If you’ve watched sitcoms over the past 25 years, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a “Disney episode.” They all follow the same basic formula: A family (it’s always a family) is suddenly presented with an opportunity to go to Walt Disney World (it’s nearly always Walt Disney World). Maybe the uncle’s band is playing somewhere inside the Magic Kingdom. Perhaps their annoying neighbor has entered an inventor’s contest at EPCOT. Or maybe the kids’ teacher in dark magic conjures a field trip to Animal Kingdom, so they can learn to brew potion from the local fauna. Whatever the excuse, the characters are soon making a trek to Orlando, where they discover something about themselves while plunging down Splash Mountain or dodging wildlife on the Jungle Cruise.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Disney episode: NBC’s Blossom, produced by Walt Disney’s Touchstone Television, aired an episode set at Disneyland in February 1993. It was followed later that spring by ABC’s Full House taking the entire Tanner clan to Florida. These sweeps-month stunts kickstarted a long-running sitcom trend—one that AdWeek called a “rite of passage” when ABC’s Black-ish became the most recent to make the pilgrimage in 2016. However, it’s a rite of passage that’s far less common than it once was. Seven sitcoms visited one of the Disney parks between the years 1993-1998. Since the year 2000, only four have. While the tradition is still alive, whatever value the “Disney episode” once had has changed dramatically: the Happiest Place On Earth doesn’t create the same TV magic it once did.
Two years ago, I lost my mind.
The day began with eggs and coffee and a subdued “hurrah.” It was my birthday—32, not a majestic number, but my family and I were spending a long Thanksgiving weekend with my brother in Chicago. That morning we basked in the reassuring smells of sleep and family and yolk blistering in butter.
Maybe I was little irritable or disoriented. Maybe I already felt something of the blinking film that would soon divide me from myself. It’s impossible to say in retrospect. All sorts of things might feel like the first murmurs of madness but are not.
It’s probably inappropriate to evaluate a work of history on the basis of how many novels can be extracted from its pages; it’s also, if one is a novelist, irresistible. Which real-life situations and characters are so intriguing that they’d be worthy of delving into and depicting in the truly intimate manner that only fiction allows? By this measure — and by several others — “The Woman’s Hour: The Last Furious Fight to Win the Vote,” by the journalist Elaine Weiss, is a gold mine.
There’s an Indian death euphemism I’ve been dwelling on since the last time I saw my grandmother: “To be no more.” But even after she dies, my grandmother’s brain will, in a way, live on, joining the thousands of Americans who donate each year. After undergoing an autopsy, her brain’s tissue will be stored and researched. It may travel to banks with specialized grants and niche experts. Someone will look at her under a microscope.
The more I thought about the trajectory of my grandmother’s life, the more the line between brain and grandmother blurred. What will come of her after life? That question led me to the place where her brain will end up.
I knew life with a baby would be radically different. I had been warned, and I had seen time and again how a baby could change a family dynamic. I prepared (as much as one can) for breastfeeding problems and colic and sleepless nights.
But what I didn’t expect were the changes in me. Not the physical changes; my body was doing strange and unusual things, but I knew they were temporary. What took me completely by surprise were the changes to me—my essential self, my personality.
You’re most likely to notice it in the abstract, if you notice it at all. The work of a good expediter is in the pacing of your dinner. It’s in the steadiness of the room. It’s in the sense that everyone in the restaurant is moving to a single, unbreakable rhythm.
The expediter sets that rhythm, managing the workflow of the kitchen like an air traffic controller. Though they may be unknown outside their restaurants, expediters are vital to smooth service. They fire dishes — signaling cooks exactly when to push ahead and finish a dish — and they keep time, continuously planning the next move.
“The Emissary” is as bleak a portrait of contemporary Japan as you could imagine. Tawada takes on the graying of the population and the trauma of the 2011 tsunami and the ensuing radiation leakage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Hovering above all this, as always, is Tawada’s interest in the issue of translation, but this time the gulf is between what Susan Sontag called the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick.
Which is to say that a commute is an occasion for self-delusion. It is an hour of preening and exhortation during which we psych ourselves up for the day’s demands. When I was in my early 20s, during the first decade of the century, I lived in a dingy apartment on the north side of Chicago and interned for a certain big-eared senator who harbored presidential ambitions. Three days a week, I spent an hour on the El, jouncing toward the Loop, wearing a suit that didn’t fit me and an ill-advised goatee. I had grown up in small-town Wisconsin and pegged myself as a wide-eyed Huckleberry unfit for national politics. During my commute, I tried to compensate by watching, on my laptop, episodes from Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, modeling my persona on the role of Josh Lyman, the deputy chief of staff who blustered and quipped his way across the Capitol, deactivating political foes with unction and blandishment. Within the span of an hour, Lyman’s serrated wit gave me a stencil for my workday sensibility, even though my own tasks in the senator’s office never went beyond typing correspondence or fielding constituents’ complaints.
Of course, a commute is a circular journey, a coming and going, so whatever varnish we apply to our psyches in the morning invariably wears off by the hour of return. At no time is this more apparent than on evening buses and trains, when the despair of fellow passengers can so thoroughly darken your mood that you find yourself getting off several stops before your exit. The apparition of these faces in a crowd, Ezra Pound wrote of a subway station in 1913, petals on a wet, black bough.
It’s hard to understand how it happened. Ring Lardner was an elite writer of his time, but even his charity rate doesn’t look bad these days. Adjusted for inflation, that five cents per word is now worth about 70 cents, which is considered a respectable fee at legacy publications and well-funded startups. The $1 per word Lardner got from Cosmo, on the other hand, is worth over $14 now. I’ve spoken with dozens of freelance writers throughout my career and can report that’s more than twice as much as I’ve ever heard of a writer receiving, period. Twelve of Lardner’s stories — let’s call that a year’s worth of work for a feature writer — would earn him $600,000 in 2018.
Either Lardner is the greatest writer of all time by a wide margin or something screwy happened to writer pay over the past century. No offense to Lardner, but evidence suggests it’s the latter.
“I vant to be alone,” my mother used to say distractedly, channeling Greta Garbo, when my brother and I were wrecking havoc at home. In fact, though Garbo’s character said the line in the 1932 film Grand Hotel, Garbo herself never said it. What she said, when faced with a scrum of journalists at a press conference a few years later, was “I want to be let alone.”
But in our culture, the distinction between the two statements has been conflated. For us, “I vant to be alone” means I want to be off the grid, no iPhone, no email, the 24-7 connectivity of our lot. I want to be let alone to be alone. No wonder that, to a writer—to readers, to all overwhelmed people now—solitude suggests not loneliness but serenity, that kissing cousin of sanity. We speak of being alone to recharge our batteries—even in our reach for solitude, we seem unable to unplug from the metaphor of our connectivity.
