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Archive for November 2017

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Don't Stop The Presses! Big Tech Should Fund Real Journalism, by Henri Gendreau, Wired

Finally, a few minutes before noon, the staff gathers around Gafni’s laptop for the announcement: “For coverage of the fatal Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, California, the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting goes to the staff of the East Bay Times.” Exultation. Now champagne is needed, stat. And cigars. As the reporters saunter down Broadway with stogies, Peele runs into a friend who starts shouting at random people on the street: “These guys just won the Pulitzer Prize!” he tells construction workers. “These guys just won the Pulitzer Prize!”

A week later, Bay Area News Group, the paper’s corporate owner, announces it will be firing many of its copy editors and designers. This comes as a surprise to approximately nobody.

Daniel Ellsberg Is Still Thinking About The Papers He Didn’t Get To Leak, by Andrew Rice, New York Magazine

“Keeping secrets was my career,” Daniel Ellsberg says. “I didn’t lose the aptitude for that when I put out the Pentagon Papers.” This might come as a shock, considering that the former Defense Department analyst is best known for leaking classified information nearly half a century ago, thus bringing about a landmark legal precedent in favor of press freedom and, indirectly, hastening the end of both the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration. But for many years, even as Ellsberg beat prosecution, became a peace activist, and wrote an autobiography titled Secrets, he still had something remarkable left to disclose.

It turns out that Ellsberg also took many thousands of pages of documents pertaining to another subject: nuclear war. Ellsberg, a prominent thinker in the field of decision theory, had worked on the military’s “mutual assured destruction” strategy during the Cold War. Once a believer in deterrence, he now says he was a collaborator in an “insane plan” for “retaliatory genocide.” He wanted to tell the world decades ago; with nuclear threat looming again, he’s put the whole story into a new book, The Doomsday Machine.

Reading Joan Didion In The Swimming Pool, by Rachel Kraus, Electric Literature

In the worst month of the most severe drought in California’s history, my parents built a swimming pool. Reserve your judgment for a moment: they also replaced the lawn with native planting and powered the thing with an Israeli solar-powered saltwater filtration contraption strapped to the roof. Their architect said Tom Brady and Giselle also used it; my dad wondered whether the Brady-Bundchens had as many problems with it as he did.

If you still question this choice for either hypocrisy or environmental irresponsibility, I refer you to Joan Didion’s 1977 defense of swimming pools written in the midst of the second worst drought in California’s history. Rebuking those not from California who took smug pleasure in the idea of Californians having to drain their pools during drought, Didion explains “in fact a swimming pool requires, once it has been filled and the filter has begun its process of cleaning and recirculating the water, virtually no water.”

A Brief History Of Supermarkets, by Alan Hanson, Hazlitt

In the stark silence of memory, I am young. Young enough to be riding inside the shopping cart at the Stater Brothers grocery store on Magnolia. I am old enough to know what my parents mean by “you spoil him” but not old enough to understand why my grandmother, pushing the cart, has darker skin than I do. She holds my amateur hand in hers, wood-brown and well-lotioned. I don’t understand her Spanglish. I am frightened by the brimstone imagery of her Catholicism. I don’t know what she’s trying to erase with a facelift. The market beeps, the turnstile squeaks as she guides us back out into the world. Corona, California is quiet. Bent October sun in the parking lot. There is a saturation of confusion, and it won’t ever leave. Sometimes I will remember this moment, caught in the spaces between shadows of leaves, casting a net over the sidewalk, during golden hour.

A Fan Letter To Charles Dickens, by Michael Sims, New York Times

“Mr. Dickens and His Carol” is a novel for those who think they love Charles Dickens because they enjoyed film adaptations of “A Christmas Carol.” Samantha Silva’s confession that “the book is, most of all, a fan letter — a love letter” may explain why it reads at times like a treatment for a holiday comedy. Clearly she thinks it’s funny, for example, to have Dickens step in “a steaming pile of dog excrement.”

But the book rises above farce when Silva lavishes her attention on moments that sparked her own imagination. She nicely captures the spirit of Dickens’s favorite escape from his desk or from fights with his wife, his long midnight walks around London: “Fog hovered in the hat brims of cabdrivers, rolled into stairwells to blanket snoring beggars, crept down the Thames bridge by bridge.”

In The World Of Comedy, Improv May Now Be More Important Than Stand-Up, by Jason Zinoman, New York Times

Wasson casts a wide net, discussing “Ghostbusters” and “The Colbert Report” alongside the brilliant current long-form team T.J. and Dave, but at times, he becomes more exclusive, declaring, for instance, that commedia dell’arte is not part of the history. He rightly emphasizes that long-form improvisation is a distinctly American form, but overstates the case — you see this even in his title — ignoring major figures and traditions in other countries. What makes this more than a minor omission is that the globalization of improv would be powerful evidence to support the book’s effusive arguments. After all, the late-night host Seth Meyers got his start in an improv theater in Amsterdam, and a new club in London, the Bill Murray, offers improv classes run by Second City. To do justice to the impact of improv comedy, you need a wider lens, one that explores the increasing importance of improv theaters in the comedy ecosystem, the various schools of pedagogy and how the principles of improvisation have infiltrated the business world, traditional acting and popular culture.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Amy Sedaris Is The Weirdo The World Needs Right Now, by Scaachi Koul, BuzzFeed

In a world where politics has now fully dominated the social discourse, and in which so many celebrities have been consistently and personally disappointing, Sedaris’s work offers a surrealist reprieve from all things “topical” and plunges the viewer into a world where, delightfully and briefly, nothing really matters. It’s the kind of comedy that isn’t guided by pop culture or current events. Instead, she creates a space that’s highly detailed and specific, where everything is about organized chaos. If you want to disengage from the world right now, a visit to her universe might be just what you need.

Solving Riddles, Reading Poems, by Geoffrey Hilsabeck, The Paris Review

“I saw two wonderful and weird creatures / out in the open unashamedly / fall a-coupling,” wrote a monk in Old English a thousand years ago, either composing or transcribing a riddle about a rooster and a hen. This riddle and a hundred others—as well as elegies, proverbs, and dreams—were written into one big book, which was bequeathed to Exeter Cathedral by its bishop and subsequently used by the monks as a cutting board and a beer coaster and left vulnerable to bats and bookworms. Still, ninety-four riddles survived.

A thousand years later, I found two dozen of these riddles, translated into modern English and collected in a slim volume called The Earliest English Poems, and a few years after that—now, to be precise—I have published a book of my own riddles and elegies and proverbs.

Good Reader, Bad Reader, by Merve Emre, Boston Review

Yet whatever name he went by, the good reader’s cultural elevation always relied on his oppositional relationship to the curiously undifferentiated mass of bad readers, who struck Nabokov—and have struck many teachers and literary scholars since—as a kind of irritating background noise; always already present and unworthy of any serious or systematic consideration. Indeed, Nabokov’s lecture seemed custom designed to bolster a general disdain for bad readers in U.S. academia. Poet Edouard Roditi noted in 1947 that “curious high-brow prejudices make many of us neglect our good writers who have gained popularity with bad readers.” Columbia professor William York Tindall, in his 1959 guide to reading modernist literature, argued that a “great artist” was one who “found the exact way to say what he saw. If the way he found shuts bad readers out, they must try to become better.” For Kenneth Burke an “overwhelming array of bad readers” was responsible for perpetuating the “practicality shibboleth” of reading: a widespread belief in the “kinds of action” that literature could “stimulate” in “political and economic situations.” Such pragmatism all but ensured that the artistic merits of “good books” would “pale into insignificance.” Walter Kaufmann bemoaned “the future of the humanities” when, in 1977, it appeared that this future had been bequeathed to “bad readers,” while the monthly magazine College Teacher instructed “bad readers” to steer clear of serious literature and limit their efforts to “menu reading, cookbooks, ‘how to’ manuals, comic books, advertisements, magazines, newspapers, and simple novels.” Of course, such sweeping indictments raise more questions than they answer. Who were these bad readers? Where had they come from? What did they want out of reading? And what, exactly, made them so bad in the first place?

We Only Have One Word To Describe An ‘Ex,’ And That Sucks, by Amanda Mull, MEL

“Basically anyone can be an ex,” says Corey, 26. “If we dated, you’re my ex. If you used to retweet me a lot but stopped, you’re also my ex.” Caroline, 30, uses a similarly broad definition of the term for the sake of expediency. “I just call everyone my ex until it’s time to elaborate because, yeah, there isn’t a word for this. ‘Ex’ rolls off the tongue easier than ‘someone I dated for three months, but we were never official.’”

If you find this confusing, you’re not alone.

Language only works if all parties involved in a conversation agree in at least a general way on what words mean, which is why the persistence of “ex” as a catch-all for everything from “that one-night stand” to “my former wife” seems due for a shakeup. Everyone has their own definition of who rises to the level of an ex, and those ideas vary so widely that the word circles back around to mean absolutely nothing in casual conversation.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Every Parent Wants To Protect Their Child. I Never Got The Chance., by Jen Gann, The Cut

All theories aside, ten years ago, when Tag and I walked toward each other in a dark bar off the side of a highway in Montana, this is what we had no idea we were walking toward: the one-in-four chance of creating a child permanently unwell. Because we both carry a CF mutation, there is a 50 percent chance any child of ours will be born a healthy carrier, like we are. There’s a 25 percent chance of a baby with no mutations at all. And there’s a 25 percent chance of a baby with two disease-causing mutations, like Dudley.

But if you had known, what then? a woman asked me earlier this year, shaking her head, her smile soft with pity. If I responded at all, and I’m not sure I did, I can’t remember what I said. But I know I did not use the word abortion, or bring up our legal situation, or explain the concept of “wrongful birth.” In a roomful of people I barely knew, with Dudley pushing a plastic car back and forth over the carpet nearby, I did not tell her that I do know exactly what it is I would have done.

The Case For Not Being Born, by Joshua Rothman, New Yorker

The knee-jerk response to observations like these is, “If life is so bad, why don’t you just kill yourself?” Benatar devotes a forty-three-page chapter to proving that death only exacerbates our problems. “Life is bad, but so is death,” he concludes. “Of course, life is not bad in every way. Neither is death bad in every way. However, both life and death are, in crucial respects, awful. Together, they constitute an existential vise—the wretched grip that enforces our predicament.” It’s better, he argues, not to enter into the predicament in the first place. People sometimes ask themselves whether life is worth living. Benatar thinks that it’s better to ask sub-questions: Is life worth continuing? (Yes, because death is bad.) Is life worth starting? (No.)

The Anxiety Of Intimacy In Hiromi Kawakami’s “The Nakano Thrift Shop”, by M. W. Larson, Los Angeles Review of Books

This seemingly innocuous detail foreshadows what becomes one of the novel’s themes: the anxiety of intimacy. For several of the characters, the idea of being emotionally or physically close to another person is inseparable from a paralyzing fear.

‘Elmet’ Backs A Brawny Man Into A Dangerous Corner, by John Williams, New York Times

Debut novels especially can sometimes too clearly betray their debts, but “Elmet” is a beguiling patchwork of influences held together by Mozley’s distinct voice.

Monday, November 27, 2017

What Bikini Atoll Looks Like Today, by Sam Scott, Stanford Magazine

“We found, much to our surprise, not just scattered corals, but very abundant, big healthy coral communities — corals larger than cars scattered about the edges of a hydrogen bomb crater,” he says. “You’re kind of looking at that and thinking, ‘Well, that’s strange.’

“Frankly, the visual and emotional impact of it is just stunning.”

Given their short life spans and their mobility, the hearty fish were comparatively easy to understand. But the corals look like they have been growing in place for 50-some years. How they emerged from such toxic beginnings is a question Palumbi and doctoral student Elora López hope to illuminate using the genomes of samples they took from Bikini. It’s an area of research López says has received scant attention.

How ‘Frasier’ Found A Second Life On Streaming, by Kate Knibbs, The Ringer

It’s a premise so weighted in failure, it almost sounds like a modern sitcom—not a show that premiered on NBC in 1993. Even more remarkable, in retrospect: Frasier Crane does not have a particularly uplifting character arc on Frasier. He stays emotionally and professionally stagnant, with a glimmer of hope for actual lasting love in the finale, when he moves to pursue a girlfriend. Frasier is older than a traditional single sitcom lead, and yet he hardly seems to mature. He’s balding, a little paunchy, more than a little melancholy—and unnecessarily snooty toward his father, who is recuperating from a serious hip injury. Frasier starts the series as a well-meaning, flailing snob who barely sees his son and he ends the series a well-meaning, flailing snob who barely sees his (now Goth) son. Rewatching Frasier now, it seems like a little miracle that this wry, circuitous show was a blockbuster in its time, winning 37 Emmy Awards during its 11-year run.

