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Archive for December 2017

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Want To Be Happy? Think Like An Old Person, by John Leland, New York Times

When the elders described their lives, they focused not on their declining abilities but on things that they could still do and that they found rewarding. As Ms. Wong said, “I try not to think about bad things. It’s not good for old people to complain.”

Here was another perspective on getting old. It was also a lesson for those who are not there yet.

Why Not Social Reading?, by Aaron Hanlon, Ploughshares

Among the many paradoxes of life in the tech-obsessed 21st century is the fact that we sometimes find ourselves yearning for an outdated simplicity precisely because we’re so tied to innovations in entertainment and social media that constantly hold our attention. For this reason there’s a market for “digital detoxes” and “tech-free vacations,” expensive ways of “unplugging” us and separating us from our tech. We even have software that prevents us from accessing “online distractions.”

This is also a curious paradox of capitalism, the idea that we’re willing to pay someone to draw us away from something we desperately want. It suggests a form of acquiescence or powerlessness that perhaps we’re too ready to embrace.

Silicon Valley Won’t Save Books, by Alex Shephard, New Republic

Yes, the written word has been in decline since the advent of film and then television, though recent technological change has undoubtedly hastened its fall. But this has led many to assume that the problem is one of form, that if the book could adapt to our multi-screen age, its cultural retreat would end. This optimistically assumes that the decline is reversible, which it isn’t. Books were overtaken by other media decades ago. The problem isn’t that books don’t have enough television in them, or enough internet in them; it’s that they are just one form of readily available cultural consumption among so many.

The BBC In Pidgin? People Like It Well-Well, by Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, New York Times

The offbeat anecdote tickled readers, not only for the story itself but even more so for its rendition in West African Pidgin English, an informal language that dates from the slave trade and that mixes English with West African languages. It was, according to the British tabloid The Sun, a “hilariously fresh take” on the date-from-hell story.

The “poo-poo” article, as it became known, was one of the most popular by the British broadcaster’s renowned World Service, which recently added a dozen foreign language websites to its roster as part of efforts to capture a younger, more diverse and digitally savvy audience.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Portrait Of The Artist As A Single Mom, by Stephanie Land, New York Review of Books

When I’d found out I was pregnant with Mia, I’d thrown the application for the writing program of my dreams at the University of Montana into the garbage. Five years later, I filled out the application again. Once my admission was granted, I never doubted my decision to move us to Missoula, so far from anything we’d ever known. Mia’s dad consented, somewhat easily, and signed the court documents to allow our relocation. Maybe he knew my determination would will me to fight. Or maybe the offer of lowering his child support payment by $200 was too good to pass up. He still blamed me for moving his daughter away from him. It fueled his anger and, far more than the physical distance, made him separate himself more from her emotionally.

By the spring of 2012, I was walking the same halls of generations of writers and poets before me—James Welch, Richard Hugo, William Kittredge. And I met Judy Blunt, whose book, Breaking Clean, had a story similar to my own. She was the head of the Creative Writing department that year. I sat in her office, knowing that she, too, had started college at the same school later in life, with not one kid, but three.

“I want to be a writer,” I said out loud, maybe for the first time. I wanted to tell her that it was all I’d ever wanted to be since I was in the fourth grade, when my English teacher Mr. Birdsall made us keep a journal, and that I’d kept one ever since. I knew of no other dream than to write. I wanted to tell her that I’d put off settling into being a real writer to live a life worth writing about. Now I needed to learn how to process my experience, to put it on the page in a way that wasn’t just late-night scribbling. But Judy didn’t respond to my proclamation. I figured she probably heard that a lot. I lowered my eyes. “But I’m a single mom. It seems so frivolous to get an arts degree.”

American Reams: Why A ‘Paperless World’ Still Hasn’t Happened, by David J Unger, The Guardian

“Paper is Good.” So reads the packaging on a ream of 8.5in by 11in, 20lb, white (92 on Tappi’s T-452 brightness scale), acid-free, curl-controlled, ColorLok Technology®, elemental chlorine-free, Rainforest Alliance Certified™, Forest Stewardship Council® certified, Sustainable Forestry Initiative® Certified, Made in USA Domtar EarthChoice® Office Paper. “Great ideas are started on paper,” the packaging reads. “The world is educated on paper. Businesses are founded on paper. Love is professed on paper. Important news is spread on paper.”

Domtar is right: paper has played “an essential role in the development of mankind”. And yet, for decades, civilisation has been trying to develop beyond paper, promoting a paper-free world that will run seamlessly, immaterially on pixels and screens alone. How did paper get here? Where does it go next? For that matter, why is paper – which does its job perfectly well – compelled to keep innovating?

Table For One At The Sunset Bistro, by Noah Warren, Los Angeles Review of Books

The check curtains, the tiny shakers
of olive oil and balsamic

shiver in the strong slow draft.
A plate of muscle floats to me.

Friday, December 29, 2017

When ‘All Thumbs’ Becomes A Compliment, by Calvin Trillin, New York Times

I was on the subway, watching a teenager text on his smartphone, when I realized that the idiom “all thumbs” might be doomed. I’ve had any number of such moments — what some people would call “ah-ha” moments — on the subway lately. A day or so before the “all thumbs” revelation, I was reminded once again that I am what used to be called “getting on in years”: I was standing in a crowded car when my eye happened to catch the eye of an attractive young woman who was seated in front of me. She smiled. I smiled. I was on my way to thinking that maybe she had me confused with George Clooney — a mix-up that, I’ll admit, does not occur on a regular basis. Then she smiled again, and offered me her seat.

Spending New Year’s Eve On A Train With No Midnight, by Joseph Keckler, Literary Hub

After a blurry couple of days, I awoke on New Year’s Eve and felt back to myself again. It was too late to make my evening plans in New York; I discovered that flights were far too expensive, but train tickets for midnight that night were available and reasonably priced. Many people would find the prospect of spending a holiday on a train unappealing, but I am a glutton for awkward experiences. Therefore, instantly convinced that New Year’s Eve on a train would be a night to remember, I insisted on heading back to New York that night, by train. Why, I couldn’t wait to see all those strangers on Amtrak, whooping it up in the aisles, shaking their stuff in the café car, to welcome 2013. Perhaps some passengers would kiss one another. What a strange situation, I thought: to be in motion, barreling through the night, while arriving into a new year.

Slush Piles In White, by Marcos Santiago Gonsalez, The Rumpus

Not all rejections have to be cold and calculated and automated. “I really enjoy the style and voice of this essay,” one rejection letter reads, the opening line throwing me off from the norm, “but it’s not really grabbing at me. It’s really just my subjective taste and someone else probably feels differently. Good luck with your writing endeavors.” Another begins more to the point, “Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider your work. The piece has much merit but is not exactly what we are looking for at this moment. We wish you the best with your writing.” Funny how the emails which took someone time to compose, the emails writers always complain they wish they got more of, scald the worse.

But questions must be asked: What constitutes someone being “grabbed” in their attention? What is the editor’s “subjective tastes” that bar them from not liking a piece enough? Who is this “us” and “we” who are not looking for a piece at the moment?

Heaven Is A Pitch-black Earth, by Anelise Chen, The Outline

One might say that all this good behavior was only phony civility. Perhaps. But I believe in superficial courtesy too. I believe that sometimes, even a charade has the potential to become genuine. I will pretend to trust you and you will pretend to trust me, and we will keep on pretending until it becomes true. We will be able to say “What nice people” and they will be able to say “What nice people,” whether or not we truly believe what we are saying.

‘Spalding Gray,’ The Color? It’s A Long Story, by Judith Newman, New York Times

This is a story about a man, a dog, a color and the name they share. Hang on. We’ll get there.

Coffee, by Silvia Killingsworth, The Awl

Just like pizza or bagels, coffee is a spectrum. There is no “best bagel” or “best pizza” or “best coffee” because there are so many ways to make them, so many styles and executions. Okay, you think, so there are different categories: Neapolitan pizza, Domino’s (hell yeah), single origin peaberry, Dunkin…Can’t there be a best in each sub-category? What if I just prefer watery cart coffee because it’s comforting? That is somewhat the function of De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum: to each his own—a choice, a preference. You pick yours, I pick mine. We may disagree on the methods of preparation and the quality of the ingredients therein, but ultimately your personal, subjective favorite that you like to label the “best” comes down to an alchemy of factors, including your family history, your net worth, and whether your were breastfed (just kidding!!!!).

Taking Sides, by Maggie Doherty, The Nation

“The Fact in Fiction” offers the best of Mary McCarthy: her considered criticism of writers, her careful taxonomies, her bold and withering condemnations, and her impeccable, almost fastidious sentences. These were the qualities that made her one of the most respected—and feared—critics of her generation. They also reveal what she valued in fiction, both in what she read and what she wrote. Verisimilitude was paramount. Depicting a social world was more valuable than rendering a subjective consciousness, unless that consciousness was itself given to observations about the social world. A novelist could entertain, she could illuminate, but she must never swerve from the world as it is experienced. “Factuality,” her word for a precise and honest accounting of the observable world, was both McCarthy’s literary standard and her lodestar.

The Curious World Of Samuel Pepys And John Evelyn By Margaret Willes Review – In Pursuit Of Knowledge, by Barbara Taylor, The Guardian

In earlier centuries curious men and women – knowledge-seekers, freethinkers, people who took “nobody’s word for it” – might pay for their curiosity with their lives; in some countries today they still do.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Nerd King Of Home Cooking Sets His Eye On The Restaurant World, by Jonah Weiner, Grub Street

What fascinates López-Alt about starting a restaurant is the technical challenge: designing a menu and breaking it down into a sequence of moves that hired cooks can execute, to the letter, on his behalf. What he doesn’t care about, really, is restaurants. For a guy launching a food emporium in one of the world’s most food-obsessed regions — a place heavy on Michelin stars and philosophically dominated by farm-to-table don Alice Waters — López-Alt is surprisingly uninterested in foodie culture. “I have very few impressions of the food scene here,” he confesses, “because we don’t go out to eat much. And when we do, we want it to be friendly and convenient.” When he lived in New York, his favorite spots to eat out were Union Square Cafe, Motorino, and Uncle Boons — “unfussy places” that prioritize well-executed comfort food above all other concerns. Among his happiest discoveries in Silicon Valley is Chef Zhao Bistro, an unheralded Sichuan joint with ’90s-office-style drop ceilings and stainproof glass-topped tables.

For López-Alt, who has built an entire brand synonymous with perfectible cooking, the stakes with Wursthall are especially high. Creating foolproof recipes for home cooks is one thing; cranking out foolproof grub at restaurant scale is another thing entirely. “That’s the No. 1 point of pressure in all of this for me,” he says. “People are going to come in with an impossibly high bar: ‘This is gonna be the best X I’ve ever had!’ And hopefully it will be, but maybe it won’t, because it’s impossible to operate at that level all the time at a family restaurant where you’re paying 14 bucks a plate!” The DIY king of internet cooking, in other words, isn’t sure how the whole IRL thing is going to work out.

Why Birds Matter, And Are Worth Protecting, by Jonathan Franzen, National Geographic

For most of my life, I didn’t pay attention to birds. Only in my 40s did I become a person whose heart lifts whenever he hears a grosbeak singing or a towhee calling and who hurries out to see a golden plover that’s been reported in the neighborhood, just because it’s a beautiful bird, with truly golden plumage, and has flown all the way from Alaska. When someone asks me why birds are so important to me, all I can do is sigh and shake my head, as if I’ve been asked to explain why I love my brothers. And yet the question is a fair one, worth considering in the centennial year of America’s Migratory Bird Treaty Act: Why do birds matter?

