was nothing at first, just an empty sky. Then, a caw. A crow appeared on a nearby power line. Then another caw and another crow. Suddenly crows flew in from all directions. Their plaintive entreaties soon combined into a chorus. New arrivals joined what quickly grew into a cacophonous dervish of black silhouettes swirling directly above Swift.

It was like sorcery. Conjuring dozens of birds from thin air by simply removing fabric from a body.

Finding My Florida, by Jason Diamond, New York Times

Florida represents so much that’s good, bad and bizarre about the United States, all rolled into one long state. It’s where all of our sins go to be washed away by the ocean: drugs, shady real estate developers, and the Palm Beach County man who, in 2012, ate so many cockroaches and worms in a bug-eating contest (the prize was an ivory-ball python) that he vomited, collapsed and died.

It’s filled with beauty and contradictions. Legend tells us Ponce de León ended up sailing to somewhere near Melbourne Beach in his search for the Fountain of Youth, and grandparents go there to live out their golden years. It’s the setting for movies like “Moonlight,” and fiction by Elmore Leonard and Karen Russell and Laura van den Berg. It’s mysterious and beautiful, spooky and exciting. And yes, it’s weird.

The Anatomy Of Finickiness: On Alexander Theroux’s “Einstein’s Beets: An Examination Of Food Phobias”, by Geoff Nicholson, Los Angeles Review of Books

To being with the obvious question: Does the world need a more or less 800-page book on food phobias? Beats me. But the answer is in any case moot because, despite his subtitle, Alexander Theroux has written something rather different, more interesting and grander than that.

In ‘Grief Cottage,’ A Ghost And Other Things That Haunt Us, by Sarah Lyall, New York Times

But Godwin is playing a longer, cleverer, more ambitious game. The author of numerous novels, short stories and works of nonfiction, now approaching 80, she remains a forensically skillful examiner of her characters’ motives, thoughts and behavior. “Grief Cottage” revisits some of her favorite themes — fractured families, parentless children, the initial shock and long-term repercussions of death and disappearance, how the future can run off course in a flash — to make the very good point that it doesn’t require a ghost to haunt a life.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Censors’ Disappearing Vibrator, by Balli Kaur Jaswal, New York Times

As ridiculous as they are, I wonder if I’d prefer such crude modifications to Singapore’s slick surgical cuts. At least, when you see a black bar striking out genitalia in a Judd Apatow comedy or a blurred bag of weed on a cop show, you know what’s behind the mystery door. The scalpel used to slice out scenes from my television shows in Singapore is more vicious in its precision. It was the same tool that empowered my teacher to remove the stories from my bag and never return them to me or explain why they were taken in the first place.

Would I be satisfied if Jane Fonda’s vibrator was shown but pixelated, or if Asia Kate Dillon’s voice was muted as she questioned gender norms? Of course not. But at least I’d know what I was missing. The censorship I’ve grown up with is more insidious, and unsettling. In 1992, it made a girl bury her love for stories in a secret, shame-filled space for years before she decided to write again. In 2017, it leaves a woman puzzled as the credits roll before she realizes that there are still things she is not supposed to know.

The World Is Running Out Of Sand, by David Owen, New Yorker

Sand covers so much of the earth’s surface that shipping it across borders—even uncontested ones—seems extreme. But sand isn’t just sand, it turns out. In the industrial world, it’s “aggregate,” a category that includes gravel, crushed stone, and various recycled materials. Natural aggregate is the world’s second most heavily exploited natural resource, after water, and for many uses the right kind is scarce or inaccessible. In 2014, the United Nations Environment Programme published a report titled “Sand, Rarer Than One Thinks,” which concluded that the mining of sand and gravel “greatly exceeds natural renewal rates” and that “the amount being mined is increasing exponentially, mainly as a result of rapid economic growth in Asia.”

Sand is the world’s most widely consumed natural resource, after water. What will happen when we run out of it?

Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real. Which Means Science Is Broken., by Daniel Engber, Slate

When the study went public, about six months later, some of Bem’s colleagues guessed it was a hoax. Other scholars, those who believed in ESP—theirs is a small but fervent field of study—saw his paper as validation of their work and a chance for mainstream credibility.


But for most observers, at least the mainstream ones, the paper posed a very difficult dilemma. It was both methodologically sound and logically insane. Daryl Bem had seemed to prove that time can flow in two directions—that ESP is real. If you bought into those results, you’d be admitting that much of what you understood about the universe was wrong. If you rejected them, you’d be admitting something almost as momentous: that the standard methods of psychology cannot be trusted, and that much of what gets published in the field—and thus, much of what we think we understand about the mind—could be total bunk.

How 'One Hundred Years Of Solitude' Became A Classic, by Alvaro Santana-Acuña, The Atlantic

Fifty years after the book’s publication, it may be tempting to believe its success was as inevitable as the fate of the Buendía family at the story’s center. Over the course of a century, their town of Macondo was the scene of natural catastrophes, civil wars, and magical events; it was ultimately destroyed after the last Buendía was born with a pig’s tail, as prophesied by a manuscript that generations of Buendías tried to decipher. But in the 1960s, One Hundred Years of Solitude was not immediately recognized as the Bible of the style now known as magical realism, which presents fantastic events as mundane situations. Nor did critics agree that the story was really groundbreaking. To fully appreciate the novel’s longevity, artistry, and global resonance, it is essential to examine the unlikely confluence of factors that helped it overcome a difficult publishing climate and the author’s relative anonymity at the time.

20 Years Of The Same Prank Call At A Legendary NYC Bar, by Rafe Bartholomew, Literary Hub

We’re not sure the first time he called. Nor are we sure who first answered the bar’s wall-mounted pay phone that day and heard his voice. It could’ve been a customer seated at the window table beside the phone; could’ve been the front-room waiter, hustling to reach the receiver and shout “McSorley’s!” to whomever was on the other end of the line. We’re pretty sure that the call would have come on a Sunday, because once we recognized the pattern, it seemed that he always rang at the end of the weekend. We’re positive what he said, because it’s been the same opening line now, week after week, for about twenty years: “Your enema is ready.”

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Brrrr. The Secret History Of Frozen Food, by Michael Ruhlman, Wired

Growing up in the 1970s I ate a lot of green beans, because that’s what Mom cooked while Dad was outside grilling the steaks. But I don’t think I ate a fresh green bean until I was an adult, even in the summer. It was just plain easier for Mom to drop a block of frozen Birds Eye French-cut green beans out of the cardboard box and into a pot of boiling water.

Times have changed dramatically: Mom wouldn’t think of buying frozen green beans now—instead she buys fresh haricots verts, the slender and tender green bean, available year-round at her local Publix. And as an adult, I was the one reaching into the frozen vegetable case at the grocery store for the rock-solid peas, because that’s all my kids would eat. I considered getting the kids to eat anything green a triumph, and frozen peas were an easy, inexpensive, reliable victory.

Stay Hungry, by Kathryn O’Shea-Evans, Los Angeles Review of Books

If I've gotten fat — as plump as a November turkey — I can safely blame Amy Thielen’s new memoir, Give a Girl a Knife. The book chronicles the Food Network star’s ascent through the storied kitchens of New York City’s fine dining restaurants (Daniel Boulud’s db bistro moderne, David Bouley’s Bouley, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s now-shuttered Chinese restaurant 66, among others). But it also delineates her Minnesota upbringing and the dishes and ingredients she was reared on and has since returned to: “chokecherries would come on the branch in early August and sugar would erase their woolly mouthfeel”; “the wild rice growing on the creek — right in our front yard —would ripen around the time that summer came to a close.” The story line is cinematic, yes, but also highly caloric. I found myself putting it down only to run into my kitchen and attempt to cobble together, in some part, some of the dishes she describes, especially the ones her mother made — the “chicken marsala with mushrooms and spaetzle in brown butter; grilled pork chops served still a little pink in the middle and cloaked with horseradish sour cream.” And like her mother — who set two sticks into the butter dish every morning and used them entirely by nightfall — I didn’t skimp on fat. (The word “butter” appears 99 times in the book. You’ve been warned.)

If Every Day Is A Rainy Day, What Am I Saving For?, by Samatha Irby, New York Times

I’m still like this: Still buying hardcover books with no discount, still daydreaming about what I’m going to spend my 401(k) on when I withdraw it early, because who are we kidding, I’m not trying to live to 65, are you nuts? I don’t have any debt because I’ve never owned anything and I dropped out of college before my loans got unmanageable. I pay for everything in cash because I don’t understand A.P.R.s. My credit file was so thin from so many years of living pretty much off the grid that when I finally got around to applying for a Discover card, Experian thought I might be dead.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Between Everywhere And Nowhere, by Bernd Brunner, The Smart Set

Fear and uncertainty are reshaping the landscape of travel. Is the utopian potential of world-wide travel gone? Maybe. I still take much pleasure in the idea of being able to go to a different city, get to know it and learn the language, just as if it were a new home where I may settle. It’s probably driven by a longing to find a place where I “really” belong. André Aciman goes a step further. In his essay “The Contrafactual Traveler”, he writes that he is not even interested in the strange and unfamiliar: “I can’t wait to land on things I’ve known before.” This is related to his identity as an exile from Alexandria. For him, “home” is always elsewhere.

