When Ravi Nath asks people if jellyfish sleep, he finds that everyone thinks they know the answer. Roughly half say yes, and half say no. Some scientists assert that only mammals and birds could be said to truly sleep. Other people think that even plants have something akin to sleep. “Every person we’ve asked has an opinion,” Nath says. “Even a 10-year-old kid has a response.”
Nath has an answer, too. Along with his friends and fellow California Institute of Technology students Claire Bedbrook and Michael Abrams, he put a jellyfish called Cassiopea through a gauntlet of clever experiments, which confirmed that they do indeed enter a sleeplike state. Every night, they become less active and less responsive. They can be easily roused from this state, but if they’re deprived of their slow periods for too long, they become even more inactive and unresponsive the next day—as if they were reeling from an all-nighter. And if the trio are right, their discovery has big implications for understanding both how sleep evolved—and why.
Why We Sleep by the neuroscientist Matthew Walker – my ill-chosen small-hours reading material – is filled with startling information about the effects of suboptimal shut-eye levels. It’s not a book you should even be thinking about in bed, let alone reading. If it weren’t too unsettling to permit sleep in the first place, it would be the stuff of nightmares. The marginalia in my review copy, scrawled in the wavering hand of a man receiving dark intimations of his own terrible fate – “OMFG”; “This is extremely bad!” – might seem less appropriate to an affably written popular science book than to some kind of arcane Lovecraftian grimoire.
As I grew older, I kept returning to the movie again and again, across three decades of growing up, a process of maturation that now (in my late thirties, even after decades of studying and teaching Buddhism) may still just be getting under way. Many other people I know went through a similar process with The Princess Bride. As the movie aged, and as those of us who were the Grandson’s (Fred Savage’s) age grew up (or tried to), it caught on, and became enshrined as an irrefutable staple of Generation X culture. The mixology-obsessed cocktail bar down the block from my Brooklyn apartment serves a mezcal-based drink (though brandy would be more appropriate) called the Inigo Montoya. The glass even comes with a toothpick sword across the rim, exacting heroic revenge against a six-sectioned slice of orange. The bar is one of many establishments I’ve been to that reference the movie on their menus.
Start on the humble evening shift. 3:30 to midnight. Training mode — you know, like when the manager stands beside the register watching the kid count change. Most everything in the TV industry is on a rush schedule. Most things air “in a couple days.” I am ready to be a cog in the industry, but the industry is not ready for me, for reasons I don’t yet accept. There are rare shows with long turnaround times, and these are the shows that trainees like me do.
Saddle up to the workstation: 13-inch color TV, desktop with hardware interface that makes F2 pause and makes F3 forward a frame and makes F4 play and makes F1 reverse. The familiar qwerty keyboard, once the conduit to prose description, dialogue, imagery, is now a command center, a piece of interfacing hardware like a steering wheel. It controls the VCR.
Paperweights had never struck me as markers of stability. But a month later, when I was laid off from the legacy media company where I worked for a print magazine, I surveyed my desk, picked up a stack of our branded notepads and a handle of whiskey and thought, At least I don’t have to lug no paperweight.
Then Saturday came without Saturday’s feel. In a vintage shop, I drifted from taxidermy pheasants to a shelf staged with dusted curio, and there was a Murano blown-glass paperweight. At its center, the softball-size bubble had a clear tubular ring, inside of which was a clear finial shape from which streaks of red sprayed in arches at 360 degrees. The thing was maybe five pounds? My fiancé found me cradling it to my heart. “You’re going to bring that home, aren’t you,” he said, meaning: Did my foolhardy troth to paper in the age of new media know no bounds? The paperweight seemed to englobe our opposed perspectives: he thought it looked like a nasty vortex; I thought it looked like a wine fountain.
“Feathers are about seduction,” Charles-Donatien told me. “They are meant to attract. And we are happy to know that the male birds are always the most beautiful.” Charles-Donatien’s parents are from Martinique, but he was born in France. He has an almost posh Parisian accent, but his English, like the Creole that he spoke on the streets as a boy, has kept its island lilt. He turned forty-five last week and frets about his weight, but to a less professional eye he still looks pretty lean. He exercises a few days a week, sometimes suspended from a hammock in an aerial-yoga class, and mitigates the occasional Nutella binge with abstemious greens and grains. His head is shaved, his features round and boyish, with half-moon brows—a merry mask of a face, as of some impish spirit. When I asked Robert Barnowske, a former vice-president of apparel design at Vera Wang, what he first thought when he met Charles-Donatien, he laughed: “Who is this hot guy showing me feathers?”
Charles-Donatien had come to the shop that morning, as he often does, to hunt for material. The world is full of birds, but the loveliest ones are off limits to plumassiers, protected by international conventions against the trade in exotics. Even antique feathers can be used only in the occasional, one-of-a-kind piece, and then only if the client agrees never to take it out of the country. All other feathers now come from farmed animals—goose, duck, chicken, turkey, pheasant, and ostrich. They’re by-products of the food industry, cut and dyed to resemble more colorful birds. A plumassier is like a goldsmith who can afford to work only in bronze, or a jeweller who makes do with rhinestones. No dye can match the in-lit glow of a scarlet ibis, from the carotenoid pigments in the shellfish it eats, or the refracted colors of a peacock’s tail. So Charles-Donatien haunts the flea markets and taxidermy shops of Paris, eyes peeled for a flash of feathers.
It is not difficult to change your syntax. It is difficult to remember that you always have the option of changing your syntax. If you have always written in a certain way, you may forget that other kinds of syntax are available. In fact, we can often recognize who wrote a particular passage because we are familiar with the author’s syntax. I’m not suggesting that you change your syntax for the sake of originality, only that you remember, every time you write a sentence, to think about alternatives. The syntax you use can surprise your reader, forestall boredom, make a new music, and move your reader.
Sometimes when I tell people that I study airports, they’ll say, “That must be a real niche!” But the truth is that airports are such a general, dispersed topic that it really isn’t a niche at all. Nearly everyone has something to say about airports or air travel—even if it is just a story of a recent bad trip or a bizarre seatmate. We’re all sort of specialists when it comes to flight—or we’re invited to be, anyway. And as the opening clip from Home Alone 2 suggests, airports communicate in such a common visual, dramatic, and comic language that just a brief scene staged in an airport can conjure a cluster of affects, sensations, and reversals. We interpret these things on the fly, as it were, and don’t even realize we’re doing it. It is for these reasons, among others, that I teach a class called Interpreting Airports: everyone comes in with way more background knowledge than they even knew they had.
One time I mentioned to a bookseller that I was an author, and she asked what I wrote: “Fiction? Novels?” I said, no, I write about airports. She looked at me with a puzzled expression, and remarked, “Oh, that must be boring.” But even here in this strange response lies a kind of operative knowledge about what these spaces are, how they function, and what they feel like. The secret life of airports is a secret that many of us know, even if we don’t know we know it.
There is a tendency to see President Donald Trump as a radical break from the past.
But conservative techno-futurist Newt Gingrich sees Trump as ushering in a revolution — with a subsequent utopian space-age.Gingrich has envisioned such a breakthrough, and hopes Trump will be an agent of it, for decades. Gingrich’s vision is one stop on a straight line that goes through his friend and legendary science-fiction novelist Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer to Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars to Bill Clinton’s impeachment to Trump.
Pournelle — who died earlier this month — first rose to prominence as part of an influential group of right-wing science-fiction writers in the 1970s and 1980s that also included Larry Niven, David Drake, Janet Morris, and S. M. Stirling. All envisioned the best of a militarized humanity breaking away from the evils of bureaucracy and bleeding-hearts and aggressively colonizing and conquering space, exploiting its military and financial potential. Unlike most conservatives, all were less concerned with preserving the past for its own sake than for planning for the future—their preferred future.