In New Book, Ursula K. Le Guin Shares Witty Blog Posts On 'Crabby Old Age' And Cats, by Mark Athitakis, USA Today

But she’s never merely whimsical, and if she’s arrived at a “crabby old age,” as she puts it, it’s inspired her to be engagingly mindful of everything around her.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

What’s A Wendy’s Doing There? The Story Of Washington’s Weirdest Traffic Circle., by Dan Zak, Washington Post

First things first. There’s a Wendy’s in the middle of the intersection. Hard to get around that.

It’s been there since the mid-’80s, on a wedge of land bordered by First Street NE and Florida and New York avenues, at a major gateway to Washington, D.C. Surrounding the Wendy’s is a “virtual traffic circle,” a polite way to refer to this urban aneurysm — a pair of triangles, really, with a roundabout movement forced upon them.

Take any side of it and plot the agony: The desperate dashed curve across six lanes of New York (Jesus take the wheel!); the pummeled yellow pylons on First, a memorial to driver perplexity. If you want to stay on Florida eastbound, you must make three turns (good luck finding the lane you need) and endure three signals. All to stay on the street you wanted to stay on.

Do Thought Experiments Really Uncover New Scientific Truths?, by Dan Falk, Aeon

Thought experiments have played a crucial role in the history of physics. Galileo was the first great master of the thought experiment; Albert Einstein was another. In one of his most celebrated thought experiments, Galileo shows that heavy objects and small objects must fall at the same rate. On another occasion – building on the ship’s mast argument – he deduces the equivalence of reference frames moving at a constant speed with respect to one another (what we now call Galilean relativity), a cornerstone of classical physics.

Einstein, too, was adept at performing such imaginative feats in his head. As a young man, he imagined what it would be like to run alongside a beam of light, and it led him to special relativity. Later, he imagined a falling man, and realised that in freefall one doesn’t feel one’s own weight; from this insight, he concluded that acceleration was indistinguishable from the tug of gravity. This second breakthrough became known as the ‘principle of equivalence’, and led Einstein to his greatest triumph, the general theory of relativity.

What these examples have in common is that knowledge seems to arise from within the mind, rather than from some external source. They require no laboratory, no grant proposal, no actual doing of … anything. When we perform a thought experiment, we learn, it would seem, by pure introspection. ‘Seem’ is perhaps the key word. Whether thought experiments actually do present a challenge to empiricism is hotly contested.

I Wonder What That Restaurant Around The Corner Is Doing?, by Brent Cox, The Awl

There is a fake restaurant around the corner from my apartment.

It pretends to be a restaurant, oh sure. It has tables and chairs, waiters and a bartender, dressed in neckties over white shirt. But no one ever eats there. Occasionally, a passerby might see a solitary guy at the bar, or a pained-looking couple, marooned in an inland sea of deserted tables. It is under-attended, suspiciously so.

Stealing Memories: On Anders Rydell’s “The Book Thieves”, by Ashley Valanzola, Los Angeles Review of Books

In our lifetimes, we will see the passing of the last Holocaust survivors and the remaining witnesses of World War II. Once they are gone, their personal possessions will be the last physical reminders of what they endured. Among the lost belongings of the survivors and witnesses of the war are books and archival collections, and these are the subject of Anders Rydell’s latest work, The Book Thieves. Rydell’s tale is a fascinating blend of intellectual history, detective story, and “restitution activism” that cannot help but inspire its readers.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Killer-Nanny Novel That Conquered France, by Lauren Collins, New Yorker

“Chanson Douce” has been translated into eighteen languages, with seventeen more to come. The title means “sweet song,” which was rendered “Lullaby” for the British edition. The American one, which comes out in January, will be called “The Perfect Nanny.” John Siciliano, Slimani’s editor at Penguin, told me, “I didn’t want to call it ‘Lullaby,’ because that sounds sleepily forgettable, and my goal is to reach a big commercial readership.” He name-checked “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train” and said, “We’re getting this book into places like Walmart and Target.” The book, however, is subtler than a typical psychological thriller. The subject matter is, for some people, a nonstarter. One reader complained, on Goodreads, “We got off on the wrong foot—I was expecting to meet an overworked but conscientious couple who found ‘The Perfect Nanny’ who made their lives lovely before things went awry. Will she grow attracted to the husband? Will she become obsessed with the wife? Lose one of the kids? Maybe a kidnapping?” She gave the book a single star, recalling that she’d wondered if the pages had been bound out of order after reading the first line: “The baby is dead.”

It is hard to think of a more primal sentence. It out-Hemingways Hemingway, shearing sentimentality from the dread. Absolutely everything feels like hubris when you’re working backward from that conclusion. “To begin with the death of the children, it’s very daring,” the French novelist David Foenkinos, a friend of Slimani’s, told me. “Generally, she’s a woman who dares, who fears nothing. There are probably childhood wounds that have made her extremely brave.” As a narrative technique, this front-loading is surprisingly propulsive. I read “Chanson Douce” as though I were running away from those four words, with the sense that they could cause me real harm, that the only way to master the fear was to outread it. The book felt less like an entertainment, or even a work of art, than like a compulsion. I found it extraordinary.

Radical Freedom: Writing, Walking – And Exploring The Wilderness Within, by Kristina Olsson, The Guardian

When I set out to cross England on foot, I wasn’t thinking about it in literary terms. I was thinking in terms of survival. The path was long, 320km; the weather, on a good day, unpredictable. I had just sent off a novel that had been five years in the making; the walk was a reward. I would spend two weeks, mostly alone, my head blissfully empty, no book on my back. Just the essentials: food, water, waterproofs, map and compass. A thin, borrowed copy of Tove Jansson’s stories. And the pebble I’d picked up at St Bees on the west coast to throw into Robin Hood’s Bay on the east.

Free of the book, I thought, my mind would wander over landscape and skyscape, the folds of field and forest, fell and valley, moor and mountain. I regarded the dawn of the first day as a child might a holiday. Here you are, it whispered. You’re free.

But it turns out that long-distance walking is, in fact, a lot like writing a novel. The two began to mirror each other in ways I didn’t recognise until the halfway mark, when my negligible navigation skills found me lost, again, in cow-trodden fields, with no waymarkers in sight.

Recipes For A Tidy And Tasty Death, by Dwight Garner, New York Times

Charles Lamb, the English essayist, hoped his last breath would be inhaled through a pipe and exhaled in a pun. We can’t all go out with such style. Two books are here to help us prepare.

In music terms, these books — Margareta Magnusson’s “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” and Perre Coleman Magness’s “The Southern Sympathy Cookbook” — will assist you not like roadies, but like end-of-the-roadies.

Monday, December 25, 2017

'The Difficulty Is The Point': Teaching Spoon-fed Students How To Really Read, by Tegan Bennett Daylight, The Guardian

I have two burning concerns: one is to give readers an insight into what it is currently like to teach at an Australian university. To satisfy this concern I want to tell you about semesters and classes shortened to save money on teaching; on passing incapable students simply to keep quotas up; on teaching students for whom attendance at university is no longer a necessary part of gaining a degree. This loops back to the idea of the university as business. Asking universities to stop making it easy for students to gain entrance, and making it easy for them to pass, is like asking Coca-Cola to slow down its sales. The logic of capitalism overrides everything.

The second concern is more abstract. I want to tell you about what it is like to teach literature to habituated non-readers, and why it is worth it.

Deck The Halls–Merrily But Warily, by Clare Beams, Ploughshares

In decorating we temporarily elevate, and we also reveal our own personal ideas of what elevation means. Decoration, like any outward expression of an inner vision, is an assertion of self—but also of capaciousness, because the whole purpose of decorating is to invite others into the vision we’ve had and tried to impose on the world. The trouble is that we don’t always know ahead of time how that vision will affect them once they meet it.

Why I Prefer Christmas Eve To Christmas Day, by Ian McMillan, BBC

I like Christmas Eve much more than Christmas Day - I always have. I enjoy the anticipation and the excitement and, because I'm a Yorkshireman, I love the tremblingly beautiful idea of the deferred gratification. With added baubles.

My dad would finish work early on this day. He'd get home in the middle of the afternoon and he'd hang his trilby up and he'd have a cup of tea and one of my mother's mince pies, and then we'd go to the farm in the next village to get the turkey. It was a ritual that felt as simple and beautiful as a piece of origami folded by a child and placed on a mantelpiece. In my memory it was always snowing. In real life, it probably hardly ever was.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

‘I Hope I Can Quit Working In A Few Years’: A Preview Of The U.S. Without Pensions, by Peter Whoriskey, Washington Post

The way major U.S. companies provide for retiring workers has been shifting for about three decades, with more dropping traditional pensions every year. The first full generation of workers to retire since this turn offers a sobering preview of a labor force more and more dependent on their own savings for retirement.

Years ago, Coomer and his co-workers at the Tulsa plant of McDonnell-Douglas, the famed airplane maker, were enrolled in the company pension, but in 1994, with an eye toward cutting retirement costs, the company closed the plant. Now, The Washington Post found in a review of those 998 workers, that even though most of them found new jobs, they could never replace their lost pension benefits and many are facing financial struggle in their old age: One in seven has in their retirement years filed for bankruptcy, faced liens for delinquent bills, or both, according to public records.

In An Era Of Online Outrage, Do Sensitivity Readers Result In Better Books, Or Censorship?, by Alexandra Alter, New York Times

In today’s hair-trigger, hyperreactive social media landscape, where a tweet can set off a cascade of outrage and prompt calls for a book’s cancellation, children’s book authors and publishers are taking precautions to identify potential pitfalls in a novel’s premise or execution. Many are turning to sensitivity readers, who provide feedback on issues like race, religion, gender, sexuality, chronic illness and physical disabilities. The role that readers play in shaping children’s books has become a flash point in a fractious debate about diversity, cultural appropriation and representation, with some arguing that the reliance on sensitivity readers amounts to censorship.

Behind the scenes, these readers are having a profound impact on children’s literature, reshaping stories in big and small ways before they reach impressionable young audiences. Like fact checkers or copy editors, sensitivity readers can provide a quality-control backstop to avoid embarrassing mistakes, but they specialize in the more fraught and subjective realm of guarding against potentially offensive portrayals of minority groups, in everything from picture books to science fiction and fantasy novels.

Christmas In July, by Christopher Benfey, New York Review of Books

I don’t remember how the news reached us, in our rust-belt town in Indiana, that boys were being hired, at ninety-five cents an hour—minimum wage, we were informed, as though no additional lure were required—to trim Christmas trees in neighboring Ohio. We answered the call like birds summoned south in September. Loaded into flatbed trucks in the morning darkness, we were driven across the nearby border, under an ugly green arch that identified our town, absurdly, as the “Gateway to the East,” and on to Brookville. We weren’t exactly migrant workers crossing the Rio Grande. And yet, for half the year, Indiana was in a different time zone than Ohio, cussedly refusing (just as our county rejected fluorinated water as a Commie plot) to join the rest of the East in Daylight Savings Time. “If God wanted us to have more daylight,” according to a letter in the local Palladium-Item, “He would have given it to us.”