Why Maryland’s Blue Crab Industry Might Be In Trouble, by Mickie Meinhardt, Eater

“Hey Steve, will you cook this for me?” the boy holding the crab asks Steve Dunlap, who’s behind the bar. The crab is small and missing a claw, and the kid has him by the backfin, dangling the poor crustacean so it’s splayed out, lone pincher open and ready to clamp down on anything.

“Aw, put it back, Robert,” Dunlap says. Robert sulkily obliges, letting the crab scuttle off into the bay, but makes it clear that he wasn’t going to kill it. Here, on Smith Island, Maryland, there is an overpowering respect, almost a reverence, for the blue crab. At the dead center of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, 12 miles from Maryland’s shore, Smith is a central part of the Maryland crabbing industry, and has been for generations. Here, crab is everything: Food, money, work, family, tradition, history. Crab is life. But it might not be for very much longer.

Writing About Alcohol Brought Me Back From The Brink Of Addiction, by Hope Ewing, Literary Hub

Many of us exist somewhere in the middle, however, not physically dependent, yet not exactly what a reasonable person would consider moderate. We in-betweeners—the heavy users, the bingers, the everyday drinkers—are frequently the children or grandchildren of alcoholics, and we walk a dotted line between craving and revulsion when it comes to booze. I can only speak from my own experience, but I believe those of us on the edge of trouble can make a break for healthy drinking lives. I’ve been on the catastrophe train, myself, and changed direction with the least likely of allies: booze culture itself.

From Inboxing To Thought Showers: How Business Bullshit Took Over, by André Spicer, The Guardian

Although Kroning may have been killed off, Kronese has lived on. The indecipherable management-speak of which Charles Krone was an early proponent seems to have infected the entire world. These days, Krone’s gobbledygook seems relatively benign compared to much of the vacuous language circulating in the emails and meeting rooms of corporations, government agencies and NGOs. Words like “intentionality” sound quite sensible when compared to “ideation”, “imagineering”, and “inboxing” – the sort of management-speak used to talk about everything from educating children to running nuclear power plants. This language has become a kind of organisational lingua franca, used by middle managers in the same way that freemasons use secret handshakes – to indicate their membership and status. It echoes across the cubicled landscape. It seems to be everywhere, and refer to anything, and nothing.

It hasn’t always been this way. A certain amount of empty talk is unavoidable when humans gather together in large groups, but the kind of bullshit through which we all have to wade every day is a remarkably recent creation. To understand why, we have to look at how management fashions have changed over the past century or so.

Won’t Get Fooled Again: Malcolm Harris’s “Kids These Days: Human Capital And The Making Of Millennials”, by Jacqui Shine, Los Angeles Review of Books

Nearly 20 years later, as the youngest millennials reach adulthood, we’re stuck with the stereotypes Strauss and Howe proffered, and not much else. Millennials are said to be a generation of tech-obsessed narcissists whose failure to match, much less exceed, our parents’ economic success is evidence of poor moral fiber. We think we’re special; we’re too sheltered; we’re too conventional; and we certainly aren’t achieving enough to warrant our wild overconfidence. (Full disclosure: I’m a millennial.) If that’s so, says Malcolm Harris, it certainly didn’t happen by accident. In his new book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, he warns that we ought to take the historical formation of this cohort seriously, because it represents a single point of failure for a society veering toward oligarchy and/or dystopia. We will either become “the first generation of true American fascists” or “the first generation of successful American revolutionaries.”

No pressure, though.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Life After ESPN, by Bryan Curtis, The Ringer

Stark has been covering baseball since the 1970s, and manning ESPN shows like Baseball Tonight since 2000. For the first time in more than three decades, he wasn’t a prisoner of baseball’s calendar. In July, Stark went to Cooperstown for Hall of Fame weekend (he’s usually busy with the trade deadline) and was approached by fans and Hall of Famers alike. In August, Stark and two dozen family members went to a mountaintop in Oregon, where they watched the solar eclipse from the center of the totality. “That was pretty much the coolest thing I’ve ever done or seen,” he said.

Laid-off ESPNers report that friends sometimes struggle with how to act around them. These were some of the luckiest people in sports media. Do you say, “I’m sorry?” Tell them, against all available evidence, that their next job will be better?

If No One Owns The Moon, Can Anyone Make Money Up There?, by Kenneth Chang, New York Times

As these companies go where no businesses have gone before, they raise questions only fuzzily addressed by the Outer Space Treaty: What are private companies allowed to do in space? Can a company mine the moon or an asteroid and then sell what it has pulled out? How are countries to regulate these businesses?

Internationally, countries have been discussing how to answer these questions. In the United States, Congress has begun tackling regulatory issues. Some warn that if the United States does not set up business-friendly policies and policies, then the start-ups could move elsewhere — including such seemingly unlikely places as Luxembourg.

What Happens If China Makes First Contact?, by Ross Andersen, The Atlantic

In some ways, it’s no surprise that Liu was invited to see the dish. He has an outsize voice on cosmic affairs in China, and the government’s aerospace agency sometimes asks him to consult on science missions. Liu is the patriarch of the country’s science-fiction scene. Other Chinese writers I met attached the honorific Da, meaning “Big,” to his surname. In years past, the academy’s engineers sent Liu illustrated updates on the dish’s construction, along with notes saying how he’d inspired their work.

But in other ways Liu is a strange choice to visit the dish. He has written a great deal about the risks of first contact. He has warned that the “appearance of this Other” might be imminent, and that it might result in our extinction. “Perhaps in ten thousand years, the starry sky that humankind gazes upon will remain empty and silent,” he writes in the postscript to one of his books. “But perhaps tomorrow we’ll wake up and find an alien spaceship the size of the Moon parked in orbit.”

Why A Leading Political Theorist Thinks Civilization Is Overrated, by Sean Illing, Vox

Is civilization good for us? Has it made us any happier?

The takeaway from a new book by James Scott, a professor of political science and anthropology at Yale University, is that the answer to the first question is yes but it’s complicated, while the answer to the second question is, well, even more complicated.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Hart Crane’s View From The Bridge, by Langdon Hammer, New York Review of Books

It would take Crane seven years of intermittent but persistent and sometimes fierce application to achieve that “marshalling of the forces.” The Bridge was published in 1930, first in a limited edition by the Black Sun Press in Paris, then in a trade edition by Boni & Liveright in New York. Over that seven-year period, much had changed. Crane began his celebration of America’s “constructive future” when the Twenties were roaring. When The Bridge appeared, the nation was reeling from the stock market crash and about to enter the Great Depression. It was possible to feel that history had invalidated his vision before it arrived.

Reviews of the poem were generally positive, and one or two were glowing. But the ones that mattered most to Crane were by his close literary friends and former advocates, the poet-critics Allen Tate and Yvor Winters, and their assessments, published prominently, were withering. While acknowledging the poem’s extraordinary rhetorical power, they both saw it as an intellectual failure. Crane had not managed the “mystical synthesis” he hoped for; the poem was a mess, without a coherent structure of myth or belief to support its willed optimism about American culture. It proved romanticism was a dead end, Whitman was a disastrous influence, and it was impossible to write a modern epic poem, among other chastening lessons. Crane’s ambition, in their view, had turned out to be “too impossible,” just as he’d feared.

Out Of The Shire: Life Beyond Tolkien, by Bradley J. Birzer, The American Conservative

If you look at what’s playing on your television, at what’s showing at the local cinema, at what video games your children are playing, or at what is selling in the young adult section of your neighborhood Barnes & Noble, you’ll see something that is at once deeply cultural and deeply countercultural at the exact same moment: Romanticism.

It’s difficult to know exactly where the movement started, though most historians and literary scholars would give the nod to Edmund Burke and his second great work, On the Sublime and the Beautiful. From Burke’s treatise, almost all modern Romantic thought arose. Burke’s presence is, at times, implicit, and, at times, blatant in the works of such critical figures as Wordsworth and Coleridge, but it can be found throughout most of the romantic poetry and art of the early 19th century. It’s not hard even to imagine Burke’s shadow lingering over Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral. In his own writings on Western civilization, Christopher Dawson argued that the rise of Romanticism, whatever its excesses and failings, was as important to Western civilization, as the re-discovery of Hellenic thought in the Renaissance. Whatever its original and essential intent, Romanticism successfully saved Christianity from the utilitarianism and rationalism of the 18th century, Dawson continued. In its recovery of medieval Christianity in the early 19th century, the Anglo-Welsh Roman Catholic scholar asserted, the Romantics actually discovered “a new kind of beauty.”

Review: How To Survive A Summer By Nick White, by Ellen Birkett Morris, Ploughshares

One might be tempted to call Nick White’s novel How to Survive a Summer a gay coming of age story, but it’s so much more than that. White’s book explores the intersection of southern culture where sexuality identity clashes with religious ideals. The novel takes on our desire to fit in and the dangerous complicity that can result.

Friday, November 24, 2017

How The Sandwich Consumed Britain, by Sam Knight, The Guardian

The invention of the chilled packaged sandwich, an accessory of modern British life which is so influential, so multifarious and so close to hand that you are probably eating one right now, took place exactly 37 years ago. Like many things to do with the sandwich, this might seem, at first glance, to be improbable. But it is true. In the spring of 1980, Marks & Spencer, the nation’s most powerful department store, began selling packaged sandwiches out on the shop floor. Nothing terribly fancy. Salmon and cucumber. Egg and cress. Triangles of white bread in plastic cartons, in the food aisles, along with everything else. Prices started at 43p.

Looking upon the nation’s £8bn-a-year sandwich industrial complex in 2017, it seems inconceivable that this had not been tried before, but it hadn’t. Britain in 1980 was a land of formica counters, fluorescent lighting and lunches under gravy. Sandwiches were thrown together from leftovers at home, constructed in front of you in a smoky cafe, or something sad and curled beneath the glass in a British Rail canteen. When I spoke recently to Andrew Mackenzie, who used to run the food department at M&S’s Edinburgh store – one of the first five branches to stock the new, smart, ready-made sandwiches – he struggled to convey the lost novelty of it all. “You’ve got to bear in mind,” he said. “It didn’t exist, the idea.”

If anything, it seemed outlandish. Who would pay for something they could just as easily make at home? “We all thought at the time it was a bit ridiculous,” said Mackenzie. But following orders from head office, he turned a stockroom into a mini production line, with stainless steel surfaces and an early buttering machine. The first M&S sandwiches were made by shop staff in improvised kitchens and canteens. Prawns defrosted on trays overnight, and a team of five came in before dawn to start work on the day’s order.

And, oh, they sold. They sold so fast that the sandwich experiment spread from five stores to 25, and then 105. Soon, Mackenzie was hiring more sandwich makers in Edinburgh. In the Croydon branch, a crew of seven was making a hundred sandwiches an hour. The first official M&S sandwich was salmon and tomato, but in truth it was a free-for-all. They sold so fast that staff made them out of whatever was lying around. In Cambridge, they made pilchard sandwiches, and people wanted those, too.

Deep Beneath The Earth’s Surface Life Is Weird And Wonderful, by Gaetan Borgonie, Aeon

The living landscape all around us is just a thin veneer atop the vast, little-understood bulk of the Earth’s interior. A widespread misconception about the deep subsurface is that this realm consists of a continuous mass of uniform compressed solid rock. Few are aware that this mass of rock is heavily fractured, and water runs in many of these fractures and faults, down to depths of many kilometres. The deep Earth supports an entire biosphere, largely cut off from the surface world, and is still only beginning to be explored and understood.

The Delights Of Parsing The Beatles' Most Nonsensical Song, by Ben Zimmer, The Atlantic

There were no annotations for the “I am the Walrus” lyrics, but it soon dawned on me that Lennon had playfully built in his own kind of side notes, embedding links between the song and other works. The bit about flying like Lucy in the sky linked back to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” obviously enough. (Quick, pull out the Sgt. Pepper’s LP!) Later, delving into the White Album, I found “Glass Onion” linking back to “I Am the Walrus”—among other Beatles songs—with that lovely bit of misdirection, The walrus was Paul.