In the end, The Secret Books, having surveyed the miserable history of 20th-century prejudice and violence, puts its battered faith in the enchanting powers of art. If history forgets or represses certain stories, Theroux implies, then it may be the task of the artist to redeem and revive them. The novel itself becomes a solution to the problems it explores, a means, limited but real, of righting wrongs, and of making stories better known. After all, who would have remembered Nicolas Notovitch and his strange and complex history if The Secret Books had never been written?
Why We Sleep by the neuroscientist Matthew Walker – my ill-chosen small-hours reading material – is filled with startling information about the effects of suboptimal shut-eye levels. It’s not a book you should even be thinking about in bed, let alone reading. If it weren’t too unsettling to permit sleep in the first place, it would be the stuff of nightmares. The marginalia in my review copy, scrawled in the wavering hand of a man receiving dark intimations of his own terrible fate – “OMFG”; “This is extremely bad!” – might seem less appropriate to an affably written popular science book than to some kind of arcane Lovecraftian grimoire.
Years later, I went to a professional astrologer to broaden what the daily horoscope in the newspaper told me. I learned I had five out of twelve planets in Scorpio, a very rare thing, and something I shared with both Ivan the Terrible and Charles Manson. I learned that the majority of serial killers and war lords have been Scorpios. I learned Scorpios were the darkest and most dangerous sign in the zodiac and like real scorpions they like to lurk in the shadows capable of deadly danger. Compared to Ivan the Terrible and Manson, I am a Scorpio pissant but I still like the vibe. I can now shrug and say, Blame my planet, if people think I’m a downer.
Inspired by this, I am considering renting my own storefront and calling it the Little Shoppe of Negativity. It took me all of ten minutes to come up with ideas for merchandise. It would have videotapes of Altamont but not Woodstock, as well as T-shirts and jacket patches that say, I COME, I FUCK SHIT UP, I LEAVE and MAKE AMERICAN VIOLENT AGAIN.
It helped that the hall was fully amplified, imitating a movie-theatre ambience. But the spectacle worked principally because a viewing of “Star Wars” is a public ritual like no other. Looking back on the film in middle age, I find it hard to believe that any adult coming to it fresh would take it seriously. First, there is the professional element. The first third of the movie is impossibly insubstantial; the power of Williams’s music, the exotic settings, and the space-opera gadgetry can’t obscure the stiltedness of George Lucas’s dialogue, the corniness of Carrie Fisher’s hair buns, or the severe limits to Mark Hamill’s thespian talents. But there is also the psychology. With its myth of self-creation through struggle, “Star Wars” is essentially a movie for tween boys who are trying to make the leap from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, seeking a bracing but vicarious vehicle through which to emerge from the shadow of Dad. In one instance in the film—the deaths of Luke Skywalker’s adoptive parents, Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru—the clearing of the deck is violent in the extreme. But otherwise the ravages of war are sterile, safe, and romanticized, something that doesn’t sit well for someone who witnessed 9/11 in New York. By the middle of the film, I was getting just as swept up in it as the rest of the audience—some of whom, of course, arrived in Princess Leia or Obi-Wan Kenobi costumes. Yet, I just can’t whoop it up when the Death Star, cruel instrument that it is, gets blown to smithereens. There are people in there.
The place where history and cartography converge can be tricky to navigate. This is something I know from experience, looking back on both my family’s history and how I understood it growing up. As a child, the quickest answer to describing my paternal grandfather’s side of the family was they were Austrian. (My father’s parents moved here in the 1930s.) But in talking with other relatives, I’ve been told that some relatives, several generations back, considered themselves to be Polish. That the national borders of central and eastern Europe have shifted considerably over the last hundred-plus years isn’t necessarily news–especially when you’re talking about the post-World War I breakup of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.
I was reminded of my own confusion in terms of how best to think of one part of familial history by Filip Stringer’s History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town. Though Stringer isn’t writing about the part of Poland from which my family members hailed, he touches on a number of the same questions: what makes a particular piece of land belong to one nation or another? What does it mean to multiple generations of people who think of a place in an entirely different fashion? And how do those of us on the outside of these discussions best process the issues at hand?
This contradictory desire — to use form to consider formlessness — is Forest Dark’s animating impulse. Split between alternating first- and third-person voices, the former characterized by the meandering intimacy of contemporary autofiction, the latter by close alignment with the perspective of Jules Epstein, a rich, aging lawyer — Krauss’s novel propels its protagonists toward somethings that also manage to be nothings.
From the time we’re young, women are taught to believe that our bodies should serve our clothes — and that if we can’t find anything that fits, it’s our fault for having bodies that are, in the words of designer and member of the Rational Dress Society Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, “noncompliant.” But, she notes, “it doesn’t have anything to do with body compliance. It’s really just a totally arbitrary sizing.”
Traveling out here, where huge bones from bowhead whales litter the beach, takes a 90-minute jet ride north from Anchorage and another hour by small plane over the Bering Sea. In this vast, wild part of America, accessible only by water or air, there may not be plumbing or potable water, the local store may not carry perishables and people may have to rely on caribou or salmon or bearded seal meat to stay fed.
But no matter where you go, you will always find a cake-mix cake.
Elsewhere, the American appetite for packaged baking mixes is waning, according to the market research firm Mintel, as consumers move away from packaged foods with artificial ingredients and buy more from in-store bakeries and specialty pastry shops. Yet in the small, mostly indigenous communities that dot rural Alaska, box cake is a stalwart staple, the star of every community dessert table and a potent fund-raising tool.
In short, Man With a Seagull really got through to me. Which is pleasingly ironic for a novel that provides such an interesting thesis about the dangers of assuming you can ever really connect with a work of art. It is a precious and strange thing. A bona fide gem. A book that would be a credit to any shortlist.
Daniel Mendelsohn is a classics scholar, a translator, a memoirist and a quick-witted literary and television critic. The idea of reading his account of being trapped on a theme cruise — the theme is Homer’s “Odyssey” — is an attractive one.
Along on the cruise is Jay, the author’s 81-year-old father. Jay lives on Long Island. He can be vinegary. He’s close at times to the sort of character Philip Roth has described as a “letter-to-the-editor madman.”
One thing I’ve noticed over the years of bringing my students to Ireland – my homeland – is that they pay rapt attention to the little things. This heightened and delighted attention to the ordinary, which manifests in someone new to a place, does not seem to have a name. So I have given it one: allokataplixis (from the Greek allo meaning ‘other’, and katapliktiko meaning ‘wonder’). In Modern Greek katapliktiko and the related word katataplixie can be used to register astonishment. Admittedly, in Ancient Greek the family of words surrounding kataplêxis sometimes signified ‘terror’ and ‘panic’. It is, however, the note of pure ‘amazement’ and ‘fascination’ present in this word that I want to celebrate in my neologism.
Now, on the matter of my death in the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River, specifically after an alarming swim in Lava Falls—universally considered the canyon’s nastiest and most difficult rapid—I confess that I miscalculated badly. I miscalculated previous to the run and then again in the aftermath of the excitement to come.
I had been thrown out of the raft at the top of the rapid, ambushed by some bit of rogue hydraulics, and recall attempting to swim against forces entirely beyond human control. I was using reserves of energy that, as it turned out, could have been better used later. Best really to just go with the flow. But the river seemed to yank me directly down as if by the feet, and I was looking up through about 15 feet of water at what appeared to be a perfectly still round pool, colored robin’s egg blue by the cloudless Arizona sky.