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Monster Beneath, by Helen Gordon, 1843 Magazine

But every time there is a major eruption, scientists learn something new about volcanic behaviour. In 1995, Chances Peak in Montserrat erupted. A year later, Kilburn flew out to join a team monitoring the ongoing eruption. In the Montserrat Volcano Observatory he happened upon a graph that showed a jagged upward curve of peaks and troughs, representing a series of earthquakes that had occurred prior to the eruption. He was reminded of a talk given by Barry Voight, a distinguished volcanologist, on common eruption trends. At the time of the talk, Kilburn was working in a completely different field – lava flow – but Voight’s words stayed with him and in Montserrat, looking at the graph, he could see a trend – the number of earthquakes had accelerated prior to the eruption.

During the 1980s, volcanology was changing from an almost purely observational science to a more quantitative one, which sought mathematical patterns and built models. Before Voight, volcanologists made forecasts based on simple measurements of phenomena. For example, if a certain number of earthquakes per day were recorded, they might judge the situation critical. Voight’s crucial insight lay in seeing that the rate at which physical processes changed was as important when making forecasts. Kilburn decided to use this insight to develop a model that could be applied to Campi Flegrei and used as a forecasting tool. To produce this, he needed to look at the underlying physics that determine when a rock fractures. He moved from studying very large things (volcanoes) to very small ones (atoms). “It took bloody ages!” he said, shaking his head. Kilburn thought he’d be ready to publish by the new millennium but teaching, other projects and a series of false starts intervened. It wasn’t until May 2017 that his results were published.

A Chef Opens A Restaurant. His Training? Decades In A Prison Kitchen., by Nick Corasaniti, New York Times

Candido Ortiz claims he can cook anything: mashed potatoes and gravy, pernil guisado, chicken cacciatore. At his new restaurant here, El Sabor del Cafe, he will honor any request.

Mr. Ortiz honed his cooking skills in an unusual setting — a federal prison, where he was incarcerated for 26 years, 10 months, and 17 days, and where he was a chef for 24 of those years.

How Evolutionary Biology Makes Everyone An Existentialist, by Ronnie de Sousa, Aeon

Questions about what matters, and why, and what exists in the world, are quintessentially philosophical. The answers to many of these questions are informed by how we conceive of ourselves. How has what is often described as the ‘Copernican revolution’ effected by Charles Darwin changed our self-conception? One particularly surprising feature of evolutionary biology is that it lends significant support to existentialism.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Year In Psychoanalysis, by Brian Birnbaum, The Smart Set

As a writer, I’m only anything if observant. And yet I have frightening blind spots. Despite the low square footage of my Harlem apartment, too often I can’t find things in it. Clothes, shoes, the remote. Even the can opener, which has only one place of keeping, the utensils drawer, which I search through and swear doesn’t contain the utensil it inevitably must. On the other hand, things I can find easily — and know I can find easily — I waste my time finding (my wallet, keys, and phone), a vestige of my childhood compulsions.

Such as knowing the location of my security animals. As a child I had a stuffed Tigger which I brought on sleepovers and errands with my mother. Around the third grade I added a rhinoceros named Rhino.

Finding Oneself In A Coffin, by Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times

David Giffels, in contrast, began his path toward building his coffin in a moment of mordant marital banter. He was accompanying his wife, Gina, to a mortuary to select a coffin for her newly deceased father. Offended at the four-figure cost for most models, Giffels laid his frugal, flippant eyes on a cardboard model costing $75.“There it is,” he tells Gina. “That’s what I want to be buried in.”

To which she shoots back, “Absolutely not happening.”

It turns out that the cardboard box is only used for bodies being transported to the crematorium, so Giffels has to amend his plan, and to take it more seriously. Nearing 50, he enlists his 81-year-old father, Thomas, a gifted and compulsive woodworker, to join him in designing and constructing a coffin.

The Quest For Immortality, Rebooted, by Maria Konnikova, New York Times

It is natural to want to read into the unexplainable and search for forces greater than ourselves — and yet, the more we want to believe, the more we need to enlist scientific inquiry on our side. Don’t dismiss outright stories that defy regular explanations, Shermer urges. Rather, “Embrace the mystery. What we do not need to do is fill in the explanatory gaps with gods or any such preternatural forces. We can’t explain everything, and it’s always O.K. to say ‘I don’t know’ and leave it at that until a natural explanation presents itself,” he writes.

The Silence Of The War In The Story Of A Brief Marriage, by Yasmin Majeed, Ploughshares

War is strangely quiet in Sri Lankan writer Anuk Arudpragasm’s debut novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage. The titular brevity refers to the novel’s running time, which takes place over the course of a single day, but the story and its scope are anything but perfunctory.

Revere, by Esmé Weijun Wang, Lenny

I had grown, which was one of the only things I knew for certain about myself in the years since returning to Revere — but how I had grown, I was far less sure. As pretty as I had been the first time, it was a prettiness that belonged squarely to my twenties and was gone before I knew to mourn it. My body had dealt with the consequences of cancer and misery; every year I was streaked by new stretch marks; my weight was never consistent for long; but it was my face that had really changed, and yet it had never crossed my mind that Eleanna wouldn’t recognize me. Rather, I had only wondered if that face would still provoke feelings in her.

I was thinking about that, and variations on that theme, during the flight to Albany and on the shuttle to the college town where I was to give a keynote and where Eleanna would be on a panel about, as I had learned from the Revere Book Festival website, Loss and Grief in Memoir. The festival was in October, the same month that Eleanna’s memoir — Night’s End — had come out, with the publication date only a few days before. I’d schemed to receive a galley, and even though I sped through the book, reading the entire thing the day it arrived, certain images still bled into my dreams: not images from her grief, mind you, but images from her marriage, the tenderness of it.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Kindle Changed The Book Business. Can It Change Books?, by David Pierce, Wired

It's now been a decade since Amazon unveiled the first Kindle to the world. The first model seems ridiculous in retrospect—what with the giant keyboard filled with slanted keys, the tiny second screen just for navigation, and the mostly pointless scroll wheel—but was wildly popular, selling out its initial inventory in less than six hours. Since then, the device has torn through the publishing landscape. Not only is Amazon the most powerful player in the industry, it has built an entire book-based universe all its own. "Kindle" has become a platform, not a device. Like Amazon tends to do, it entered the market and utterly subsumed it.

Now, however, Amazon's ebook project comes to a crossroads. The Kindle team has always professed two goals: to perfectly mimic a paper book, and to extend and improve the reading experience. That's what readers want, too. In a world filled with distractions and notifications and devices that do everything, the Kindle's lack of features becomes its greatest asset. But readers also want to read everywhere, in places and ways a paperback can't manage. They want more tools, more features, more options, more stuff to do. Amazon's still working out how to satisfy both sides. Whatever route it takes, the next decade of Kindle is likely to be even more disruptive than the last. First it changed the book business. Next it might help change books themselves.

Mark Bittman’s Year In Cooking, by Mark Bittman, Grub Street

It has been a year of revitalized cooking for me, a pattern that was typical until I began traveling so much. The domestic version of me has routine breakfasts of oatmeal or toast; lunches ranging from leftovers to really killer dal and rice or another grain; and dinners all over the map. Last night was an off-the-cuff roll-your-own cabbage leaf with pork, kohlrabi, carrot, mushrooms, nam pla–based dipping sauce, and so on, kind of great; the night before was a delicious “failure,” a dish I intended to turn into a simple cassoulet, but wound up being overcooked pork in bean-and-tomato sauce. Needless to say, little is wasted; as Julia Child used to say, “One of the great things about cooking is you get to eat the failures.”

All of this is interspersed with a few more serious projects, new and recurring themes, a kind of devotion both to discovery and to getting some old things right. That includes handmade pasta, which I know how to do, and have had lessons from some of the best, but really I’m not very good at; the old bread passion, which has evolved to sourdough and 100 percent whole grain, and about which everyone is sick of hearing; and cooking over wood, a total pain in the ass as everyone knows, but also really fun and often worth it.

Yet some ideas have taken hold more strongly than others for me. These are my current, and seemingly lasting, obsessions from the time I spent cooking in 2017 — and some things I’m hopeful I can master in 2018:

The World Broke In Two By Bill Goldstein Review – Modernism’s Annus Mirabilis, by John Mullan, The Guardian

It is the dithering, mournful, self-doubting Forster who emerges most vividly from a book that is sustained by its author’s undisguised curiosity about the quirks and susceptibilities of his chosen writers. Working from their letters and diaries, Goldstein does not hesitate to suggest he can know their private feelings. As a sign of his familiarity with them, he always refers to “Tom”, “Morgan” and “Virginia”; Lawrence alone, a more distant and difficult character, goes by his surname. This confidence brings one great benefit. The literary achievements of this extraordinary year, which we think we know so well, become hard-won and surprising, rather than inevitable. Indeed, as we follow Eliot’s endless prevarications over getting The Waste Land published, and his squabbles with prospective publishers over tiny amounts of money, we half expect the great work never to appear. Literary history may know what these authors were doing, but in this account they hardly seem to have known themselves.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

How ‘Broadcast News’ Predicted Journalism As We Know It, by Haley Mlotek, The Ringer

Thirty years later, watching Broadcast News might inspire even more questions of life imitating film; watching a film about an industry that has since become the old guard allows us to see parallels among today’s ideas about new media. If the field of journalism has one easily identified and frequently fictionalized problem, it is one of proportions. The people who care deeply about journalism, whether as an art form or a necessity, are too often also the same people who make it. Broadcast News predicted that the way we feel about the news would become the news itself, and that there was real drama to be found in how much the people who make the news care about it — let’s not forget one of Aaron’s lines, delivered with sarcasm, which proves truer than he’d like to admit: Journalists are the real story. This often creates an effect that is less of an overlap and more of an eclipse — journalists making art about why journalism is worth caring about. To look at it without being blinded requires the remove of allegory, and the protection of comedy.

If Work Dominated Your Every Moment Would Life Be Worth Living?, by Andrew Taggart, Aeon

Imagine that work had taken over the world. It would be the centre around which the rest of life turned. Then all else would come to be subservient to work. Then slowly, almost imperceptibly, anything else – the games once played, the songs hitherto sung, the loves fulfilled, the festivals celebrated – would come to resemble, and ultimately become, work. And then there would come a time, itself largely unobserved, when the many worlds that had once existed before work took over the world would vanish completely from the cultural record, having fallen into oblivion.

And how, in this world of total work, would people think and sound and act? Everywhere they looked, they would see the pre-employed, employed, post-employed, underemployed and unemployed, and there would be no one uncounted in this census. Everywhere they would laud and love work, wishing each other the very best for a productive day, opening their eyes to tasks and closing them only to sleep. Everywhere an ethos of hard work would be championed as the means by which success is to be achieved, laziness being deemed the gravest sin. Everywhere among content-providers, knowledge-brokers, collaboration architects and heads of new divisions would be heard ceaseless chatter about workflows and deltas, about plans and benchmarks, about scaling up, monetisation and growth.