At The Stranger’s Gate By Adam Gopnik Review – A Prose Stylist On New York, by Craig Taylor, The Guardian

When he’s out in the art world, Gopnik, instead of relaying self-burnishing anecdotes, listens and reacts. His argument for modern art is reliably elegant. Betting against it “is always a fool’s errand”, he writes, “not because all new art is good, but because somewhere in it lies – like it or not, believe it or not – the psychic image of its time”. Away from his descriptions of success and the material of his home life, Gopnik’s strengths re-emerge. He is investigative again, tracing this psychic image of his own time, his own New York, always certain of his findings.

A Historian On The Myths Of American Trade, by The Economist

Trade-policy wonks are gluttons for punishment. In good times, their pet topic is dismissed as dull. In bad, they find trade being faulted for everything. As Donald Trump blames America’s economic woes on terrible trade deals, one geek is fighting back. In “Clashing over Commerce”, Douglas Irwin of Dartmouth College tells the history of American trade policy, showing that trade is neither dull nor deserving of the attacks on it.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Sweet Rewards Of Bitter Food, by Hannah Goldfield, New York Times

Many years ago, I had dinner at a restaurant in Chinatown in Boston — the sort of city where most non-Chinese people seeking Chinese food are in fact seeking what might better be described as American Chinese food: General Tso’s chicken, fried pork dumplings, “house special” lo mein; mild, comforting Cantonese dishes slick with sauce and loud with sugar, salt and the intense umami buzz of MSG. In an attempt to be adventurous, I ordered instead the most unusual thing I could find on the menu: beef with bitter melon. The waitress looked at me, her brow furrowed. “You don’t want that,” she declared. “You won’t like it.”

“I do!” I insisted. “I’ve had it before.” A little while later, she returned with a dish of beef strewn with crescents of a jade-hued, scallop-ridged, firm-textured fruit that looked not unlike oversize celery. The truth was, I’d never had it before. As advertised, it was bitter, in a distinctly vegetal way, with none of the fruity sweetness that the word “melon” would imply. I took a bite, then another, and another — in a different context I might have stopped, but my reputation was on the line. By the time I was finished, the melon hadn’t become more palatable, exactly, but my palate had changed. What had tasted like bitterness now tasted like pride.

To Understand The Future Of Cities, Watch The Curb. Yeah, The Curb, by Aarian Marshall, Wired

The curbside has always been a a place for walking and loitering. But in just the past decade, smartphone technology has enabled new transportation services, all of them looking for their own bit of the terrain. The curb is home to bike share programs and the cycling lanes that help their users get around safely. It’s a spot to pick up and drop off passengers (Uber, Lyft, Chariot, Via, public buses and streetcars, paratransit) and things (UPS, FedEx, Instacart, Postmates). Some cities have set aside space for carshare services (Zipcar, Maven), or scooter-shares (Scoot). Others have found new and creative ways to charge for parking spots, experimenting with tech that adjusts prices based on demand.

“Cities have started to rethink how their streets are designed from curb from curb,” says Matthew Roe, who directs street design initiatives for the National Association of City Transportation Officials and authored a new curbside management white paper released this week. “They’ve started to realize they need more tools to manage that valuable curbside space. It’s the most valuable space that a city owns and one of the most underutilized.”

The Questionable Category Of “Native American Literature”, by Ben Pfeiffer, The Paris Review

Dividing what’s indivisible leads to heartache. That’s true for people, and it’s true for books.

At their best, categories in literature function as identities authors appreciate, as badges of honor they’re seeking or creating, or as marketing tools for publishers. But at their worst, they’re shorthand for critical dismissal, dog whistles used to hold a work apart from white ideas about “the universal human experience,” or instruments of systemic oppression and cultural fetishism.

Iconic Food Writers Toppled Off Their Pedestals, by Ruth Reichl, New York Times

Spring sets out to prove that the six writers he chronicles — Julia Child, M. F. K. Fisher, Alexis Lichine, A. J. Liebling, Richard Olney and Alice B. Toklas — were responsible for making “the age-old French dialogue surrounding food, wine and the table” part of the American dialogue. I’m not convinced he’s done that, but he has achieved something much more interesting: offered us an entirely new perspective on a group of people we thought we knew.

The Cookbook Addict, by Alida Becker, New York Times

Most writers, going to the well of inspiration and coming up empty, find themselves staring for hours at a blank computer screen. Not Jane Kramer. She heads for the kitchen: “My stove is where my head clears, my impressions settle, my reporter’s life gets folded into my life, and whatever I’ve just learned, or think I’ve learned — whatever it was, out there in the world, that had seemed so different and surprising — bubbles away in the very small pot of what I think I know and, if I’m lucky, produces something like perspective.” And if she’s not lucky, at least dinner is taken care of.

Women And Power: A Manifesto By Mary Beard Review – The Poison Of Patriarchy, by Jacqueline Rose, The Guardian

Times do change. Compared with women in most parts of ancient Greece and the near east, Roman women, we are told, enjoyed relative freedom – they could own property, buy and sell, inherit and free slaves and were not expected to be publicly invisible. But in Women and Power this is not the main tune. For the most part, Beard is offering a worst-case reading, showing us that this has gone on for ever. She is issuing a clarion call – hence the “Manifesto” of the title – which at moments left me gasping for air.

Not If The Seas Rise, But When And How High, by Jennifer Senior, New York Times

Once you’ve read an excellent book about climate change, which Jeff Goodell’s “The Water Will Come” most certainly is, you can never unremember the facts. Elected officials may be busy arguing about whether global warming is real. But most scientists are having other arguments entirely — about whether danger is imminent or a few decades off; about whether our prospects are dire or merely grim.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

How Coral Researchers Are Coping With The Death Of Reefs, by Ed Yong, The Atlantic

Colton is now a director at Coral Reef Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting coral reefs. And corals need all the help they can get. A third of reef-building corals are in danger of extinction, and their growth rates have plummeted by 40 percent since the 1970s. They have been pummeled by hurricanes, disease, and pollution. Acidifying water makes it harder for them to create their rocky reefs. Rampant overfishing kills off the grazing fish that keep competitors like seaweed and algae in line. Rising temperatures force them to expel the symbiotic algae in their tissues, which normally provide them with both food and vivid colors. Without these partners, the corals starve and whiten. Once-lush ecosystems full of kaleidoscopic fish become spectral wastelands, where scuzzy green algae grows over the bleached white skeletons of dead and dying corals.

The continuing desecration has taken an immense toll on the mental health of people like Colton who have devoted their lives to studying and saving these ecosystems. How do you get up and go to work every day when every day brings fresh news of loss? When everything you are working to save is collapsing, how do you stop yourself from collapsing, too? Maybe everything isn’t going to be fine, after all. Maybe we can’t do this. “Are we going to lose an entire ecosystem on my watch? It’s demoralizing. It’s been really hard to find the optimism,” she says. “I think Miss Enthusiasm has gone away.”

Economics Isn't A Bogus Science — We Just Don't Use It Correctly, by John Ioannidis, Los Angeles Times

The financial crises of the past two decades, and our failure to predict them, have wreaked havoc on more than just the global economy. The bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000, the Enron scandal and the global financial crisis of 2008 have led to a loss of faith in economics itself.

But these crises and scandals do not mean that the science of economics is inherently unreliable. Most of them occurred because we ignored what we knew.

How Margaret Atwood Learned To Type, by Margaret Atwood, The Walrus

I set about learning to type. It was hunt and peck, with intervals of trying to pick up touch typing, via a chart and no peeking at the keys. Those intervals never lasted long: I got blisters, and also there were—already!—too many things I needed to type. The little white vial with the little Wite-Out brush became my friend. My typescripts were messy but legible. It was in this way that I sent out all my early manuscripts, with my name at the top—“M. E. Atwood,” because I didn’t want anyone to know I was a girl—and, endearingly, “First Serial Rights Only.” As if.

Bantam By Jackie Kay Review – Home Truths From A Goddess Of Small Things, by Kate Kellaway, The Guardian

This collection is a pick-me-up – fresh, upbeat and sympathetic. The tone is partly a matter of temperament. Jackie Kay writes about the past with uncommon spirit. She makes you realise how often poetry that looks backwards is written with a dead hand, how often, in memorialising verse, the unsmilingly elegiac obtains. She, by contrast, is loving, non-reverential and interested in the human predicament – in being quick not dead. Remembering the novelist Julia Darling in Hereafter Julia she exclaims: “Why – even dead, Julia, you’re still the life and soul.” And if you read the Guardian obituary Kay wrote about her friend, this is confirmed as she quotes Darling declaring she was “in no pain unless she tried to dance the hokey cokey”.

Marguerite Duras’s ‘The Lover,’ And Notebooks That Enrich It, by Parul Sehgal, New York Times

The richest contribution of this edition might be in its juxtaposition of the notebooks with “The Lover,” and how it enriches our understanding of Duras’s best, most beloved work — that acrid novel of sexual transaction so often and unfortunately read as a grand love story of crossing class and color lines. A starker, sadder picture of the affair emerges in her private papers, where she wrote about it first, and with venom.

Women Write Of Home, And A Woman’s Place In It, by Elissa Schappell, New York Times

For these writers, home is much more than a set of coordinates. As the editors suggest in their introduction, home is where we were made, where we are most ourselves. It’s our mother tongue, our homeland; it’s our people, or just one person. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “Where Thou art — that — is Home.” It’s the place we go back to. In the words of the irascible Robert Frost, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.”

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Ideal Numbers Seek Their Lost Primes, by Kevin Hartnett, Quanta Magazine

Today mathematicians are actively engaged in the study of “class numbers” of number systems. In their crudest form, they’re a rating of how badly a number system fails the test of unique prime factorization, depending on which roots get mixed in: A number system that gets a “1” has unique prime factorization; a system that gets a “2” misses unique prime factorization by a little; a system that gets a “7” misses it by a lot more.

On their face, you’d expect class numbers to be randomly distributed — that class number 5 occurs with the same frequency as class number 6, or that half of all class numbers are even. That’s not the case, though, and current research in the subject aims to understand why. Today mathematicians are circling in on the structure that underlies class numbers and inching closer to establishing the truth about long-conjectured values. It’s an effort that has generated insights about how numbers behave that go far beyond a proof of any one problem.

My Mother Has Terminal Cancer, And I Can’t Seem To Stop Buying Sweaters, by Rachel Vorona Cote, Catapult

For my part, this grotesque approximation of normalcy has spawned several unremarkable byproducts: surges of impotent fury, tears—a greater quantity than usual, for a stoic I am not—and a neurotic reluctance to settle future plans. The one question that previously reared its malignant head every several months now grips my brain like a vise: “How long will my mother live?”

A more trivial effect of her cancer: Most of my shopping budget has now been allocated to sweaters. I’ve entertained brief flirtations with flannel button-downs and the rare cropped sweatshirt, but ultimately determined that they supply only pale imitations of a sweater’s particularly intimate snug. By the end of last summer, as CT scans and blood tests yielded increasingly dismal tidings, my partiality to knitwear intensified to a mania. Washington, DC heaved with stubborn, swampy humidity; I—with similar persistence—rummaged for merino wool and thermal cotton in the sale racks.

America Rediscovers Its Love Of The Front Porch, by Lynn Freehill-Maye, CityLab

The thing is, what Doyon and Glica are doing represents a generational rethinking of the front porch. Porch-building is on the rise across the country, up 23 percent on new homes from two decades ago. That fact excites city designers, and it may well be linked to the U.S. urban renaissance—but the classic American porch isn’t being used in quite the practical way it once was. Through Porchfests and beyond, the front steps are taking on a new life—one that’s stylish, sporadic, and often more image-conscious.

The Story Of Appalachia, With Plenty Of Villains, by Dwight Garner, New York Times

This is granular history, especially when it comes to dispossession. This book’s primary sentence is probably this one: “I am interested in how people get kicked off land and why we don’t talk about them.” Native Americans and African-Americans are considered at some length in this book, but Stoll’s primary focus is on poor whites.

He delivers a painstaking history of how public land became real estate, and how hundreds if not thousands of people were pushed aside by one or two barons. Steal a little and they throw you in jail, as the Bob Dylan lyric has it; steal a lot and they make you king.

Monday, November 20, 2017

What The Idea Of Civilisational ‘Collapse’ Says About History, by Guy Middleton, Aeon

So we are primed by our cultural inheritance to see past collapses as apocalyptic events. As storytelling animals, tales of civilisational collapse are attractive – they have an internal consistency that gives them narrative logic. But there is also a psychological aspect to thinking about collapse past and present. Looking at past collapses, we can feel superior, technologically and morally, to earlier peoples and societies – we know why they failed and how we can succeed, our sense of progress is reinforced. There might be a tinge of schadenfreude even. Turning that to the possibility of near-future collapse, by imagining ourselves standing on the precipice of some epochal change, we make ourselves feel more important – we are living at a key time and we have the power to affect global civilisation, either positively or negatively.