Sorry To Disrupt The Peace Is Deeply Moving And Honest, by Erynn Porter, Electric Literature

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell has one of the strangest narrators that I have read in a long time. Helen, the main character and narrator, draws the reader in right away with her stream-of-conscious thinking. It feels like she grabs your hand and starts running, dragging you behind her. You don’t know where she is going, when she will turn a new corner, but you follow her anyway. You want to follow her. Once you are adapted to her train-of-thought it is easy to follow her along as she investigates her adoptive brother’s suicide.

We Have Always Been Bored — 'Yawn' Wonders Why, by Genevieve Valentine, NPR

Boredom is a going concern, particularly in a Western culture over-saturated with things designed to make every moment count. Freelance researcher Mary Mann began writing Yawn: Adventures in Boredom because she was concerned with her own restlessness; was she succumbing to the depression that ran in her family? Was modern malaise taking hold? Was she fundamentally ungrateful for life, as her parents had always suggested about bored people? If she was broken, was there a cure? (And if you're already rolling your eyes at Mann, this is not going to be an easy read for you.)

Last question first: We're all inherently broken, and there's no cure. People have always been bored.

Anything Is Possible By Elizabeth Strout Review – A Subtle Collection, by Elizabeth Lowry, The Guardian

What the stories in Anything Is Possible all have in common is this sense of the communality of human guilt and suffering, or what Tommy calls “this confusing contest between good and evil”, and an apprehension that “maybe people were not meant to understand things here on earth”

Friday, May 19, 2017

Mapping The Appalachian Trail, by Angie Duman, xyHt

A footpath along the Appalachian Mountains had existed since the early 1900s. In a 1921 article, Benton MacKaye—a forester, planner, and conservationist with degrees from Harvard—first proposed building a trail. Four years later, the Appalachian Trail Conference, later renamed the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), was founded to build and maintain the trail. It began work on the trail shortly thereafter and completed it by 1937.

Myron Avery—a lawyer, hiker, and explorer who at times collaborated with MacKaye and at times rivaled him—plotted out the original route, then took charge of the project and helped to complete it. “He did extensive mapping work of the official first route and wheeled the entire trail,” says Matt Robinson, a GIS specialist in the NPS’ Appalachian Trail Park Office. “That was the first official survey of the trail.”

The Library Of Books And Bombs, by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, The Paris Review

Last summer, I moved into a flat on the edge of London’s Bethnal Green and Whitechapel. I chose it only because it was where my significant human made his home. It was my first time moving in with someone. As I clattered up from the Tube, I found myself in a swell of schoolchildren on Jack the Ripper tours, Bangladeshi immigrant families, and men with tortoiseshell glasses and Scandinavian backpacks. The local cafe offers beetroot lattes and vegan croissants. The local supermarket has an aisle devoted to halal food. This was a beautiful place to live, but I was a mess. My first novel was about to come out, and I jittered and jangled around the flat, failing to read or write.

Finally, I did what I’ve always done when nervous. I looked for a library. My father told me once that he always has to know the location of the door of any room he’s in. I need to know the nearest bookshop and library. The theory is the same: we need an escape.

The Personal-Essay Boom Is Over, by Jia Tolentino, New Yorker

But an ad-based publishing model built around maximizing page views quickly and cheaply creates uncomfortable incentives for writers, editors, and readers alike. Attention flows naturally to the outrageous, the harrowing, the intimate, and the recognizable, and the online personal essay began to harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate those matters in front of a crowd but precisely because of that fact. The commodification of personal experience was also women’s territory: the small budgets of popular women-focussed Web sites, and the rapidly changing conventions and constrictions surrounding women’s lives, insured it. And so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return. Most sites paid a few hundred dollars for such pieces at most; xoJane paid fifty dollars. When I began writing on the Internet, I wrote personal essays for free.

Food Photography, Over The Years, by Julia Turshenmay, New York Times

For a cookbook author and lifelong lover of cookbooks like myself, “Feast for the Eyes” is also an evocative walk down memory lane. On so many pages, I’m reminded of the times I fell in love not only with the idea of creating recipes, but also with the images that accompanied them. Pictures of food have always been my preferred way to kick-start a daydream. They’re an instant passport to somewhere else.

The Art Of Losing Control By Jules Evans Review – In Search Of The Ecstatic, by David Shariatmadari, The Guardian

Here, the broader point – that we need to reach a better accommodation with our ecstatic impulses – becomes compelling. The question of what can reliably fill the gap left by organised religion is beyond the scope of this, or perhaps any one book. Yet, as Evans shows us, we can have a high old time trying to answer it.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Jimmy Fallon Was On Top Of The World. Then Came Trump., by Dave Itzkoff, New York Times

Then he stepped to the spot where he delivers his monologue each evening and noted that the stage mark was in the shape of a four-leaf clover. “I’m Irish,” he explained, “and I need all the luck I can get.”

It was a throwaway, self-deprecating line, but also an accurate self-assessment from Mr. Fallon, 42, who is in his fourth year of hosting “The Tonight Show,” NBC’s flagship late-night program.

He is weathering the most tumultuous period in his tenure there — a predicament for which he has himself to thank, and one that raises the question of whether the multitalented but apolitical Mr. Fallon can ride out the current era of politicized, choose-your-side entertainment, when he just wants to have a good time.

A Pet Tortoise Who Will Outlive Us All,b y Hanya Yanagihara, New York Times

To be in the company of a tortoise is to be reminded — instantly, inarticulably — of the oldness of the world and the newness of us (humans, specifically, but also mammals in general). Nature has created thousands of creatures, but most of us have been redrawn over the millenniums: Our heads have grown larger, our teeth smaller, our legs longer, our jaws weaker. But tortoises, some varieties of which are 300 million years old, older than the dinosaurs, are a rough draft that was never refined, because they never needed to be. They are proof of nature’s genius and of our own imperfection, our fragility and brevity in a world that existed long before us and will exist long after we’re gone. They are older than we are in all ways, as a tribe and as individuals — they can live 150 years (and can grow to be 200 pounds).

The Sound Of Sherlock: Stephen Fry Voices The Master Sleuth, by Simon Callow, New York Times

The pairing of Fry and Holmes is a bit of a marriage made in heaven, in fact. In Britain, he is himself almost as much of a national treasure as Holmes: a public figure whose every utterance is avidly reported and disseminated throughout the Twittersphere, his bipolarity, his obsessions with technology, his amatory affairs, all reported on constantly, the contents of his richly stocked mind on permanent display in TV documentaries, his books lining the shelves. One of his outstanding ancillary skills is reading out loud. He is the marathon man of audiobooks: When he recorded the first of the Harry Potter novels for BBC radio, all other programs on the biggest channel, Radio 4, were suspended, the day being given over entirely to Fry’s Rowling. The nation could hope for no one better to sit at its bedside, soothingly and wittily lulling it into purring contentment. In the Holmes books, he reads just under a thousand pages in his wonderfully even and infallibly intelligent voice, touching the characters in deftly — the books field a very large number of well-educated middle-aged men, and it must have been difficult to differentiate one from another. Otherwise, he finds a variety of accents and tones for the many foreigners Holmes encounters; his American accents are lightly done, without attempting, for example, a Utah accent in “A Study in Scarlet.”

‘The End Of Eddy’ Captures A Savage Childhood And A Global Movement, by Jennifer Senior, New York Times

This analogy has its limits, obviously. “The End of Eddy” is also a gay coming-of-age story; “Hillbilly Elegy” is not. Nor is the context for these two books the same: France is a social democracy, extending to its citizens benefits Americans would find unimaginable; the United States remains, as ever, enthusiastically capitalist, with an instinctive distaste for big government.

But the parallels are unmistakable. Even many of the smaller details in the two books rhyme, no doubt because the distinguishing features of poverty do not vary all that much from place to place. The bad diets. (Vance was chubby as a kid; most of Louis’s male relations are obese.) The poor dental hygiene. (Vance writes about “Mountain Dew mouth”; Louis never brushed his teeth.) The televisions that are always blaring, the women who are always smoking, the problem parent who is always drinking.