What Do You Call A World That Can’t Learn From Itself?, by Umair Haque, Eudaimonia

Of course, one can speak of capitalism and false consciousness and class war, of technology hypnotizing people with outrage. But I think there is a deeper truth here. There is a myth of exceptionalism in America that prevents it from looking outward, and learning from the world. It is made up of littler myths about greed being good, the weak deserving nothing, society being an arena, not a lever, for the survival of the fittest — and America is busy recounting those myths, not learning from the world, in slightly weaker (Democrats) or stronger (Republicans) forms. Still, the myths stay the same — and the debate is only really about whether a lightning bolt or a thunderstorm is the just punishment from the gods for the fallen, and a palace or a kingdom is the just reward for the cunning.

The Unexpected Joy Of Being Sober And A Short History Of Drunkenness Reviews, by Alice O'Keeffe, The Guardian

She writes about her addiction with admirable honesty, and in a tone that is light, bubbly and remarkably rarely annoying. It is impossible to disagree with her argument that our society is a booze-pusher, or that there are many health benefits to drinking less. Where there is room for disagreement is on whether 100% sobriety is really the answer for everyone.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Deliverance From 27,000 Feet, by John Branch, New York Times

More and more, however, families and friends of those who die on Everest and the world’s other highest peaks want and expect the bodies to be brought home. For them and those tasked with recovering the bodies — an exercise that can be more dangerous and far more costly than the expedition that killed the climber in the first place — the drama begins with death.

When someone dies, those left behind, from climbing partners on the scene to family and friends half a world away, are immediately faced with enormously daunting decisions and tasks. The rituals, customs and logistics of what happens next are always different.

Jail Bait, by Kate Leary, Ploughshares

I’m in the middle of writing a novel that has, at its center, an affair between a 15-year-old girl and a 37-year-old man. I’ve tried to figure out what drew me to this scandalous and disturbing, but also titillating, subject matter. I know I’m a product of my culture, a culture that produced the expression “jail bait” out of a need to acknowledge both the temptation and the possibility of punishment that underage girls present to adult men. And I’m also trying to autopsy that culture, to slice into its organs and put them under bright light and magnification and conduct an inquiry. When I think about the pursuit this way, it seems honorable. But a novel is, at its most basic level, a form of entertainment, so I have to consider my motives.

Six Minutes In May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister – Review, by Ian Thompson, The Guardian

Six Minutes in May, by Nicholas Shakespeare, chronicles Churchill’s lightning-quick rise to power following Hitler’s invasion of Norway. Shakespeare, better known as a novelist, has written an absorbing account of how events 1,300 miles away across the North Sea led to the most drastic cabinet reshuffle in modern British history.

A Political Scandal’s Trauma, Seen From The Inside, by Sarah Lyall, New York Times

The author brings pathos to everyone’s life, but it’s especially striking how much the adults — Danielle, David and Rae, David’s discarded mistress — are punished for their misdeeds, ending up, respectively, dead, in the throes of dementia and alone. At heart the book is about the damage done to children by adults.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Riding A Time Capsule To Apartment 8G, by Andy Newman, New York Times

There are 69,381 passenger elevators in this vertically obsessed city, and nearly all of them promise a journey about as exotic and exciting as making toast. You get in, you push a button, the doors open a few seconds later at your destination.

But there remain quite a few machines, manually controlled and chauffeur-driven, where climbing aboard is more like taking a short trip on the Orient Express.

With A Little Help From Their Friends (And Agents And Librarians And Fact-Checkers ...), by Jennifer Senior, New York Times

I love the acknowledgments sections of books. I love what they say and what they do not say. I love what they accidentally say. I love the ways families are discussed, and how the truth about the wretchedness of book-writing finally comes tumbling out, and the combination of neuroticism and relief, pride and latent terror.

It is not, however, fashionable to love acknowledgments, and for good reason: Most of them are numbingly predictable in their architecture, little Levittowns of gratitude. The critic Sam Sacks wrote a splendid rant about this for The New Yorker five years ago. “The most radical experimentalist,” he complained, “adheres to the most mindless acknowledgments-page formula.”

In my job as a book critic for this newspaper — a role I leave today; is this why I’m contemplating codas, endings? — I have learned what Sacks means.

Beneath Another Sky By Norman Davies – Review, by Sara Wheeler, The Guardian

“Travelling,” historian Norman Davies writes near the end of this enthralling book, “had allowed me to think freely about the subject I have spent most of my life studying.” From the journeys described in these pages he has confected a fragrant stew of history, literature and travel spiced with digression, detective work and dabs of humour.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Techies Still Think They're The Good Guys. They're Not., by Erin Griffith, Wired

The entrepreneur was disappointed by my cynicism. The industry’s problems, he believed, could be solved with more technology. As a matter of fact, his startup was working on just the thing: a tool that would tackle a problem caused by tech. If he was successful, the world (and his bank account, and his investors’ bank accounts) would be better off for it, he argued.

So if I could just do him—and by extension, everyone—a favor and explain that in an article, it would really help us all out.

My Year Of No Shopping, by Ann Patchett, New York Times

I came up with my own arbitrary set of rules for the year. I wanted a plan that was serious but not so draconian that I would bail out in February, so while I couldn’t buy clothing or speakers, I could buy anything in the grocery store, including flowers. I could buy shampoo and printer cartridges and batteries but only after I’d run out of what I had. I could buy plane tickets and eat out in restaurants. I could buy books because I write books and I co-own a bookstore and books are my business. Could I have made it a full year without buying books? Absolutely. I could have used the library or read the books that were already in my house, but I didn’t; I bought books.

Mimi O’Donnell Reflects On The Loss Of Philip Seymour Hoffman And The Devastation Of Addiction, by Mimi O’Donnell as told to Adam Green, Vogue

Our loose rule was to never spend more than two weeks apart as a family, and Phil insisted on it with a kind of urgency. We had babysitters, but Phil refused to hire a full-time au pair. More than once, I found myself asking, “You want to bring the baby to what?” Or “You want us to come to Winnipeg in the winter while you’re shooting?” And he’d say, “Just bring him. We all need to be together.” As our family grew, he remained adamant about it. “Can’t we leave the little ones home, and you and I and Cooper——?”

“No. We’re all doing it together.”

When I look back at how close we all were, I wonder whether Phil somehow knew that he was going to die young. He never said those words, but he lived his life as if time was precious. Maybe he just knew what was important to him and where he wanted to invest his love. I always felt there was plenty of time, but he never lived that way. I now thank God he made us take those trips. In some ways, our short time together was almost like an entire lifetime.

The Internationalists By Oona Hathaway And Scott Shapiro Review – The Plan To Outlaw War, by Mark Mazower, The Guardian

Anecdote and colourful characters abound, and the writing rests on a very serious trawl through some farflung archives. It forms part of a new wave of history writing that allows us to appreciate the achievement of earlier generations of scholars and statesmen in constructing, with all its imperfections, the world order we still inhabit. Like much other recent work, it highlights the symbiosis of central European Jewish and Anglo-American legal traditions in the making of this order.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

This Is How A Woman Is Erased From Her Job, by A. N. Devers, Longreads

We now know, between this and Bosman’s piece, even without details of the accusations or reports printed in the Times, or the far worse accusations listed in the “Shitty Media Men” list, that these are glaringly honest portrayals of Stein’s priorities at the helm of the Paris Review. Unfortunately.

Also unfortunate was the error in Bosman’s piece naming Stein as the third editor to “hold the title in the magazine’s 58-year history, and the second to follow George Plimpton, himself a legendary New York social figure.” Stein was actually the fourth. Brigid Hughes, the editor who succeeded George Plimpton, had been inexplicably left out of the profile. She was also not mentioned in the piece announcing Stein’s successorship of Philip Gourevitch; although there was no factual error, she was simply ignored.

The Basic Grossness Of Humans, by Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic

Lurking inside every website or app that relies on “user-generated content”—so, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, among others—there is a hidden kind of labor, without which these sites would not be viable businesses. Content moderation was once generally a volunteer activity, something people took on because they were embedded in communities that they wanted to maintain.

But as social media grew up, so did moderation. It became what the University of California, Los Angeles, scholar Sarah T. Roberts calls, “commercial content moderation,” a form of paid labor that requires people to review posts—pictures, videos, text—very quickly and at scale.

That Is A Horrible System, by Gina Pensiero, The Awl

Sunday morning at 11 AM: I park my car at the corner of Bedford and Gates on a Tuesday street parking spot. I check the signs. I’m good. I go about my day.

Monday at 7:15 PM: Arrive back at the spot where my car was parked to move it for street cleaning. My car’s not there. What is there are a bunch of cones and a new sidewalk. Ok, seems like the car got towed. Who towed the car?

7:20 PM: Get home and search the NYC towed car database for my plates. No dice.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Book Lovers: Literary Necrophilia In The 21st Century, by Joanna Walsh, Los Angeles Review of Books

A few emails before, my friend was telling me an anecdote about the French author, Michel Houellebecq, who is a regular visitor to a bar where his friend works. We speculated about Houellebecq’s tastes as evinced in his writing — which, like Dyer’s, is often autofictional — for “fancy French reds.” We wanted to know more about Houellebecq, about Dyer, and we combed their texts for clues, as though knowing were the point. Reading this way made us feel cool. It also made us feel a bit fake.

In 1967, the French theorist Roland Barthes said the author was dead, shifting the burden of textual meaning to the reader. “To give a text an author,” he wrote, “is to impose a limit on the text.” In What Is An Author (1969), often considered a response to Barthes’s work, the French theorist, Michel Foucault wrote: “The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.” It was around that time that my parents, who loved books, bought vast numbers of cheap paperbacks, which were cheaper than they had ever been. My parents rarely saw even a jacket photo of these books’ authors who, until they died and their biographies were written, gave little or no account of their lives outside what could be deduced from within the limits of the texts they produced. Just as the idea of the author provided limits for the textual meaning, the texts provided limits within which these limiting author-figures could be constructed.

Stamp This Book, by Dan Piepenbring, The Paris Review

The rubber stamp is the official weapon of officialdom. Anyone who’s used one knows why: it feels great to smash a carved piece of wood and rubber onto a piece of paper, leaving an imperious mark where once there was empty space. Properly applied, a stamp is almost onomatopoeic, and its satisfying thump is the bureaucrat’s easiest pleasure. It’s a tactile expression of power: with a few fluid motions, you make a neat, loud sound, and maybe, depending on what the stamp says, you’ve just ruined the life of a total stranger.

Vincent Sardon, a French artist with a small shop in Paris’s 11th arrondissement, sees the rubber stamp as a kind of talisman of the bureaucratic West. A stamp, he argues, is never an impartial object.

Darker With The Lights On By David Hayden Review – Stories Of The Subconscious, by Justine Jordan, The Guardian

The 20 stories in this debut collection from David Hayden are strange, uncomfortable fables of memory, metamorphosis, time, disassociation and death: hard to fathom, but impossible to ignore; twisty and riddling, yet with a blunt impact that reverberates long after the final page. They are dreamlike, but they feel like one’s own dreams, with the ability to change you from the inside out. A kind of primal violence runs through all of them, as though they are taking place in some collective unconscious. People come apart or are chopped into pieces, change from one thing into another, move through scenes that shift by the sentence yet are as starkly delineated as a child’s drawing.