Yet here’s the greater paradox: writing, though performed alone, is also the only absolutely declarative, meaning-beset art form we have. Its purpose is to communicate. With others. More than a painter, much more than a composer, a writer can never “be alone.”
How did three, and only three, food-related terms become shorthand for mental illness?
There are reasons, or at least guesses, for the winding path these three terms took. But their etymologies are not related, and show just how weird and broken and non-systematic language can be. To put it in another, definitely worse way: What if….it’s language itself….that is bananas, crackers, and/or nuts?
The key to a certain kind of songwriting, it’s been said, is to deliver blues in the verse and gospel in the chorus. There’s not a lot of gospel in these two books — just a strong, wary sense of watching and waiting.
While there are echoes here and there of Shakespeare’s language (which Don Bartlett, who translated the novel from the Norwegian, has handled well), Nesbo is less interested in the original’s verbal texture than he is in adapting its plot and delving into the moral choices confronting its characters. In the end, he offers a dark but ultimately hopeful “Macbeth,” one suited to our own troubled times, in which “the slowness of democracy” is no match for power-hungry strongmen who demand unstinting loyalty from ethically compromised followers, and where the brave must band together to defeat the darker forces that threaten to destroy the social fabric.
This term, the Anthropocene, was first proposed in an article published at the turn of the millennium by Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric scientist, and his colleague Eugene Stoermer, an ecologist. They argued that we no longer inhabit the Holocene, the period from the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago up to the present (indeed, Holocene actually means “entirely new or recent,” or, if you will, the present). Crutzen and Stoermer argued that the present as we had conceived it was actually over. It was, in fact, now the past. They claimed that human beings had so transformed Earth that our impact would not only be visible in geological strata in the future, but would mark a distinctive boundary in the history of the planet. This was a new epoch, which they called the Anthropocene, the human age. According to them, the Holocene had ended around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine. Since then, the burning of fossil fuels, especially in the period of the “Great Acceleration” after World War II, along with exponential population growth, nitrogen production and deposition, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and climate change have all left distinct traces around the world that will be readable in the geological strata by future geologists.
Even if you haven’t been immersed in it, you can probably imagine that there is no end to debate about the Anthropocene. Geologists are still in the formal processes of examining evidence for the claims behind the term. They have not settled on where to put the boundary. They have not even come to an official decision about whether to accept this new nomenclature. Some critics have proposed the “Homogenocene” as a better label for our epoch, because globalization is causing the planet to become more homogenous ecologically, economically, and even culturally. Others have proposed the “Capitalocene,” because capitalism is, after all, really responsible for the mess we’re in. And yet, the Anthropocene has already taken on a vibrant cultural life quite apart from the scientific debate among geologists. It has become a shorthand for not only human dominance of vast portions of Earth and its life-forms, but also for a fundamental shift in the relationship between people and nature.
At least since Aesop, animals had long been used by pedagogues as moral exemplars. Augustine defended the use of such allegories against detractors who claimed that they did not accurately depict animal behavior, by stating that their moral value was more vital; another early church theologian, St. Ambrose of Milan, went further, insisting that “we cannot fully know ourselves without first knowing the nature of all living creatures.” In his 1623 text Mysterium magnum, the German theologian Jacob Boehme wrote that man is “a Beast of all beasts”: “[There are] various properties in man: as one a Fox, Wolfe, Beare, Lion, Dogg, Bull, Cat, Horse, Cock, Toad, Serpent: and in briefe as many kindes of creatures are upon the earth, so many and Various properties likewise there are in the earthly man.”
Montaigne, then, was building, however idiosyncratically, off a long tradition that had seen animals as useful pedagogical tools for understanding human morality. He merely took this tendency to its logical conclusion: if animals were moral exemplars, they must be more moral than we fallen sinners are. Even with this privileging of the morality of animals, though, they were still seen as subordinate to humanity. “Renaissance humanimalism was anthropocentric and allegorical,” Sahlins notes.
In the translation world, where the money is small, the fame and glamour almost nonexistent, and the work breathtakingly difficult, it’s the love for the projects that makes everything work. If you’re going to stick with a challenging translation for dozens of hours a week for months on end, you absolutely have to be inspired by it.
Some days, when I think about just how difficult literary translation is, I get the feeling that inspiration, plus metric tons of persistence, are all that stand between us and a hazy gray landscape of mediocre translations and English-only literature. With that in mind, here are some recent translations where the love and inspiration are clearly present…
I ask my sister, Katie, “How did you start using heroin?”
She says, “A friend told me it was cheaper than pain pills and had the same effect.”
When I studied abroad in London as an undergrad, I sat at an Indian restaurant eating pappadam while reading White Teeth, and my heart exploded. It was a moment among only a handful of such moments in my life. The world was rebuilt in front of me. I would stand on the corner of a street and observe people with a kind of fascination and affection normally prompted by drugs. I have loved Zadie Smith’s writing for years. I have loved Zadie Smith herself ever since I saw her read in Cambridge in 2003, at which point I developed a bit of a crush. I never understood why The Autograph Man wasn’t better received. When I had the chance to teach a course on contemporary black literature, we read NW alongside Fruitvale Station and the combination of the two narratives had me grieving the deaths of the black protagonists so acutely, I was reduced to crawling across the floor of my apartment.
That being said, it took me a full 400 pages to get into her new essay collection, Feel Free. And by “get into,” what I mean is that for the most part I did not feel any degree of identification with the author. Even though I too am a biracial essayist who loves museums and books and traveling with my father.
“We’re submerged, all of us.” This is how Zadie Smith begins her short story, ‘The Lazy River,’ and this is how we’re made to feel throughout it. Submerged in her words, trapped in the narrative. She brings us into her world on the page and spits us out into a reality with the realization that the one we live in is not much different from the one she’s constructed.
Smith said in an interview with The New Yorker that ‘The Lazy River,’ published last December, is meant to represent the feelings of shame and despair she felt during 2017. I read it for the first time in the car while home for the holidays. My mom drove us through the mountains, and I read the story out loud as the pine trees flew by and small, wet snowflakes smacked the windshield. The year was coming to a close and as I read, I felt what Smith wanted me to feel: despair.