What Happens To A Voice Of A Generation When His Generation Doesn’t Need Him Anymore?, by Laura Miller, Slate

Voice-of-a-generation experience rarely translates into voice-for-the-ages work once the writer reaches maturity; if youth is your franchise, why would you ever want to grow up? In Bit Rot, Coupland is up to more or less the same stuff he was up to in the 1990s: dashing off superficial observations about airports and the latest technology (in 1991 it was VDTs—video display terminals; now it’s smartphones) and ideas he had for businesses that would have made him rich if he’d ever done anything about it. Meanwhile, the internet has emerged as the ideal venue for the proliferating reflections of young people disaffected by their lot in life. In 1991, newspapers, magazines, and books rarely presented the perspectives of recent college graduates working shit jobs and wondering what to do with themselves. Generation X was a revelation because the kind of people Coupland wrote about didn’t have a platform on which to publicly vent their alienation. Now they have more platforms than anyone can count. Not surprisingly, everything in Bit Rot has the half-baked texture of a Facebook post (“I sometimes wonder what selfies would look like in North Korea”), because nearly everything that Coupland has ever written settles at about that level. Fortunately for him, Thought Catalog wasn’t around to compete with him in 1991.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What Know-it-alls Don’t Know, Or The Illusion Of Competence, by Kate Fehlhaber, Aeon

One day in 1995, a large, heavy middle-aged man robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight. He didn’t wear a mask or any sort of disguise. And he smiled at surveillance cameras before walking out of each bank. Later that night, police arrested a surprised McArthur Wheeler. When they showed him the surveillance tapes, Wheeler stared in disbelief. ‘But I wore the juice,’ he mumbled. Apparently, Wheeler thought that rubbing lemon juice on his skin would render him invisible to videotape cameras. After all, lemon juice is used as invisible ink so, as long as he didn’t come near a heat source, he should have been completely invisible.

Police concluded that Wheeler was not crazy or on drugs – just incredibly mistaken.

Capturing The True Criminality Of Chinese State Corruption, by Ian Hamilton, Literary Hub

So when I sat down to write my Ava Lee series, it seemed natural enough to have a Chinese-Canadian as my heroine. It also made sense to make her a forensic accountant—initially working as a debt collector in Asia—since it allowed me to tap into my many years of experience doing business there. Those experiences included exposure to bribery and other forms of corruption that were standard practice.

I tried to make the books as realistic as possible. The crimes and scams that Ava pursued usually had a basis in reality and I think that in most of the books I achieved a level of authenticity. But I’ve never been as challenged as I was when it came to writing Ava’s latest outing, The Princeling of Nanjing. The book’s subject is political corruption involving a member of China’s political elite. The challenge was to create fiction that matched the reality of the marriage between modern-day politics and corruption in China.

Out Of Time: F Scott Fitzgerald And An America In Decline, by Sarah Churchwell, New Statesman

At Fitzgerald’s best, that was the perspective he, too, could conjure: of a specific moment in historical time that somehow symbolised timelessness. Daniel’s fascinating collection of stories and, despite its flaws, Brown’s biography stand as timely reminders: if Fitzgerald ever “lost track” of time – which I doubt – he certainly never lost track of history, and neither should we.

The Death Of My Hermit Crab, by Karen Russell, New York Times

Life is movement. Shadows lengthened through the backyard, creatures whirring and growling, plants growing tall and blossoming, fecund and irreverent, while inside the tank the conch sat in its corner. I kept a calm vigil, well after hope was reasonable.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

End Notes, by Juli Min, Real Life

Monitoring is both the source and the function of internet spectacle. When graphic death footage via surveillance is released for public consumption, the structures in place for social order become the means by which the public is controlled by the spectacle they feed on. We are “allowed” death, like a taste of the forbidden, and numbed by its intensity. We move from death videos to death-video parodies to WeChat Wallets to state-sponsored news: the most and the least mundane are totalized in one mesmerizing feed.

What’s So Bad About Being Bored At Work?, by Mary Mann, Literary Hub

It’s an unbelievable amount of pressure to put on one thing. A period of disinterest, even just an hour, might send the whole thing toppling. How can you claim to love something that has the potential to bore you? How can you make any claim on it at all? Plagued with boredom, the Desert Fathers were also wracked with guilt for feeling bored and doubtful about their calling, which had heretofore been the very reason for their existence. This compound of bad feelings was known as “the ‘demon of noontide,’” according to the theologian Michael Raposa, “a powerful boredom that ‘besieges’ the devotee, resulting in distraction from, sometimes even abandonment of, the spiritual life.”

An Author And His Editor Hash Out Why His Novel Failed, by Colin Dickey, Slate

In 2008 I published a short piece in Cabinet magazine on the fate of writer Thomas Browne’s skull, stolen from his coffin 158 years after his death. It caught the attention of an editor at a small press called Unbridled Books, Fred Ramey, who contacted me and asked if I would develop it into what became my first book. He particularly praised the final line of the Cabinet piece, saying that line showed him I was a strong writer. I didn’t have the courage to tell him that the line in question had not been written by me but added by my editor at Cabinet, Sina Najafi.

Who can properly claim credit for such a line, written by the editor but appearing under the name of the writer? Where is the editor’s hand evident—if at all—in the writer’s work? Ramey asks these questions in The Insect Dialogues, a book-length conversation with another writer, Marc Estrin, on the role and responsibility of the editor.

From The Satanic Verses To Scientology, Pamela Paul’s Foray In Bookselling, by Pamela Paul, Literary Hub

But this current danger was exciting. I became nearly delirious in my desire to sell The Satanic Verses, spellbound by photographs of Rushdie’s daunting eyebrows and pungent gaze. The tapping of cash register buttons was swiftly upgraded into a campaign to save literature from the forces of darkness. I blazed with excitement.

Each day my coworkers and I reported for duty to get the latest instructions, direct from corporate headquarters. Copies of Rushdie’s book were to be kept near the cash registers. No, behind the cash registers. No, now in the back of the store, the stockroom, where only management could tread. Employees who did not feel safe selling the book were allowed to be taken off the schedule, no repercussions. People were bombing bookstores!

Drinking Cold Water From A Mug Is Wrong And Disgusting, by Tessa Love, The Awl

Drinking water out of a mug feels kind of like trying to eat soup off a plate or cutting steak with a spoon; it just doesn’t make sense. But of course it’s not like these things. When you really think about it, drinking water from a mug is perfectly logical. Just like a glass, a mug is a receptacle meant to hold liquid, and it gets the job done. So why am I so averse to this relatively harmless action?

Sin Visits Me, by Carol Rumens, The Guardian

They say a dead woman can’t run from her coffin.
How moonshine can orchestrate nuff wild thoughts!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Discipline And Parse: The Politics Of Close Reading, by Bruce Robbins, Los Angeles Review of Books

When I was a freshman in college in 1967, I took a full-year course in what turned out to be called “close reading.” I had no idea what close reading was, and no one explained. Sitting in the classroom was an unnerving experience. We had random poems or little chunks of prose thrown down in front of us. We were given the authors’ names, but nothing about who they were or when or why the texts had been written. The point of this, it seemed, was to screen out everything except the words on the page. Our task was not to decipher what was going on, narratively, in the passages (that was supposed to be easy) but to figure out what was really going on. What was the tone of voice, exactly? Didn’t it change … there? Was the speaker playing hard to get, threatening, flirting, just being an asshole? How was the beloved supposed to respond? Did the ending get the would-be couple to a new place, a new emotional balance of power? If so, how were we supposed to feel about it?

I felt lost, but one practical lesson emerged right away. Appearances to the contrary, the words on the page were not the only thing that counted. The kids who had already had sex, a group which had its distinguishing marks and to which I was grimly aware I did not belong, were at a definite advantage in answering the sorts of questions we were being asked. Mulling over the C+ I received on my first paper, I realized that close reading had something to do with life, and that I needed more practice in both areas. My desire to have sex fused imperceptibly with my desire to do better on the next paper, which may have been even stronger. I did have sex. My papers got better. I became a close reader.

The next year, in a different course, a TA informed me that close reading was considered a questionable method, perhaps even an outdated one, because it ignored historical context. I was taking history courses at the same time. The idea that I was guilty of disrespect for history had not occurred to me. And maybe, after all, I wasn’t.

Accelerationism: How A Fringe Philosophy Predicted The Future We Live In, by Andy Beckett, The Guardian

Half a century ago, in the great hippie year of 1967, an acclaimed young American science fiction writer, Roger Zelazny, published his third novel. In many ways, Lord of Light was of its time, shaggy with imported Hindu mythology and cosmic dialogue. Yet there were also glints of something more forward-looking and political. One plot strand concerned a group of revolutionaries who wanted to take their society “to a higher level” by suddenly transforming its attitude to technology. Zelazny called them the Accelerationists.

He and the book are largely forgotten now. But as the more enduring sci-fi novelist JG Ballard said in 1971, “what the writers of modern science fiction invent today, you and I will do tomorrow”. Over the past five decades, and especially over the past few years, much of the world has got faster. Working patterns, political cycles, everyday technologies, communication habits and devices, the redevelopment of cities, the acquisition and disposal of possessions – all of these have accelerated. Meanwhile, over the same half century, almost entirely unnoticed by the media or mainstream academia, accelerationism has gradually solidified from a fictional device into an actual intellectual movement: a new way of thinking about the contemporary world and its potential.