They say many things about Detroit. Start with what this lanky kid says. He came bounding up to me at a bar close to the Wayne State campus, near where I was staying during a press trip organized by a privately funded cultural exchange program. He whispered: “Are you straight?” I said no. He said that was a shame because he’s only into straight guys. His breath smelled sweetly of bourbon and Coca-Cola. He was so smashed he kept falling over himself as he rounded the pool table, trying to manage the cue without tripping over it, though twice it felled him. The straight guys laughed. A friend of his told me he’s always like this. Like what? “Like he can hardly walk after midnight.” It was sometime after one in the morning. Later he said, “Will you kiss me?” but I declined again, and instead we went across the street to an apartment complex with some other guy who was “definitely not voting for Clinton” because he was “sort of a Libertarian.” I watched him and the kid smoke pot in a bathtub while college students played first-person shooter games in the darkened living room. Out of nowhere, the kid started to sob. He was lying on his back with his arms wrapped around his legs, as if he was trying to shrink himself down. When I asked what was wrong, he told me he couldn’t afford to continue with his studies and had “no future.” “That couldn’t possibly be true,” I assured him, that he had “no future.” He held up his hand: “No, it is.” His blue eyes were glassy and bloodshot from the booze and tears. I had no assurances to offer. I was just a visitor. Our host, who was doing just fine himself, understood. “It’s true,” he said, “it’s hard to make it in Detroit.”
I noticed, after a while, that the elaborate dinners were only prepared for an audience, and that when it was just the two of us, we mostly ate burritos with our hands as we watched television programmes about the bottom of the ocean. We can sense real connection, I’ve come to think, by how much being alone together feels at first like an occasion, something requiring collaboration and argument, tools and time. What he liked about me was similar to what I revered about him – how he thrived in a full room, how he catered his stories to the people in it – but that didn’t help us on those evenings with Blue Planet, where we each might as well have been on our own, greasy fingered and half asleep. It’s easy to remember him hurtling around the corner of a grocery aisle, his cart ahead of him full of the things he’d chosen, and also how young I was, how I failed to place anything in it myself.
This is the irony of the age in which we live. Technological change has made it possible for us to read anything we want, at any time. But it has coincided with an era of economic concentration not seen since the Gilded Age, and a decline of media outlets devoted to art and culture. The Man Booker Prize is not as big as it once was, yes. But that’s because the literary world itself is shrinking.
To Darwin’s dismay, many biologists rejected this theory. For one thing, Darwin’s elevation of sexual selection threatened the idea of natural selection as the one true and almighty force shaping life — a creative force powerful and concentrated enough to displace that of God. And some felt Darwin’s sexual selection gave too much power to all those females exerting choices based on beauty. As the zoologist St. George Jackson Mivart complained in an influential early review of “Descent,” “the instability of vicious feminine caprice” was too soft and slippery a force to drive something as important as evolution.
Darwin’s sexual selection theory thus failed to win the sort of victory that his theory of natural selection did. Ever since, the adaptationist, “fitness first” view of sexual selection as a subset of natural selection has dominated, driving the interpretation of most significant traits.
And so things largely remained until now. This summer, however, almost 150 years after Darwin published his sexual selection theory to mixed reception, Richard Prum, a mild-mannered ornithologist and museum curator from Yale, has published a book intended to win Darwin’s sex theory a more climactic victory.
Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) is a science-fiction classic in part because it’s such brilliant pastiche. Drawing inspiration from the midcentury United States’s nascent environmental movement, European feudalism, Middle Eastern oil politics, and Zen Buddhism, Herbert created a universe that is at once exotic and familiar. Not all of the book’s success is a result of inspired borrowing, but much of the richness and depth in Herbert’s imagined future of religious fanaticism and aristocratic intrigue can be traced to its creator’s talent for appropriation.
Melange, the hallucinogenic drug at the heart of Herbert’s book, acts as a prerequisite for interstellar travel and can only be obtained on one harsh, desert planet populated by tribes of warlike nomads. Even a casual political observer will recognize the parallels between the universe of Dune and the Middle East of the late 20th century. Islamic theology, mysticism, and the history of the Arab world clearly influenced Dune, but part of Herbert’s genius lay in his willingness to reach for more idiosyncratic sources of inspiration. The Sabres of Paradise (1960) served as one of those sources, a half-forgotten masterpiece of narrative history recounting a mid-19th century Islamic holy war against Russian imperialism in the Caucasus.
Once you start losing a few things, it’s easier to lose the rest so you can be left alone to think. I left the chaotic house in Hackney that I shared with four guys and their various women and moved into a flat on a street filled with old people and expensive cars. I’m house sitting, so I put my stuff in storage and am living out of a suitcase and a bit of floor – a permanent state of transience. I quit my job in a busy open-plan newsroom to go freelance and pulled up the final anchor of a 9-to-5. I reduced my daily human interaction, piece by piece, to nil.
I have no schedule, no dependents but a cat. I go to the cinema when there’s no one there except occasionally one old man. I watch the credits until the end because there’s no one putting their jacket on to suggest we should go (like me, the old guy has nowhere to be). When I leave the sun is still out, the streets are empty. At night, in hotel rooms around the world, there are writers avoiding deadlines while serving as lifelines for others avoiding theirs: a population of people who have jetlagged themselves over work, who are adrift from their own time zone and friends. We send each other pictures of coffee machines and digital clocks reading 3.12am – flares into the sky. I have engineered a life in which I exist in a rare London with no one in it except for the unemployed, the drunk and the lonely.
To abolish character-based writing invited serious peril, however. What would become of China’s vast corpus of philosophy, literature, poetry, and history, all written in Chinese characters? Might not this inestimable heritage be lost to all but the epigraphers and specialists of tomorrow? Were China to abandon characters, moreover, what would become of the country’s pronounced linguistic diversity? Cantonese, Hokkienese, and other so-called “dialects” of Chinese are as mutually distinct as Portuguese and French. Indeed, many have argued that the coherence and persistence of the Chinese polity, civilization, and culture have in no small part been predicated upon the unifying influence of a common character-based script. Were China to go the route of phonetic writing, would not these linguistic differences in the oral realm be made more insurmountable, and politically charged, once formalized in writing? Might the elimination of character-based writing precipitate the breakup of the country along fault lines of language? Might China cease to be one country, and instead become a continent of countries, like Europe?
The puzzle of Chinese linguistic modernity would appear, then, to be a perfectly irresolvable one. Characters held China together, but they also held China back. Characters maintained China’s connection with its past, but so too did they isolate China from the Hegelian sense of historical progress. How then was China to make this seemingly impossible transition?
When Rebecca Goldin spoke to a recent class of incoming freshmen at George Mason University, she relayed a disheartening statistic: According to a recent study, 36 percent of college students don’t significantly improve in critical thinking during their four-year tenure. “These students had trouble distinguishing fact from opinion, and cause from correlation,” Goldin explained.
She went on to offer some advice: “Take more math and science than is required. And take it seriously.” Why? Because “I can think of no better tool than quantitative thinking to process the information that is thrown at me.” Take, for example, the study she had cited. A first glance, it might seem to suggest that a third of college graduates are lazy or ignorant, or that higher education is a waste. But if you look closer, Goldin told her bright-eyed audience, you’ll find a different message: “Turns out, this third of students isn’t taking any science.”
As befits these engines of global capitalism, these cities and their inhabitants are pulling away with growing momentum from their native countries and cultures. Untethered from their localities, they are being transformed into an archipelago of analogous islands. Currid-Halkett is surely right that this process represents a divide between (to somewhat simplify matters) the cosmopolitans and the provincials, but it is hardly an equal struggle. The wealth, dynamism, and consequent self-belief are all on one side; the unorganized, self-defeating resentment is all on the other. The cosmopolitan elite will shape the world as that elite wishes, even if the results ultimately prove disastrous to all.
But for all the differences that emerge while flipping through generations of nudies, the similarities stand out far more. After looking at 734 photos of naked women, one can’t help but conclude that the human body has some very strict limitations and the human mind lacks any substantial creativity when it comes to sexy poses.
Whale song seemed to belong as much to a forgotten Earth in need of conservation, a quiet age of sail living only in the annals of human memory, as it did to Cold War technoscience, the search for extraterrestrial life, and a future in which we would be remembered by alien listeners long after we were gone. It came from elsewhere and was destined still elsewhere—haunted, distant, endangered, prehistoric, futuristic, transient, astro-nautical, exiled, extra terrestrial, a sound at the very edge of personhood, speech, music, life, habitat, “Earth,” but squarely in the sweet spot of longing.