One of the world’s great readers, whose finest work has been about the writing of others, Manguel faced his own worst nightmare three years ago when – defeated by “sordid” French bureaucracy – he and his partner left the medieval village presbytery that had been their home for the last 15 years for a tiny flat in Manhattan. That meant packing up his precious library of 35,000 books in the knowledge that he might never see them all together again. “Packing,” he writes, “is an exercise in oblivion. It is like playing a film backwards, consigning visible narratives and methodological reality to the regions of the distant and unseen, a voluntary forgetting.”
This nightmare, like Stevenson’s, has produced a book – a slim, fragmentary meditation on the power of reading and the importance of libraries. The form Manguel has chosen is an essay interrupted by 10 “digressions”, which ramble anecdotally across time and space. In one, he recalls the syphilitic knight Pedro de Mendoza, who sailed to South America in 1536 under instructions from the emperor Charles I to set up a Spanish colony, taking with him not only 13 ships and 2,000 men, but “seven volumes of medium size bound in black leather” which were to become the continent’s first library.
First, a note on the son-daughter disparity: Sons often get more leeway and more freedom. The sooner you accept this, the less time you will waste dwelling on it. Don’t get mad; observe. Observe how the brother does it. Observe that he doesn’t apologize for his choices. Observe his confidence — he knows he holds power, and he doesn’t feel guilty about it.
The millennials Salon spoke to expect to see a grand societal shift in their lifetime, either toward socialism — a political and economic system in which the means of production are collectively and equally owned by everyone — or toward a sort of dystopian Mad Max nightmare in which resources have dwindled, rich plutocrats own everything, and ordinary people need to band together in small, autonomous communities to survive. To conservatives’ dismay, the modern idea of socialism, which has roots in Greek philosopher Plato but emerged as a popular political idea in the early 19th century among German radicals like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, has become increasingly popular among young people in the past several years, following Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders’s underdog run for president and the authoritarian creep of the ultra-capitalist, anti-socialist Trump regime.
In contrast, capitalism has become markedly less popular among the younger generations, with The Washington Post noting in April 2016 that in one survey, a majority of young adults ages 18 to 29 said they reject it outright.
You have probably heard the word “capitalist” floating around in the past couple of years — maybe in relation to the anti-fascist, anti-capitalist protests at the Trump inauguration. So, what is capitalism, and why are people so passionate about it, one way or the other?
What do we know about time? Language tells us that it “passes”, it moves like a great river, inexorably dragging us with it, and, in the end, washes us up on its shore while it continues, unstoppable. Time flows. It moves ever forwards. Or does it? Poets also tell us that time stumbles or creeps or slows or even, at times, seems to stop. They tell us that the past might be inescapable, immanent in objects or people or landscapes. When Juliet is waiting for Romeo, time passes sluggishly: she longs for Phaethon to take the reins of the Sun’s chariot, since he would whip up the horses and “bring in cloudy night immediately”. When we wake from a vivid dream we are dimly aware that the sense of time we have just experienced is illusory.
Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist who wants to make the uninitiated grasp the excitement of his field. His book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, with its concise, sparkling essays on subjects such as black holes and quanta, has sold 1.3m copies worldwide. Now comes The Order of Time, a dizzying, poetic work in which I found myself abandoning everything I thought I knew about time – certainly the idea that it “flows”, and even that it exists at all, in any profound sense.
The setup for “The Sandman” is a bit of a stop-me-if-you’ve-heard-this-one-before joke, a familiar recipe: A serial killer, so intelligent and seductive he seems able to murder people from beyond his maximum-security cell, matches wits with a world-weary, brilliant cop. Add ice and snow; serve warm-blooded for a “Silence of the Lambs”-goes-Nordic noir thriller. Good genre writing, however, is all about creating a comfy amity whose expectations are overthrown, and “The Sandman” — written by Lars Kepler, the pen name for the Swedish husband-and-wife team of Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril — is a dandy exercise in surprise.
Much as she gave the in-laws a very particular kind of awfulness, Halpern crafts a gratifyingly unexpected, effective answer to the question of what happened between Kit and Cal, with outed secrets and surprising solutions that she plays for minimum melodrama and with realistic warmth. Like Riverton itself, “Summer Hours at the Robbers Library” feels artfully balanced between the reality of loss and a carefully guarded hope for renewal.
But the experience I had while reading “The Great Gatsby” as an adult was very different. I would argue that this reading was deeper, more emphatically felt. While most young people admire Gatsby’s youthful love for Daisy — for the possibility associated with her economic and social class, and for who he was with Daisy, too, in that shining moment in time — there is much subtext that becomes clearer with age, subtext Fitzgerald must have been acutely aware of when he wrote “The Great Gatsby.”
One of the first great lessons of my adulthood was this: I change. As I grow, my dreams change, as do my ideas about who I can be and what I want during the short time I am alive. Gatsby has not learned this. It is a lesson he has closed himself to.
Strictly speaking, “outer space” refers to the vast expanses between celestial objects, the near-perfect vacuum of space once thought to be filled with aether, the fifth element. In practice, though, we imagine outer space in much the same way that we do the ocean, so that far-flung material bodies (dusty asteroids, murky trenches) are implied within the whole. Outer space is a metonym for the great “out there.”
But I can’t swim in outer space. It’s out of sight and out of mind. Even the best images—heroically gathered from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Voyager space probes, and the Mars rovers—bespeak something uncanny, something unearthly. When I consider the bare fact of two trillion galaxies (as when Whitman “heard the learn’d astronomer”), I experience a jarring dissonance between what I know and what I feel to be true.
Is it really all out there? If so, can it be written?
What is the relationship between thinking, acting and historical consciousness? How do we preserve a spirited intellectual autonomy that yet includes enough sense of the past to contextualize and resist those power-grabbers who would bamboozle the public with their own fun house versions of truth? Hannah Arendt, the philosopher and political theorist, was always acutely concerned with questions of how to make thought and knowledge matter in the struggle against injustice, never more so than in the last two decades of her life, when the rich medley of the material collected in “Thinking Without a Banister” was created.
Is it me, or do demons who fling furniture, shatter glass and make walls bleed seem kind of ho-hum these days? If you’ve braved one too many supposedly spooky novels only to find the pages haunted by nothing but stale genre devices like these, you might approach “The Ghost Notebooks” with a certain “been there, read that” trepidation. But luckily, Ben Dolnick’s ambitions go beyond run-of-the-mill thrills and chills.
“Asymmetry” poses questions about the limits of imagination and empathy—can we understand each other across lines of race, gender, nationality, and power? The fluttering way in which Halliday pursues her themes and preoccupations seems too idiosyncratic and beautiful to summarize, although there are serious, “Gone Girl”–grade spoilers that a reviewer must worry about revealing.