A Space For Pleasures Of All Kinds: On “Cruising The Library”, by Emily Drabinski, Los Angeles Review of Books

In Cruising the Library, Melissa Adler places the systems and structures of library organizational schemes at the center of the production of gender and sexuality in the United States. For Adler, library shelves are not merely rows of books, but formations that, like other political, social, and economic systems, govern and discipline gendered and sexed ways of being.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Letter To My Mother That She Will Never Read, by Ocean Vuong, New Yorker

I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are. I am writing to go back to the time, at the rest stop in Virginia, when you stared, horror-struck, at the taxidermy buck hanging over the soda machine by the rest rooms, your face darkened by its antlers. In the car, you kept shaking your head. I don’t understand why they would do that. Can’t they see it’s a corpse? A corpse should move on, not stay forever like that.

I am thinking, only now, about that buck’s head, its black glass eyes. How perhaps it was not the grotesque that shook you but that the taxidermy embodied a death that won’t finish, a death that dies perpetually as we walk past it to relieve ourselves. The war you lived through is long gone, but its ricochets have become taxidermy, enclosed by your own familiar flesh.

What If Working Less Is Better?, by Livia Gershon, Boston Globe

The campaign touched a nerve, outrage ensued. But, beneath its calculated edginess, Fiverr’s message is pretty conventional: Hard work equals success; laziness is wrong.

But here’s the thing: For most of human existence, the idea that idleness was a serious problem would have been unintelligible. If Fiverr’s message creeps us out, looking back at a time before being a “doer” became our measurement of human value might offer some insight into what a real alternative might look like if automation brings an age when there’s not enough work to go around.

Men Without Women By Haruki Murakami – Review, by Kate Kellaway, The Guardian

Curiosity, in Murakami’s supremely enjoyable, philosophical and pitch-perfect new collection of short stories – his first for more than a decade – is what motivates many of his characters. Their curiosity becomes ours and propels each narrative onwards. But curiosity is shown to be complicated. Is it healthy, necessary, wise? Or does it kill the cat?

Saturday, May 13, 2017

This Is The Best Dinosaur Fossil Of Its Kind Ever Found, by Michael Greshko, National Geographic

In life this imposing herbivore—called a nodosaur—stretched 18 feet long and weighed nearly 3,000 pounds. Researchers suspect it initially fossilized whole, but when it was found in 2011, only the front half, from the snout to the hips, was intact enough to recover. The specimen is the best fossil of a nodosaur ever found.

Nearly six years later, I’m visiting the fossil prep lab at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in the windswept badlands of Alberta. The cavernous warehouse swells with the hum of ventilation and the buzz of technicians scraping rock from bone with needle-tipped tools resembling miniature jackhammers. But my focus rests on a 2,500-pound mass of stone in the corner.

The Future Of Living Alone Is Living Together, by Molly McHugh, The Ringer

Technology created the possibility of and opportunity for the communal-living movement. While advancements like cars, television, phones, the internet, and Postmates have motivated us to be apart, the technology industry itself is forcing us together in the most literal way. Cities where tech companies are putting down roots — Los Angeles, Austin, New York, the Bay Area, Seattle — are experiencing housing crises. Home ownership is a distant dream for most of the people who live in these cities and work in this industry. Hell, renting an apartment alone is out of reach for most. So we live together. We find roommates on Craigslist, move in with our romantic partners earlier than is advisable, or, maybe, we turn to communal living centers like the Nook or Common.

“I didn’t set out to start a company in the cohousing space,” says Common founder Brad Hargreaves. “I just saw a need for people in New York who live with roommates. Developers aren’t thinking of them, and they certainly aren’t building for them … but it’s a huge part of the population.”

How Pixar Lost Its Way, by Christopher Orr, The Atlantic

The painful verdict is all but indisputable: The golden era of Pixar is over. It was a 15-year run of unmatched commercial and creative excellence, beginning with Toy Story in 1995 and culminating with the extraordinary trifecta of wall-e in 2008, Up in 2009, and Toy Story 3 (yes, a sequel, but a great one) in 2010. Since then, other animation studios have made consistently better films.

'A Face Like Glass' Is A Magical, Perfectly Ticking Machine Of A Tale, by Amal El-Mohtar, NPR

Let me begin by stating that this is a perfect book.

I don't say this lightly. It's perfect in the way that excellent clockwork is perfect: intricate, precise, and hiding all its marvels in plain sight. Imagine a clear box full of interlocking gears and springs and pulleys — you can follow all their movements, trace every tooth's bite, but what it produces in chimes or bursts of colour and light are mysteries to surprise and delight you.

Dear White Chefs: Stop Talking, Start Listening, by Korsha Wilson, Eater

Keller is a successful chef, with no firsthand grasp of what it’s like to be a woman or a person of color, and he did what a lot of people do when something they love is criticized: He stripped his critic of her unique experience and viewpoint so he could re-center himself in the discussion. I’ve had this exact conversation in kitchens and dining rooms; I’ve watched as chefs and servers and diners uncomfortably squirm as I speak about something that’s specific to me as a black, female hospitality worker.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Why Do Mountaineers Choose The Hardest Routes To The Top?, by Paul Sagar, Aeon

When asked in the 1920s why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory notoriously quipped: ‘Because it’s there.’ It was a flippant remark, of course, but also an instance of what Friedrich Nietzsche had called ‘superficiality out of profundity’. For Mallory’s retort conveyed the deep human impulse to attempt challenging, dangerous and potentially even deadly endeavours, for no better reason than that one might succeed. Getting to the top of Everest – which has now claimed around 280 lives – is not something that mountaineers do for the fame, fortune or bragging rights. They do it because inside of them there is an impulse that demands that they try. If your response to the idea of standing on the highest point on earth is: ‘Yeah, that would be pretty cool,’ then you have something of that impulse too.

More Is More, by Deborah Cohen, New York Review of Books

Both “Less is more” and “More is more” are the catchphrases of a consumer society faced with unimagined plenty. Following World War II, “Less is more” suggested unease with mass abundance: restraint became an emblem of refinement. Two decades of uninterrupted prosperity later, “More is more” poked fun at its abstemious parent. It is also a fitting description of the way we live now. Even if you think yourself a reluctant shopper, consider all of the resources used to create our material world: the steel to build our homes (especially the Miesian ones), the natural gas to fire our furnaces, the aluminum in our smartphones and tablets. In the world’s richest countries, consumption has ballooned by over a third in the past few decades to the point that in 2010, each person in the thirty-four richest nations consumed over 220 pounds of stuff every day.

How did we come to be such voracious, irrepressible consumers? And how has all of this consuming changed the world? Those are the questions at the heart of Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things, a more-is-more sort of book, each of its nearly seven hundred pages of text jam-packed with telling facts and counterintuitive provocations. Trentmann deals with five hundred–plus years of history, from the Renaissance city-states, with their tastes for gilded goblets and Oriental silks, to present-day China, where state capitalism has proven that liberalism is no requirement for booming consumerism. It’s a book about material objects (such as a department store window featuring a model of St. Paul’s Cathedral composed entirely of hankies), but even more, about all of the consumption that cannot be so readily seen—unspectacular, everyday acts such as changing your underpants daily (only 5 percent of German men did so in 1966).

The Rituals Of Dinner By Margaret Visser Review – Why Table Manners Matter, by John Gallagher, The Guardian

“Never embark on an orange.” The words of a Victorian etiquette manual communicated the infinite variety of embarrassments risked by the eater who tackled the fruit at table. Tough to handle with a knife and fork, difficult to deal with daintily by hand, liable to stain the fingers and the tablecloth or spray an innocent bystander with juice – and then there were the pips!

This terror of the dining table faux pas pops up throughout human history, from the ribald humour of Petronius’s ancient Roman Satyricon, to the 20th-century US sitcoms that played incessantly with the scenario of the boss coming to dine at an employee’s house. Margaret Visser’s The Rituals of Dinner – now reissued – shows how the often unwritten rules of communal dining offer surprising insights into how we relate to our food, and to each other.

'Based On A True Story' May Not Be True — But It's Still Scary, by Bethanne Patrick, NPR

Two things, first: One, Delphine de Vigan's Based on a True Story is a powerful novel of suspense. Two, Based on a True Story may or may not be based on truth.

Dear Book Club: It’s You, Not Me, by Judith Newsman, New York Times

For many, a book club is an oasis in an otherwise hectic life. Jonathan Burnham, the senior vice president and publisher of HarperCollins, has been in a children’s literature book club for the better part of a decade. For him, he said, “the club is enormously calming when you’re in the realm of change and unreliability. People may be going through marital or work difficulties, but in book club there is no need to divulge what is happening in your personal life.”