The stories of the Maya and climate change, and the Easter Islanders’ ecocidal self-destruction, suit those who want to make a dramatic argument about our own mistreatment of the environment in modern times, and the possible fate of our own civilisation. They are dramatic, media-friendly, soundbite stories that convey moral and practical lessons, hence they are commonly found in environmental literature and the mass media. There has been a trend to explain other collapses in the same way. But such stories appropriate the histories of past and indigenous peoples, and construct them as modern Western-focused parables. They dwell on the supposed failures of pre-modern and non-Western societies rather than stressing their resilience in the face of difficulties or recalling the Western role in their eventual cultural destruction.

Science Has Outgrown The Human Mind, by Ahmed Alkhateeb, Quartz

The twin challenges of too much quantity and too little quality are rooted in the finite neurological capacity of the human mind. Scientists are deriving hypotheses from a smaller and smaller fraction of our collective knowledge and consequently, more and more, asking the wrong questions, or asking ones that have already been answered. Also, human creativity seems to depend increasingly on the stochasticity of previous experiences–particular life events that allow a researcher to notice something others do not. Although chance has always been a factor in scientific discovery, it is currently playing a much larger role than it should.

Will It Ever Be Sunday?, by Guy Bennett-Hunter, Los Angeles Review of Books

In a 1972 letter, Hannah Arendt speculates that a thinker has only one real thought in her life, everything else being nothing but variations on this single theme. First published in French in 2014, A Long Saturday is a short book of conversations between George Steiner and the journalist Laure Adler. The volume provides an overview of the main themes that have occupied Steiner’s mind throughout his life, but it also gives us reason to doubt Arendt’s conjecture. For while those of us familiar with Steiner’s oeuvre will hear in these conversations variations on familiar themes, we are left with no doubt as to the plurality of those themes. A Long Saturday shows Steiner to be a man of more than one book.

Real-Life Character Development, Or The Challenge Of David Rutschman’s Into Terrible Light, by Amy Wright, Ploughshares

Observation is the action, when we position ourselves alongside these characters and recognize them in ourselves. It is easier to find ennobling traits than repulsive ones, but both can move us, as if by red-inked workshop comments, to develop greater awareness of our own character and our dynamism, freedom, and complex humanity.

In 'Body Music,' Love Is Sweet, Sexy And A Touch Sentimental, by Etelka Lehoczky, NPR

The stories here are simple. Two people click at a baseball game in a city park. A cyclist stews about a lovers' quarrel. A couple try to recreate the conditions under which they first met. Maroh brings fervent lyricism to each situation, vaulting the characters into flights of eloquence. She writes like that intense, interestingly dressed girl from your high school who was always scribbling poetry in the back of her math notebook — only she's a lot nicer. When the brooding cyclist catches his front wheel in a hole and falls off his bike, he thinks not of his limbs but of his love. "It's physical — the terror of watching our relationship slip between our fingers like water, and we can't hold it back," he muses, lying on the ground. "Do we have to get this low to finally understand that the other person matters?"

What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand, by Ruth Franklin, New Yorker

Oliver’s new book, “Devotions”, is unlikely to change the minds of detractors. It’s essentially a greatest-hits compilation. But for her fans—among whom I, unashamedly, count myself—it offers a welcome opportunity to consider her body of work as a whole. Part of the key to Oliver’s appeal is her accessibility: she writes blank verse in a conversational style, with no typographical gimmicks. But an equal part is that she offers her readers a spiritual release that they might not have realized they were looking for. Oliver is an ecstatic poet in the vein of her idols, who include Shelley, Keats, and Whitman. She tends to use nature as a springboard to the sacred, which is the beating heart of her work. Indeed, a number of the poems in this collection are explicitly formed as prayers, albeit unconventional ones.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Kate's Still Here, by Libby Copeland, Esquire

Before Kate died at age 67, but when she realized it was coming, she knew she didn’t want any of the standard funeral packages most Americans buy. She did not want to be embalmed and placed in a casket underground, or to be cremated, or to have anything to do with a funeral home. She wanted to die in her house, to be laid out there, and to have everyone come and spend as much time as they wished with her body. She wanted an atmosphere of celebration, because, as she told me once, “if it’s my funeral we’re talking about, I’m dead and gone, so have a party, for goodness' sake.”

This is an unusual request in 2017. From colonial America through most of the 1800s, when the dead were cared for by their families and communities, we had no choice but to be intimate with corpses. Embalming was popularized during the Civil War, when all of those dead soldiers needed to get home, and then became a service of funeral homes, creating a class of professionals to take on tasks that Americans no longer wanted to perform themselves. Now when most modern Americans die—typically in a hospital or some other institution—a great routinized process grinds into gear. The doctor pronounces; the funeral home is called; the body is carried away by professionals.

But in recent years, Americans have become increasingly interested in alternative death practices, like home funerals, environmentally friendly burials, and liquid cremation, which dissolves human remains through a process called alkaline hydrolysis. A Seattle entity has been working on a plan to compost corpses and perhaps one day use the nutritive remains on trees and in gardens. These efforts are about a lot of things: environmental concerns, the right to keep commerce and strangers out of a sacred rite, and a long-standing Boomer interest in customizing everything, including their exits. But they're also part of a growing death positive movement that sees death as the natural order of things rather than a violation of that order.

The Real Origins Of The Boiled Peanut, by Robert Moss, Serious Eats

Summer heat means it's time to haul out the big pot to boil some peanuts. Yes, boiled peanuts have a season, though boiled peanuts have become such an iconic, year-round Southern food, most wouldn't know.

They're so iconic, in fact, that they've acquired the power to ascribe a shorthand Southernness to almost anything they touch. Just as countless airport concessionaires transform any run-of-the-mill fast food—burritos, pizza, ham-n-cheese sandwiches—into a breakfast item by simply adding scrambled eggs, chefs have figured out that you can Southernize any fine-dining dish by tossing in a handful of boiled peanuts. Combine them with another Southern ingredient or two, and the effect is even better.

A Guide To Understanding A Million Vs. A Billion Vs. A Trillion, by Andrew D. Hwang, Slate

Complicating the issue further, citizens emotionally undeterred by billions and trillions are nonetheless likely to be ill-equipped for meaningful analysis because most people don’t correctly intuit large numbers.

Happily, anyone who can understand tens, hundreds, and thousands can develop habits and skills to accurately navigate millions, billions, and trillions. Stay with me, especially if you’re math-averse: I’ll show you how to use school arithmetic, common knowledge, and a little imagination to train your emotional sense for the large numbers shaping our daily lives.

Little House, Small Government, by Vivian Gornick, New Republic

In the 1930s, populists like the Wilders were a minority voice in America; it was rather the characters in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath who reflected the mood of the country. They resembled the people who, in their millions, greeted Roosevelt as a savior, convinced that his was the view required for national survival. Today, the balance of power has reversed. The Wilders among us now occupy a position so influential they have been able to elect someone of their own persuasion to the American presidency. The frontier mentality they still embody is less likely to shore up a potentially failing democracy than to wreck it altogether.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Rise And Fall Of The English Sentence, by Julie Sedivy, Nautilus

Languages with very simple sentence structure are, for the most part, oral languages. It’s the languages that have a culture of writing, developed over a long span of time, that display a fondness for stacking clauses onto one another to create towering sentences. This pattern raises the possibility that the invention of writing, a very recent innovation tagged on to the very last millennia of human evolution, can dramatically alter a language’s linguistic niche, spurring the development of elaborate sentence structure, and leading to the shedding of other features, on a timescale that cannot be achieved through biological evolution. If that’s so, then the languages that many of us have grown up with are very different from the languages that have been spoken throughout the vast majority of human existence.

A Deep Dive Into Uranus Jokes, by Albert Stern, Electric Literature

Most of us heard, and then gleefully repeated, our first Uranus jokes during childhood. The scatological juvenile obviousness inherent in the myriad variations of these essentially identical gags did not and will never diminish our appreciation of them. (There is no definable difference between good Uranus jokes and bad Uranus jokes — there are only Uranus jokes.) My own introduction to Uranus jokes must have come close to half a century ago, and certainly the playground comedian who related the jape was working solidly within a received older tradition. But how old might that tradition be?

Confessions Of A Kitchen Hoarder, by Sue Quinn, The Guardian

So, if acclaimed cooks can achieve so much with so little, why do some of us hoard for doomsday when it comes to kitchenalia? Again, Elizabeth David’s wisdom is apposite. “I don’t a bit covet the exotic gear dangling from hooks, the riot of clanking ironmongery, the serried rank of sauté pans and all other carefully chosen symbols of culinary activity I see in so many photographs of chic kitchens,” she says in an essay in Is There a Nutmeg in the House? “Pseuds corners, I’m afraid, many of them.”

In other words, any fool can collect kitchen equipment. It doesn’t mean they can cook a decent meal.

Review: Out Of Context By John Gosslee, by Kristina Marie Darling, Ploughshares

What’s more, by carving a space for silence in the work of his poetic predecessors, Gosslee at the same time carves a space for the other, room for those outside the cannon to speak. It is in this way that erasure becomes an egalitarian gesture, a collaboration that extends far beyond Gosslee and the poets with whom he’s chosen to engage.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles By Hiro Arikawa Review – Superior Pet Lit, by Lynne Truss, The Guardian

“Cats are not so heartless,” declares Nana. “How could I ever leave him?” I know, I know. What a sap I am. But anyone who has ever unashamedly loved an animal will read this book with gratitude, for its understanding of an emotion that ennobles us as human beings, whether we value it or not.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Mourning In Paris, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, New York Times

Paris is a good place to mourn. It takes itself very seriously in a way that is sometimes tedious when you are young and full of the future, but is perfect when you are entering middle age and walking down cobblestone streets and missing someone you loved very much, particularly if that someone lived there. Paris is tonally at its most appropriate when you realize that somehow that someone, who was so intricately woven into the city — someone who, for you, was Paris — is no longer there and yet the city remains itself. The city somehow survives. But Paris absorbs your sadness like it has absorbed hundreds of years of sadness.

Paris understands that you aren’t in the mood to laugh. The museums will provide you with innumerable paintings of a headless John the Baptist, one from every angle as if they are crime scene photos, and paintings of Jesus killed in many more ways than are in our historical record — more ways than actually exist to kill a man in general — and still other paintings depicting war and combat and babies being eaten. Babies! Being eaten! The sheer scale of the paintings conveys their seriousness; their intensity is their importance. The amount of space they’re allowed to take up is what you need to know about Paris’ priorities. Paris understands that the only cure for your sadness is blood.

I Pretended To Be Emily Dickinson On An Online Dating Site, by Erin Bealmear, Electric Literature

Like most brilliant ideas, it began as a joke. A friend and I were at lunch, discussing our frustrations with online dating, when I suddenly realized the ridiculousness of our conversation. Here we were, two modern, educated women, and we had spent nearly two hours talking about our romantic relationships! This wasn’t the sort of woman I wanted to be. I wanted to be Gloria Steinem. I wanted to be Ruth Bader Ginsbuerg. I didn’t want to be the sort of woman who spends her entire life talking about boys.

I decided, right then, that I needed to do something to alter the course of our conversation. Putting on my big-girl feminist cap, I said, “You know, there have been a lot of talented, amazing ladies, throughout history, who never coupled off. Emily Dickinson, for example.”

Life, Love And Mortality In The City Of Light, by Max Byrd, New York Times

His Paris does exist in the present tense, irresistibly, undeniably real and alive, as though summoned by its creator rather than imagined. In this, the novel performs perfectly the function of literature, which is not to escape the world but to enter more completely into it.

A British Travel Writer Evokes The Magic Of The Baltic Sea, by The Economist

Mr Clare is a great enjoyer—of people, landscape, and above all of language. With the flick of a phrase, he can transform even his nightmare into something positive—a healthy scourge, he suggests hopefully, a kind of sauna cleansing the pores of the mind. He writes that his journey has broken open from within him both a heaven and a horror. But the reader can have no real doubt as to which side he leans.