Live in one neighborhood in New York City long enough and other neighborhoods begin to feel like foreign countries. As with countries, there are some you want to visit and some you don’t. The Upper East Side has long been one of the lands I wanted to visit. But I’ve been a Brooklyn boy for more than 20 years, so trips to that far northerly region have not always been convenient.
Recently, however, my girlfriend moved into an apartment on East 85th Street between Second and Third Avenues. Frequent trips up the Lexington Avenue line and, later, the new Second Avenue subway, followed. In short time, that neighborhood slowly began to reveal some of its secrets and charms, and a long interborough holiday of sorts commenced.
When I’m lucky, a cover essentially designs itself—I read up on it, generate a few images, execute them, and one gets published! Designing Up Up, Down Down was not one of those times. I still consider it somewhat of a miracle that the final cover came out so nicely; looking at it brings back tortured memories of a painful process—a long, difficult exercise in “designy” design: a true exploration of concept, layout, color, and type. When I say exploration, picture not so much an expert explorer, but a hapless amateur, lost in the jungle, frantically trying every trick and tool they know, hoping and praying that one will be the way out. I am pretty sure lots of designers feel this way—or maybe it’s just me.
The main effect, indeed, of all the differences between this book and a standard modern potboiler is to remind you how weirdly nightmarish the original play is: what Shakespeare brewed up is still almost too over-the-top for modern, ultraviolent mass entertainment.
As the hour of reckoning draws nigh, the ironies grow thick, and the eventual dramatic resolution feels somewhat forced; while some readers may see a heartwarming message here, I, for one, found it highly ambiguous and not a little horrifying. Yet so apparent are Rachman’s humanity and intelligence throughout that this ambiguity must be fully intended. There are no black-and-white answers in life and art, not even in our present age of increasing personal responsibility. “The Italian Teacher” is a psychologically nuanced pleasure.
So, at the risk of over-simplifying: to be happy you should have a home that is safe, big enough and near green spaces; work at a rewarding job that offers autonomy and novelty; earn enough money and find love – but don’t focus on pursuing money or love; do things you enjoy; laugh a lot, but don’t be a comedian … Oh, and benefit from consistent and loving parenting.
First, though, you should read this funny, stimulating and rewarding book. You’ll be happy you did.
Alongside tamales and maybe empanadas, arroz con pollo is one of the most beloved dishes in Latin America. Every country has a version of this one-pot meal that finds chicken cooked on a bed of seasoned rice. The Latino consensus is that Caribbeans prepare it best, and it's a tossup between Cuba and Puerto Rico over who makes it best. (I especially enjoy how Dominicans do it because I can spike it with the nation's electric mojo de ajo).
Arroz con pollo is an afterthought in Mexican cuisine, however. We do love chicken and rice, but rice is almost always a side, and we prefer chicken in tacos, in soups, inside enchiladas, or topped with mole. Few Mexican restaurants in the United States carry arroz con pollo, except in the American South. There, the dish is commonly known as ACP and has morphed into a regional phenomenon.
"Photography is such a magical form but it's gotten a little stunted," she says. "The most magical experience of photography is when it's in your hands, because it's here — you're touching it, you can hear it, you can smell it."
In her latest exhibition, Museum Bhavan, Singh set out to recreate the tactile experience of leafing through an old family album. Instead of a brick-and-mortar space, her galleries are housed in a small box you can purchase at a bookstore. Each box contains nine slim accordion books that expand into a 7.5-foot-long gallery of black and white photographs. The images are drawn from across Singh's career, and feature characters and themes from her previous collections in new storylines. Singh calls them portable "pocket museums."
When the iconic comic “Cathy” comic strip ended in fall 2010, the final panel bid farewell by introducing a third generation: Cathy announced that she was pregnant with a girl, and Cathy’s mother fell to her knees, celebrating the realization she was becoming a grandma.
In her own life at that time, cartoonist Cathy Guisewite was experiencing a different sort of cross-generational moment. After 34 years of creating “Cathy,” she had decided it was time to devote all her energy to helping her own child and parents go through life transitions.
There is a further twist. In both art and science, perfectly symmetrical patterns can be monotonous. Indeed, there’s a sense in which symmetry is the opposite of information. If I showed you one wing of a butterfly, you could easily sketch the other; if I showed you a single paling, you could draw the entire picket fence. Since the missing pieces can so easily be reconstructed, they carry no new information.
If, by contrast, we want to represent or store new information, it follows that we need to find ways to break the symmetry in order to encode our data. If successive palings in the picket fence differed in some way – say, if each were painted either white or blue at random – then the symmetry (and your ability to draw the whole fence) would be lost. Replace white palings with zeroes and blue palings with ones, and we have a binary representation of a number, the basis of digital data storage and manipulation.
When people react vociferously to the latest “change” in a treasured fictional universe, we are tempted to respond that it is “just a show” or “just a movie”—but stories that have endured for more than a generation, continually inspiring new narratives and whole traditions of interpretation, are no longer “just stories.” There is no reason that our modern myths could not play as generative a role for future culture and politics as the stories of the Greek gods or Hebrew patriarchs did for past generations, and the history of those older traditions shows that there is no reason that prequels should not be part of that cultural reckoning. The problem with the current glut of prequels is not that they have chosen a flawed or illegitimate genre, but that they are so often telling the same old story at bottom: a story about how our cultural heritage belongs exclusively to the owners of capital and our modern myths exist only to increase shareholder value.
When I was pregnant, every time someone asked me if I planned to breastfeed, I stammered and avoided eye contact. Of fucking course, what do you think I am, some kind of monster? I felt like the person had just asked me if I wanted to be a real writer someday. Obviously, I thought about it all the time but I didn’t want to jinx it by talking about it. Declaring my intentions felt too vulnerable, too potentially humiliating. The question was not whether I planned to breastfeed the future baby but whether I would physically be able to. What if the time came and the baby didn’t latch on or my body didn’t produce enough milk? What if my boobs couldn’t get it up?
The internet was full of stories about women struggling with just that. It was impressive but scary to read about them turning their lives upside down, willing to try or do anything if it meant they could check off this box. Take herbs, chug water, eat special cookies, go to meetings, buy a scale so they could weigh the baby after every feeding, hire expensive consultants, pump around the clock, give up dairy, give up gluten, get their infants’ tongues and gums “clipped” so they could open their mouths wider, spend an entire week in bed naked with their babies.
Four years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich, 76, reached the realisation that she was old enough to die. Not that the author, journalist and political activist was sick; she just didn’t want to spoil the time she had left undergoing myriad preventive medical tests or restricting her diet in pursuit of a longer life.