People have been painting celestial bodies for thousands of years, but only after World War II, as space programs flourished, did the field evolve into a thriving subgenre, and an occupation in its own right; with new technology came a new lust for imagery. NASA, founded in 1958, has commissioned space art since its inception, and along with the European Space Agency it’s sponsored artists’ residencies over the years. “It could be argued that NASA owes its very existence to space artists,” Jon Ramer, president of the International Association of Astronomical Artists, told me in an email. The IAAA currently stands at 120 members worldwide, and serves as a sort of hub connecting the community.
Childress, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, has performed a remarkable feat of investigative reporting, interviewing dozens of writers, editors, and readers, and even embedding himself for a time as an intern at an indie publishing house, to follow the tortuous path of Cornelia Nixonâs 2009 historical novel Jarrettsville from inspiration to publication and beyond. Unfortunately, because Childress is a social scientist and Under the Cover is part of the Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology series, readers have to drill through layers of academic framing and insider jargon to find the nuggets Childress has mined from his years of research.
This is a shame because, whatever his gifts as a sociologist, Childress is a first-rate shoe-leather reporter.
At times, the moralizing about the environment and humans’ role in global warming can come across a bit heavy-handedly. But increasing awareness of the earth’s fraught future, in the end, is not the main thing the novel is trying to do. Instead, it wants you to consider what it is you feel deeply about—whether that’s achieving fame, standing by traditions, or protecting your family—and then consider whether you would sacrifice those things for the greater good.
In a breakthrough that disproves decades of conventional wisdom, two mathematicians have shown that two different variants of infinity are actually the same size. The advance touches on one of the most famous and intractable problems in mathematics: whether there exist infinities between the infinite size of the natural numbers and the larger infinite size of the real numbers.
But their work has ramifications far beyond the specific question of how those two infinities are related. It opens an unexpected link between the sizes of infinite sets and a parallel effort to map the complexity of mathematical theories.
It is here, among the clucking chickens, crowing roosters, and cooing doves, that Kabul’s oldest restaurant, Bacha Broot, has been serving delicious chainaki — traditional lamb stew — for over 70 years. Bacha Broot, named after the original owner who had peculiar facial hair, is from the Dari, meaning “boy with a mustache.”
While wars have raged on the restaurant’s doorstep, very little has changed inside. The claustrophobic stairs, the sparse interior, the tiny door easily missed in the maze-like bazaar; all in their original state. While modern fast food joints lure Afghanistan’s younger generations with pizza and burgers, Bacha Broot stays loyal to its recipe for success. The famous chainaki — lamb on the bone, split peas, and onions cooked for four hours in tiny teapots — has drawn customers for decades, during war and peace, good times and bad.
Draft No. 4 contains a carefully balanced ratio of directly instructive writing advice, behind-the-scenes views on McPhee’s greatest hits, and war stories from the golden age of post-WWII American magazine publishing. This is near the bullseye of what you’d hope for from an octogenarian doyen, and it’s a pleasure to read. Any writer or editor could learn something from McPhee, as many famous and successful ones already have. In the essay “Frame of Reference,” he advises against borrowing vividness from famous names: “If you say someone looks like Tom Cruise—and you let it go at at that—you are asking Tom Cruise to do your writing for you.” Any obscure reference tightens the writer’s audience, almost always for the worse. Though McPhee does end the section with the story of an elegant exception, a fittingly exceptional line of writing gifted to a few readers who would receive it.
There are only two kinds of writers in the world, according to John McPhee: the overtly insecure and the covertly insecure. His new book, “Draft. No. 4,” a collection of essays on craft, is a sunny tribute to the gloomy side of the writing life: the insecurity, dread, shame, envy, magical thinking, pointless rituals, financial instability, self-hatred — the whole “masochistic self-inflicted paralysis of a writer’s normal routine.” And then the queasy desire to do it all over again.
“Word by Word” is both memoir and exposé, an insider’s tour of the inner circles of the mysterious fortress that is Merriam-Webster. Stamper leads us through her own lexicographical bildungsroman, exploring how she fell in love with words and showing us how the dictionary works, and how it interacts with the world that it strives to reflect. Though Stamper takes great pains to paint herself as your garden-variety, genial nerd, she doesn’t fully dispel the reader of the wonderful myth that there are hyperverbal elves who live somewhere within the pages of the dictionary, scribbling at the language whenever we readers aren’t looking. Stamper paints etymologists as alchemists or magicians, mysterious figures who fill their cubicles with gravity-defying Jenga piles of Old German and Frisian dictionaries. Within lexicographical ranks, Stamper told me, there’s a reverence for expert grammarians that approaches the devotional. “It’s esoteric, Kabbalistic knowledge,” she said. “As you move up the layers towards enlightenment, you will learn more about conjunctive adverbs.”
But if technology blinds us with its magic, the magic can wear off. By the time my third Kindle rolled in, I found myself returning to paper. My reversion wasn’t self-conscious. It happened slowly. I never really stopped collecting physical books. Because I worked for a magazine, review copies would arrive in the office with the postman. And there were old books that I couldn’t find on the Kindle, which I ordered from used-book sellers. The paper editions began to beckon. I didn’t think much about my transition back to paper. It just magnetically occurred.
I have no principled or scientific objections to screens. The Internet is my home for most of the day. Twitter captures a huge share of my attention. I’m grateful for the rush of information, the microscopic way it is possible to follow politics and soccer and poetry and journalistic gossip. It’s strange, though, to look back and recall a day’s worth of reading. Of course, I could probably pose the question to my computer and find a precise record. But if I sit at my desk and try to list all the tweets and articles and posts that have crossed my transom, there are very few that I actually remember. Reading on the Web is a frantic activity, compressed, haphazard, not always absorbed.
If you could fast-forward some 1,000 years and peek into a college science textbook from the year 3000, what would you see? I doubt you’d find many of our current theories still in there. Today, the Standard Model of particle physics and Albert Einstein’s general relativity seem like twin pinnacles of human intellectual achievement. Tomorrow, they might be cast into history’s dustbin, relegated to mere footnotes alongside old ideas about the Earth-centred solar system and the deterministic Universe. It would be a humbling sight – and a tremendously reassuring one.
Given the choice, I would prefer to see our current theories not validated. I’d much rather live in a Universe where we discover that today’s view of physics is comically naïve. If I am so lucky as to live to see deep new discoveries about the true nature of reality, I hope to find them bizarre and shocking. In 1,000 years, physics and mathematics will probably have progressed so far that the very nature of the questions will be incomprehensible to us. Researchers will have moved on to bigger, more mind-blowing questions that today’s deepest thinkers are not yet even equipped to ask.
I’m a weatherman, but actually, I never predict, I’m the rugged correspondent, I get out of bed when the network calls, I don’t sit around and primp, I go. Very often I wear jeans. Weather happens, then I work, not the other way around. I don’t know how to predict anything, so don’t blame me if the sky clouds over your Sunday afternoon sail; I do know what a story is, which means I’m never wrong about the weather. People don’t hate me or make jokes about me, because I don’t represent to them the scientific sorcery of meteorology, trying to create order where it’s impossible. My wife, Carolyn, says I’m likeable because I have a sympathetic face. I like to think it’s more certain, my face, which is a geological kind of face, all its parts anchored together and slow to move, stable.
Science and technology: we tend to think of them as siblings, perhaps even as twins, as parts of STEM (for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics”). When it comes to the shiniest wonders of the modern world—as the supercomputers in our pockets communicate with satellites—science and technology are indeed hand in glove. For much of human history, though, technology had nothing to do with science. Many of our most significant inventions are pure tools, with no scientific method behind them. Wheels and wells, cranks and mills and gears and ships’ masts, clocks and rudders and crop rotation: all have been crucial to human and economic development, and none historically had any connection with what we think of today as science. Some of the most important things we use every day were invented long before the adoption of the scientific method. I love my laptop and my iPhone and my Echo and my G.P.S., but the piece of technology I would be most reluctant to give up, the one that changed my life from the first day I used it, and that I’m still reliant on every waking hour—am reliant on right now, as I sit typing—dates from the thirteenth century: my glasses. Soap prevented more deaths than penicillin. That’s technology, not science.