But … that is one group. Book clubs can also be the epicenter of fierce friendships and enmity; a breeding ground for resentments large and small. They can be as fraught with drama as any romance, because for many they are a romance. A romance that comes with snacks.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them, by Edan Lepucki, New York Times

For me, as for many daughters, the time before my mother became a mother is a string of stories, told and retold: the time she got hit by a car and had amnesia; the time she sold her childhood Barbie to buy a ticket to Woodstock; the time she worked as a waitress at Howard Johnson’s, struggling to pay her way through her first year at Rutgers. The old photos of her are even more compelling than the stories because they’re a historical record, carrying the weight of fact, even if the truth there is slippery: the trick of an image, and so much left outside the frame. These photos serve as a visual accompaniment to the myths. Because any story about your mother is part myth, isn’t it?

Attending A Literary Award Ceremony Held In An Alternate Universe, by Claudia Casper, Literary Hub

At the end of the evening when everyone at our table got up to leave, I realized that one of my dinner companions was wearing a tail, which swished through the crumbs on his dessert plate as he walked away. In that moment, the hierarchical nature of the competition seemed secondary to the feeling of community it fostered, to its ability to gather together a basket of adorables united by a shared love of books and the worlds they create.

Richard Russo’s Latest Cast Includes Average Men And One Big Star, by Jennifer Senior, New York Times

The stories in “Trajectory” are a guided tour through the author’s preoccupations: the follies of academia. (Fighting words, but I’d pit Russo’s “Straight Man” against any of the novels in David Lodge’s “Campus Trilogy.”) The disappointments of midlife. (A theme in virtually every Russo novel, but if you’re new in these parts, grab “The Risk Pool” or “Nobody’s Fool” or “Empire Falls”; the last one earned the Pulitzer Prize in 2002.) How marriage devolves into a two-headed Kabuki drama. How children recapitulate the mistakes of their parents. And, most notably — most persistently in this collection — how the world neatly divides into those who believe they are special, and those who do not.

'House Of Names' Is A Violent Page-Turner, And A Surprising Departure, by Heller McAlpin, NPR

The violence is staggering, with people thrown into dark dungeons for days without food or water, throats slashed, heads bashed. Turning pages with pounding heart, I wondered if I could have connected this book with Tóibín if his name weren't on it. I don't think so — despite some telltale signs, including the fraught family baggage, circumspect homosexuality, and themes of loss, exile and return. But House of Names works because of the empathy and depth Tóibín brings to these suffering, tragically fallible characters, all destined to pass on "into the abiding shadows" — yet vividly alive in this gripping novel.

The Pigeon Tunnel By John Le Carré Review – Stories From The Spy Novelist’s Life, by Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

The lesson we learn is that everything is unreliable: our memories, our cover stories, and the grander narratives nations tell to justify their actions. And only Le Carré, it becomes clear, could have made this point so convincingly.

An Everyman Museum To Celebrate American Writers, by Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times

Instead of manuscripts and first editions, there are interactive touch screens and high-tech multimedia installations galore, like a mesmerizing “Word Waterfall,” in which a wall of densely packed, seemingly random words is revealed, through a constantly looping light projection, to contain resonant literary quotations.

There are also homier touches, like cozy couches in the children’s literature gallery and even the occasional smell of cookies, unleashed whenever someone pushes the plaque for Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” included in an installation called “The Surprise Bookshelf.”

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What Happens When Authors Are Afraid To Stand Alone, by Jason Guriel, The Walrus

Writing is such grueling, lonely work, that it’s not hard to see the appeal of any thinking that encourages you to engage with other carbon-based lifeforms. Plus, didn’t graduate school insist that writers are socially constructed anyway, the products of power and privilege? You might as well accept that you’re a node in a network.

But you don’t have to buy into the myth of the Byronic bard to worry about the way our novelists and poets—valued for their independence of vision and language—now pine to be part of the crowd. What do we lose when writers are afraid to stand alone?

Scaffolding, by Clare Beams, Ploughshares

As people who will die someday, and whose loved ones will die someday, we all live with at least one large dark truth from which we often try to avert our gazes. This tension—knowing a thing, but living as far away from that knowledge as possible—surfaces in literature too. There are various ways in which people on the page manage to construct for themselves lives on top of, on a slightly different plane from, their more unsettling truths. The new plane seems to require scaffolding of some kind.

In Joshua Ferris’s Stories, Couples Lead Lives Of Quiet Desperation, by Will Blythe, New York Times

For some accomplished novelists — and Ferris is one of the best of our day — short stories are mere doodles, warm ups or warm downs, slight variations on themes better addressed at length. In culinary terms appropriate to the collection’s title, appetizers. Not so for Ferris. Dynamic with speed, yet rich with novelistic density, his stories make “The Dinner Party” a full-fledged feast, especially for readers with a particular taste for the many flavors of American crazy.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Instruments Of War: D-Day Then And Now, by Stephen Kiernan, Electric Literature

I had come to Normandy to find my town. A hundred pages into a novel, I had stalled despite a clear plot line, not to mention a contract with a New York publisher to bring it out the following year. I had never lost momentum on a book before. But the prose in this one felt shallow, and I knew perfectly well why: It lacked a sufficient sense of its setting. Imagine Huck without his river.

Somewhere amid the hedgerows of northern France, there had to be the place where my imagined people had lived for four years under Nazi occupation, then survived the D-Day invasion. To tell their story, I needed to know where it had all happened, the precise location.

Stephen King On Paul Theroux’s Portrait Of A Truly Horrible Mother, by Stephen King, New York Times

“Mother Land” is an exercise in mean-spirited score-settling. It’s also fun. The party to celebrate Mother’s 90th birthday is only amusing, but the clambake in the assisted living facility where she celebrates her 102nd is downright hilarious, with the elderly children still sniping at one another in grammar-school argot. When Jay arrives for the festivities, one of them exclaims, “It’s doo-doo head.”

Theroux possesses a fabulously nasty sense of humor, at its best when Jay is describing Mother’s execrable cooking: ”Everything Mother made looked like cat food, including the mittens she knitted, so her gifts were all a form of mockery.” Even better — I’m laughing as I write it — is his description of Mother’s pea soup, “so thick a mouse could have trotted across it.”

Sound: Stories Of Hearing Lost And Found By Bella Bathurst – Review, by Marion Coutts, The Guardian

Sound: Stories of Hearing Lost and Found by Bella Bathurst is the story of a life shaped by the slow onset of deafness and the subsequent return of her hearing. Bathurst is a writer and photojournalist. She has written books on lighthouse keepers and a history of shipwrecks and wreckers, both marginal, outsider occupations. She is by trade a listener and a compiler of stories. This time the stories are her own and those of other groups affected by noise and its disorders: musicians, military personnel, factory workers. Bathurst writes from the unusual position of coming out the other side, the hearing side. Her deafness was temporary and this is rare.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Basic Income In A Just Society, by Brishen Rogers, Boston Review

Many of today’s basic income proponents are libertarians and view the policy as a means of compensating losers, or as an excuse to repeal wage per hour or collective bargaining laws. Few are concerned about public goods, workers’ and capital owners’ entitlements within the firm, the power of various social groups, the ability of workers to organize collectively, and the question of what constitutes good work, not just jobs.

An alternative case for basic income draws from classic commitments to social democracy, or an economic system in which the state limits corporate power, ensures a decent standard of living for all, and encourages decent work. In the social democratic view, however, a basic income would be only part of the solution to economic and social inequalities—we also need a revamped public sector and a new and different collective bargaining system. Indeed, without such broader reforms, a basic income could do more harm than good.

This agenda will of course make zero progress during the Trump administration. But questions surrounding work and rising inequality are not going away. After all, Trump exploited fears of a jobless or insecure future in his campaign, signaling a return to our industrial heyday, with good-paying factory jobs implicitly promised to whites, men, and Christians. On the left, meanwhile, there is grassroots energy and momentum to think big and to address these issues head on, in all their complexity. But we still need a vision of good work and its place in our society, one that recognizes how our economy—and our working class—have changed dramatically in recent decades. I do not think for a moment that I have all the answers. But I do think an ambitious agenda around technology, work, and welfare can be a focal point and political resource for organizers, and perhaps even candidates, in the years to come.

We Could Have Been Canada, by Adam Gopnik, New Yorker

And what if it was a mistake from the start? The Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the creation of the United States of America—what if all this was a terrible idea, and what if the injustices and madness of American life since then have occurred not in spite of the virtues of the Founding Fathers but because of them? The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence and disruption and demagogy. Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries. No revolution, and slavery might have ended, as it did elsewhere in the British Empire, more peacefully and sooner. No “peculiar institution,” no hideous Civil War and appalling aftermath. Instead, an orderly development of the interior—less violent, and less inclined to celebrate the desperado over the peaceful peasant. We could have ended with a social-democratic commonwealth that stretched from north to south, a near-continent-wide Canada.