While she would seek help for an urgent health issue, she wouldn’t look for problems.
Now Ehrenreich felt free to enjoy herself. “I tend to worry that a lot of my friends who are my age don’t get to that point,” she tells the Guardian. “They’re frantically scrambling for new things that might prolong their lives.”
What do I love about this book? For starters: Dorothy Parker. Rebecca West. Hannah Arendt. Mary McCarthy. Nora Ephron. Janet Malcolm. With Sharp, Michelle Dean has essentially gathered ten 20th century literary lodestars for an all-female intellectual history party thrown between the covers of a single book. The price of admission to this critical gala: "the ability to write unforgettably," and being labeled "sharp."
Immediately after the world’s last male northern white rhino died on March 19th, a team of vets got to work. Within 30 minutes, they had collected tissue from the ears, gums, spleen, windpipes, and testicles of the 45-year-old rhino, named Sudan. The precious genetic material was put in a solution and then frozen at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, where Sudan spent the last nine years of his life. Those cells could one day bring the northern white rhino back from the brink of extinction.
Dozens of scientists across the globe — from the US to Europe to Africa — are working together tirelessly to figure out ways to breed rhino embryos in the lab. The effort resembles in some ways the popular de-extinction projects that are attempting to resurrect the woolly mammoth or the passenger pigeon; all want to reverse extinction and in some cases, fix the damage humans have done.
My career as a rose gardener begins in December of 1995, when I am shown an apartment in Brooklyn by a broker who apologizes for it as soon as she opens the door.
“It’s small,” she says, looking away, as if the sight of such a small place offends her and possibly also me. We walk into a large studio with high ceilings, the wood floor buffed to a high gloss. Beyond that, a sliding glass door shows a small wooden deck that leads to a yard at least as large as the apartment, a mud slick striped by a stone walkway. Wooden seven-foot-tall picket fences line the sides, and a chain-link fence closes off the back.
I don’t respond to the broker right away, because, as I enter the apartment and the sun fills the back window, I see, like an apparition, roses tossing in the air like a parade, pink, orange, red, white, all lit up by the sun. They appear and then are gone by the time I am fully inside the apartment, as if painted on a curtain someone has now drawn back.
No less a writer than Margaret Atwood has said of Richard Powers that “it’s not possible for him to write an uninteresting book”. On the evidence of The Overstory, he is continuing a remarkable run that began when he came to prominence in 2006 with the National Book award-winning The Echo Maker. This is a mighty, at times even monolithic, work that combines the multi-narrative approach of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas with a paean to the grandeur and wonder of trees that elegantly sidesteps pretension and overambition. Early comparisons to Moby-Dick are unfairly lofty, but this fine book can stand on its own.
Since 2013, the group has been working on behalf of two chimpanzees, Kiko and Tommy, currently being held in cages by their “owners” without the company of other chimpanzees. It is asking the courts to rule that Kiko and Tommy have the right to bodily liberty and to order their immediate release into a sanctuary where they can live out the rest of their lives with other chimpanzees.
The problem is that under current United States law, one is either a “person” or a “thing.” There is no third option. If you are a person, you have the capacity for rights, including the right to habeas corpus relief, which protects you from unlawful confinement. If you are a thing, you do not have the capacity for rights. And unfortunately, even though they are sensitive, intelligent, social beings, Kiko and Tommy are considered things under the law.
In response, the Nonhuman Rights Project is taking a bold position: It is arguing that if every being must be either a person or a thing, then Kiko and Tommy are persons, not things. I agree, and many other philosophers do, too.
Nearly every day, however, I hear someone complain that the atrium is a “waste of space.” This complaint goes back to 1965, when a group of head librarians from around the country were invited to review the architect Philip Johnson’s design. Among the librarians was Ralph Ellsworth, the director of libraries at the University of Colorado, who voiced his objections to Martin Beck, NYU’s director of planning. The enormous atrium meant that the floors would be U-shaped, which would minimize the amount of storage and inconvenience readers, he asserted. He called the design “a throwback to the 19th century conditions” and “a fantastic architectural anachronism,” comparable to Boeing putting “buggy whip holders on the front of a B-727.”
Ellsworth’s vitriolic letter set the tone, and librarians continue to vehemently denounce the building to this day. They allege that Johnson, like so many architects, failed to appreciate the purpose of the building or draw on the knowledge of librarians. They resent that the needs of researchers, and imperatives of storage and preservation, were deemed to be less important than the desire for grandeur and monumentality. And, unknowingly, they express an abiding tension between practical design and aesthetics, between librarians and architects, which has a curious history.
Brainstorm is testament to O’Sullivan’s unshowy clarity of thought and her continued marvelling at the mysteries of the brain. She doesn’t yearn for all the gaps in medical knowledge to be filled: “If we knew everything about how the brain functioned,” she writes, “what would we be then? Just sophisticated machines?” Some readers might be surprised to hear a neurologist echoing Keats’s criticism that Newton stripped nature of its poetry by reducing the rainbow to a prism. But if O’Sullivan was more clinical it’s doubtful she’d be such a fine writer.
I first encountered Trimble's work when I was an undergraduate astrophysics major. On the first day of seminar, my professor handed out a 101-page stack of paper. Flipping through its 13 sections, he explained that Trimble trawled the scientific journals and collated the year's cosmic progress into a tome like this one. It wasn't just a review paper laying out the state of atmospheric studies of Jupiter, or asteroid hunting, or massive star formation. It was all of everything important that had happened the previous year in astronomy—broad, comprehensive, and utterly unusual. Most unusual of all was that it contained jokes.
Today, new technologies promise to synthesize masses of publication data for scientists. But before artificial intelligence even tried, astronomers had Trimble, who wrote these comprehensive articles every year. For 16 years, she devoted her mind to this task of curation, contextualization, and commentary. And throughout her career, she has largely eschewed long-term research with fancy telescopes, competitive funding, and approving nods from university administrators. Refusing narrow focus, she has gone solo on most of her 850 publications, focusing as much on the nature of doing astronomy as studying the universe itself.
For centuries, blue was considered one of the rarest of pigments, found only in small quantities in nature. Pigments like lapus lazuli, made from a metamorphic rock of the same name, was said to have a value akin to precious metals like gold. But thanks to Diesbach’s chemical mishap, the pigment could now be made synthetically; faster, cheaper, and in greater quantities than ever before. Diesbach’s blue, called Prussian Blue, is considered one of the first synthetic colors to ever have been made. Since then, we’ve found many more.