In “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States,” James C. Scott, a professor of political science at Yale, presents a plausible contender for the most important piece of technology in the history of man. It is a technology so old that it predates Homo sapiens and instead should be credited to our ancestor Homo erectus. That technology is fire. We have used it in two crucial, defining ways. The first and the most obvious of these is cooking. As Richard Wrangham has argued in his book “Catching Fire,” our ability to cook allows us to extract more energy from the food we eat, and also to eat a far wider range of foods. Our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, has a colon three times as large as ours, because its diet of raw food is so much harder to digest. The extra caloric value we get from cooked food allowed us to develop our big brains, which absorb roughly a fifth of the energy we consume, as opposed to less than a tenth for most mammals’ brains. That difference is what has made us the dominant species on the planet.
In “Private Government,” Anderson explores a striking American contradiction. On the one hand, we are a freedom-obsessed society, wary of government intrusion into our private lives; on the other, we allow ourselves to be tyrannized by our bosses, who enjoy broad powers of micromanagement and coercion. Anderson believes that many American workers are constrained by rules that would be “unconstitutional for democratic states to impose on citizens who are not convicts or in the military.” She estimates that more than half are “subject to dictatorship at work.” In “Private Government,” she asks whether this might be a failure of our political system—a betrayal of America’s democratic promise.
When we knew for certain that she was about to die, she told me the whereabouts of her unpublished poems, and I read them for the first time. They were dazzling, and I faxed them to the New Yorker. When we heard back from the poetry editor Alice Quinn a few days later, Jane’s eyes were open but she couldn’t see. I told her that Quinn was taking seven poems. She had stopped speaking, but her oncologist said that she could still hear.
And so, despite all the great food, and the spectacular views, and the visits to pubs and grand cafes, and the museums, the most rewarding parts of these trips have been the explorations of my own family.
Also unlike Bond, Smiley is the star of several smart, well-written novels. Rare among thrillers, the Smiley books — there are nine of them, including A Legacy of Spies — score highly in both the qualities that people pretend to like in books (formal style, psychological portraiture, political intelligence, moral sensibility) and the qualities that people actually like in books (sex, violence, plot twists, convincing and frequently deployed spy jargon). Collectively, they form the best espionage series ever written.
I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July-flowers.
Such shortcuts result in a feedback loop of cinematic prestige: Allen is considered an important director in part because so many big stars still want to work with him. Meanwhile, his perceived importance as a director draws those stars for the short period it will take to film a movie and acquire their Allen credential. The accumulated prestige also rubs off on his investors, some of whom have even gotten bit parts. And their risk of a financial loss is low. Allen’s films almost always recoup their modest budgets—here, the actors’ willingness to work at a deep discount is essential—and now and then one strikes gold. (Midnight in Paris made more than $150 million on a $17 million budget.) The fact that so few of them wind up being any good barely enters into the director-actor-investor equation.
My instincts as a designer had unwittingly betrayed me. I wanted to make a beautiful book jacket, but had forgotten why. I reminded myself that a well-designed book jacket ultimately serves the book it’s made for. Like a neon sign, a three-letter word switched on in my head: J O B. This is a job. I closed all the tabs and windows on my screen. A fresh start would do me good.
My dream of seeing one of my books sitting on a shelf in a library will never fade completely. Maybe in a few months I’ll ramp up my submissions again. Maybe I’ll maintain this slower approach for the rest of my life. But for now, I’m doing what works for me. It’s not the ending I’d hoped for, but it’s a happier, more balanced path.
Using a beautiful earthy palette and intricate lines, loops and curls, the author/illustrator evokes a woodland world so full of textures and sights you can almost feel the shafts of sunlight on your back.
What it means to be fat in France is for the first time up for discussion in France. “I decided to write the book,” she says, “because I no longer want to apologise for existing. Yes obesity has doubled in the past 10 years, that’s much too much. But it does not mean we discriminate against the obese in telling them they can’t work and insulting them.”
Gabrielle, who couldn’t even look at a picture of herself until six months ago, has prepared herself for this moment. “My publisher said: ‘You will be on TV and it will be hard.’ So, with a friend, we started doing pictures of me in a swimming pool so I could accept how I looked in a swimsuit.” (On France’s beaches, disgusted passers-by have told her to “Please cover up.”) “Because I was doing it for a purpose, it had meaning.”
On the southern edge of Paris, a five-thousand-square-foot basement houses the city’s lost possessions. The Bureau of Found Objects, as it is officially called, is more than two hundred years old, and one of the largest centralized lost and founds in Europe. Any item left behind on the Métro, in a museum, in an airport, or found on the street and dropped, unaddressed, into a mailbox makes its way here, around six or seven hundred items each day. Umbrellas, wallets, purses, and mittens line the shelves, along with less quotidian possessions: a wedding dress with matching shoes, a prosthetic leg, an urn filled with human remains. The bureau is an administrative department, run by the Police Prefecture and staffed by very French functionaries—and yet it’s also an improbable, poetic space where the entrenched French bureaucracy and the societal ideals of the country collide.
Bernie Sanders talks about economic inequality all the time, and it’s a message that resonates. You don’t need to be a socialist to worry about the divide between rich and poor in America. Many Americans across the political spectrum claim to be deeply troubled by economic inequality, and many say they support changes that would yield a more equal distribution of income and wealth.
But in his just-published book, On Inequality, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt argues that economic equality has no intrinsic value. This is a moral claim, but it’s also a psychological one: Frankfurt suggests that if people take the time to reflect, they’ll realize that inequality isn’t really what’s bothering them.
This is Taubman's second biography of an outsized Soviet leader, the first being his 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. But this time Taubman's research included hours of interviews with his subject, 86 and living in Moscow. His admiration and even affection for Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union, are clear.
That might call into question the impartiality of a lesser biographer. But Taubman makes a convincing case that Gorbachev's profound "decency" — the word appears throughout the book — is fundamental to understanding him.
At the end of this memoir, in the acknowledgments, Claire Tomalin thanks her husband, Michael Frayn, for his patience in discussing “doubts and problems”, and for encouraging her to keep going when “I was close to giving up”. It is outside the province of the book to explore the doubts in detail or to explain why she almost ditched it. But as one reads, one speculates about the difference between writing biographies, as Tomalin has with questing brilliance – on Mary Wollstonecraft, Katherine Mansfield, Dora Jordan, Nelly Ternan, Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys, Thomas Hardy – and writing about herself. The book, absorbing, moving and marvellously written, will not let this question drop.
In many ways, theatremaker Ong Keng Sen was a natural fit to run the Singapore international festival of arts when it relaunched in 2014.
A recipient of Singapore’s Cultural Medallion, Ong’s company TheatreWorks signalled a new creative movement when it was founded in 1985. He was there for the birth of Singapore’s arts scene and 30 years later is still a major player within it.
But for a festival run by a famously restrictive government, Ong was also a risky choice: an outspoken artist known for avant garde experimental work, and for pushing buttons that others wouldn’t push.
The poet Ira Lightman stared at his laptop screen in disbelief. Could it be true? He was sitting on the sofa in his terrace house in Rowlands Gill, five miles south-west of Newcastle, a narrow man with a curly mess of dark red hair. He’d just made a routine visit to the Facebook group Plagiarism Alerts. There, a woman named Kathy Figueroa had posted something extraordinary: “It appears that one of Canada’s former poet laureates has plagiarised a poem by Maya Angelou.”