You Can’t Have Breakfast At Tiffany’s, by Hannah Goldfield, New Yorker

Times have changed, to say the least. Tiffany & Co. now shares a block and a wall with Trump Tower, a place where very bad things seem likely to have happened, a place where you may have recently stood in the middle of a surging mass of people chanting “Shame! Shame! Shame!” during a political protest. Approaching the store requires maneuvering, at any hour, around large, ugly plastic barriers, and, for a certain kind of person, thinking about the state of the nation. Nonetheless, on Tuesday morning, I, too, tried to have breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Secret Feminist History Of Brown Paper Bags, by Tove Danovich, Eater

Few things are as useful as the paper bag. In the United States, people use (and reuse) 10 billion of them every year. Who among us has gotten through life, likely as a child, without opening up a brown paper bag filled with a sandwich, juice box, and a piece of fruit? Or, later in life, enjoyed an alcoholic beverage in a public place with the illegal item safely ensconced inside a bag?

But paper bags have been around for so long, and in so many forms, that few have ever stopped to wonder where they came from in the first place. Even fewer know that paper bags were involved in not one but two feminist crusades.

The Origin Story Of An Iconic Adaptation: The Graduate, by Beverly Gray, Literary Hub

Dustin Hoffman, upon reading Charles Webb’s first novel, came away convinced that its hero was a sun-kissed California preppy: tall, blond, and good-looking. He was certain that somewhere in the pages of The Graduate he had found precisely this description. That’s why he told director Mike Nichols that the role of Benjamin Braddock was not one he felt equipped to play.

Hoffman, it turns out, was quite wrong, in more ways than one. Author Charles Webb never provides the slightest physical description of Benjamin Braddock. In Webb’s spare, stripped-down novel, we come to know Ben—as he beds a middle-aged matron and then runs off with her beautiful daughter—solely through his words and deeds. But the WASP traits that Hoffman, and so many others, have projected onto the character offer a near-portrait of the artist as a young man. Charles Webb was to prove, however, far more complicated than his bland surface might imply. I’d call him a rampant idealist, one who has resisted for more than fifty years the pragmatic demands of adult life.

Are We The Butterfly Or The Tornado?: Joan Silber’s “Improvement”, by Tara Ison, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Some people designed their body art so it all fit together, but I did mine piecemeal, like my life, and it looked fine,” insists Reyna, the central character of Joan Silber’s new novel, Improvement, a beautifully rendered magical mystery ride across decades, continents, and cultures.

But a design not meant to look like a design is still a design, and Reyna’s description of her body-as-canvas captures the question at the heart of Silber’s story: What of our life is mere chance, and what are we determining through the choices we make, our acts of autonomous free will? Are we the wing-fluttering butterfly in the Amazon jungle, or the tornado whose trajectory has, weeks later and hundreds of miles away, been altered by significant degree? Where are we, exactly, in the chain of cause and effect? Are we the designer or the designed?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Prussian Blue, The Color Of Great Waves And Starry Nights, by Katy Kelleher, The Awl

This is the story of a blue most common, and most beloved. A blue that Thoreau thought needed to be Americanized, like Freedom fries. It’s the color of waves and stamps and too many paintings to count. It’s an accidental pigment, a happenstance color, and an antidote for heavy metal poisoning. Meet my sweetheart, Prussian blue.

I’m so sorry you can’t see her properly, because she is beautiful. Unfortunately, like many high-chroma (i.e., high-intensity) pigments, Prussian blue can’t be accurately displayed on a computer. Screens emit too much light to properly showcase the texture and depth of Prussian blue, a hue that is both a color and a material. Darker than cobalt and moodier even than indigo (and with enough green that it sometimes reads as a dark teal), Prussian blue is often called the first modern pigment. (A quick note: pigments and dyes are not the same. According to Color Studies by Edith Anderson Feisner, a pigment is a “powder that are in a binder such as acrylic or oil which covers and adheres to a surface. Dyes are pigments that are dissolved and absorbed in a fluid.”) The microcrystalline blue powder has been around since 1705. Its invention was, like penicillin and saccharin, the product of happenstance.

Instagram Food Is A Sad, Sparkly Lie, by Amanda Mull, Eater

Instagram food has almost nothing to do with consumption as a gastronomic endeavor; instead, consuming Instagram food means acquiring it, and sharing proof of your acquisition. This flattens it out from a sensory experience into an aesthetic one; for the hungry audiences of the thin, conventionally attractive women whose hundreds of thousands of followers net them hefty checks, whatever’s being photographed is rendered calorie-neutral. It’s a visual-only binge.

Not Every Article Needs A Picture, by Hanson O’Haver, The Outline

Then Facebook and Twitter disrupted, in the traditional “made things worse” sense, the biz. Now when a user shares an article on their sites, a thumbnail image provides a preview of the article. If an article doesn’t have an image, social media will still pull in whatever it can—usually this is just a blown-up version of the website’s logo, though sometimes it’s another unrelated image from the same page, e.g. a thumbnail from another article. If the social media site can’t find any image at all, only the headline will be displayed. Websites fear that this makes them look unprofessional—or worse, boring—and drives away potential clicks. Even the fucking Economist now has a photo on every article on its website.

Is The Age Of The Artistic Recluse Over?, by Megan O'Grady, New York Times

But what has increased in the age of distraction is our concern for the necessary conditions in which art could flourish. No longer can the world be kept at bay with the closing of a door; Woolf’s room of her own is now wired for internet. To look at my shelves of favorite novels written in feverish solitude and think that they might never have come to pass is also to know there must be many more today that are simply not being written. And so the greater truths found in solitude — in nature, like the Romantics’ “thoughts of more deep seclusion,” or in a country in which you don’t speak the language, in which no one knows your name — have never felt more rare and hard-won. The hermit sits alone no longer; he has a Facebook page to update.

The Drive Home, by Emma Cline, New York Times

The ride home from the airport isn’t particularly eventful. The communication of any actual news has been left to the siblings or my mother — my father and I rarely talk about anything meaningful. Instead, he likes to point out things we’re passing, or relay some mild fact gleaned from the Yahoo home page.

He brings a bag of sunflower seeds, the plastic cup into which he periodically spits his tobacco juice. Sometimes there’s an apple rolling around for me on the bench seat of his truck, or one of the packs of the gum he buys in bricks from Costco. My father, a famously opaque man, is made visible to me in these small ways. These small offerings.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

How Does It Feel To Die In A Tsunami?, by Richard Lloyd Parry, Literary Hub

Everyone who experienced the tsunami saw, heard, and smelled something subtly different. Much depended upon where you were, and the obstacles that the water had to overcome to reach you. Some described a waterfall, cascading over seawall and embankment. For others, it was a fast-rising flood between houses, deceptively slight at first, tugging trippingly at the feet and ankles, but quickly sucking and battering at legs and chests and shoulders. In color, it was described as brown, gray, black, white. The one thing it did not resemble in the least was a conventional ocean wave, the wave from the famous woodblock print by Hokusai: blue-green and cresting elegantly in tentacles of foam. The tsunami was a thing of a different order, darker, stranger, massively more powerful and violent, without kindness or cruelty, beauty or ugliness, wholly alien. It was the sea coming onto land, the ocean itself picking up its feet and charging at you with a roar in its throat.

It stank of brine, mud, and seaweed. Most disturbing of all were the sounds it generated as it collided with, and digested, the stuff of the human world: the crunch and squeal of wood and concrete, metal and tile. In places, a mysterious dust billowed above it, like the cloud of pulverized matter that floats above a demolished building. It was as if neighborhoods, villages, whole towns were being placed inside the jaws of a giant compressor and crushed.

Ten Years Of Posh Burgers – How They Changed Britain's Dining Habits, by Tim Walker, The Guardian

The rise of the burger from a scapegoat for the obesity crisis to the symbol of a dining revolution was fuelled by a combination of social media and recession-era economics, and it established a whole new class of restaurant: inspired by simple street food, led by untrained chefs and advertised via Twitter. The gourmet burger has certainly dented the dominance of the old fast-food giants. But it has also disrupted the entire restaurant food chain.

Trillions Of Flies Can’t All Be Bad, by James Gorman, New York Times

For each person on earth, there are 17 million flies. They pollinate plants, consume decomposing bodies, eat the sludge in your drainpipes, damage crops, spread disease, kill spiders, hunt dragonflies.

Some have even lost their wings so as to live exclusively on bat blood, spending their lives scuttling about the fur of their hosts, leaving only to give birth to a single larva — usually.

“That’s why I love them. They do everything. They get everywhere. They’re noisy. And they love having sex,” said Erica McAlister, a curator of Diptera — flies, to the rest of us — at the Museum of Natural History in London.

Dr. McAlister has captured her affection for the Diptera in “The Secret Life of Flies,” a short, rich book by turns informative and humorous, both a hymn of praise to her favorite creatures and a gleeful attempt to give readers the willies.

Um, Uh, Huh? Are These Words Clues To Understanding Human Language?, by Barbara J. King, King

Has anyone — a parent, teacher, or boss — told you to purge the words "um" and "uh" from your conversation?

When these words creep into our narrative as we tell a story at home, school, or work, it's natural to feel that we can do better with our speech fluency.

In How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation, hitting shelves Tuesday, University of Sydney linguist Nick Enfield rescues those words (and everyone who uses them) from censure. In so doing, he exposes the fascinating and intricate workings of what he calls the human conversation machine: "a set of powerful social and interpretive abilities of individuals in tandem with a set of features of communicative situations — such as the unstoppable passage of time — that puts constraints on how we talk."

In Joe Biden’s Memoir, Private Grief And Its Effect On A Public Life, by Jennifer Senior, New York Times

What’s most remarkable about Biden’s “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose” is that he’s decided to give us full visibility into the agony and strangeness of that period, showing just what it was like to care for his son — and then mourn him — while simultaneously fulfilling his duties as vice president. The book is a backstage drama, honest, raw and rich in detail. People who have lost someone will genuinely take comfort from what he has to say.

But this memoir is also a political book, one in which Biden touts his accomplishments and makes frequent forays into the wetlands of foreign and domestic policy. His position-paper entr’actes can be awkward and artless, much like the author himself. But after a time, you come to understand why he’s mixing in pages of his curriculum vitae with pages about grief: To Biden, the two are intertwined. It’s almost as if he suffers from a kind of political synesthesia. Deciding whether to run for the Democratic nomination in 2016, he writes, “was all tied up with Beau.”

'Promise Me': Joe Biden On Loss, Grief And Recovery, by Domenico Montanaro, NPR

It's hard not to feel for Biden, who exudes humanity throughout the book. He lays bare his emotions and vulnerabilities at losing a son with so much promise, which is made even more difficult by the understanding that Biden has faced unthinkable tragedy before. As almost anyone reading this likely knows, when he was first elected as a U.S. senator from Delaware, Biden's young wife and daughter were killed in a car crash. His sons Beau and Hunter, 3 and 2 at the time, were in the backseat. They survived, but were hospitalized for days. Joe Biden had just turned 30.

And now, four decades later, he was losing Beau, his trusted adviser. Biden writes that he was "pretty sure" Beau could have run for president one day. Biden describes Beau — who was attorney general of Delaware at the time of his diagnosis and set to run for governor — as like him, but better.

Monday, November 13, 2017

How Tina Brown Remixed The Magazine, by Nathan Heller, New Yorker

A chance for reappraisal has now come. “The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992” (Holt) is Brown’s private account of her work at Vanity Fair for nearly a decade, the editorship often seen as her most dazzling feat. When she took over, less than a year after being blown into New York by Dr. Ruth, the magazine was tens of millions of dollars in the red, with a circulation of about two hundred and fifty thousand. By the time she left, it had more than doubled its pages of advertising and gained about a million readers. The diaries are a ledger of the workdays in between.

That time was filled with famous people, endless parties, comic misadventure. But it’s Brown’s reports on editing that offer an illuminating thrill. Brown calls herself “a magazine romantic,” and, reading her diary, you see why: she collects old magazines the way some people collect baseball cards, and her entries flutter with the joy of conquest at a time when glossies were reaching a glamorous peak. Her narrative is juicy in the mold less of a chophouse steak than of a summer peach: a little tart, a little sweet, mostly refreshing. It’s pretty irresistible. Brown is an entertaining writer of what could be called High Magazinese, a prose of front-loaded descriptors and punch-line squibs (from the introduction: “Large, blond, and ebullient in his well-tailored suits, my father filled a room with his commanding height and broken nose”), and, winsomely, she seems to write this way even when writing for herself. She has a novelist’s sense of pacing and a perverse genius for description. One pompous woman is “a coiffed asparagus”; an aging lord’s secretary is “a pretty, silent blonde girl with whom he probably enjoys recreational humiliation.” Walter Mondale “would make an excellent prime minister of Norway,” and Wallace Shawn is “like a small, anxious hippo.” (There are misses along with the hits, and some descriptions—“Bill Buckley did a pale, sexy, contact-lens stare at me”—leave the reader not just cold but chilled.)