The Billionaire And The Flood: How A Tragedy Transformed The Greenbrier Resort And The Blue-Collar Town That Depended On It, by Elaina Plott, Washingtonian

It’s an anxiety that suffuses any company town: What if the factory—or the shipyard or the mine or the base or (in this case) the luxe resort that employs 1,800 people and is older than the town itself—were to close? Even a mere change in hotel policy could make life more difficult.

For years, these were the preoccupations of White Sulphur Springs. Then something much bigger happened, something that went beyond the old town-versus-resort divide, something that in fact brought townspeople and the company into an intimate embrace that surprised just about everyone involved. On June 23, 2016, it started raining.

30 Observations, by Christopher Schaberg. 3:AM Magazine

Sarah Manguso’s new book of aphorisms 300 Arguments is the best example of this genre I’ve experienced since reading Nietzsche in college. But saying it like that makes the genre sound like a coherent thing, which it is not. It also makes it sound…developmental.

Collections of aphorisms are hardly a growth sector; bookstores don’t dedicate sections to them. But a college course on aphorisms strikes me increasingly as a good idea.

Why Would Aliens Even Bother With Earth?, by Lewis Dartnell, Literary Hub

As an astrobiologist I spend a lot of my time working in the lab with samples from some of the most extreme places on Earth, investigating how life might survive on other worlds in our solar system and what signs of their existence we could detect. If there is biology beyond the Earth, the vast majority of life in the Galaxy will be microbial—hardy single-celled life forms that tolerate a much greater range of conditions than more complex organisms can. To be honest, my own point of view is pretty pessimistic. Don’t get me wrong—if the Earth received an alien tweet tomorrow, or some other text message beamed at us by radio or laser pulse, then I’d be absolutely thrilled. So far, though, we’ve seen no convincing evidence of other civilizations among the stars in our skies.

But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that there are one or more star-faring alien civilizations in the Milky Way. We’re all familiar with Hollywood’s darker depictions of what aliens might do when they come to the Earth: zapping the White House, harvesting humanity for food like a herd of cattle, or sucking our oceans dry. These scenarios make great films, but don’t really stand up to rational scrutiny. So let’s run through a thought experiment on what reasons aliens might possibly have to visit the Earth, not because I reckon we need to ready our defenses or assemble a welcoming party, but because I think considering these possibilities is a great way of exploring many of the core themes of the science of astrobiology.

The Case For Black English, by Vinson Cunningham, New Yorker

One of my favorite sounds in the world is the voice of the late comedian Bernie Mac. I often think of an early performance of his, on the nineties standup showcase “Def Comedy Jam.” The routine, slightly less than six minutes long, is songlike in structure—after each cluster of two or three jokes, Mac yells “Kick it!” and a snippet of cheesy, drum-heavy hip-hop plays. Between these punctuations, he affects poses that would fit as comfortably within a twelve-bar blues as they do on the dimly lit Def Jam stage: sexual bravado, profane delight, sly self-deprecation, dismay and gathering confusion at a rapidly changing world. “I ain’t come here for no foolishness,” he says toward the beginning of the set, his double negative signalling playfulness and threat in equal measure. “You don’t understand,” he says again and again, sometimes stretching “understand” into four or five syllables. Then, with swift, hilarious anger, like Jackie Gleason’s: “I ain’t scared of you motherfuckers.” The “r” in “scared” is barely audible, and the subsequent profanity is a fluid, tossed-off “muhfuckas.”

Bernie Mac is, in other words—and this is the source of my love—an expert speaker of Black English, which is the subject of the recent book “Talking Back, Talking Black” (Bellevue), by the linguist, writer, and Columbia professor John McWhorter. In the book, McWhorter offers an explanation, a defense, and, most heartening, a celebration of the dialect that has become, he argues, an American lingua franca.

Consider The Crocodile: Qiu Miaojin’s Lesbian Bestiary, by Ari Larissa Heinrich, Los Angeles Review of Books

Yet there’s a reason Qiu’s work earned her a cult following — a reason that her novels are so fiercely loved, by so many, as well as taught in high schools, produced as theater, and cited reverently by other novelists. All of Qiu’s works contain a lush beauty, if you know where to look for it. In Notes of a Crocodile, for example, the true object of the narrator’s affection is not a lover but the city. Like Paris in Last Words from Montmartre, Taipei in Notes takes on a cinematic quality, its description often more generous and more loving than any snapshots of its human objets d’amour. While Lazi admits that she “can’t conceivably depict” her lover, Xiao Fan, the narrator’s infatuation with Taipei comes through in her description of the “magnificent night scene, gorgeous and restrained” across which the city unfolds during a ride on the Number 74 bus. Lending an exhilarating urgency to the novel, meanwhile, Notes also conveys an irrepressible excitement about the possibilities of gender and sexuality at a time when mainstream characterizations of those possibilities had not yet hardened into the current obsession with marriage equality as the benchmark of LGBTQ liberation.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Calculating Women, by Priyamvada Natarajan, New York review of Books

After a precisely calculated and perfectly executed voyage, the Mars Orbiter Mission reached its destination on September 24, 2014. The Indian Space Research Organisation, which oversaw the mission, had succeeded in doing what Russia, the United States, China, and Japan had failed to do: send an unmanned probe into orbit around Mars on the first attempt. The project’s success captured headlines worldwide, and a photograph of the cheering women on the administrative staff in the operations control room went viral on the Internet. Subsequently, articles about the female scientists and engineers who were central to the success of the project were widely published.

Perhaps never before had the participation of women in a space mission been so visible, even though women had been making fundamental computational contributions to astronomy and aeronautics for well over a century. Three recent books—Dava Sobel’s The Glass Universe, Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (which has also been turned into an Oscar-nominated film), and Nathalia Holt’s The Rise of the Rocket Girls—show some of what they accomplished.

How Censorship Works, by Ai Weiwei, New York Times

People who willingly censor themselves are vulnerable to moral challenges of many kinds. They have never been victims and never will be, despite their occasional show of tear wiping. Each time they display their servility, they bring warmth to the hearts of the authoritarians and harm to people who protest. Their craven stance, as it becomes widespread, also becomes the deeper reason for the moral collapse of our society. If these people believe that their choice to cooperate is the only way to avoid victimhood, they are embarking on an ill-fated journey in the dark.

The 7th Function Of Language By Laurent Binet – Who Killed Roland Barthes?, by Alex Preston, The Guardian

Roberto Bolaño once said that all novels are detective novels. Binet takes this idea and expands upon it, showing that both novelists and detectives are semiologists. “With Barthes,” Binet writes, in one of the regular authorial interjections, “signs no longer need to be signals: they have become clues.” We recognise that the skills we need to solve the mystery of Barthes’s murder are the same as those we are using to understand the complex cultural and intellectual currents that run through the book. This is a novel that establishes Laurent Binet as the clear heir to the late Umberto Eco, writing novels that are both brilliant and playful, dense with ideas while never losing sight of their need to entertain. The 7th Function of Language is one of the funniest, most riotously inventive and enjoyable novels you’ll read this year.

The Soul Of The Body: William Empson’s “The Face Of The Buddha” - Los Angeles Review Of Books, by David Auerbach, Los Angeles Review of Books

“The face is the soul of the body,” Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote. We see faces differently than we see anything else. Our brains appear to process them differently than they do any other objects, making greater use of the fusiform gyrus; this is why we can suffer associated disabilities such as prosopagnosia (or “face-blindness”). The face is the locus of communication, recognition, and empathy, the seat of the human — and the source of scores of misunderstandings.

It is also, as William Empson argues in his posthumously published The Face of the Buddha, a locus of artistic and cultural meaning. “The art of a given culture and period commonly has a favourite facial type,” Empson notes, “and if the later expert is content to have no idea why this face was found satisfying there is not much reason to suppose that his reaction to the work of art is even similar to what the artist intended. Indeed the human face itself is little known.”

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Are These Birds Too Sexy To Survive?, by Richard O. Prum, New York Times

The wing songs of the club-winged manakin teach us that adaptation by natural selection does not control everything that happens in evolution. Some of the evolutionary consequences of sexual desire may not be adaptive. Rather, they can be truly decadent. Despite the ubiquity of natural selection, organisms are not always getting better at surviving. Natural selection is not the only source of design in nature.

The Joy Of Watching Sports Alone, by Nathaniel Friedman, GQ

Ultimately, sports aren’t a social contract, they’re a form of entertainment. And even if there’s a right way to do them, those of us who aren’t up to the task still deserve to have our fun.

Why Hollywood’s Most Thrilling Scenes Are Now Orchestrated Thousands Of Miles Away, by Mallory Pickett, New York Times

Movies, always the realm of fantasy, are now further removed from reality than ever. Actors do their acting in spandex suits on blank stages, delivering their lines to position markers and balls on sticks. Then an army of VFX artists transports them back in time, adds dragon companions or blows up their car. Audiences love it. Of the 25 top-grossing films of the 21st century so far, 20 have been visual-effects showcases like “Avatar,” “The Avengers” and “Jurassic World.” (The other five were entirely animated, like “Frozen.”) The typical blockbuster now spends about a third of its production budget on visual effects.