Book Review: Mythos, By Stephen Fry, by Allan Massie, The Scotsman

Fry is an exuberant enthusiast and he invites us to share his enthusiasm; it’s an invitation easily accepted. Mythos combines authority and accessibility. Most readers will learn something, many a great deal; and all will find the experience enjoyable.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Hurricane Harvey And Our Vigilante Future Of Disaster Relief, by Miriam Markowitz, GQ

The people of Louisiana first began to call themselves the Cajun Navy during Katrina, when people like Todd Terrell went to rescue their neighbors in New Orleans. They revived the name last year when Baton Rouge experienced what residents now call the Great Flood. In swampy Louisiana, the old joke says, at any one time half the state is under water and the other half is under indictment. There are the big storms that capture the attention of the public, like Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and Katrina, 40 years later—but every year that Louisiana doesn’t get a named storm, it floods just the same. Today there are at least three separate outfits who go by the Cajun Navy moniker, and dozens more who’ve been inspired by it, including but not limited to the Cajun Army (for people without boats), the Cajun Special Forces, the Cajun Airlift, and the Cajun Green Cross, as well as the Texas Navy and the Cracker Navy in Florida, which was formed during Hurricane Irma. In Texas, during the week that Harvey hit, pretty much every Louisiana man with a boat identified himself as Cajun Navy, as did many more who weren’t from Louisiana but were among the thousands who converged in Texas from across the country. These volunteers found each other on Facebook, in parking lots, and on Zello, a walkie-talkie app that allowed dispatchers, many of them complete newbies, to match people in need with willing and able rescuers. The app was the key to the Cajun Navy’s efficacy. It was reportedly downloaded by 6 million people in the week after Harvey hit and now has about 100 million registered users.

By the time I arrived, the Cajun Navy had launched hundreds of boats. Todd called a Louisiana politician who had been helping facilitate Cajun Navy operations in Texas. He was sympathetic to Todd’s gripes about slow, ineffective, and possibly jealous local law enforcement—people who likely resented the sudden intrusion and soaring popularity of the Cajun Navy. “The state police can’t stop you from driving to Texas,” the politician said. “In a time of disaster, you can break the rules and still do the right thing.” Todd added that if he were ever in danger, he hoped the person to rescue him would be a fireman. “They act first and deal with issues after.”

While Todd made arrangements to take his boats to Texas, the women sat at the picnic bench and continued to field calls. One of them, Em Saunier, was a real estate agent with bright blonde hair and a sharp tongue. She had stopped by right after the storm to drop off some goody bags filled with treats for the rescuers, and Todd later asked her to stick around and help. She wore a headset like an air-traffic controller’s and spoke with cool deliberation into the mic, even when people on the other end were panicking. A question came in through the Facebook channel, a woman asking how could she become a part of the Cajun Navy. Em answered, “Show up.”

The Other Susan Sontag, by Tobi Haslett, New Yorker

“What has followed in the wake of 1989 and the suicide of the Soviet empire,” she wrote in an essay on the response of her peers to the Bosnian genocide, “is the final victory of capitalism, and of the ideology of consumerism, which entails the discrediting of ‘the political’ as such.” No triumphalism, then, about the End of History. If the political was hollowed, art was trivialized and collective life debased. All the valor and drama seemed to her to have vanished from the slack-jawed, victorious West. There was no ardor or ethics or conflict—and therefore no style, no virtue, no taste. What was lacking, in a word, was seriousness.

Stories By Susan Sontag Review – The Great Essayist’s Experiments In Short Fiction, by Kate Clanchy, The Guardian

Sontag, was not, though, as her editor Benjamin Taylor admits in the introduction to this gathering of stories from across her career, a committed short-story writer. She turned to the form in order to evade what Chekhov called “autobiographophobia”, which Taylor uses to mean the fear of writing and reflecting directly about one’s life. Evading this fear, Sontag clearly found the name “stories” very helpful: half of them are pure autobiography. “Pilgrimage”, for example, which opens the volume, is a memoir of Sontag’s youth in southern California, and an account of her visit with a boyfriend to the home of an ageing Thomas Mann. The only reason why this did not become an essay, it seems, is that the encounter was dull and disappointing, and so difficult to reflect on: Mann had “only sententious formulas to deliver. And I uttered nothing but tongue-tied simplicities, though I was full of complex feeling. We were neither of us at our best.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

On The Perilous Plight Of The Part-Time Librarian, by Annie Spence, Literary Hub

In the first semester of my third year of college, with most of a creative writing degree under my belt, I began to wonder if my liberal arts degree would pay my bills after graduation. An advisor suggested I might find taking on the additional schooling required to become a librarian (a master’s degree) worthwhile. Public librarianship seemed like a practical and dependable career, and the more thought I gave to it, the more exciting this profession started to look to me. It was everything I felt was important: being of service, engaging my community, and, let’s not forget the consummate perk for a book-lover and writer: being surrounded on all sides by reading material.

Ten years after receiving my degree in Library and Information Science, I’m still excited about being a public librarian. It remains everything I’m good at and everything I want for the world wrapped up in one job. I love helping people. I love the resourcefulness and problem-solving skills I have to use daily, and the broad scope of knowledge I acquire as a result of finding the answers to everyone else’s questions. I still get giddy when I walk through the stacks or when a patron thanks me for making their day easier. My only problem is—this steady gig I trained for? It isn’t so steady. And after years of seeking full-time employment, my pipe dream creative writing degree is subsidizing my work as a librarian, instead of the other way around.

Spies, Dossiers, And The Insane Lengths Restaurants Go To Track And Influence Food Critics, by Jessica Sidman, Washingtonian

The voice on the phone seemed a little too chipper. Tom Sietsema wondered if he’d been made. Or was he being paranoid? Maybe Le Diplomate’s reservationist was always this enthusiastic about hosting a party of eight at the buzzy French restaurant. Either way, as usual, the Washington Post’s lead restaurant critic made his reservation under an alias. This time, it was Dean Cook.

Of course, no mere fake name was enough to fool a top competitor in DC’s dining scene. Back in the manager’s office was a sign listing all of Sietsema’s known aliases and every phone number and e-mail address he’d ever used to make a reservation. If the reservationist were to miss him, a manager checked the books daily. Starr Restaurants’ corporate office in Philadelphia also screened the reservation system. Sietsema’s photo, along with those of dozens of other food writers and editors, was posted in the kitchen.

The Dean Cook reservation was for Super Bowl Sunday 2016—ordinarily a slower night. Not this time. Behind the scenes, Le Diplomate was preparing for its own game day, according to accounts from three staffers. (Like many of the restaurant insiders in this story, they requested anonymity.) The restaurant, known for its fashionable clientele, had been knocked from three stars to two and a half in the Post’s last review, and the team was eager to earn its rating back.

Why Write Fiction In 2017?, by Joe Fassler, The Paris Review

As much as we carp about the increasing digitization of our lives, this isn’t really a new problem. Writing required cord-cutting long before the computer. It’s an act of refusal, of relinquishment, and of retreat, a decision to turn away from the world and its noise of possibilities, to chase instead a signal down the quiet of a page. That work—the deep, sustained kind that yields poems and essays and fiction—can only happen in solitude, and in silence.

And that’s the trouble.

Turning The Lens Around On Richard Avedon, by Parul Sehgal, New York Times

In his long, relentlessly innovative career, he was never tempted by a landscape or still life. The human face was world enough. He produced portraits and only portraits — of Marilyn Monroe and George Wallace, drifters and swamis, his dying father and his dejected wives.

To sit for a portrait by Avedon, however, was risky — “an invitation to a beheading,” in the words of one critic. But few could resist. “Be kind,” Henry Kissinger pleaded. “You’ll make me look handsome?” Avedon’s father asked. In every instance, the photographer refused to flatter. “I looked like I could give the viewer some contagious infection through the photograph,” his friend Renata Adler groused.

Many of those sitters, along with friends and collaborators from Donatella Versace to Twyla Tharp, share their memories in “Avedon: Something Personal,” part oral history and part remembrance by Norma Stevens, Avedon’s longtime studio director, and Steven M. L. Aronson, a former book editor.

Propane, Peapods And Perplexities, by David Kamp, New York Times

“Vacationland” is a pointless little book. That’s a compliment. Pointless little books used to be more of a thing. I have shelves full of them from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, written by the likes of James Thurber, Anita Loos and Bennett Cerf, with titles like “The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze,” “A Girl Like I” and “Try and Stop Me.” These books had no urgent need to exist. They were neither topical nor essential. They were simply an opportunity to spend time with a good storyteller, a droll soul with the skills to turn even the flimsiest bits of real-life anecdotage into pleasurable reading material.

'The Usual Santas,' Crime Fiction That's Both Naughty And Nice, by Steph Cha, USA Today

What these Christmas crime stories have in common is the deep humanity at the core of crime — the ugliness, the anxiety, the generosity; all the impulses that move people to action, big and small.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Against Signatures, by Tracy Wan, Hazlitt

As the daughter of peripatetic immigrants who never quite found their footing, I have always felt alarmingly fluid, lacking not only anchorage, but a sense of constitution. Without a clear notion of provenance or the reassurance of belonging, that constant, solidified “I” became the horizon of my ambition. It was a myopia that blinded me to other pursuits and interests. All I sought was a place to be still in my own image, and learn the confines of myself.

Most symptomatic of this obsession was my longing for signatures: elegant, recognizable penmanship, a bar where they knew me by name, a uniform to whittle my feral anxieties down to an unthinking sense of self. That’s how identity works, right? Anything rehearsed over time can approximate instinct. When I discovered the world of perfume, I latched onto the notion of a “signature scent” as the quickest means to my end: the shortest of shortcuts to a sense of self.

What Happens When A Math Major Becomes A Book Designer, by Lauren Peters-Collaer, Literary Hub

When I was 21, I became obsessed with a thought. Or, I suppose, it was really more of a feeling. I had entered my penultimate semester at Hamilton College, simultaneously enrolling myself in the math department’s infamous Philosophical Foundations of Mathematics seminar as well as Advanced Painting in the art department. My degree was in math, but I couldn’t escape my undying love of charcoal and paint. For years, I had studied math and art in tandem, shuttling across campus between the departments.

At first, I considered them entirely separate. Different subjects, different goals, different processes… different. But as the years went on and I delved deeper, I experienced a growing suspicion. Finally, immersed in that semester’s combination of courses, I looked my suspicion in the face and wondered: are math and art the same?

Eight Maps That Tell The Story Of The Great Lakes, by Zach Mortice, Citylab

The book Third Coast Atlas is an expansive attempt to define the Great Lakes region and re-evaluate it as a place with a story to tell beyond its constituent cities. Editors Charles Waldheim, Mason White, Clare Lyster, and Daniel Ibañez have compiled maps, plans, diagrams, timelines, photos, and more. In keeping with the subtitle—Prelude to a Plan—they aim to describe the current state of the Great Lakes more than offer prescriptions for the future. From the intro: “Third Coast Atlas offers a telescopic survey of the synthetic and natural phenomena of a specific place in the world. It is equal parts cartographic compendium, photographic record, resource index, urban analysis, ecological almanac, and design projection.”

Cat Person, by Kristen Roupenian, New Yorker

Margot met Robert on a Wednesday night toward the end of her fall semester. She was working behind the concession stand at the artsy movie theatre downtown when he came in and bought a large popcorn and a box of Red Vines.

“That’s an . . . unusual choice,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually sold a box of Red Vines before.”