Lightman clicked the link. It led to a Canadian government webpage where a poem had been chosen to honour the memory of Pierre DesRuisseaux, Canada’s fourth parliamentary poet laureate, who died in early 2016. The poem, it said, had been translated from DesRuisseaux’s French original. Lightman read the opening lines: “You can wipe me from the pages of history/with your twisted falsehoods/you can drag me through the mud/but like the wind, I rise.” The poem was called I Rise. Next, Lightman looked up the Maya Angelou. “You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I’ll rise.” The poem was called Still I Rise.
In the era of a global cultural bingeing on food, cookbooks, and celebrity chefs—a form of escapism, one suspects, from truly important but inedible political realities—that perspective might not seem so odd. But, as Shapiro points out, this gastromania we now behold is relatively recent, as well as focused on the now-fashionable intricacies of exploring food and cooking as ends in themselves. She has an entirely different way to use food in mind.
It’s hard to imagine approaching this debut collection of short stories, set in the US prison system, without the knowledge that Curtis Dawkins is a prisoner serving a life sentence without parole. Dawkins killed a man in the commission of a botched robbery at a time when he was addicted to drugs, a crime that’s fairly commonplace for the hapless but gravely culpable people who end up spending their lives in prison. Less typical is the fact that, before he went to prison, Dawkins earned an MFA in creative writing.
This combination results in a book that is remarkable for its modesty, realism and humanity. There’s no trace of the grand guignol sadism and preoccupation with sexual violence that typify popular prison narratives, from Oz to Prisoner Cell Block H. Instead, Dawkins gives us prison as it is for most inmates most of the time: a series of dull, claustrophobic days, in which men oppress each other not with violence, but tedium. His characters play dominoes, tell interminable stories, sell handmade Christmas cards to each other, obsessively watch sports. The existence of violence is acknowledged, but it’s left at the margins of the narrative. The more present danger, to which various characters succumb, is the temptation of suicide.
Sparkling or still water? Organic or conventional avocados? Four stars or three-and-a-half? The modern world sets loose upon us a barrage of choice in the consumer marketplace, while the Internet not only expands our consumption opportunities—giving us most of the world’s music in a smartphone app—it offers us myriad new chances to learn about the tastes, and distastes, of others.
For several years, leading up to the 2016 publication of my book You May Also Like: Taste in An Age of Endless Choice, I dove into the latest research on consumer behavior, via social science, psychology, and neuroscience. Now, to help you navigate the confusing landscape of endless choices, to choose wisely, more efficiently, and with greater self-awareness, I have distilled some of that research into the form of an advice column—though in this case I also supplied the questions, based on real questions that arose during my research, and which I have subsequently heard from friends and readers.
A few months ago, Christina Tosi met a cookie she expected to be meh. “It was called salted caramel crunch, and I thought it was going to be a total snoozefest,” she said. After all, these days a cookie carpet-bombed with salt is old hat. But this confection, discovered in an airport, blew Tosi’s mind. “Imagine a butter cookie with raw sugar on top, with hints of kosher salt — it was toffee bits and these pretzel rounds folded in so every time you thought you were getting a toffee bit, you got this amazing, salty, multi thing.”
It wasn’t simply that it was delicious, it’s that it was familiar. “It makes me laugh because I’m like, I did that,” she said. “Like, no one put pretzels in cookies. Like, holy shit, nine years ago this was not a real thing in the world.” When Tosi first started peddling baked goods, it was the halcyon days before Instagram. Before unicorn freakshakes, rolled ice cream, and Oreos with Oreo filling — back when people could still get it up for flourless chocolate cake on a square plate. Her creation, this airport cookie’s godfather, was laden with potato chips, coffee grounds, butterscotch, chocolate chips — and pretzels. Tosi called it the Compost Cookie (later registering the trademark because she’s smart) and it was weird. Subversive, even. It, along with a black hole of butter and two kinds of sugar called the Crack Pie, ushered in the era of the Stunt Dessert — FOMO-inducing, insulin-spiking sweets consumed as much for the performative pleasure as for the sugar rush, from slutty brownies to anything off the Cookie Dough Cafe menu and the incalculable number of crummy Cronut clones.
There’s little precedent in Europe for the lightly cooked, lightly sauced, yet intricately plated dishes, what the late writer and critic Josh Ozersky called “tweezer food,” before it appeared suddenly and decisively in France in the 1960s. A great deal of nouvelle cuisine’s innovations, in fact, paralleled classical aspects of Japanese dining, especially the movement’s emphasis on shorter cooking times; minimalist, playful plating; and a focus on extracting the essential aspects of an ingredient, rather than transforming it. Perhaps not coincidentally, from the time that French chefs began visiting Japan (and Japanese chefs began training in France) in the mid-1960s, fine dining has become increasingly like Japan’s most formal dining tradition, kaiseki.
So it turns out I can no longer speak English. This was the alarming realisation foisted upon me by Matthew Engel’s witty, cantankerous yet nonetheless persuasive polemic That’s the Way it Crumbles: The American Conquest of English. Because by English, I mean British English.
Despite having been born, raised and educated on British shores, it seems my mother tongue has been irreparably corrupted by the linguistic equivalent of the grey squirrel. And I’m not alone. Whether you’re a lover or a loather of phrases like “Can I get a decaf soy latte to go?”, chances are your vocabulary has been similarly colonised.
It seemed a little silly to think a single essay could change one’s life. Yet I knew what she was asking: Had agents and publishers beaten down my door after the essay appeared? Modern Love, which began in 2004, has become mythic among aspiring writers—a literary equivalent to winning American Idol. The column’s longtime editor, Dan Jones, estimates that 50 to 60 book deals based on Modern Love essays have been struck to date. Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s recent essay, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” prompted a lucrative film rights bidding war ultimately won by Universal Pictures.
My essay, “A Measure of Desire,” did not inspire such a dramatic response. Still, on the eve of my first book’s publication, five years after the essay appeared, I have to admit that Modern Love has indeed had a significant impact on my life and career. And having spoken to several other writers about their experiences, it is clear that I’m not alone.
It is the vivid attention to detail, both in “Ulysses”, James Joyce’s masterpiece, and in “Solar Bones”, which make both these novels resonate like that evening bell.
Elizabeth Day’s sly fourth novel is an enticing mix of social climbing, barely hidden lust and possible crimes. The story rests on two central questions: Why is Martin Gilmour, a minor success as an art critic, being interrogated at a police station in the Cotswolds? What happened at the lavish 40th-birthday party of his aristocratic best friend, Ben Fitzmaurice, to make Martin squirm under the detectives’ glare? The novel’s underpinnings are much richer. Building on generations of fiction dissecting the British class system, Day carries that theme into the 21st century, adding the swift pace of a psychological thriller.
Monica Gagliano began to study plant behavior because she was tired of killing animals. Now an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth, when she was a student and postdoc, she had been offing her research subjects at the end of experiments, the standard protocol for many animals studies. If she was to work on plants, she could just sample a leaf or a piece of root. When she switched her professional allegiance to plants, though, she brought with her some ideas from the animal world and soon began exploring questions few plant specialists probe—the possibilities of plant behavior, learning, and memory.
“You start a project, and as you open up the box there are lots of other questions inside it, so then you follow the trail,” Gagliano says. “Sometimes if you track the trail, you end up in places like Pavlovian plants.”
In her first experiments with plant learning, Gagliano decided to test her new subjects the same way she would animals. She started with habituation, the simplest form of learning. If the plants encountered the same innocuous stimulus over and over again, would their response to it change?
Never before have our expectations of marriage taken on such epic proportions. We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, respectability, property, and children—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends and trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot.
Contained within the small circle of the wedding band are vastly contradictory ideals. We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. We expect comfort and edge, familiarity and novelty, continuity and surprise. We have conjured up a new Olympus, where love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh so exciting, with one person, for the long haul. And the long haul keeps getting longer.