But while visual effects’ role in movie making is growing, its presence in Hollywood is shrinking. From 2003 to 2013, at least 21 notable visual-effects companies went out of business, including Digital Domain, which produced the Oscar-winning effects in “Titanic.” Rhythm & Hues finally filed for bankruptcy protection in 2013, just days before winning an Oscar for “Life of Pi,” though it has since been revived under new ownership, working largely on TV shows like “Game of Thrones.”

A Story Collection Tracks Nepal’s Highs And Somewhat Lows, by Robin Black, New York Times

There is a soothing quality to this whisper set within these raucous tales, one that if heard by the characters we encounter might calm them, curb their impulsive behaviors, settle them into more placid states. And given all the mayhem that results from their impatience, from their willingness to try anything in the service of healing themselves, that might be a very good thing for them — but given the joys here for a reader, it would surely be a terrible loss for us.

Friday, May 5, 2017

How To Bring Cities Back From The Brink, by The Economist

“The Age of Spectacle” by Tom Dyckhoff, a British architecture critic, is the story of the transformation of cities from the dense manufacturing hubs of the early 20th century to the consumerist meccas they are today. He begins with Jane Jacobs and Ruth Glass, two social scientists who spotted that middle-class youngsters in 1960s London were refusing to move to the suburbs as their parents had done. This was driven both by the “stifling conformism” of life on the outskirts, and, according to Raphael Samuel, a historian, by a love of “values inherent to the dense, historic city, whether its aesthetic form, its layers of history, its ability to somehow encourage neighbourliness or its sheer excitement.” Mr Dyckhoff notes the casual manner in which Ms Glass defines this behaviour as “gentrification”, identifying a movement which he believes became “the most significant force in Western cities in the second half of the 20th century”.

Is Etiquette Dead? Dining With The Heirs To Emily Post’s Empire., by Laura Miller, Slate

“Emily Post” still conjures up images of persnickety debutantes in twinsets and pearls. But Lizzie and Dan are as far from that mold as you could imagine. Like most denizens of Burlington, they have more than a little hippie in them. He studied mime in Paris; she drives around town with her border collie, Benny, on the passenger side and has the fur-coated seat cover to prove it. He resembles a less beaky version of the young John Updike; she is a tall, ebullient woman with a honey-blond mane. “I don’t like being pegged with the image a lot of people associate with etiquette,” Lizzie said, an image she sums up as “Stepford wives.” Yet, here they are in 2017, charged with the task of shepherding the Post brand into a cultural moment that can seem downright hostile to the very idea of good manners.

Don’t Tell Me That Working-class People Can’t Be Articulate, by Lisa McInerney, The Guardian

Language is not class-segregated. It is not a tool issued by nobility for use only when strictly necessary. Any character can be written in a complex style as well as in the crude vernacular. And the crude vernacular can be as beautiful, expressive and important as classic texts and experimental prose.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine By Gail Honeyman Review – ‘Only The Lonely’, by Jenny Colgan, The Guardian

Long after your chance has gone to make it as a professional gymnast, ballerina or violinist, there is and always still the chance to write your book. And here comes a debut novel discovered through a writing competition, by an author in her 40s, which has sold for huge sums worldwide. It does happen.

And what a joy it is.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy On 'Star Wars,' 'Lincoln' And Secret J.J. Abrams Meetings, by Kim Masters, The Hollywood Reporter

So Kennedy had to do what she does so well: put one of the industry's most prominent directors at ease. And she's known Abrams since he was 14, when Spielberg had read an article about him winning a Super 8 moviemaking contest and hired the future director to restore his own childhood Super 8 videos. "We spent a lot of time talking about how meaningful Star Wars is and the depth of the mythology that George has created and how we carry that into the next chapter," she says. Finally, after a day of furious negotiation, the deal closed the afternoon of Jan. 25. To the bitter end, Abrams was telling associates that he still wasn't fully committed to directing the project. But Kennedy is confident that he will be in the chair when the cameras roll. She is less clear that the first film in the new trilogy will be ready by 2015. "Our goal is to move as quickly as we can, and we'll see what happens," says Kennedy. "The timetable we care about is getting the story."

Naked And Unafraid And Totally In Public, by Edan Lepucki, Elle

The next day I abandoned my writing to join them on an excursion to a local hot springs. On the way, we stopped at a store called The Black Hole in Los Alamos, which sold surplus items from the famous nuclear testing site just a few miles away. Spencer convinced the owner to let him photograph one of the missiles, tall as a basketball hoop, and as they wheeled it into the road beyond the store parking lot, I took off my clothes. Once naked, I walked barefoot across the blacktop. Spencer suggested I hug the missile and smile. I did.

Should you worry about 19-year-old me? After all, I was a young woman—more like a girl—not even halfway done with college, getting swept up in the excitement of meeting a well-known photographer in an unfamiliar town. I was flattered that he'd want to see my naked body through his camera's viewfinder. I would pose however he wanted.

But even now, over 15 years later, that isn't how I look at it. I wasn't a passive subject. The symbolism of the photo was never lost on me. Here I was, an "All-American" blonde, a college co-ed, innocently cuddling something deadly—and phallic. I played a girl who doesn't understand the violence I'm embracing. I played that role willingly because I wanted to subvert it. My nudity wasn't transactional; I didn't give it away, and it wasn't taken from me, either.

Shanghai Noir: How To Write Crime Fiction In A City With A 100% Conviction Rate, by Paul French, Literary Hub

For a city with such a reputation—back in the old days of foreign gunboats, spies and revolutions as well as now in the boom-boom modernity of the skyscraper city—Shanghai hasn’t generated that much crime fiction. Indeed, it has to be said, for a megalopolis of maybe as many as 24-million people it’s a pretty safe place. Novels about Shanghai have preferred to focus on the glitz, the glamour, the style of the city—China’s “capital of cool.” But, of course, there always was, and still remains, an underbelly down beneath the neon lights and the luxury penthouse apartments.

The Plagiarist In The Kitchen By Jonathan Meades Review – Cooking Is Not Therapy, by Steven Poole, The Guardian

It is an iron law of food literature that the people who think only about food are the ones who write worst about it. Spare us the solipsistic reveries of the barely literate foodists, wibbling about their own genius in having lassoed the perfect tomato or sagely appreciated a dog sperm velouté while on a neophiliac odyssey of hipster gastro-tourism. Give us instead a writer of broad culture: one who, say, has been a restaurant reviewer a well as an architectural critic, a photographer and film‑maker and author of numberless unpigeonholeable texts besides. One who will, in his cookbook, quote Robbe-Grillet, Swift and Montaigne as easily as Elizabeth David and Len Deighton. Give us, I say, Jonathan Meades.

I’ll make no apologies for the fact that I have not, for the purposes of this review, tested any of Meades’s recipes. Such doltish literalism would signal a gross misunderstanding of the nature of the genre. A cookbook is a confection of imagined greed, virtual travel and convivial conversation, and only secondarily – if at all – a practical manual for preparing meals. (It is quite beside the point that I do also now have a vivid idea of what I want to do to my next chicken.)

Patricia Lockwood Is A Priest’s Child (Really), But ‘From The Devil’, by Dwight Garner, New York Times

The good news about “Priestdaddy” is that it roars from the gate. Its first third is electric. It’s not just that Lockwood has fresh eyes and quick wits, but that in her father she’s lucked upon one of the great characters of this nonfiction decade.


“Priestdaddy” is consistently alive with feeling, however, and I suspect it may mean a lot to many people, especially the lapsed Catholics among us. It is, for sure, like no book I have read. The Bible tells us to forgive our enemies, not our families.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Many Ways In Which We Are Wrong About Jane Austen, by Helena Kelly, Literary Hub

We’re perfectly willing to accept that writers like Wordsworth were fully engaged with everything that was happening and to find the references in their work, even when they’re veiled or allusive. But we haven’t been willing to do it with Jane’s work. We know Jane; we know that however delicate her touch she’s essentially writing variations of the same plot, a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in any romantic comedy of the last two centuries.

We know wrong.

Was Jane Austen A ‘Secret Radical’?, by Ruth Franklin, Washington Post

It’s no secret to any observant reader that Austen frequently drew on her social and political context, usually to critique it. The Bennets in “Pride and Prejudice” refer over and over to the tyranny of the “entail” on their estate — the law requiring that it be handed over to a distant male relative rather than inherited by a daughter. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that Austen meant for that novel to be understood as “a revolutionary fairy tale, a fantasy of how, with reform . . . society can be safely remodeled.” In fact, it detracts from Austen’s enormous artistry to say she did.