What The Art Of The High Line Is Trying To Tell Us, by Michael Friedrich, CityLab

This scene reflects the strange malfunction of our urban dream of reclamation. The High Line and its artworks exemplify the middle-class cultural objects that have emerged to obscure the ills of a new Gilded Age. If you’re like me, you love the park. Maybe you visit with your family and friends to see conceptual sculptures and eat little ice cream sandwiches as the sun descends over Frank Gehry's igloo on the old West Side. But maybe you also notice the neighborhood’s grotesque luxury glut. Even as these objects delight us, they also remind us of the public space we’ve lost and the social inequality they’ve yielded.

What We Can Learn From Multiple Translations Of The Same Poem, by Martha Collins, Literary Hub

Translating a poem into another language—its content, its form, its tone, its nuance—is, as almost everyone who has done it knows, a difficult business. But it also has enormous rewards: for the translator, for the reader, for poetry itself.

Some years ago, I was asked to teach a workshop about this impossible process. Among other materials, including essays about translation, I gave the participants two side-by-side English translations of a poem by Pablo Neruda, along with the original Spanish. Those translations proved to be the most valuable resource I offered. Seeing what different translators have done with the same poem immediately eliminates easy assumptions that beginning translators often make: that there is a single way, a most correct way, or a best way to translate a poem.

Zeitgeist To Obsolete: Rewinding The Walkman’s Inverted Cinderella Story, by Carissa Stolting, Los Angeles Review of Books

It’s hard to remember a time before we had the option to curate the playlist of our own minds. We are simply accustomed now to experiencing music in this deeply personal, albeit solitary, way. We disappear into headphones, stream a song via smartphone from the intangible, infinite web, creating a sonic landscape that mirrors our mood. We walk around the grocery store in Beyoncé-land.

But that wasn’t always the case. In her new book Personal Stereo, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow analyzes two major shifts in perspective associated with the 1979 birth of the first solo listening device, the Walkman. First, music becomes a personal experience, and second, music becomes immersive, a means to override — or even negate — the sounds of one’s immediate environment. Listening to music in private was not a new concept, of course, nor was the ability to take music on the road (à la the boom box). However, the idea of making the private experience of music a public phenomenon was groundbreaking. In that sense, the Walkman redefined music: it was a revolutionary tool that offered listeners a new kind of freedom. Music technology today still riffs on the basic concept of the Walkman, only now we have digital access to nearly every recorded song.

An Acclaimed Biographer Takes On Her Grandfather, The Atomic Scientist James B. Conant, by Kai Bird, New York Times

Some years ago, Jennet Conant wrote an op-ed entitled “My Grandfather and the Bomb,” in which she revealed that “Los Alamos was the chief morality tale of my childhood.” When she was 10 years old her father, Ted Conant, moved his family to Japan and took his young daughter to visit Hiroshima. She became acutely aware “that I was living in a country my grandfather had once tried to blow to smithereens.” Her father was highly critical of her grandfather, recounting his “transgressions, his complicity in the secret military effort to develop chemical weapons and the atom bomb.” This harsh portrait was at odds with the grandfather she knew, an austere New Englander “made more approachable by age and the twinkle in his eyes.” Young Jennet was caught in the poisonous relationship between her father and grandfather: “the deep rifts in our family never entirely healed.”

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Paper Allegories, by Will Dowd, Tin House

The nights were cold this week, and so were the days; the sun, when it appeared, flashed like a coin at the bottom of a well, and the rain fell whenever it felt like it. It was really and truly November, though I couldn’t quite accept it. I walked down my street kicking acorns and attempting to reattach fallen leaves.

I kept thinking of the opening of Moby-Dick, when Ishmael declares it a damp, drizzly November in his soul.

I Interviewed Joe Biden. A Sob Took Me By Surprise., by Philip Galanes, New York Times

In any event, when he rose to shake my hand — friendly, cheerful even — something cracked open inside me. “Congratulations on the book,” I said. “It’s …” And that’s when a sob strangled the simple word I’d meant to say: “beautiful.”

“You can’t do that,” Mr. Biden said. He sounded strict. “If you cry, then I’ll cry,” he said. “We have to help each other.”

Cataclysm: Victor Davis Hanson’s The Second World Wars, by Mackubin Thomas Owens, National Review

Hanson does not provide extended accounts of military campaigns. It focuses instead on the decisions about why, how, and where to fight the war, the diverse methods of warfare employed by the belligerents, and how the investments and strategies of each side led to victory or defeat.

Folk Song In England By Steve Roud Review – The Music Of The Common People?, by Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian

The problem, Steve Roud explains in this monumental history of the English folk song, is that the material harvested from the late-Victorian fields turned out not to be so very old after all. In fact, you were lucky if you could trace a song’s pedigree back further than 100 years. What’s more, far from being as unadulterated as the water from a Yorkshire beck, these “folksongs” (a term barely used before 1891) turned out to be a mishmash of codes and styles. A song such as “Villikins and his Dinah”, which sounded like it had come into the world chewing straw, was actually written by the journalist Henry Mayhew for a forgettable stage farce called The Wandering Minstrel in 1834. The same was true of “The Jug of Punch” which started off as a music hall “Oirish” song and then slipped into the canon as the real deal.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Can You Appropriate Your Own Culture?, by Jaya Saxena, Racked

On a trip to India six years before I got married, I bought a wedding sari. My grandparents and I visited a sari factory just outside of Chennai, and as I watched a woman weave gold flowers into bright red silk, I decided that I should buy one, just in case. I had thought about getting married in vague and hypothetical ways, and who knows, by the time my wedding day came, I might want to forgo the white wedding dress and do it the way my Indian grandparents had.

I did get married, and the sari stayed neatly folded in my bottom drawer. It was beautiful, but not right. This wasn’t just because we weren’t doing a Hindu ceremony, or because I absolutely loved my gold wedding dress covered in sequins. It was because I worried that, in a sari, I’d look like I was wearing a costume. (Never mind that a wedding dress is a costume all its own.) Who was I, this half-white woman who’d been to India twice in her life, to wear this?

Ideology Is The Original Augmented Reality, by Slavoj Žižek, Nautilus

However, this magic effect of SixthSense does not simply represent a radical break with our everyday experience; rather, it openly stages what was always the case. That is to say: In our everyday experience of reality, the “big Other”—the dense symbolic texture of knowledge, expectations, prejudices, and so on—continuously fills in the gaps in our perception. For example, when a Western racist stumbles upon a poor Arab on the street, does he not “project” a complex of such prejudices and expectations onto the Arab, and thus “perceive” him in a certain way? This is why SixthSense presents us with another case of ideology at work in technology: The device imitates and materializes the ideological mechanism of (mis)recognition which overdetermines our everyday perceptions and interactions.

And does not something similar happen in Pokémon Go? To simplify things to the utmost, did Hitler not offer the Germans the fantasy frame of Nazi ideology that made them see a specific Pokémon—“the Jew”—popping up all around, and providing the clue to what one has to fight against? And does the same not hold for all other ideological pseudo-entities that have to be added to reality in order to make it complete and meaningful? One can easily imagine a contemporary anti-immigrant version of Pokémon Go where the player wanders about a German city and is threatened by Muslim immigrant rapists or thieves lurking everywhere. Here we encounter the crucial question: Is the form the same in all these cases, or is the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory which makes us see the Jewish plot as the source of our troubles formally different from the Marxist approach which observes social life as a battleground of economic and power struggles? There is a clear difference between these two cases: In the second case, the “secret” beneath all the confusion of social life is social antagonisms, not individual agents which can be personalized (in the guise of Pokémon figures), while Pokémon Go does inherently tend toward the ideologically personalized perception of social antagonisms. In the case of bankers threatening us from all around, it is not hard to see how such a figure can easily be appropriated by a Fascist populist ideology of plutocracy (as opposed to “honest” productive capitalists). … The point of the parallel between Nazi anti-Semitism and Pokémon Go is thus a very simple and elementary one: Although Pokémon Go presents itself as something new, grounded in the latest technology, it relies on old ideological mechanisms. Ideology is the practice of augmenting reality.

Asian-American Cuisine’s Rise, And Triumph, by Ligaya Mishan, New York Times

So begins the $285, 19-course tasting menu at Benu in San Francisco. The egg is a traditional Chinese snack, often called (poetically, if inaccurately) a 1,000-year-old egg, preserved for a few weeks or months in lye or slaked lime, salt and tea. It’s sold by street vendors, tossed into stir-fries and scattered over congee throughout China, parts of Southeast Asia and the world’s Chinatowns. To more than a billion people, it is an utterly commonplace food.

But to present it as an amuse-bouche at one of the most acclaimed fine-dining restaurants in the United States, to a predominantly non-Asian clientele, is radical. For despite America’s long, complicated love affair with Asian cooking, it is hard to imagine such a food, so alien to Western culinary ideals in appearance, aroma, flavor and texture, being served in this kind of setting, let alone embraced, a decade ago.

In Search Of Silence, by Steven Kurutz, New York Times

Erling Kagge, a 54-year-old Norwegian explorer, author and publisher, was sitting one morning last month in the private gardens at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, a green oasis of relative quiet in the West Village of Manhattan.

“You never find a place that is total silence,” Mr. Kagge said. “I’ve been looking, and I have not found it.”

Terra Incognita: 'The Planet Factory' And 'The Undiscovered Islands', by Genevieve Valentine , NPR

To be human is to wonder where we are. We look at the the ocean and imagine the far shore; we look into the night sky and imagine someone waving back. Life is uncertain and frightening. Our fears need maps. We want to understand what we're looking at.

Two recent books look at the very human (sometimes all-too-human) process of trying to make sense of the known universe: The Un-Discovered Islands: An Archipelago of Myths and Mysteries, Phantoms and Fakes, by Malachy Tallack, and The Planet Factory: Exoplanets and the Search for a Second Earth, by Elizabeth Tasker. They're so stylistically and scientifically disparate as to seem unrelated, but reading them in close succession makes for something greater than the sum of its parts — a joint atlas of human guesses in a world that seems destined to confound us.

'Wonder Valley' Is An L.A. Thriller That Refuses To Let Readers Look Away, by Michael Schaub, Los Angeles Times

Pochoda has a real gift for pacing, and she's a remarkably psychologically astute writer; it's hard not to feel at least some kind of sympathy for all the characters, even the ones capable of monstrous acts of violence and selfishness. It's a gorgeous portrayal of, as one character puts it, "the place to be when you don't belong anywhere else, when you've done things that make the straight world an impossible place to live."

Friday, November 10, 2017

The First Time I Ate An Oyster, by Alicia Kennedy, Hazlitt

I’ve been eating oysters. This wouldn’t be news, but I’ve been vegan for five years. My professional life as a food writer depends on this nut-cheese niche, and I’ve abandoned it for mid-day lunches I can’t share on Instagram.

The consumption of these bivalve mollusks began soon after my brother’s sudden death last October. On my first trip out of the house alone, I went to the John Dory Oyster Bar for the release of a cocktail book. There, a table of oysters, four varieties on ice, served as the centerpiece to the room. There were also charcuterie and antipasti and other standard book launch fare, but they hadn’t caught my eye. I got a cocktail and sat by the window, growing restless. I stared at the oysters, thinking about summer lunches on restaurant decks that jutted out into the Great South Bay. What was it my dad always ordered on the half-shell? Clams? Or oysters? Either way, my brother never ate them. The smell of seafood made him cry as a baby. In his twenty-six years on earth, he never developed a taste for it.

How To Decline A Cocktail Napkin On An Airplane, by James Hamblin, The Atlantic

On planes, I like to joke to whoever is seated next to me that soon we’ll have to pay extra if we want oxygen masks to fall from the ceiling in case of emergency. My seatmates pretend to be listening to their headphones, because I’ve been talking a lot, but I think they get the point.

The one thing that hasn’t been taken away, I continue, is soft-drink service. And with every drink comes a three-inch-by-three-inch cocktail napkin—which, unlike pretty much anything else, the airlines really, really want to give you.

Have you ever tried to decline a cocktail napkin on an airplane?