It’s strange to think of color as something that can be discovered. Ask most scientists and they’ll tell you that’s not really how it works, anyway. “You can’t discover a color,” said Mas Subramanian, a chemist at Oregon State University who in 2009 created a blue pigment called YInMN blue. “You can only discover a material that uses a particular reflection of a particular wavelength.” Semantics aside, humans have created new pigments—whether through intentional scientific inquiry or pure happenstance—for as long as we’ve been around.
“I’m going to send you a plane ticket. I want you to come out to Hollywood, and we’ll see if you can write.” With those words, Steven Bochco changed my life. Steven had been changing lives for years. He had offered little-known actors roles that would define their careers, and recruited young directors for what were to be Emmy-winning scripts. And, because he seemed to have read everything, he also discovered a bevy of playwrights, academics, and lawyers (among them me, a public defender in the Bronx) whom he nurtured and mentored as television writers. I was not even the first writer named David whose life he changed; I was the last and least of his three Davids.
I know this because Steven told me so. Early in our relationship, after receiving Steven’s notes on a script that he found wanting, I reminded him, a bit defensively, that it was only the third script I’d ever written, and suggested that even David Kelley probably didn’t always get it right the first time. “No,” Steven said evenly. “With David we pretty much shot the whites.” Steven didn’t intend this as cruel or demeaning. It wasn’t meant to put me in my place or to push me to work harder. For Steven, it was simply true. He had a relentless, assiduous fidelity to the truth. He looked squarely and honestly at the world and then unflinchingly described it.
The problem wasn’t the headphones—they were seriously high quality headphones. It was the intensity of my voice. As I read, my own words seemed to reverberate in my head and bounce around my skull. They were loud and aggressive. It was unnerving. It was emotionally draining.
“Can we turn down the volume?” Outside my technically impressive cave, Ken and Matt, the engineers, were making the magic happen. They couldn’t see me, but they could hear every breath and rustle and word. They didn’t have windows to the outside world either, but they kept the door open to the long hall full of studios with serious sound insulation and blinking signs that said, “Quiet please, recording.” They had created thousands of audiobooks between the them. I had entered a different universe, and I was grateful that some of us knew what we were doing.
Every few seconds my iPhone lights up with new posts on a WhatsApp group linking doctors in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta to journalists in the outside world. News of Russian and Syrian government bombardment comes more or less in real time: “Before three hours in Ghouta, Russian plane tracked ambulances and hit both ambulances and hospitals.” “Dr Hamza: I have treated twenty-nine cases so far, the majority are children.” Visuals are captioned in Arabic and English: “Photos of shelters that local residents dug under their homes.” The journalists, who include correspondents from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other international newspapers, use the group to clarify the numbers of casualties and check locations of attacks, while broadcast media request Skype interviews from inside the war zone.
A meticulous sifting of testimony, videos, and photographs conveyed by social media, to be cross-checked with government propaganda, satellite imagery, and whatever other sources are available, is a crucial part of twenty-first-century conflict reporting. It feels very far from William Howard Russell, usually considered the first modern war correspondent, who famously covered the Charge of the Light Brigade, describing the British cavalry in Crimea as “glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendour of war.”
Pauli’s views persist among many scientists today. It’s a basic principle of scientific practice that a new theory shouldn’t invoke the undetectable. Rather, a good explanation should be falsifiable – which means it ought to rely on some hypothetical data that could, in principle, prove the theory wrong. These interlocking standards of falsifiability and observability have proud pedigrees: falsifiability goes back to the mid-20th-century philosopher of science Karl Popper, and observability goes further back than that. Today they’re patrolled by self-appointed guardians, who relish dismissing some of the more fanciful notions in physics, cosmology and quantum mechanics as just so many castles in the sky. The cost of allowing such ideas into science, say the gatekeepers, would be to clear the path for all manner of manifestly unscientific nonsense.
But for a theoretical physicist, designing sky-castles is just part of the job. Spinning new ideas about how the world could be – or in some cases, how the world definitely isn’t – is central to their work. Some structures might be built up with great care over many years, and end up with peculiar names such as inflationary multiverse or superstring theory. Others are fabricated and dismissed casually over the course of a single afternoon, found and lost again by a lone adventurer in the troposphere of thought.
When I was younger, I used to ask my friends how they thought. Words? Images? Scenes? No one could answer in enough detail to satisfy, and I quickly learned to lay off. But the question never left me. How do other people think? In The Chandelier, just translated from the Portuguese for the first time, I've finally found a response.
Adams approaches her topic as an animal-rights advocate as well as a feminist. She reminds us what the "everyday object" of a hamburger really is: "The burger — minced, macerated, ground — is the renamed, reshaped food product furthest away from the animal."
“The importance of the fire is more than something that brings us warmth in such a hostile place,” Victor Vargas Filgueira, a Yaghan guide at the Museo del Fin del Mundo (End of the World Museum) in Ushuaia told me. “It served as an inspiration for many things.”
That inspiration can be seen in a word that has garnered rapturous admirers and inspired many flights of the imagination. Mamihlapinatapai comes from the near-extinct Yaghan language. According to Vargas’ own interpretation, “It is the moment of meditation around the pusakí [fire in Yaghan] when the grandparents transmit their stories to the young people. It’s that instant in which everyone is quiet.”
But since the 19th Century, the word has held a different meaning – one to which people all over the world relate.
I did a bit of yoga for a short while, and one of the things that has stayed with me since – and continues to echo as I encounter the days – is the notion of ‘being present’. You know, the typical yoga speak of, ‘Bring yourself into the moment. Be present in it. Let everything else just fall away.’ What puzzled me initially was the question of, well, when had we started being absent from the moment? When did we go missing?
We live in a world of distractions and abandonments now – memes, phones, the tele and so on – so I guess that’s one answer: we got lost in hypermodernity. Our presence in the moment fell away in the white noise of it. And this notion had been knocking around my head for a while when a friend sent me a snippet from an interview he did with Yuval Noah Harari on the evolution of writing as an act. Harari says that writing ‘habituated people to think in terms of the written word, and not in terms of what they had experienced in the world.’ If it was true that the written word had begun to define reality, alienating us from presence in the process, what might this mean for literature?
“I suspect that cooking with love is an inversion of a different principle: cooking to be loved,” Bill Buford says in Heat. Perhaps that’s why eating a restricted diet feels so lonely: cooks — whether they are homespun or professional chefs — are deeply annoyed by being confined or regulated. If you are on the receiving end of this annoyance, it feels personal, especially if your finicky-ness is a result of necessity rather than preference. But for the person preparing the food, even a simple request can create a major upheaval, undermining both flavor and technique. Food designed for specialized diets tends to expel puffs of uncertainty and sometimes disdain. (If you don’t believe me, just go to your favorite pizza joint and order a gluten-free crust. If they have one, it will almost certainly be served either nearly raw or burnt, and although it may have the same sauce topping and cheese as your usual order, it will exude none of the decadent coziness of your typical slice.)