Flirting with her customers was a habit she’d picked up back when she worked as a barista, and it helped with tips. She didn’t earn tips at the movie theatre, but the job was boring otherwise, and she did think that Robert was cute. Not so cute that she would have, say, gone up to him at a party, but cute enough that she could have drummed up an imaginary crush on him if he’d sat across from her during a dull class—though she was pretty sure that he was out of college, in his mid-twenties at least. He was tall, which she liked, and she could see the edge of a tattoo peeking out from beneath the rolled-up sleeve of his shirt. But he was on the heavy side, his beard was a little too long, and his shoulders slumped forward slightly, as though he were protecting something.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Keila Pulinario Thought Prison Was Tough. Then She Had To Find A Job., by Jessica Testa, BuzzFeed

Pulinario was pissed off. Before the accident, she’d worked her first post-incarceration job at a culinary company that ran a cafeteria in New York City's financial district. Afterward, she had to accept that her life wouldn’t be the same — that the back and shoulder injuries she’d suffered meant she could no longer be the same "beast in the kitchen," on her feet all day without the time or flexibility to sit down and rest every so often. She couldn't lift a heavy pot or pan with one hand anymore, let alone multitask at the breakneck pace of a commercial cook.

Adjusting to her body’s new reality was frustrating, but she was enraged by what she said came next. Because prison had left a two-decade crater in Pulinario’s professional experience, she was turned down for disability benefits based on her limited work history. Pulinario had spent nearly every day of her sentence working: as a cook, a prison day care staff member, a porter, a builder in the industry program. When she looked around the public assistance office where she applied for disability, she saw things she might have assembled with her own still-calloused hands: metal cabinets, cubicle walls, the panels concealing the wiring for computers and phones. New York inmates get paid around 30 cents an hour to construct office materials for state buildings. Pulinario was surrounded by evidence of her work history. But that wasn’t enough for the state that had put her away at age 21, when she shot and killed the man she said raped her.

China’s Selfie Obsession, by Jiayang Fan, New Yorker

Internet celebrities themselves—the name wang hong means “Internet red”—are newly ubiquitous in China. The most famous of them rival the country’s biggest pop singers, and outrank most TV and movie stars, in recognition and earnings. Meitu takes a cut of what Meipai users make with their videos—as much as thirty per cent in some instances, although no executives and few stars will discuss the exact figures. The biggest names, like HoneyCC, become brand ambassadors. When she and I met, she was about to go to a rehearsal for a conference being held in a few days’ time to mark Meipai’s third anniversary—a round of parties, networking sessions, and workshops for wang hong and wang hong wannabes. HoneyCC and her peers would be sharing secrets of their success, while others took notes on how to join their ranks, or perhaps even supplant them. “The market is competitive and growing more so,” she said; fans constantly demand more variety, more polish, more beauty. “You must feed them and encourage them and figure out what they like, even before they do,” she went on. “It’s a mad rush when the eyes are on you, but there’s no guarantee they’ll stay there.”

Over the entrance to Meitu’s headquarters, the company’s name is written in slanted pink letters. The path toward it is flanked by human-size figures, resembling Teletubbies, coated in bright, glossy paint. An employee explained that they represented aspects of the company’s operations, such as marketing, product management, and programming.

A Boeuf Bourguignon For The End Of The World, by Patrick Nathan, Literary Hub

First, you’ll need two pounds of sirloin or chuck roast, diced into cubes; a half-pound of slab bacon, cut into lardons; one yellow onion, three carrots, six cloves of garlic, ten fingerling potatoes, and a half-pound of cremini mushrooms. You’ll need some brandy, a bottle of full-bodied red wine, a third-cup of crème de cassis, three cups of beef or veal stock, and two tablespoons of tomato paste. Of course a little flour, a healthy lump of butter, a few tablespoons of chopped parsley. For the aromatics, a sachet (cheesecloth, tied with butcher’s twine) stuffed with thyme (six sprigs), parsley (eight), a bay leaf, three cloves, and five crushed juniper berries.

Naturally, you’ll also need some time.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Gained In Translation, by Tim Parks, New York Review of Books

Translators are people who read books for us. Tolstoy wrote in Russian, so someone must read him for us and then write down that reading in our language. Since the book will be fuller and richer the more experience a reader brings to it, we would want our translator, as he or she reads, to be aware of as much as possible, aware of cultural references, aware of lexical patterns, aware of geographical setting and historical moment. Aware, too, of our own language and its many resources. Far from being “just subjective,” these differences will be a function of the different experiences these readers bring to the book, since none of us accumulates the same experience. Even then, of course, two expert translators will very likely produce two quite different versions. But if what we want is a translation of Tolstoy, rather than just something that sounds good enough sentence by sentence, it would seem preferable to have our reading done for us by people who can bring more, rather than less, to the work.

Books Fall Apart: On Nancy Perloff’s “Explodity: Sound, Image, And Word In Russian Futurist Book Art”, by Eugene Ostashevsky, Los Angeles Review of Books

As we were coming out of a Kinko’s on Market Street in San Francisco on an evening in 1995 with a box of 50 freshly photocopied, cut, and stapled chapbooks, my collaborator, Darin Klein, said: “You know why we make our own books? It’s because we’re punks.” It’s that you don’t submit to publishing houses, you don’t let the industry take control, he said. You make it yourself. That’s what being a punk is about. Klein, now a book artist in Los Angeles, was then curating underground shows of DIY books, handmade books, books that existed in only one or several copies. The show I remember took place one evening in a garage. A large crowd of people came. Books had been sent by mail from other countries: strange products of hands and cheap technology, lavish and fragile. There was a colorful one-of-a-kind book with a 3D plastic eye — it came, I think, from Norway. Most pieces in the show fused images and words in some way that went far beyond mere illustration. They had emerged from the zine scene and remained punk by preserving its cheap production values and democratic ethos. They too were made in garages and bedrooms, or else in offices by people who were supposed to be “working,” but instead were commandeering photocopy equipment. You could imagine the hands that made them.

I imagine that the exhilaration of leaving a small shop with the entire run of your newborn book in a box was something that the Russian Futurists knew well, in the years preceding World War I. They too were the beneficiaries of a democratization in printing technology. They used print shops rather than copy shops, but, like photocopying, transfer lithography — printing from a damp stone surface onto which a drawing on special paper had been pressed — allowed for the fusion of words and images. Turnaround was quick: leaflets could be picked up after several hours and books after several days. So they too made their own books, they brought them to stores themselves, and they sold them by mail and presumably also at poetry readings.

Book Review: The Expatriates By Martin Edmond, by David Herkt, Stuff

Edmond's book presents a long perspective in a compact space, illuminating its subjects in swift glimpses. It is the invariably readable story of humans lives lived richly.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Where Did The Pizza Puff Come From? Can It Even Be Considered A Chicago Classic?, by Nick Kindelsperger, Chicago Tribune

When Regards to Edith opened a few months ago at the base of Google's Midwest headquarters in Fulton Market, it launched with a menu containing a few quirky nods to classic Chicago foods. You know, the sort of cheap and humble offerings you used to be able to grab for lunch in the exact same area before money flooded in from tech companies. That included a version of an Italian beef made with prime rib, and a double char burger topped with aged cheddar.

None intrigued me more than a dish I never thought I'd see at a restaurant with a cocktail menu and a $42 rack of lamb entree: a pizza puff. Just as you'd guess from the name, a pizza puff features a flaky browned exterior, with cheese, tomato sauce and usually a meat (pepperoni and sausage are most common) in the middle. It's always fried, always greasy.

Eluding Censors, A Magazine Covers Southeast Asia’s Literary Scene, by Mike Ives, New York Times

At Monument Books, a bookstore in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the magazine racks are stacked with copies of The Economist and other titles from Britain, Australia, France and the United States.

But one top-selling magazine there was founded in Phnom Penh and takes its name — Mekong Review — from the mighty river that runs beside the city’s low-rise downtown.

A Polite Drive For Secession In ‘Radio Free Vermont’, by Jennifer Senior, New York Times

“Radio Free Vermont” is more than “A Fable of Resistance,” as its subtitle says. It’s a love letter to the modest, treed-in landscape of Vermont, which Barclay wouldn’t trade for all the grandeur of Montana. It’s a dirge for the intense cold, which Barclay sorely misses — why is the world now brown in January, rather than white? (“It made him feel old,” McKibben writes, “as if he’d outlived the very climate of his life.”) It is an elegy for a slower, saner Vermont — “the world’s rush was doing it in” — and dependable Yankee virtues, like neighborliness and self-reliance and financial prudence.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Is There A Limit To Scientific Understanding?, by Martin Rees, The Atlantic

Albert Einstein said that the “most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” He was right to be astonished. Human brains evolved to be adaptable, but our underlying neural architecture has barely changed since our ancestors roamed the savannah and coped with the challenges that life on it presented. It’s surely remarkable that these brains have allowed us to make sense of the quantum and the cosmos, notions far removed from the “commonsense,” everyday world in which we evolved.

But I think science will hit the buffers at some point. There are two reasons why this might happen. The optimistic one is that we clean up and codify certain areas (such as atomic physics) to the point that there’s no more to say. A second, more worrying possibility is that we’ll reach the limits of what our brains can grasp. There might be concepts, crucial to a full understanding of physical reality, that we aren’t aware of, any more than a monkey comprehends Darwinism or meteorology. Some insights might have to await a post-human intelligence.

The Secrets And Service Of A World War II Family, 76 Years After The Attack On Pearl Harbor, by Dan Lamothe, Washington Post

The storage unit’s corrugated metal door slid upward, revealing 100 square feet of mostly empty space. Not very promising, thought Joe Alosi, a businessman who bid on units, sight unseen, when tenants stopped paying the rent. Several plastic bins sat in the middle of the floor, and dust billowed as Alosi peeled off the first lid.

Inside, tightly packed, were rows of envelopes. Alosi opened one, and then another, and then another. The Marine Corps veteran felt a slight chill.

The mostly handwritten letters, on tissue-thin paper, dated to World War II and were penned mostly by the members of a single family — the Eydes of Rockford, Ill. Three brothers were in the military: one in the Marine Corps, one in the Army and one in the Army Air Forces.

Let Me Count The Ways Of Making Borscht, by Olia Hercules, New Yorker

During my childhood in Ukraine, my family had only one way of making borscht. Place oxtail in a heavy pot with cold water and aromatics. Simmer for hours until the meat is tender and the stock rich and viscous. Add the skimmed fat to a frying pan to soften the smazhennia, a Ukrainian sofrito of diced onions and finely julienned carrots, until the natural sugars are drawn out. Then comes the acidity: juicy tomatoes in the summer; fizzy, funky fermented tomato purée in the winter; and, always, some julienned beetroot—not too much, and only the light-colored borshevoy buriak, which grow in the sandy soils of southern Ukraine. (“How can one use this ghastly red beetroot—it dies the potatoes red, everything red!” my late grandmother Lusia would say with deadly seriousness.) Boil large chunks of potato and red kidney beans in the broth until soft, but cook shredded cabbage only briskly, to retain a slight crunch. Season with dense homemade sour cream, salt-cured pork pounded with garlic and salt, or, if you’re old-school, umami-rich powders made from pulverized sun-dried tomatoes and gobies, a bull-faced fish found in the Sea of Azov. The soup must be thick, so the spoon stands up straight. Garnish with handfuls of dill, fermented in winter. Rye sourdough or garlic pampushky bread, and often whole spring onions and hot red chilies in the summer, are to be bitten into between each spoonful.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Why Are America's Farmers Killing Themselves In Record Numbers?, by Debbie Weingarte, The Guardian

On the morning of his last day, 12 May 2011, Matt stood in the kitchen of their farmhouse.

