Three hours southwest of Madrid, in the rocky and arid region of Extremadura, where oak boughs sag with acorns, crumbling Moorish castles loom, and solar arrays tilt skyward, Allan Benton, the fabled Tennessee ham and bacon curer, glimpses a possible future for Southern food. Leaning into the lunch counter at a truck stop, between bites of a sandwich layered with Spain’s prized jamón ibérico, he wonders why this sort of everyday excellence is elusive back home. “Can you imagine getting a ham sandwich like this at a truck stop in Tennessee?” he asks, working that rhetorical in his head, grappling for an answer, burnishing the possibility like a gemstone.
Communicating about sex, like a lot of actual sex, is a kind of negotiation, a dance between blunt statements of longing and the careful clarity to ensure that you’re not totally embarrassing yourself. Both of us would use lots of tenses to communicate our desire, but one thing we could agree on was that the present tense was to be avoided at all costs. Just like IRL sex, we don’t really know how other people are doing it until we do it with them — that’s part of the mystique of a crush. Were other people sexting in the present tense, we wondered? As my boyfriend hypothesized about “illocutionary force” and “universal necessity modals” (hot), I took a more straightforward path and started a Twitter poll. “DIGITAL SEXERS: what tense/mood do you sext in?”
The blast itself would have been heard up to 2,000km (1,242 miles) away and created a tsunami which caused devastation hundreds of kilometres away. In terms of scale, it surpassed even the 1815 eruption of Tambora, which unleashed energy equivalent to 2.2 million Little Boy atomic bombs and killed at least 70,000 people. Traces of the eruption have been found from Antarctica to Greenland.
The thing is, scientists can’t find the volcano that did it. What’s going on?
Books like Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air spend weeks on the New York Times best-seller list (115 for the former, and for the later, 60 and counting), in part for their promise to share some of the clarity their authors earned in the hardest possible way. Writers have always contemplated their own deaths, of course, most famously Michel de Montaigne, the first modern essayist, whom Kalanithi quotes: “To study philosophy is to learn to die.” But most authors, like the rest of us, don’t get around to thinking about it until late in their lives. Neither Pausch nor Kalanithi were known as writers before they set out to chronicle the approach of their own deaths (from pancreatic and lung cancer, respectively), although Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon, had literary aspirations. Both men were young (46 and 36) when they received their terminal prognoses, as was the late Nina Riggs, author of the lovely new memoir The Bright Hour. Riggs, a poet, wrote a blog about living with stage 4 breast cancer, as well as personal essays on the subject, before her death just as The Bright Hour was going to press earlier this year. Taken together, these three books suggest that universal truths, even in extremis, are elusive. Perhaps they don't exist at all. We die the way we live, idiosyncratically.
Few writers have watched and captured women with such conspicuous pleasure as du Maurier — the way they walk and wear coats and unscrew their earrings. The way they pin up their hair and stub out their cigarettes; the way they call to their dogs, break horses, comfort children, deceive their husbands and coax plants from flinty soil. Few writers (Elena Ferrante comes to mind) have been so aware of how women excite one another’s imaginations.
“What a pity I’m not a vagrant on the face of the earth,” du Maurier wrote in her diary at 21. “Wandering in strange cities, foreign lands, open spaces, fighting, drinking, loving physically. And here I am, only a silly sheltered girl in a dress, knowing nothing at all — but Nothing.”
But with every award and every achievement, the same thought occurred to him: He felt like a fraud. All those awards were for things he was going to do in the future, and he didn’t know if he had anything left to say. He didn’t know if the thing that was audacious in him that made him write “Sam the Cat” — “Fiction is uncalled for, in both senses of the phrase,” he likes to say — was still there. He felt that audacity dwindling.
This thought metastasized. In 2007, he realized he didn’t have another short story in him, and in 2008, his Knopf deadline looming, he disappeared.
Joshua Cohen’s third novel, “Moving Kings,” is a brilliant book whose brilliance comes via a bait and switch. It opens as a comic portrait of a midlife crisis, but concludes as a somber cautionary tale frothing with cataclysms, including fire and gunplay.
This is one of Bacharach’s more playful tendencies: good old-fashioned plot twists. His greater strength, though, is his energetic prose, sure-footed and boldly effervescent. While the plot gets a bit dense at times, the author’s ear for the sidesplitting verbal tics of his quirky and deliciously offbeat characters makes this book well worth the read.