Studies show that comfort food is comforting because of association: It soothes by reminding us of one who once calmed us, but this only works for the emotionally healthy, those with a “secure attachment style,” people who have generally positive associations with and trust in relationships. For those raised in a supportive environment, eating the foods of their childhood provides a link to memories of emotional support, making them feel less alone. But for those of us whose early relationships were troubled, familiar food does not alleviate isolation. We cannot imagine away loneliness. When what’s familiar is painful, seeking comfort requires us to do the uncomfortable work of trying something new. Paradoxically, to be soothed, we must seek out the unfamiliar, leaving what is deceptively called our comfort zone.
Kerrigan takes us beyond Shakespeare’s primary sources into the deeper texture of his allusions and passages of imitation. His originality, by this account, was largely a gift for the alchemical transformation of what he had read, heard recited, or remembered from his days on a hard bench at Stratford grammar school.
Maybe every town is a shell waiting to be furnished; every fiction a fake until we consent to meet it halfway. Overland was jerry-rigged over an existing structure. The fields are felt and the taps don’t work and the perfect little cabin commands a view of tarpaulin. The place is an illusion, but that doesn’t mean it’s not home.
The first issue of Rolling Stone to bop me between the eyes at the newsstand bore a black border on the cover. It framed an obituary portrait of the guitarist Jimi Hendrix, the quantum mechanic of psychedelic rock, who had died of an overdose of barbiturates or sleeping pills at the age of twenty-seven, an early extinguishing more befitting a Romantic poet. The next issue of Rolling Stone also carried a black border, this one memorializing the blues rocker Janis Joplin, the queen of husky catarrh, whose death mirrored Hendrix’s: overdose at age twenty-seven. It was 1970, and a scant three years after the Summer of Love the counterculture was filling the coffins.
Founded in 1967, based in San Francisco, Rolling Stone was in the hairy thick of the tribal youth tumult, reporting on hippie hedonism, radical protest, and, in a notorious cover story, the floating seraglio of rock groupies whose thrift-shop splendor and Twiggy eyelashes made them style icons for those seeking backstage passes. But other publications were also bumming it to Haight-Ashbury and rolling around in “dope, sex, and cheap thrills.” It was in its formal expressions of generational mourning, its neo-Victorian decorum in honoring its fallen heroes, that Rolling Stone found stature and distinguished itself from the kaleidoscopic collage of underground papers and New Left organs on the news racks. Addressing a national audience instead of just a fervent sect, Rolling Stone made itself the designated mourner of rock royalty, the grief counselor of Woodstock Nation, and keeper of the tablets. A year later, Jim Morrison of the Doors would be framed in a black border on the cover, the Lizard King having reached the fatal cut-off age of twenty-seven.
I’ll begin by getting something out of the way: I have no clear and easy tricks for a happier, healthier you. I have no instant remedies for sluggishness, or shyness, or social discomfort. I possess no secrets to success. My morning routine, which I am not suggesting you imitate, can be summarized as (1) Wake up. (2) Hurry.
But in writing my book Asking For a Friend, I researched the stories of 16 people who made their names, and sometimes their fortunes, by telling people what to do. They are all professional advice-givers, and they have been answering Americans’ thorniest, most intimate questions since before the country was founded.
The story of Slater’s attempts to get and stay well weaves throughout “Blue Dreams: The Science and the Story of the Drugs That Changed Our Minds” and provides some of the book’s most poignant and lyrical writing. Just as important, her experience makes her a convincing travel guide into the history, creation and future of psychotropics. She is, understandably, not an uncritical cheerleader. But she resists the facile role of hard-charging prosecutor. And no wonder, really, given that the drugs have allowed her to have two children, write nine books, marry (and divorce) and hold dear friendships.
This isn’t another chapter in that old story about how we ate badly until fill-in-the-blank came along and revolutionized American dining. This is a story about a world in which there were no avocados until David Fairchild mailed some home, about a strange and meager period in our past in which no one had eaten a zucchini.
I’ve taught Shakespeare to Columbia undergraduates for three decades, and while my students over the years haven’t changed their minds much about A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Macbeth, they have about Hamlet. As in everyone’s classes on the play, the conversation in mine inevitably turns to why Hamlet delays. Back in the 1980s, thanks to the influence of a generation of high school teachers who had seen the 1948 film of Laurence Olivier’s Oedipal Hamlet and had likely read Hamlet and Oedipus, I could always count on a few students to say that Hamlet couldn’t readily avenge himself on a man who acted on his own desires to kill his father and sleep with his mother. (These days no student mentions the Oedipal theory, and when I offer it as a possibility, the suggestion is met with groans or laughter.)
The older Romantic view of Hamlet as an intellectual paralyzed by excessive thought still appealed to procrastinating students, so I’d hear versions of that too. But as the years rolled by I’d hear new explanations. Some of my students suggested that Hamlet couldn’t act because he was a coward, others that he was experiencing a spiritual crisis. By the end of the century a new paradigm began to emerge: Hamlet was profoundly depressed—that’s why he is immobilized, has trouble with his girlfriend, and feels so alienated. As one student memorably put it, if Prozac had been available there would have been no delay.
Symphony of the Seas – which, on its maiden voyage from Barcelona in March 2018 became the largest passenger ship ever built – is about five times the size of the Titanic. At 362 metres long, you could balance it on its stern and its bow would tower over all but two of Europe’s tallest skyscrapers. Owned and operated by Miami-based cruise line Royal Caribbean, it can carry nearly 9,000 people and contains more than 40 restaurants and bars; 23 pools, jacuzzis and water slides; two West End-sized theatres; an ice rink; a surf simulator; two climbing walls; a zip line; a fairground carousel; a mini-golf course; a ten-storey fun slide; laser tag; a spa; a gym; a casino; plus dozens more shopping and entertainment opportunities. To put it another way, Symphony of the Seas might be the most ludicrously entertaining luxury hotel in history. It just also happens to float.
Picture a cruise ship. You’re likely imagining crisped-pink pensioners bent double over shuffleboard, cramped cabins, bad food and norovirus. And, once upon a time, you’d have been right. But in the last decade or so, cruise ships have gone from a means of transport to vast floating cities with skydiving simulators (Quantum of the Seas), go-karting (Norwegian Joy), bumper cars (Quantum again) and ice bars (Norwegian Breakaway). Restaurants offer menus designed by Michelin-starred chefs. As a result, the cruise industry is experiencing a golden age, boosted by millennials and explosive growth in tourists from China. More than twenty-five million people set sail on a cruise liner in 2017.