“I can’t think,” he told Ginnie. “I feel paralyzed.”

It was planting season, and stress was high. Matt worried about the weather and worked around the clock to get his crop in the ground on time. He hadn’t slept in three nights and was struggling to make decisions.

“I remember thinking ‘I wish I could pick you up and put you in the car like you do with a child,’” Ginnie says. “And then I remember thinking … and take you where? Who can help me with this? I felt so alone.”

I Made My Shed The Top Rated Restaurant On TripAdvisor, by Oobah Butler, Vice

And then, one day, sitting in the shed I live in, I had a revelation: within the current climate of misinformation, and society's willingness to believe absolute bullshit, maybe a fake restaurant is possible? Maybe it's exactly the kind of place that could be a hit?

In that moment, it became my mission. With the help of fake reviews, mystique and nonsense, I was going to do it: turn my shed into London's top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor.

Imagining The Jellyfish Apocalypse, by Rebecca Giggs, The Atlantic

Jellyfish have served as excellent protagonists for this narrative, perhaps because they are as close to automatons as anything in the animal kingdom. The insidiousness of a jellyfish bloom lies in its amassed torpor—a monster more monstrous for lacking a center, each animal stewarded by no more than a basic set of compulsions (light, gravity, food, reproduction). Jellyfish species being widespread, people can also recognize them anywhere. Jellies are found in every sea at nearly every depth, and in many brackish rivers. One type in Antarctica looks like a raw mince patty. The Arctic and other frigid waters are home to the lion’s mane, a headless wig of a creature with tentacles that have been measured at about 120 feet. Jellyfish might be primitive animals, but they have an immense carrying capacity for a story that is planetary in scale.

When Our Thoughts Are No Longer Our Own, by Hari Kunzru, New York Times

If our sense of self looks likely to be transformed by the erosion of privacy, it is also under pressure from the erosion of the social world of work and the human identities that come with it. Automation is about to destroy the livelihoods of many kinds of worker, from taxi driver to investment banker. It is encroaching on many of the domains of the “human,” those of expertise, craft and even art, and taste. Low payroll costs mean higher profits, and private companies have no obligation to ensure full participation in the labor market.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

How The Discovery Of Extraterrestrial Life Would Change Morality, by Tim Mulgan, Aeon

In academic philosophy today, an interest in extraterrestrial life is regarded with some suspicion. This is a historical anomaly. In Ancient Greece, Epicureans argued that every possible form of life must recur infinitely many times in an infinite universe. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, as modern astronomy demonstrated that our Earth is just another planet and our Sun just another star, the default hypothesis among informed observers was that the Universe is filled with habitable planets and intelligent life. One principal argument for this ‘pluralism’ was philosophical or theological: God (or Nature) does nothing in vain, and therefore such a vast cosmos could not be home to only one small race of rational beings.

My goal here is to explore some unexpected implications of the discovery of extraterrestrial life, and my conclusions are very speculative: extraterrestrial life would lend non-decisive support to several interesting and controversial philosophical positions. The discovery of life elsewhere would teach us that, while the Universe does have a purpose, human beings are irrelevant to that purpose. Aliens might well worship a God who is indifferent to us.

The Bros Who Disrupted The Sandwich, by India Mandelkern, Eater

Stop me when this sounds scary familiar: A historic boomtown becomes ground zero for a feverish technological revolution that promises to transform life as we know it. Shaggy-haired software developers suit up in blazers and T-shirts to preach the gospel of e-commerce. Venture capitalists mingle with hackers and erstwhile cyberpunks at rooftop launch parties lousy with designer drugs and exotic animals. Rents climb, evictions soar, and locals mourn for the city’s soul, consumed by 20-something carpetbaggers lured out west because “the dot-com version of Dutch tulip-mania offers better odds of instant wealth than making partner at Merrill Lynch.” Netscape is public. America is Online. It is the age of irrational exuberance. It is San Francisco in the mid-1990s.

The energy of the World Wide Web and the dot-coms permeated nearly every aspect of pop culture: It could be seen on Friends and Party of Five, heard in the punk-pop bass lines of Green Day’s Dookie, and tasted in Frappuccinos, sun-dried tomatoes, and ginseng-boosted smoothies. But if there was one food that captured the buoyancy of the new economy, an edible icon of the bright and delicious future promised in the ’90s, it was the wrap — the flashy generation X lovechild of the burrito and the designer sandwich, the vibrant torpedo of a new culinary order. Wraps converted a guileless nation of white-bread sandwich eaters into insatiable consumers of Thai chicken, Peking duck, baba ghanoush, and wasabi. “If a burrito is an airplane, then a wrap is the space shuttle!” contemporary cookbooks proclaimed. “In a wrap, anything goes.” Even cottage cheese. Even sloppy joes.

The Desirability Of Storytellers, by Ed Yong, The Atlantic

Storytelling is a universal human trait. It emerges spontaneously in childhood, and exists in all cultures thus far studied. It’s also ancient: Some specific stories have roots that stretch back for around 6,000 years. As I’ve written before, these tales aren’t quite as old as time, but perhaps as old as wheels and writing. Because of its antiquity and ubiquity, some scholars have portrayed storytelling as an important human adaptation—and that’s certainly how Migliano sees it. Among the Agta, her team found evidence that stories—and the very act of storytelling—arose partly as a way of cementing social bonds, and instilling an ethic of cooperation.

What Is The Basis For Human Equality?, by Samuel Moyn, Commonweal Magazine

That we must begin by acknowledging how rare it has been in human affairs for anyone to want a “basis for human equality” does not mean that equality is a mere fiction. That only we moderns have begun to act on it hardly implies it is time to give up. It may suggest, however, that we need less to abstract beyond our place and time for a permanent vision of the way human beings really are than to focus more on how modernity has made belief in human equality something that increasing numbers of people find meaningful. We can even resolve to fight harder for that equality without denying that our ancestors would have railed against it, or worrying that only God can guarantee our beliefs that all humans are both equal and equally special.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

How Beavis And Butt-Head Influenced The Way America Eats Fast Food, by Jason Diamond, Eater

The suburban fast-food franchise may be an adjacent teenage ecosystem to the local high school. Depending on the context, its affordances differ. There may be more or less freedom from the high school hub for those within, relative to the location. Labels like geek, jock, weirdo, or preppy are shed at the door. They are replaced by a uniform and the uniformly grim act of flipping burgers or taking customer orders.

Teenage burger employees are part of a different kind of team, one without real athletic requirements. Heroes are made on the line, and the future leaders of America are developed from ground chuck to double patty with cheese. At least that’s what the training video tells you. The music swells. A flag waves proudly in the wind. A job in fast food is the beginning of greatness.

That is, unless you’re Beavis and Butt-Head, and you work at Burger World. Then you’re stuck in some middle-of-nowhere town in the Southwest, and you’re not going anywhere. All you can do is suck at your job, suck at school, and then go home and watch TV. That’s your life.

The Consumerist Church Of Fitness Classes, by Zan Romanoff, The Atlantic

You pay a regular tithe to support the community. In public, you wear symbols that identify you as one of the faithful. When you gather with other adherents, it’s often in small, close rooms. Breathing gets heavy; bodies sweat. If anyone speaks, it is to moan, or occasionally to shout in triumph.

Exercise classes often function just as much like a church as they do like a gym: They gather people into a community, and give them a ritual to perform. The comfort of clipping your shoes into a beloved SoulCycle bike or landing the first blow on your favorite heavy bag at a boxing gym is not so far off from the reassurance of arriving at temple on a Friday. You know who will be leading the evening; you can anticipate the general contours of its energy. You know you will recognize familiar faces among the participating crowd.

'A Tale Of Decay': The Houses Of Parliament Are Falling Down, by Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian

Away from the grand chambers of the House of Commons and House of Lords, away from the lofty corridors, away from the imposing committee rooms with their carved doors, the palace is tatty, dirty and infested with vermin. Its lavatories stink, its drains leak. Some of the external stonework has not been cleaned since it was built in the 1840s, and is encrusted with a thick coat of tarry black that is eating away at the masonry. Inside the building, intricate fan vaulting is flaking off, damaged by seeping rainwater and leaking pipes. Its Gothic-revival artworks are decaying: in the Lords chamber, the once-golden sculptures of the barons who signed the Magna Carta are now dull grey, pitted and corroded.

Beyond its state of disrepair, the building is all too obviously a remnant of a predemocratic age. It was built not to welcome its populace in, but to impress them with its fortress-like grandeur. It was designed when women were, at best, crinoline-wearing spectators of parliamentary life, consigned to the public gallery. With its chilly colonnades of sculptures of male politicians, its heavy, ecclesiastical furnishings and gentlemen’s-club atmosphere, it provides the perfect stage-set for Britain’s “very aggressive, very masculine, very power-hoarding democracy”, as political scientist Matthew Flinders put it.

It Was What You Least Expected But Always Secretly Feared, The End, by Jim Behrle, The Awl

As with roller coasters, no one remembers how novels end. Sooner or later they just run out of gas. And pages. If it’s a mystery, they catch the killer. Or did they? Is anyone ever really caught? Until the next episode, maybe. Books are generally too long and too full of bullshit. And endings are usually cheap and too-cute. There are very few epiphanies in real life. No one in real life lives happily ever after. And love is never really the answer to all of anyone’s problems. It is, generally, an introduction to a bunch of new problems. But these days you have to be a novel, a graphic novel or a video game to be a movie. And everyone likes movies, even crappy movies.

Where ever you are in the writing of your latest book, even if you are on page 1, you are closer to the end than you think. Did I need seven 900-page books to tell me what I already know? That Arya Stark will sit on the Iron Throne as Queen of the World at the end of Game of Thrones? I didn’t. Even though I like reading George R. R. Martin books, they were definitely 900 pages I didn’t necessarily need to read. And could use if I ever got back. Do I really need a red herring plot about another Targaryen heir to the throne? I do not.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Running For His Life, by Devon Heinen, The Atlantic

Put another way, more than 7,000 military personnel past and present kill themselves each year. They are sons and daughters; brothers and sisters; fathers and mothers; relatives and significant others; old classmates and best friends.

“This is a huge public-health problem,” says Dr. Charles Nemeroff, a professor and the chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “Also, remember that for each suicide that occurs, there are a very substantial number of suicide attempts.”

That’s something Leighton knows all too well. Like so many soldiers, his story is both unique and somehow familiar. It is also just one story among thousands.

Surrounded By Books, by John Lukacs, Chronicles Magazine

Surrounded by books has been a main circumstance of my long life. So it is now, near the end of my 94th year, when I am in my large library of perhaps 18,000 books in the western wing of my house in Chester County, Pennsylvania. So it was in the beginning: I was born in a sanatorium in Budapest, Hungary, wherefrom, after a day or two, I was translated home to my mother’s bedroom in an airy apartment that housed, among other things, many books. This I know and can see from photos in a family album, still in my possession.