It is perhaps the obvious thing, to point to the materiality of the letter: how it’s written on paper, maybe folded and slid into a stamped envelope and sent par avion. But that materiality, in an era of email and text messages, has become the essential quality of the medium. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin considers how the modern capacity for reproduction affected original artworks, or rather, our (mediated) perception of those originals: “Even in the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence—and nothing else—that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject.” It is hard to say what constitutes the “original” in email correspondence, which exists in multiple forms: in drafts, inboxes, and sent folders, cc’d and bcc’d, so on and so forth. But the handwritten letter does have all the ingredients that make an original: a singular “here and now,” a “unique existence in a particular place.” Letters on paper bear the mark of history. They show the trace of touch in fingerprints and coffee stains. And countless readings render scars in brittle paper, unfolded and folded up again.
It’s my opinion that Nora Ephron never should have left journalism. Sure there was a lot more money to be made writing and directing major motion pictures like When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle, but Ephron had a gift for magazine writing. She had the kind of personal style some writers attend pricey retreats and workshops to acquire. She didn’t just interview her subjects–she brought you into their various worlds and gave you room to explore every corner to your heart’s content.
When Alex was arrested, he insisted the robbery was simply an elaborate Ranger training exercise. He was deploying in two weeks, and in Iraq he’d be expected to carry out operations of similar corkscrew impudence: Raid dangerous spaces, flush out “high value” targets from their homes. Sommer, he explained, would never lead him on such an audacious mission without an Army-sanctioned strategic intent — and he, Alex, would never challenge the wisdom of his superiors.
It took Alex many months into his stay in prison to realize that he’d been duped by Sommer, a nut job and a pirate first class. Or so Alex claimed.
In recent years, thanks to the invention of fMRI, we have made extraordinary breakthroughs in understanding the mental life of people trapped in the grey zone. We have discovered that 15% to 20% of people in the vegetative state, who are widely assumed to have no more awareness than a head of broccoli, are in fact fully conscious, even though they never respond to any form of external stimulation. They may open their eyes, grunt and groan, and occasionally utter isolated words. They appear to live entirely in their own world, devoid of thoughts or feelings. Many really are as oblivious and incapable of thought as their doctors believe. But a sizeable number are experiencing something quite different: intact minds adrift deep within damaged bodies and brains. We have even figured out how to communicate directly with such people.
But the nation-state with its borders, centralised governments, common people and sovereign authority is increasingly out of step with the world. And as Karl Marx observed, if you change the dominant mode of production that underpins a society, the social and political structure will change too.
This is the crux of the problem: nation-states rely on control. If they can’t control information, crime, businesses, borders or the money supply, then they will cease to deliver what citizens demand of them. In the end, nation-states are nothing but agreed-upon myths: we give up certain freedoms in order to secure others. But if that transaction no longer works, and we stop agreeing on the myth, it ceases to have power over us.
However, therein lies the danger. “Happy people don’t really make great art, you know?” Smith says. “Great art comes from sadness and misery. I’m 46” — he has since turned 47 — “I don’t wanna fuckin’ go through negative shit anymore.” Instead of trying to make that great art, he decided years ago to aim for art that satisfies both himself and his rabid fanbase, and you can argue that that decision took him out of the cinematic zeitgeist while his ‘90s indie compatriots continued to set the pace.
But now, he’s making his first tentative steps back into the mainstream with a series of major TV-directing gigs, a deal to create his first true comic-book screen adaptation, and a risky cinematic revisitation of his most famous creations, Jay and Silent Bob — the latter of whom is played by the creator, himself. In other words, Kevin Smith has the chance to re-enter the race for mass appeal. The question is: Can he catch up with the world he helped create?
However eternal its concerns, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” Ward’s new book, is perfectly poised for the moment. It combines aspects of the American road novel and the ghost story with a timely treatment of the long aftershocks of a hurricane and the opioid epidemic devouring rural America.
I knew these were rich-people problems. Only rich people could afford to complain about the lack of time they had to create still lifes of indoor flora and to read about Dadaists. Complaining about my rich-people problems made me feel whiny and spoiled and further separated me from my impoverished roots. I felt as hypocritical as the Dadaists themselves, who critiqued the materialistic bourgeoisie while making art that, like most art, only rich people had the resources to consume.
On the other hand, my problems weren’t exactly rich-people problems. Sure, rich people might complain about a lack of time to finish Dada homework, but not because they were busy working a minimum-wage job. Rich people might use their extra time to attend the new show at MoMA, or to network with Sophie, whose mother ran an arts residency and was looking for applicants from our graduating class, but I was trying to earn money to buy enough frozen single-serving lasagnas from Safeway to get myself through the week. In this way, I also felt alienated from my new peers, unable to be as smart or productive or connected as they were because I had to attend to my basic needs.
Reviewing John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries for an Irish newspaper a couple of years ago, I found myself wondering: why are the titles of novels by fictional novelists always so mysteriously unconvincing? The protagonist of Avenue of Mysteries is Juan Diego, a globetrotting writer of Irvingesque stature; his most famous book is called A Story Set in Motion by the Virgin Mary. Encountering this, I thought: No commercial publisher would ever append so clunky a title to a popular book. My suspension of disbelief was shaken. Why, I wondered, couldn’t Irvingâthe man responsible for titles as instantly memorable as The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire come up with something better?
Having already proven herself master of the page-turner with her two previous novels, Brown succeeds in crafting a narrative that is compulsively readable — it goes down like candy — but she also creates an empathetic portrait of a father and daughter flailing after the loss of the magnetic center that held their family of three together, all the while offering insight into the darker sides of motherhood and a failing marriage. What elevates her novel beyond its use of familiar tropes and themes is a fine eye for detail, a mild social satire, a specificity of place, and two fully realized main characters longing for what they’ve lost.
If the phrase “class mom” doesn’t strike fear into your heart, you haven’t read Laurie Gelman’s new novel. Much as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” exposed the seedy underside of the meatpacking industry, “Class Mom” exposes the underside of room parenting — i.e., volunteering to be the liaison between the parents and the teacher regarding class parties, field trips and countless other events too traumatizing to be accurately summarized here. But, unlike “The Jungle,” Gelman’s novel gives readers a lot to laugh about, including some very, very funny emails.
It’s not only Hollywood producers that have refused to let go of this scenario. As Helen Pilcher’s Bring Back the King: The New Science of De-Extinction attests, this extremely terrible idea has kept pace with technological progress, and is now closer to reality than ever. Pilcher looks at attempts to resurrect not just the T. rex but also other iconic victims of extinction: the woolly mammoth, the passenger pigeon, the Neanderthal, the thylacine (a carnivorous marsupial that went extinct in Australia in 1936), and Elvis Presley. (The “King” of the title stands for both the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and the king of the dinosaurs.) In successive chapters, she runs down the current state of the art in terms of DNA sequencing and repair, incubation and possible surrogates, and the likelihood of successfully bringing an extinct species back to life. In most cases, while the science is currently out of reach, it won’t be for long. The techniques Crichton drew on for Jurassic Park have become far more refined: incomplete strains of DNA are extracted from extant preserved specimens, filled out, and completed (sometimes borrowing from the closest living relatives). In many cases, this feat is less daunting than what comes next: incubating these new specimens. Woolly mammoth cloning would involve implanting a fertilized egg inside of a living elephant, an undertaking that involves either negotiating a six-foot-long reproductive tract, or going through the rectum and then trying to cut through to the elephant’s womb. Neither process has been successfully accomplished by humans.
And not only in old bones and mummified objects. The evidence for much of these vast clashes and close encounters is something we carry around within us in microscopic stretches of DNA that are the only legacy left from extinct variant species of humans. In microscopic sequences of chemical bonds on the double helixes of heredity there are traces of ancient variations on human species who lived and thrived and left nothing else behind beyond a few random sequences of chemical bonds. The faintest of faint echoes of a prehistoric past we’re only beginning to grasp. It’s a shift in focus as radical as the one that allowed us to glimpse—through Hubble-era telescopes—the billions of galaxies of the knowable universe and radically shift our perspective on our place in deep space. Suddenly we are able to see in the galaxies of genes within us and the stories they tell of a new way of envisioning our place in the history of the planet.