Just over ten years after that fall in Paris, I finally stopped being a compulsive book finisher. I’d learned two things in particular that helped me quit. One, I realized literally NO ONE cares if I give up on a book except me. (And maybe the author, if I told them, which I wouldn’t do because…no.) Two, I realized that I’m going to die.
Not tomorrow, knock on wood, or next year, God willing. I don’t know when, but I know better than I knew at 17 that I’m mortal, and that the hours left to read are limited.
If a novel about “first-world problems,” as Nora’s daughter calls them, already has you rolling your eyes, remember that Quindlen, who won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary while a New York Times columnist, is one of our most astute chroniclers of modern life. This novel may be too quiet for some, too populated with rich whiners for others, but it has an almost documentary feel, a verisimilitude that’s awfully hard to achieve. There’s no moment that feels contrived or false, except perhaps to non-New Yorkers who may find it impossible to believe that anyone would consider $350 a month for a parking space a bargain too good to pass up.
So, when she told me that she not only regretted her professional achievements — her three-decades-long career, her MBA, everything — but also that a work-life balance for mothers is impossible, I felt suddenly unmoored. My vision of my own parenthood — which at that point entailed me handily pairing Chuck Taylors with diaphanous nursing dresses, really letting my multitasking skills shine — suddenly seemed less certain. If my mother felt that having a career and a family at the same time was a mistake, I no longer had proof that the opposite was true. What had happened to my feminist hero? And also, as I yelled at her over roast chicken at Rosh Hashana dinner, why didn’t she tell me this before I got knocked up?
I'm not sure why I was so blindsided by this reality; it's easily gleaned from any number of Atlantic think pieces and Sarah Jessica Parker movies. I'm guessing a combination of being too self-involved during my childless years to care about the experiences of young moms and too arrogant to think that I would be vulnerable to the same pitfalls that typically befall working moms. (Would I, a superior specimen of womanhood, ever be caught dead wearing spit-up-stained yoga pants at brunch? Hell no.) But it turns out that most of my peers, especially those on the younger end of the spectrum, have their eyes wide open.
A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.
Orwell’s critique of political language was grounded in a belief that thinking and language are intertwined. Words, in his view, are not just vehicles for thoughts but make them possible, condition them, and can therefore distort them. Where words stagnate thought does too. Thus, ultimate control in 1984 is control over the dictionary. “Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.”
It is wartime, and a train is packed with Yugoslav Jews bound for death. A father, using a knife concealed in his boot, pries loose the wooden boards of the carriage’s floor. He pushes his little boy out onto the snow through the hole he has made, so that he can join his younger brother, who slid out easily, being smaller. The older boy, Albert, is only seven years old, and his parents have entrusted him with the care of Elijah, who is still too young to understand what is happening.
Albert squeezes through the narrow gap and scrambles to his feet in the moonlight as the train, carrying his parents, moves off. But he can’t find his baby brother. He never does. All his life he is haunted by that innocent failure; his nightmares and waking hours are dominated by the sound of trains.
In a TED talk, Lightman drew the distinction between his two habits of mind in this way: “The scientist tries to name things; the artist tries to avoid naming things.” As he approaches his three score and 10, the gap between those two positions apparently becomes ever more urgent to him. This latest curious book of essays is another stab at resolving that universal either/or.
WH Auden once said that writing about your life was “using up capital”, but this is what makes memoir such a generous form. And Deborah Levy is a most generous writer. What is wonderful about this short, sensual, embattled memoir is that it is not only about the painful landmarks in her life – the end of a marriage, the death of a mother – it is about what it is to be alive.
Racism was not only present in the former Confederacy. Yes, in the South, oppression was written into law and deepened by local violent traditions. But when black migrants went north and west, what they found was all too familiar. Black people were forced into cramped, run-down residential districts by restrictive covenants, “steering” by realtors, mobs of angry white people, and the impossibility of securing mortgages at the same cost as white people. State-sponsored violence against black people took different forms, but it did not stop at the Mason-Dixon Line. Urban police departments inspired fear and anger in all the cities where large numbers of migrants settled. It was not only backward white folks in Selma who saw racial hierarchy as a key component of American culture.
And yet, there is no doubt that television news did help the civil-rights cause, helping activists and politicians push key legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. More recent (and honest) research about how this really happened reveals the genius of King, the institutional imperatives and racial tropes that guided coverage, and the enduring limits to racial equality in every part of the nation.
Kindness is not new. It’s old, pretty old. Aristotle said: “It is the characteristic of the magnanimous man to ask no favour but to be ready to do kindness to others.” Kindness is mankind’s “greatest delight,” said Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. And yet, for a long time it has been seen as sort of… suspicious. As religion’s hold on our culture has weakened, and with it the insistence upon loving thy neighbour, a certain selfishness has come to be expected. To be kind is also to be weak, unfocused on achievement. Unsuccessful. Kindness is seen as a nostalgic throwback to simpler times, or worse, a con. A man who throws his coat over the puddle is a man who onlookers suspect must be protecting something valuable in the mud. To go out of one’s way to be kind suggests an ulterior motive – who has time to look up from their phone, let alone expose themselves to the discomfort of empathising with a stranger?
At the West Plano location of Barnes & Noble Kitchen, the food is real, but the books, strangely enough, are fake. Resting atop wooden shelves that jut out from the back wall, they have neither pages nor titles, functioning merely as decor. To find the real books, diners need only push back their blue upholstered chairs — which, appropriately, resemble furniture that might be found in a public library — and stride to the opposite side of the bar. Smaller than a typical Barnes & Noble, with a book selection largely focused on best-sellers, the entire West Plano store occupies approximately 10,000 square feet. Half of that is devoted to the bookstore, and the other half to the restaurant, with its quiet color palette of wood tones and serene blues.
The 10 stories that make up Mothers resist superficial analysis in a way that is interesting in itself. Power is an extraordinarily unshowy craftsman, so that discussing the writing itself feels like trying to focus on the glass of a window, rather than the view beyond. This is partly a function of the transparency of the prose, which so lacks ornament as to almost feel bald in places, and partly to do with the disposition of his narrators, all of whom share a kind of emotional reserve that is close to affectlessness. The risk in this kind of writing is that it leaves the reader unmoved; the reward is that it can more closely mirror daily life, which plays out without a string section or a set of filters to indicate or intensify the mood.