What a miracle that the writings and the words of great people had been preserved for thousands of years even before an age of books came into existence! The word book was there in many languages well before the 16th century a.d. The Book of God was the Bible, people thought and said. Even now, the word bible (Gk., β?βλος) refers to and defines the meanings of books (bibliophile, bibliography, etc.) After about 1500 a new age began; wrongly named the “Modern” Age, it may even be named the Age of Books. Before that, books were written on wooden tablets or parchments or cloths. Now books were printed and fastened and bound and stored together. Their numbers and their availability increased in much of the world. In 1517, exactly 500 years ago, Erasmus wrote that the Middle Ages (a term then yet-unknown) were passing and something of a newer and golden age was about to begin. Today, few people possess that kind of optimism or know that the “Modern” Age, the Age of Books, is now passing.

The Poet’s Pencil, by Charles Simic, New York Review of Books

I knew a poet who could only write his poems with a stub of a pencil. Nothing else worked for him as well. His family and friends bought him fountain pens, ballpoints, typewriters, and laptops, but he kept away from them. “It’s like giving a dog a wristwatch for Christmas,” his wife said. Only lead pencils would get him excited. “How come?” friends asked him. Because, he explained, one can chew a pencil all the way down to a stub while thinking what to write next. He also had no use for writing pads, notebooks, and fine stationery. He preferred envelopes of old bills and the backs of leaflets passed out in the streets of New York that advertised quick loans, massage parlors, fortune tellers, and fire sales, though a restaurant menu or a bank deposit slip could serve him just as well.

A Last Glimpse Into The Mind Of Oliver Sacks, Nicole Krauss, New York Times

Reading a book published after its author’s death, especially if he is as prodigiously alive on every page as Oliver Sacks, as curious, avid and thrillingly fluent, brings both the joy of hearing from him again, and the regret of knowing it will likely be the last time. In his more than 45 years of writing books — mostly about the workings of the brain, but along the way touching on nearly everything else, too — Sacks taught us much about how we think, remember, and perceive, about how we shape our sense of the world and ourselves.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Plight Of The Blind Gamer, by Stephen Wilds, The Outline

I’m legally blind due to albinism. I don’t drive, and I need a magnification program in order to use a computer. I also love video games. Ever since the original Game Boy kicked off the revolutionary genre of handheld gaming, I’ve been tormented by trying to play games made for screens that I can’t see.

I asked my mom for a Game Boy even though we both knew I’d have trouble. I ended up mostly playing Tetris since I just had to identify the shapes. Anything like Super Mario Land, Zelda, or heaven forbid, games that require reading, was simply a waste of money. But still, I couldn’t help myself from falling for the latest handhelds over and over — as anyone could understand, I wanted to play.

The Roots Of Boston’s Christmas Tree Go Back 100 Years To A Disaster In Halifax, by James Sullivan, Boston Globe

A few days after the explosion, 17-year-old Haligonian Walter Hoganson wrote a pen pal, Harold Kennedy of Stoughton, Massachusetts, recounting what he called the “horrible catastrophe.” Hoganson had been at work at a local paper, The Daily Echo. “[T]here was a short rumble and then a big ‘crash’ (a terrific, terrifying roar),” he wrote. “I got as low as I could and the glass and wood flew everywhere, but I didn’t get a scratch. Harold, our big steady building rocked like a little cradle.” Hoganson wasn’t hurt, but a buddy who worked on the waterfront was killed. Like many Halifax residents, Hoganson lost loved ones, including his older sister, her husband, and their 11-year-old son.

Just hours later, a blizzard made conditions in the city even worse. But relief efforts began in earnest the next day. As Hoganson told Kennedy, “thank God the noble state of Massachusetts stood the same as ever ready to help us.”

It’s Only Human To See Our Own Sins In Animals, by Mark Peters, Boston Globe

Animal behaviorists can’t escape the specter of human behavior, and whether they should even try is an open question to be answered on a case-by-case basis. As Pratt put it, anthropomorphic terms are useful “if they convey some very precise meaning.” Sometimes that precise meaning involves the human animal too.

An Economy Is A Living Thing: Andy Weir’s “Artemis”, by Chris Pak, Los Angeles Review of Books

On a narrative level, Weir’s choice of a female protagonist enables a welcome departure from the hypermasculinity of The Martian. While it doesn’t offer something significantly new to lunar colonization narratives, Artemis extends the scope of Weir’s storytelling to encompass the social and economic relationships that shape the life of a community.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

How The Index Card Cataloged The World, by Daniela Blei, The Atlantic

To prepare for this initiation, I bought a lifetime supply of index cards. On each four-by-six rectangle, I distilled the major points of a book. My index cards—portable, visual, tactile, easily rearranged and reshuffled—got me through the exam.

Yet it never occurred to me, as I rehearsed my talking points more than a decade ago, that my index cards belonged to the very European history I was studying. The index card was a product of the Enlightenment, conceived by one of its towering figures: Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, physician, and the father of modern taxonomy. But like all information systems, the index card had unexpected political implications, too: It helped set the stage for categorizing people, and for the prejudice and violence that comes along with such classification.

A Love Affair With Bookstores, by Alan Riding, New York Times

After surviving a civil war, a devastating fire and a property dispute, the 89-year-old Catalònia bookstore in Barcelona closed in 2013 and was reborn as a McDonald’s. Witnessing this sacrilege was Jorge Carrión, a Barcelona-based novelist and essayist who at the time was preparing a cultural history of bookstores. “Of course, it is an obvious metaphor,” he recalls glumly, “but that doesn’t make it any less shocking.”

Fortunately he holds off his pessimism until the end of “Bookshops” (so named because its seasoned translator, Peter Bush, is British) since his real purpose is to celebrate bookstores. And he does so by wandering the globe in search of those that play — or have played — a special role in the intellectual and social lives of their communities. They become Carrión’s personal mappa mundi.

Hoover As The Father Of New Deal Liberalism And Modern Conservatism, by Michael Taube, Washington Post

Herbert Hoover was one of the more intriguing and unconventional figures ever to have occupied the White House, but historians and biographers often have treated him unkindly. A nominal Republican, Hoover felt more at ease as a political shapeshifter who refused to toe the party line. His complex, brooding leadership style, combined with poor communication skills, served to frustrate friend, foe and voter alike.

Kenneth Whyte’s “Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times” casts a new light on the remarkable career of the 31st president. The founding editor of Canada’s National Post and a former editor in chief of Maclean’s, Whyte is an impressive stylist with a penchant for explaining political history to contemporary readers. This well-researched volume proves that Hoover, far from being a political failure, should be rightfully acknowledged as the father of New Deal liberalism and modern conservatism.

The Floating World Review: Shelter From The Storm, by Sarah Gilmartin, Irish Times

The exploration of internal and external damage is skilfully achieved. All of Babst’s characters are hurting before the storm hits. Landfall unleashes wreckage on multiple fronts and the individual’s plight amid a massive public crisis is vividly rendered. Or as Cora puts it as she wades through the toxic waters of her “unreal” city: “The rain struck her like hypodermics.”

Friday, December 1, 2017

A Lonely Death, by Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times

“4,000 lonely deaths a week,” estimated the cover of a popular weekly magazine this summer, capturing the national alarm.

To many residents in Mrs. Ito’s complex, the deaths were the natural and frightening conclusion of Japan’s journey since the 1960s. A single-minded focus on economic growth, followed by painful economic stagnation over the past generation, had frayed families and communities, leaving them trapped in a demographic crucible of increasing age and declining births. The extreme isolation of elderly Japanese is so common that an entire industry has emerged around it, specializing in cleaning out apartments where decomposing remains are found.

Table-top Generals, by Tim Cross, 1843

One reason for the tabletop-gaming boom is simply that the products have improved. The best modern games are sociable, engaging and easy to learn, but also cerebral, intriguing and difficult to master. The slow triumph of what used to be called “nerd culture” – think smartphone gaming and “Game of Thrones” on television – has given adults permission to engage openly in pastimes that were previously looked down on as juvenile. And the increasing ubiquity of screens has, paradoxically, fuelled a demand for in-person socialising. Board gaming is another example of an old-style, analogue pastime that, far from being killed by technology, has been reinvigorated by it.

How One Restaurant Owner Is Fighting For Her Tribe’s Cuisine, by Clarissa Wei, Eater

Wen is of the Taromak tribe, a mountainous group whose entire history has been on the Kindoor (Kendu Ershan 肯杜爾山 in Chinese) mountains on the east coast of Taiwan in modern-day Taitung County. The Taromak tribe used to live up in the mountains until 1923, when Japanese colonists came and forced them down from their ancestral village. In 1949, the Chinese arrived and mandated all indigenous peoples in Taiwan learn Chinese and stop speaking their mother languages. Christian missionaries simultaneously came in en masse. Today, Christianity is the main religion in Taromak, with five churches for a population of roughly 1,000. (Taromak refers to both the tribe and the place they live.)

“Colonization almost destroyed my culture,” Wen says. “Food is our last line of connection.”

A Songwriter’s New Perspective After 8,980 Miles On The Train, by The Economist

Planes are practical, buses are cheap and cars grant freedom. But trains are for romance. A century after America’s railway heyday, the country’s ageing trains still enjoy an anachronistic glamour. Few people are immune to the charms of a sluggish, traffic-free chug across states, with the countryside unfurling panoramically. At a dark or uncertain time for the country, a long rail journey from one coast to the other may even inspire some patriotism.

Such thoughts helped spur Gabriel Kahane, a 36-year-old singer-songwriter, to take to the rails the morning after the presidential election last November. Feeling “increasingly imprisoned by my own digitally curated liberal silo”, he was eager to leave behind his mobile phone and spend time with the kinds of Americans he never meets while shopping for quinoa in his Brooklyn enclave. Mr Kahane ultimately spoke with between 80 and 90 people over the course of his two-week, 8,980-mile trip , during which he slept and ate on the train. The effect, he says, was therapeutic, “a kind of salve”. It also made possible a kind of cross-cultural engagement that he is sure he will never have again.

When I Was A Girl I Wrapped Books, by Erin O. White, The Millions

When I was in high school I worked as a Christmas gift wrapper at the Chinook Bookshop in Colorado Springs. I can remember everything about the job except how I got it. I don’t remember an interview or even an application. All I remember is that every girl—and it was only girls—who wrapped books at the Chinook simply knew she was the sort of girl who wrapped books at the Chinook, and I was one of those girls. So on a weekday afternoon in early November of my junior year, I walked from William J. Palmer High School across Acacia Park to the Chinook, opened its heavy wooden door, and presented myself in the way that, just a few miles away at the Broadmoor hotel, a different sort of girl of the same age in the same season would present herself as a debutante in a white dress and a jeweled tiara. (At the Chinook I presented myself in a messy ponytail and button-fly Levis and a down jacket.)

Why You Left Social Media: A Guesswork, by Sofia Samatar, Catapult

At first I thought you were simply taking a break, as writers sometimes do, to meet a deadline or clear your head. That was before the election. Later, during the election and its aftermath, I thought maybe you left because you couldn’t stand the climate. Maybe you’d been harassed, maybe you hated the polarization, the sense that there was no language outside the logic of rival clubs, or maybe you were just tired, maybe you felt you had nothing to add. Perhaps you were suffering a kind of political depression.

A Rich Novel That Reveals Itself Through Linked Lives, by Kamila Shamsie, New York Times

This is a novel of richness and wisdom and huge pleasure. Silber knows, and reveals, how close we live to the abyss, but she also revels in joy, particularly the joy that comes from intimate relationships.