And this fellow David Reich, sitting across from me in a corner of his lab on Avenue Louis Pasteur in Boston, this skinny slip of a hominid, David Reich, clad in a T-shirt and slacks—the Zuckerberg couture of Harvard geniuses, you might say—is at the heart of what is likely to be remembered as one of the great scientific revolutions. One unimaginable just a few years ago.
When Tuesday arrives you have now already suffered the barbs of that tedium, experienced the cuts that will continue, the pain still fresh on your skin. And your awful worrisome brain is reminding you that you have four more days of this. Get used to the sting.
Every time Gulliver travels
into another chapter of “Gulliver’s Travels”
I marvel at how well travelled he is
despite his incurable gullibility.
They were not only companions, but mirrors. Or more than mirrors—they were seer stones. They allowed her to glimpse in herself qualities she didn’t even know she had yet: courage, wisdom, heart, the capacity to make and hold opinions based on a perception of the truth. That revelation came through the process of witnessing herself described, breathtakingly, in the texts. In Whitman’s practice of “loafing,” that miraculously self-confident laziness that encompassed pleasure and curiosity and wonder, she recognized her own strange style of being in the world, and saw that it could be so good, so lovely, that it was worth immortalizing in words. It also came through the joy of reading itself. She felt a sense of triumph interpreting complicated words, and not only interpreting them but seeing them, in her mind, expand into a whole imaginary world, one she could enter and survive.
As much as my ethnographic work deepened my appreciation for art’s disruptive capacities, it also taught me something else about art. The same participants in my study who emphasize the great unsettling effects of aesthetic experience will in the same breath describe the arts as a source of tremendous “comfort.” The arts, they often say, made their initial forays out of evangelicalism livable, even though the start of the journey entailed wells of confusion and uncertainty. The arts not only unsettled their certainties but also increased their capacity to dwell in the mystery and half-knowledge that characterize so much of our life.
Robin Sloan's new novel, Sourdough, is exactly like his first book, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, except that it's not about books (exactly), but is absolutely about San Francisco, geeks, nerds, coders, secret societies, bizarrely low-impact conspiracies that solely concern single-noun obsessives (food, in this case, rather than books), and also robots. And books, too, actually, now that I think about it.
It is a beautiful, small, sweet, quiet book. It knows as much about the strange extremes of food as Mr. Penumbra did about the dark latitudes of the book community.
It is into this miserable melee of biodiversity loss and habitat destruction that biologist Chris Thomas enters, with his book, hopefully subtitled “How nature is thriving in an age of extinction”. Decades of ecological research and travels in some of the most biologically interesting parts of the world, from Borneo to New Zealand (via Yorkshire), have revealed to him the scale of our impact on indigenous wildlife. But in the midst of this global extinction event, he was also discovering how our human changes were encouraging new life: immigrant species; newly emerging hybrids; and subspecies exhibiting freshly evolved adaptations.
Here is a debut writer showing serious range – drawing on realism, magical realism, the fantastic and speculative, myth and fable.
t didn’t happen during his appearances on Stephen Colbert’s show or his walk down the red carpet in April as one of Time’s 100 most influential people of 2017. It has happened during meetings, seminars, and panel appearances from Beijing to Boston: Renowned biologist George Church nodded off.
It’s no secret that he has narcolepsy, the condition defined by sudden bouts of sleep. He lists it as part of his personal history, intriguing his fans enough that “How does George Church manage his narcolepsy?” is a question on Quora, a question-and-answer website. But because he has never discussed it in depth, the question has gone unanswered.
STAT is happy to step into the breach: He doesn’t eat from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and stands whenever possible. “I have to constantly shift my weight and balance,” stimulating the nervous system in a way that prevents nodding off, the 6-foot-5 Church said.
Japanese people of all ages are more likely to carry a gene that predisposes them to react more strongly to stressful events than people outside of Japan. The brains of many Japanese people were found to shrink in response to the tsunami – specifically within the orbitofrontal cortex, a region in the brain associated with emotional regulation, indicating the severity of post-traumatic stress disorder. And in a 2008 study, Japanese infants were found to react to the pain of being inoculated with more cortisol than American infants did, though they also whined less than the Americans.
Stress could also explain Japan’s famously low birth rates: Exposure to stressful environments is correlated with lower sperm counts, ovulation issues, and other issues of reproductive functioning. High levels of chronic stress and cortisol decrease sex drives in women, and in Japan, a full 45 percent of women reported they were “not interested in or despised sexual contact”—and more than 25% of Japanese men feel the same way.
Before you send in the taste police, I’ll concede the following: sometime in the past twenty years, standing ovations have indeed become de rigueur. They were once the exception, not the rule, a groundswell of communal enthusiasm that indicated a rare night at the theatre. As Brantley points out, this is still more the case in London. (Ah, those discerning Brits!) But applause is a custom, and the custom, at least in the United States, has irrevocably changed.
The reason, I’d conjecture, is the soaring price of theatre tickets. The average Broadway ticket now costs a hundred and nine dollars, and the highest-priced seats for megahits like “Hamilton” and “Hello, Dolly!” can reach the eight-hundred-dollar range—not to mention that resellers sometimes charge more than a thousand. Long-running shows rely ever more on out-of-towners willing to spend big on a Broadway show. After investing that kind of cash, perhaps theatregoers are quicker to leap to their feet as a form of self-justification: for these prices, I’d better have had a “superlative experience.”
Why had the Japanese government embarked on a policy to limit rice production, effectively paying some farmers to keep their paddy fields idle? For Suzuki, rice was the sacred heart of the country’s economy. He started to think about how to make the staple food more popular, so that Japan had no reason to restrict the crop.
And that’s when it came to him: he would use his firm’s knowledge of candy-packaging machines to develop the robot. The idea, while off-the-wall in the mid-1970s, had a simple premise. If he could lower the cost of making sushi by mechanizing parts of the process and reducing the need for highly paid chefs, he could bring the previously elite Japanese dish to the masses, and in doing so increase demand for rice.
When my agent suggested that she might be able to sell a memoir from me, I said, “Yes, sure, no problem.” I then promised her 50 pages in a “week or two”, pages that I hadn’t written. And then I sat down to write. This passage above is from a chapter called, “How I Learned to Shoot a Gun.” It was the first chapter I wrote—the story so clear and shining in my mind the way so many moments the years since Katrina had been—and I wrote it through aphasia. I have traumatic brain injury—a coup contrecoup with diffuse axonal shearing of the brain, the same type of global brain injury as Gabby Giffords—that severely impairs my expressive language skills. At the time I started to write my memoir, I could only speak in two word sentences.
Writing was easier, if imperfect.
A theft, a fugitive: The plot, taken together with the novel’s short, immersive chapters and the escalating risks that confront Marion and her family, locates “The Misfortune of Marion Palm” somewhere on the thriller continuum. It would make good airplane reading — or motel reading, for readers who link Marion’s name and her swag to “Psycho.” But the book is also sunnier than that suggests, part satire and part Odyssey into the humbler precincts of Brooklyn (the borough where Culliton, now a graduate student at the University of Denver, was herself born and raised).
In Lesley Nneka Arimah’s new short story collection What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, masculinity acts neither as a foil for comparison nor as a standard for female characters’ strength. Instead, Arimah explores new ways to think about the intersections of femininity, strength, and vulnerability.
Yet, revealing as the book is about Mr Gorbachev’s ability to overcome ideological dogmas that required squaring up to the West, it is equally revealing about how Western leaders were unable or unwilling to believe him. This became evident during the presidency of the elder George Bush, some of whose advisers, labelling themselves “realists”, argued that Mr Gorbachev’s reforms made him potentially more dangerous than his predecessors. He was, said Brent Scowcroft, Mr Bush’s national security adviser, “trying to smother us with kindness”.