Hunt For A Good Beginning. Then Write It., by Corby Kummer, New York Times

Followers of John McPhee, perhaps the most revered nonfiction narrative journalist of our time, will luxuriate in the shipshape prose of “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process,” a collection of eight essays that first appeared in The New Yorker, his home for more than 50 years. Writers looking for the secrets of his stripped-bark style and painstaking structure will have to be patient with what is a discursive, though often delightful, short book. McPhee’s publisher is presenting it as a “master class,” but it’s really a memoir of writing during a time of editorial cosseting that now seems as remote as the court of the Romanovs. Readerly patience will be rewarded by plentiful examples of the author’s sinewy prose and, toward the end, by advice and tips that will help writers looking to become better practitioners of the craft and to stay afloat in what has become a self-service economy.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Star That Refused To Die, by Marina Koren, The Atlantic

The death of a big star, much more massive than our sun, usually proceeds like this: After millions and millions of years of shiny existence, the star starts to run out of hydrogen. Without this fuel, the star can’t power the nuclear fusion that produces its light. Its core shrinks and heats up, spawning heavier and heavier elements until mostly iron remains. Within a second, the core collapses and sends star material flying in a spectacular light show—a supernova—that fades after several months. The dead star leaves behind a neutron star, a very dense object, or a black hole, the light-gobbling lurkers of the universe.

What a star isn’t supposed to do, however, is stay alive.

Physics Has Demoted Mass, by Jim Baggott, Nautilus

You’re sitting here, reading this article. Maybe it’s a hard copy, or an e-book on a tablet computer or e-reader. It doesn’t matter. Whatever you’re reading it on, we can be reasonably sure it’s made of some kind of stuff: paper, card, plastic, perhaps containing tiny metal electronic things on printed circuit boards. Whatever it is, we call it matter or material substance. It has a characteristic property that we call solidity. It has mass.

But what is matter, exactly? Imagine a cube of ice, measuring a little over one inch (or 2.7 centimeters) in length. Imagine holding this cube of ice in the palm of your hand. It is cold, and a little slippery. It weighs hardly anything at all, yet we know it weighs something.

Lessons In Stillness From One Of The Quietest Places On Earth, by Meghan O'Rouke, New York Times

I climbed up into the gazebo beside him and looked where he was pointing, at the vast, pounding ocean. A delicate spout of water breached the air. And then another. And another. And then — a fin of an orca arcing over a wave.

“They’ve been feeding all day,” he said. “I was down there watching them for the past hour. I’ve never seen them like this.”

I hurried down to the beach. The dark gray sand was velvety and warm. I walked past beached jellyfish and oyster shells and the slender bones of sea gulls. Before me was nothing but ocean — no ships, no airplanes, no buildings. The huge noise of ocean and nothing but ocean was profound, a silence in its own right, which seemed odd as I thought about it — how can noise feel like silence? Perhaps because its quality is continuous, soothing, allowing immersion. Listening, it seemed I was on the verge of some feeling or fresh understanding. As the sensation crested, a huge orca lifted up out of the water, baring its smooth gray back, and for a moment I felt its weight settle on me.

All The Letters I’ll Never Send, by Clare Sestanovich, Literary Hub

Last July, I wrote three letters in quick succession: the first to my ninth grade algebra teacher, the second to my ex-boyfriend’s mother, the third to a somewhat famous author. The letters were not emails. They were divulgent and inelegant. Filled with things I would regret admitting; written way too quickly. The punctuation was erratic, the sentence structure un-self-consciously unvaried.

The letters were ugly because I wasn’t going to send them. I typed them on my computer because there would be no recipients to appreciate the immediacy—the intimacy—of handwriting. When they were finished, I filed the letters in a folder inside a folder. I wanted them to require unearthing.

'This Mortal Coil' Will Get You All Twisted Up, by Amal El-Mohtar, NPR

There is a species of book that presents itself as the thing it's skewering, making it tricky to review; do you cover the experience of reading the bulk of it, or do you let the twists, reversals and switches work backwards, changing everything, and cover the experience of reading it in hindsight?

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Where The Small-Town American Dream Lives On, by Larissa MacFarquhar, New Yorker

Orange City, the county seat of Sioux County, Iowa, is a square mile and a half of town, more or less, population six thousand, surrounded by fields in every direction. Sioux County is in the northwest corner of the state, and Orange City is isolated from the world outside—an hour over slow roads to the interstate, more than two hours to the airport in Omaha, nearly four to Des Moines. Hawarden, another town, twenty miles away, is on the Big Sioux River, and was founded as a stop on the Northwestern Railroad in the eighteen-seventies; it had a constant stream of strangers coming through, with hotels to service them and drinking and gambling going on. But Orange City never had a river or a railroad, or, until recently, even a four-lane highway, and so its pure, hermetic culture has been preserved.

Orange City is small and cut off, but, unlike many such towns, it is not dying. Its Central Avenue is not the hollowed-out, boarded-up Main Street of twenty-first-century lore. Along a couple of blocks, there are two law offices, a real-estate office, an insurance brokerage, a coffee shop, a sewing shop, a store that sells Bibles, books, and gifts, a notions-and-antiques store, a hair-and-tanning salon, and a home-décor-and-clothing boutique, as well as the Sioux County farm bureau, the town hall, and the red brick Romanesque courthouse.

What Boredom Does To You, by Manoush Zomorodi, Nautilus

Every emotion has a purpose—an evolutionary benefit,” says Sandi Mann, a psychologist and the author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good. “I wanted to know why we have this emotion of boredom, which seems like such a negative, pointless emotion.”

That’s how Mann got started in her specialty: boredom. While researching emotions in the workplace in the 1990s, she discovered the second most commonly suppressed emotion after anger was—you guessed it—boredom. “It gets such bad press,” she said. “Almost everything seems to be blamed on boredom.”

A History Of Berlin, In Four Airports, by Laura Bliss, Citylab

Technically, Berlin has only two functioning destinations for air travel—that’s Tegel and Schönefeld, two ill-fitting sky harbors on opposite ends of town. But two others hold outsize space in the Berlin imagination. There’s Tempelhof, the Nazi airfield in the heart of the city that was shuttered in 2008; it has since morphed into a freeform park and an unlikely site for refugee housing. And finally there’s Berlin Brandenburg, the ambitious post-unification effort to consolidate the above three airports into a single modern facility that better fits the aspirations of Germany’s current cosmopolitan center. Originally set to open in 2011, its long-delayed construction process has turned into a clusterfuck of epic proportions.

The city’s history can be told through these infrastructures.

Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Inclusive Writing?, by A.K. Afferez, Ploughshares

Spooky season isn’t quite over in France. Let me tell you about the latest thing that’s got the French elites up in arms: in case you didn’t know, the French language is assailed by a horrible scourge that will most certainly lead to linguistic extinction. It’s called—ominous drumroll, please—inclusive writing.

Here We Are By Oliver Jeffers Review – A Heartfelt Hug Of A Story, by Imogen Carter, The Guardian

Like many new parents back from hospital, Oliver Jeffers found himself taking his baby on a tour of his home: “Here’s the kitchen, where we make food...” This sparked the idea for his first foray into nonfiction, a picture book introducing his son to “the big globe, floating in space, on which we live”. Unmistakably conceived in the afterglow of new parenthood – the sun blazes, everyone smiles and the baby is a cute, luminous cocoon lighting up the nursery – it bursts with tenderness.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

In Rural Japan, Lifting A Shrine And Building A Friendship, by Kenan Christiansen, New York Times

We were inside his neighborhood shrine, and staring at what looked like a miniature Japanese palace, intricately gilded and lacquered red and black. It was the vessel for the community’s god, a portable shrine known as the mikoshi. “More than my house,” Hirota said. Outside, men from the neighborhood were prepping for the summer matsuri (festival): shrugging into ceremonial white robes, and loading a tiny pickup to the brim with ice chests full of beer, sake and shochu.

I looked back at the mikoshi and winced. It looked about as heavy as a brick oven and just as likely to move. But for the next nine hours, our task would be to move it. As Hirota put it, carrying the shrine would “show off our manpower” and prove to the unseen spirit inside, known as an ujigami, that the people in the small town of Miyoshi in Chiba prefecture were strong enough to take care of their community for yet another year.

Remembering, With Fondness, The 'Worst Orchestra In The World', by Eric Grundhauser, Atlas Obscura

In the movies, when you gather together a ragtag group of eager but untrained dreamers to win a little league game, or put on a show to save the orphanage, odds are good that in the end, they’ll heroically surpass the expectations of even their most vocal detractors.

But in real life, when you get a bunch of amateurs together to perform a skilled task, like, say, playing an instrument, you usually end up with something like the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an experimental orchestra from the 1970s that invited anyone with a passing interest to join, and which became a momentary phenomenon by performing what could fairly be called unsuccessful music.

Can Literature Make Us Better People?, by Jedidiah Evans, The Millions

Claudia’s insight—while not blind to the ravages of a very real and enduring evil—is not a trivial one. Claudia and her sister have spent the entire novel surrounded by an internecine racism of assured ugliness that is rehearsed by their community, and reinforced by the broader culture. By the end of the novel, Pecola’s swollen belly ensures her separateness: she operates as a locus for the community’s own self-loathing and learned forms of self-disgust. But despite these social pressures, Claudia comes to understand that it is not the failure of the marigolds—and thus not the failure of Pecola—but instead, it is the soil that is bad. It is much too late for Pecola, of course. But not for Claudia.

How Do You Write A Horror Novel When Your Dad Is Stephen King?, by Zach Dionne, GQ

Joe Hill's books are critically lauded, commercially successful. People love them. And in the not-too-distant future, Hollywood is going to bring Hill's work to the screen (one's made, the rest of his work has been optioned). But despite all of Hill's obvious success, one question remains: How do you make a name for yourself when your dad is the Master of Horror?

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Most Riveting Host In Late Night (And The Most Overlooked), by Jason Zinoman, New York Times

In September, Tom Cruise stepped into a car with Conan O’Brien and, with his characteristic exuberance, exclaimed that he was ready to sing karaoke or talk comedy. Mr. O’Brien waved away those ideas. “My thing, Tom, is take it back to basics,” he said, before describing his plan: “Two guys, just driving.”

What followed was not a spoof of James Corden’s signature “Carpool Karaoke” but something delightfully weirder than that. This 11-minute video began as cringe-comedy performance art, with Mr. Cruise bored and baffled, and Mr. O’Brien, quietly driving, as a hostile, frighteningly intense version of himself. Then the narrative turned into a kind of thriller as the hero, Mr. Cruise, in his best comic role since “Tropic Thunder,” slowly realized he was trapped with a maniac and needed to take desperate measures. It was the funniest bit on late night I had seen all year.

Teaching “Madame Bovary”, by Roxana Robinson, New Yorker

Each fall, I teach “Madame Bovary” to my graduate writing students at Hunter College, and each fall I read it with them. My course is called Introduction to the Modern: The Role of Compassion. So we look at modernism, and how it disrupts the literary world, and at compassion, and how it expands the soul. I ask my students a fundamental question about intention: Does Flaubert want us to feel contempt or compassion for his characters?

My students have strong views on this, and I do, too. One student declared his response to Charles Bovary. “I can’t stand him,” he said, explosively. “He’s such a loser.”

I Poured My Blood, Sweat And Life Savings Into My Restaurant. Dumbest Thing I've Ever Done, by Robert Maxwell, Toronto Life

I was a foodie with a boring day job who figured he could run a restaurant. Then I encountered rats, endless red tape, crippling costs and debt-induced meltdowns, started popping sleeping pills, lost my house, and nearly sabotaged my marriage.

The Women Who Helped America Crack Axis Codes, by Meryl Gordon, New York Times

In Liza Mundy’s prodigiously researched and engrossing new book, “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II,” she describes the experiences of several thousand American women who spent the war years in Washington, untangling the clandestine messages sent by the Japanese and German militaries and diplomatic corps. At a time when even well-educated women were not encouraged to have careers — much less compete with men to demonstrate their mastery of arcane, technical skills — this hiring frenzy represented a dramatic shift. The same social experiment was simultaneously unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic. The British debutantes and their middle-class peers recruited to work at the secret Bletchley Park code-breaking operation came to outnumber the men.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

No Coda: On Mandy Kahn’s “Glenn Gould’s Chair”, by Lara Schoorl, Los Angeles Review of Books

The act of writing, like the act of reading, is often done in solitude. I am not sure if it is for this reason that both writing and reading can bring the comfort of a lover who knows where I begin and end as well as an anxiety that paralyzes. I do not think the latter is necessarily a bad thing — it is an ache waiting to be soothed, but an ache that we, readers and writers alike, may sometimes need. Humans must overcome obstacles; that is part of the process.