Thomas Keller, An Exacting Chef At A Crossroads, by Kim Severson, New York Times

Mr. Keller thinks, at least for him, a change may be in order. “At some point you want to say, ‘I gave, I gave, I gave — now it’s time for us,’” he said.

Mr. Keller is 61, an age when other successful chefs of his generation have started to plot exit strategies and consider legacies.

“Everyone is kind of charting their own course on this,” said Emily Luchetti, a pastry chef and author who is about to turn 60. “When we all started out, there were no real mentors to look at and say, ‘That’s how I want to do it when I’m in my 60s or 70s.’ The only thing we had were old European chefs who could no longer cook anymore because their knees were giving out.”

Bookselling In The 21st Century: “Please Don’t Touch Me.”, by Emily Ballaine, Literary Hub

Here is a thing that happens to me regularly: I am at work and a man will grab my arm. Usually they do this in a way that is meant to come across as non-threatening. They aren’t trying to scare me—they’re good guys after all. They’re just curious about me. They just want to know me. They are being polite. They are being inquisitive. They are not breaking any rules.

Usually I will be handing them their change and as I do so, as I carry out this transaction, they will notice the text I have tattooed on my forearm and they will grab my arm to read it, and just like that my body has become a part of this transaction. And perhaps what is worse—I don’t pull my arm away. I dutifully let them grab my body. I let myself be read. I resign myself to another moment of my body no longer belonging to me.

Revival And Resurrection In Alison MacLeod’s “All The Beloved Ghosts”, by Yoona Lee, Los Angeles Review of Books

To introduce a story with a heavy pair of stone testicles takes a singular writer and — dare we say it — a ballsy one, like novelist Alison MacLeod. This particular anatomical contribution comes from the sphinx presiding over Oscar Wilde’s tomb. According to a young narrator in MacLeod’s short story collection All the Beloved Ghosts, “It’s not a pretty angel this time with soulful eyes and a slippery dress. No. It’s a big fucker with broad square wings rising from its back.” Peering underneath, he notices a vandal has hacked off the “angel’s bits,” only to discover his great-uncle, the cemetery keeper, using them as a handy paperweight on his desk.

At 'The Dinner Party,' Stories That Walk The Line Between Tragedy And Comedy, by Heller McAlpin, NPR

As e.e. cummings so succinctly put it, "Unbeing dead isn't being alive." Ferris' unmoored souls struggle with living death — along with pathological insecurity and fear of abandonment. While the stories in this book don't particularly advance this talented writer's career, The Dinner Party provides a fine showcase for his work.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Hustle, by Kesia Alexandra, The Smart Set

Undoubtedly, the skills you learn as a child never leave you. When I quit my day job to focus on writing, my biggest concern was how I was going to pay my bills. My boyfriend and I had just moved into two rooms in a large house in D.C. and were sharing living expenses. Nevertheless, by the end of our first month as new renters, we were already coming up short. Desperate to find the last $100 he needed to meet our $800 rent, my boyfriend decided to go online and try to sell his winter coat. It sold immediately . . . for $100. We made the rent.

Seeing the potential of online vending, we immediately began selling anything we could get our hands on. I saw an escape route from the daily grind of going to a job of inputting data and I took it. Online vending became my “new hustle.” We opened an online store selling gently used clothing. Immediately, I had become an entrepreneur. Since then, my goal each month has been to sell enough clothing online to pay my bills and therefore afford myself the time to write. My new hustle, however, was not really all that new to me. In fact, when I thought about it, I realized that it was actually the culmination of the person I had started to become between the ages of nine and ten.

I Was A Seventh-Grade Book Censor, by Abbey Fenbert, Catapult

Here’s what I meant to tell my mom: “Fellow book-lover, I understand this is a provocative novel, and that I am, in fact, in the Advanced Language Arts Group—a great responsibility for a seventh-grader. I appreciate the opportunity to read challenging works! (We all remember the Jimmy Spoon and the Pony Express debacle.) However, you may have noticed that my peers have recently entered puberty, the unending bloodsport of preempting one’s own humiliation by humiliating others. The teachers have made it clear that ‘boys will be boys,’ so I don’t necessarily trust them to cultivate a learning environment that serves these complex vocabularies. Do you see my concern?” Here’s what I said: “Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh I just. Hm. I don’t really wanna—all this stuff—you know how the boys are, and . . . I don’t. I just don’t know.”

The Great Vietnam War Novel Was Not Written By An American, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, New York Times

The literature by Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans is out there for anyone who knows how to use Google. But so many here and abroad would rather not know, or when a new Vietnamese author is published, would prefer to say, “At last! A voice for the Vietnamese!” In fact, there are so many voices, for the Vietnamese people are very loud. They just often aren’t heard by those who don’t understand Vietnamese, or those who would prefer to think of Americans when they hear the word “Vietnam,” or those who have room in their course syllabuses for only one Vietnamese book, as is still the case in too many college classes on the Vietnam War, even if that one book is as worthy as Bao Ninh’s novel “The Sorrow of War.” This book is not just a North Vietnamese war classic — it is a classic war novel of any time and any place.

That Week Everything Suddenly Became Somehow Off-topic, by Pavel Arsenev, n+1

That week everything suddenly became somehow off-topic:
Poets could no longer cheerfully inform the public about their readings,
Artists were too ashamed to announce the openings of their exhibits,
Which would have been called, for example, “Museum of the Revolution,”
And even retailers were somehow uncomfortable urging everyone into their stores,
When there were thousands of people.
Everyone who demanded attention was forced to justify themselves,
Because all attention was fixed on one thing.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Soul Of A Molecular Machine, by Venki Ramakrishnan, Edge

How do we as a science community grapple with this and communicate to the public a sense of what science is about, what is reliable in science, what is uncertain in science, and what is just plain wrong in science? How do we live with uncertainty? Scientists live with uncertainty. We know that no matter how confident we are in our theories, it is possible that we're wrong, that our ideas may be wrong, and we always have to be prepared for that. That isn't to say that our ideas lack merit and that they shouldn't be taken seriously.

This is a problem in many fields. Climate change, for example, is a classic field where uncertainties in the consensus opinion are pounced on by people who don't like the idea of climate change and therefore oppose it. These are real long-term issues that we need to grapple with.

7 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Writing, by Hala Alyan, Literary Hub

It took me a long time to stop pretending and, looking back, I realize it might have been out of sheer exhaustion rather than any particular epiphany. But once I did, I sought refuge in the intersection of difference and writing. This is the blessing and curse of difference; in day-to-day life, it can be sapping, but in art, it becomes its own currency. For many of us, hearing from those that history has silenced (and often tried to erase) is nothing short of sustaining.

So, little Hala: take what makes you different and tell that story. The people who need to read it will resonate and those that don’t, well, they weren’t going to sit next to you in the cafeteria anyway.

19th Century Princess And Cookbook Author Was Also Georgia's First Feminist, by Giorgi Lomsadze, NPR

Jorjadze's book, Georgian Cuisine and Tried Housekeeping Notes, has long been a prized household possession. While its more elaborate recipes have been forgotten, the book's simpler dishes have retained currency through nearly 150 years of cataclysmic changes. Two centuries, two world wars, and two empires (Tsarist and Soviet) later, Georgians still make a holiday dish of satsivi, with turkey in a walnut puree-thickened gravy, pretty much the way Jorjadze instructed in 1874.

'I'd Die For You' Gives A Glimpse Into F. Scott Fitzgerald's Writing Life, by Heller McAlpin, NPR

The 18 "lost stories" in I'd Die For You — all previously unpublished or uncollected — provide a sobering example of how difficult it is to deliver the goods when life is going against you. Most were written in the 1930s, the last decade of Fitzgerald's life, when his wife Zelda was expensively institutionalized after her mental breakdown, and he was beleaguered by financial pressures, alcoholism, and failing health. Fitzgerald's star had lost its shine, and his stories channel his desperation.

My Beijing: The Sacred City, by Ian Johnson, New York Times

In 1994, I returned to China to work for seven years as a journalist, first for The Baltimore Sun and later for The Wall Street Journal. I ended up moving into one of the diplomatic compounds and the neighborhood became my home. Again, I was drawn to the Temple of the Sun.

Back then the park had an entrance fee that kept it relatively empty, especially in what was now a crowded, bustling city. It cost only 50 cents to enter, but China was still relatively poor and people weren’t inclined to spend their time on exercise. You worked, you went home, you rested. Parks were for special occasions. It was possible to walk the roughly one-mile perimeter path and encounter only a few people, often diplomats from the nearby embassies or spooks keeping an eye on things.

The Temple of the Sun wasn’t just empty of people but looked barren. This was a time when Chinese parks rarely had grass. Instead, the hard-packed dry earth of arid Beijing was raked by crews every few days. It was odd but had an austere beauty that set off the ginkgo and persimmon trees that lined the paths.