The second poem in Mandy Kahn’s new book, Glenn Gould’s Chair, contains the following lines: “We tend to favor / our most difficult projects, those painful loves, / so much of ourselves have been left / on their knife-blades and cutting boards.” We do do that. We all have a desire for the jouissance of life — if we are able to overcome its difficulties (again). Often, it is the works of others who share our sensibility, who share the experience of creative expression, that assuage the moments that produce nothing. Kahn’s new book furnishes us with a community of fellow creators. Their lives, through her poems, encourage us to breathe and let the mind wander or linger when we lose an expected sense of direction.

Being Here: The Life Of Paula Modersohn-Becker Review – The Story Of Women’s Art, by Olivia Laing, The Guardian

Truncated lives, unnecessary limits. There’s only one thing to do next. Look at the girls Modersohn-Becker painted, with their slim arms, their strong heads set against the sky. As Darrieussecq puts it: “It is not about what these young girls are dreaming, but what they are thinking … These girls are saying: ‘Leave us alone!’”

Winter By Ali Smith Review – Luminously Beautiful, by Stephanie Merritt, The Guardian

“Mythologiser” is one of the insults Sophia repeatedly flings at her sister, but from this author it’s high praise; Smith is engaged in an extended process of mythologising the present state of Britain, and Winter is at its most luminously beautiful when the news fades and merges with recent and ancient history, a reminder that everything is cyclical. There is forgiveness here, and song, and comic resolution of sorts, but the abiding image is of the tenacity of nature and light.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

When Did Fiction Become So Dangerous?, by Lionel Shriver, The Spectator

The assignment of books for review has always been haphazard. Fellow fiction writers can be tempted either to undermine the competition, or to flatter colleagues who might later judge prizes or provide boosting blurbs. There are no clear qualifications for book reviewing — perhaps publication, but most of all, because reviewers are paid for their text but not for the many hours it takes to read the bleeding books, a willingness to work for atrocious wages.

Mitigating the gravity of this matter? Aside from the authors whose work is on the block, almost no one reads book reviews, and I say that as someone who writes a fair number. It’s a publishing truism that ‘reviews don’t sell books’ — although negative ones can un-sell books. With lose-lose odds like that, why books are ever shipped out for review is anyone’s guess.

All The Dirty Parts By Daniel Handler Review – A Provocative Portrayal Of Teen Sexuality, by Louise O'Neill, The Guardian

Yes, there are familiar tropes readily employed and certain passages that made me uneasy, but there is also much to savour, not least Handler’s clear-sighted exploration of gender politics and the fluidity of sexual identity. Tender and troubling, authentic and intimate, All The Dirty Parts is a thought-provoking read.

Kumukanda By Kayo Chingonyi Review – Unflinching Reflections, by Ben Wilkinson, The Guardian

Kumukanda is an authentic and convincing book of poems in its many nuanced portrayals and unflinching reflections; rarely is it content to gloss or deceive. Though its music can sometimes falter as Chingonyi’s line of argument, a point to be made, supersedes the poetry itself, these more prosaic moments are evidence of his ambition and determination to use poetry as a uniquely transformative mode of thinking.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Inside The Great Poop Emoji Feud, by Charlie Warzel, BuzzFeed

It’s been a trying year for the world’s most visible institutions. Congressional gridlock, partisan divide, and federal indictments torment Washington. Silicon Valley’s biggest companies are under scrutiny — and even headed to Capitol Hill — for their role in foreign interference during the 2016 election. And meanwhile, over at the Unicode Consortium, there is a contentious debate over a scowling pile of shit.

Digital shit, of course.

On Unread Books, by Umberto Eco, The Paris Review

I recall, though my recollection may be faulty, a magnificent article by Giorgio Manganelli explaining how a sophisticated reader can know whether a book is worth reading even before he opens it. He wasn’t referring to the capacity often required of a professional reader, or a keen and discerning reader, to judge from an opening line, from two pages glanced at random, from the index, or often from the bibliography, whether or not a book is worth reading. This, I say, is simply experience. No, Manganelli was talking about a kind of illumination, a gift that he was evidently and paradoxically claiming to have.

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, by Pierre Bayard, a psychoanalyst and professor of literature, is not about how you might know not to read a book but how you can happily talk about a book you haven’t read, even to your students, even when it’s a book of extraordinary importance. His calculation is scientific. Good libraries hold several millions of books: even if we read a book a day, we would read only 365 a year, around 3,600 in ten years, and between the ages of ten and eighty we’ll have read only 25,200. A trifle. On the other hand, any Italian who’s had a good secondary education knows perfectly well that they can participate in a discussion, let’s say, on Matteo Bandello, Francesco Guicciardini, Matteo Boiardo, on the tragedies of Vittorio Alfieri, or on Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian, knowing only the name and something about the critical context, but without ever having read a word.

Book Review: The Story Of Looking, By Mark Cousins, by Stuart Kelly, Scotsman

Towards the end of this intriguing and beautiful book, Cousins asks himself what kind of a book it is. Is it a “guided tour of the visible world”? A “photo album of a lifetime”? A reliquary? An exploration of the fact that “our eyes have not much evolved in 10,000 years, but the things to see have massively increased in number and our ways of seeing have stretched what we mean by seeing”? It is, to an extent, all of the above; it is also a kind of gloriously haphazard intellectual scrapbook.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Scents From A Mall: The Sticky, Untold Story Of Cinnabon, by Allecia Vermillion, Seattle Met

A cook called in sick. The kitchen was beyond slammed. And, naturally, the phone was ringing. The restaurant’s proprietress barely answered in time. But she knew the voice on the line, though mostly by reputation within Seattle’s small food community. Rich Komen cut to the chase: “Hey Jerilyn, how’d you like to make the world’s greatest cinnamon roll?”

The year was 1985, and Jerilyn Brusseau had built a reputation of her own over the years. She sourced the ingredients for her eponymous restaurant in Edmonds, just north of Seattle, the way she’d learned on her parents’ dairy farm—from the people who grow them. Her VW bus crisscrossed the Snohomish, Skagit, and Whatcom Valleys to collect salad greens, shellfish, and 300 pounds of unsalted butter made every other week just for Brusseau’s. A few months before the phone rang, The New York Times had included Jerilyn in a lengthy, photo-splashed write-up about this revolutionary idea of eating local.

There was another reason she was on Rich Komen’s mind. Jerilyn Brusseau grew up making cinnamon rolls with her grandmother, who baked pies for the restaurants in her small Montana town. When Jerilyn and her then husband transformed a former Shell station—piles of rubble out front, windows blackened over with gunpowder from a stint as a firearms shop—into Brusseau’s in 1978, she originally feared her grandmother’s cinnamon rolls would seem too ordinary among the croissants and danishes and brioche. However those “ordinary” fragrant pinwheels of dough and dark, sticky filling built a fan base that stretched down to Seattle.

Walter Isaacson’s ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’ Is The Portrait Of A Real Renaissance Man, by Jennifer Senior, New York Times

What endures after reading “Leonardo da Vinci” is just how indifferent to glory the man was. He lived in a world of his private obsessions. He often despaired over his failure to get anything done. (“Tell me if ever I did a thing,” he wrote in his notebooks.) What a gift that he did; what a gift that we know him at all.

The Story Of The Face By Paul Gorman Review – The Style Magazine And British Pop Culture, by Andy Beckett, The Guardian

The early 80s were a feverish time in Britain for new things, from youth cultures to design companies to political ideologies, and the Face – which tried to feature all of them in a fresh way, both glossy and gritty, while operating on a shoestring – remains one of the era’s most mythologised products. It never sold more than 130,000 copies, modest for a magazine distributed internationally, and it was published for 24 years – a good but not outstanding run. Yet it was consumed and is remembered with intensity. I was a Face reader from the mid-80s until near the end, and the feel of its best issues – forbiddingly stylish, but full of exciting information; insidery, but open to the world – was already loitering in my memory before I opened this elaborate history.

The Last Of Joan Rivers, by Vincent Boucher, New York Times

The book is a behind-the-stage-door dive into the ephemera of a woman who ritualistically kept virtually everything — every ticket stub, every dry cleaning receipt, every Polaroid from a wardrobe fitting — from her half-century-long career.

Affectionately compiled by her screen-sharing daughter, Melissa Rivers, and her onetime producer and longtime pal Scott Currie the book also charts her love of fashion, evident from the very start.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Luke Skywalker Speaks, by Dave Itzkoff, New York Times

Since 1977, when the original “Star Wars” went supernova and started a multibillion-dollar franchise, Mr. Hamill has been synonymous with Luke Skywalker, the desert-dwelling tenderfoot who destroys the Death Star, becomes a Jedi knight and reconciles with his villainous father, Darth Vader.

In 2015, “The Force Awakens” found more substantial screen time for the senior incarnations of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford). But Luke was withheld for maximum anticipation, a decision that Mr. Hamill came to accept — eventually — as a gift to him and his character.

“It is, if you can be objective about it,” he said a few weeks ago, sitting in his home here near the Pacific Ocean.

If You Want Peace, Go To A Graveyard, by Jason Diamond, Catapult

In the case of the man in black at Green River Cemetery, my fear went away once I realized where I’d seen him before: at another cemetery, Green-Wood in Brooklyn. Maybe I’d seen him next to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s difficult-to-find headstone, or admiring the Van Ness Parsons mausoleum shaped like a pyramid. I couldn’t quite recall, but it hit me that the stranger was not a ghost angry with me for disturbing his rest; he was a tombstone tourist, just like me.

What ‘Halloween’ Taught Me About Queerness, by Richard Scott Larson, Electric Literature

John Carpenter’s Halloween opens with the post-coital murder of a half-naked adolescent girl at the hands of her younger brother, Michael Myers. He has just witnessed his sister’s seduction of a beautiful young man while spying on them through a window on Halloween night. What follows is a dreamlike first-person sequence that ends with the viewer looking through the eyeholes of a mask. As his sister’s lover bounds down the stairs and out the door, casually pulling on a striped T-shirt over a perfectly toned chest and torso, Michael seemingly takes the young man’s place, retracing his steps up the stairs and into the bedroom where his sister sits topless at a vanity table. He notices that the bed behind her is unmade, the sheets ruffled, evidence of an exchange that Michael doesn’t yet understand but for which he intuitively believes she must be punished.

The revelation of heterosexual desire seems to have triggered the onset of a latent evil inside Michael’s young body. This evil finds its mode of expression in the shiny blade of a kitchen knife, the first iteration of what will become his weapon of choice. After donning a clownish mask that had been discarded on the floor by the departed lover, Michael hacks his screaming sister to shreds before enacting his own post-climax exit down the staircase and out the front door. Outside the house, he encounters his parents emerging from the family car, and his father calls out to him by name as he approaches the street. But rather than relieve his son of the bloodied knife, Michael’s father first removes the mask. The imperative in this scene isn’t immediately to disarm the costumed Michael Myers of a murder weapon — rather, it’s to reveal him, to show his face.

The opening of Halloween is a coming-out story.

Desperately Seeking Cities, by Nikil Saval, n+1

A half-century after the urban crisis, it appeared that the American city was becoming a source of national hope. In the 2016 presidential election, there were few indicators of how one would vote more salient than whether one lived in a city or far outside one. This result has given rise to the idea that cities would increasingly form the nucleus of the soi-disant “resistance” to right-wing nationalism and Donald Trump. Since last November, marches have repeatedly converged on urban cores; against the threats of the Attorney General, mayors touted their cities’ “sanctuary” status; and environmental standards retired federally have been upheld municipally. If the US had any chance to build a progressive, cosmopolitan future, the path lay through the cities.

Then came the contest to locate Amazon’s second headquarters. It turned out that the unifying power of hating Trump was nothing compared to the overwhelming national ardor for Amazon. Over the last two months, cities of every size and in every part of the country fell over themselves in a lurid, nauseating pageant of suitors. To whom would Amazon give the rose? The solidarity supposedly endemic to urban life was revealed to be the narcissism of minor differences, an inveterate competitive streak, a zeal to scrap every public plan in a fever of tax breaks. Faced with a corporation with monopoly power as great as the old railroads, cities genuflected. Millenarian apocalyptic rhetoric over Trump gave way to salvific paeans to Amazon. The company took on the form of a 21st-century Christ, offering its living water to the thirsty urban samaritans. Only San Antonio—appropriately, the city that once housed stolid, reliable, tedious pleasures like Tim Duncan—distinguished itself, refusing to enter a bid. “Sure, we have a competitive toolkit of incentives,” the city’s mayor wrote, at once inhabiting and parodying the language of the corporate brochure, “but blindly giving away the farm isn’t our style.”