This questioning of the canon comes from places of lived experience. It’s attuned to how great cultural work can leave you feeling irked and demeaned. For some readers, loving Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad requires some peacemaking with the not-quite-human representations of black people in those texts. Loving Edith Wharton requires the same reckoning with the insulting way she could describe Jews. Bigotry recurs in canonical art. And committed engagement leaves us dutybound to identify it. Shakespeare endures alongside analyses of his flawed characterizations of all kinds of races, nationalities, religions and women. Your great works should be strong enough to withstand some feminist forensics.
But resisting these critiques — whether it’s of “The House of Mirth” or the House of Marvel — with an automatic claim of canon feels like an act of dominion, the establishment of an exclusive kingdom complete with moat and drawbridge, which, of course, would make the so-called resenters a mob of torch-wielding marauders and any challenge to established “literary values” an act of savagery. Insisting that a canon is settled gives those concerns the “fake news” treatment, denying a legitimate grievance by saying there’s no grounds for one. It’s shutting down a conversation, when the longer we go without one, the harder it becomes to speak.
Music and mathematics have always been intimately intertwined. Anyone who has ever played a musical instrument is aware of the presence of mathematics on every page of the score – from the time signature that sets a piece’s rhythm, to the metronome number that determines the speed at which the piece should be played; and, of course, the very act of playing music requires us to count 1, 2, 3… and arrange these numbers into groups, called bars or measures. So it comes as no surprise that mathematics has had a significant influence on music. Much less known is that the influence extends both ways.
“The Women Men Don’t See,” published by James Tiptree Jr. in 1973, is a classic work of feminist science fiction. The story begins with a struggle for survival when a small plane crashes in the Yucatan (I am about to spoil this story entirely, so if you’d like to read it first, please do). The narrator, Don Fenton, a Hemingwayesque spy and adventurer, survives the crash, as do the pilot and a mother-and-daughter duo, Ruth and Althea Parsons.
Despite the dire circumstances and close quarters, Fenton is unable to see the two women for who they are. At first, this non-seeing is literal — on the airplane seated next to him, the Parsons are “blurs” — and later metaphorical, as he confuses their competence and bravery for a hysterical devious femininity. The story ends with an alien encounter, and Fenton is flabbergasted when the women chose to leave with the aliens and flee Earth.
But the reader is not surprised at all. Instead, Fenton’s confusion betrays how little he was listening when Ruth Parsons remarked, “What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.” Beyond that hopeless view of women’s lives, Ruth and Althea’s motivations are unknown. The story’s conventional male point of view implicates the narrative machinery controlled by and devoted to the Fentons of the world by denying the reader access to the truly compelling characters — the two women who have decided to leave the planet.
I’ve eaten by myself in France more than anywhere else, with the exception of my own country where, more than half the time when we’re eating, we’re eating alone. That’s more often than in any previous generation. Pressed for time at work or school, Americans frequently eat by themselves at breakfast and when snacking, according to the NPD Group, a market research company. More than half of lunch meals are solitary. And more than 30 percent of Americans have dinner alone because they’re single or on a different schedule than their partners.
The trend is being seen in other countries, too. In South Korea, for instance, it’s largely driven by long work hours, according to Euromonitor International. Many may not be dining alone by choice, yet because more people are doing it, it’s changing perceptions. “Dining alone has not only become socially acceptable in South Korea,” Euromonitor International reported, “it is almost fashionable.”
In a world of ever more convoluted plot twists, here’s a true novelty: a mystery novel where the mystery is set up on the first page, and then straightforwardly solved at the end. Emma Healey is the young novelist whose debut, Elizabeth Is Missing, about an elderly woman with dementia, won the Costa first novel award in 2014. The achievement of this follow-up lies its finely drawn mother/daughter pairing and sharp take on the nitty-gritty of contemporary familial relationships.
I didn't know how much I needed a laugh until I began reading Stephen McCauley's new novel, My Ex-Life. This is the kind of witty, sparkling, sharp novel for which the verb "chortle" was invented.
At the very least, Rose’s pages provide myriad astute observations about the nature of fiction. Let me close by sharing just one: “There is nothing so trite or pat as an ‘unreliable narrator.’ ”
Only after drafting my bus book Riding the Wheel did I recall Annie Dillard’s advice in The Writing Life: “It is the beginning of a work that the writer throws away.” Instead, I had followed her first chapter’s first sentence: “When you write, you lay out a line of words.” I had begun my first throwaway chapter by laying out a line of words about starting my runs: “It’s an irony to take a car to work when you drive a bus for CyRide, but drivers are the folks that the city of Ames depends on to get people to work.”
I continued my overview about my work until page 42 of the manuscript. I explained where I had worked odd jobs around the city to make ends meet, when I had taken the CDL test, what it had taken to drive a bus, who the other drivers had been, and why I hadn’t become a full-time benefited driver. I kidnapped potential readers into backstory instead of chauffeuring them.
But a good layover is actually a healthful, restorative bore. Layovers are enforced ellipses in life — temporary tenures in air-conditioned limbo. Once you’ve made it to your gate, there is, for the moment, nothing substantial left to achieve. You are free. (You might still have to send email, sometimes, but if you’re the kind of person who absolutely has to send email when at the airport, I wish you the best and cannot help you.) Airport terminals offer nothing to solve and nothing much to explore.
It's not hard to see why critics have labeled Helen DeWitt “brilliant.” After all, she has a PhD in Classics from Oxford, and her fiction spans languages and subjects with apparent ease: she slips from English to Japanese, French, German, and the programming language R as deftly as she displays a thorough understanding of computer science, mathematics, literary theory, economics, and philosophy. Fiction hardly seems the most straightforward tool to explore these topics. But in Some Trick, her new collection of 13 short stories, DeWitt uses fiction to elucidate the conditions that allow people to create brilliant and beautiful things. Sometimes her characters make literature, but they also make suits, compromises, money, music, businesses, deals, and love. DeWitt’s keen insights provide the reader with a distinctive glimpse at how these moments of creation blossom.
It all started with the building of collections for museums and zoos and culminated in attempts to protect native habitats. The BBC nature series have made immense contributions to this endeavor by showing the exceptional splendor of the natural world, which for as long as we can remember has been explained to us by the same caring voice belonging to a man who, as this book shows, has earned the trust we put in his expertise.
But it was also perversely generous, to be granted this strange intimacy in person, as if we were really his friends. Whether it’s a compulsion or a decision, Sedaris isn’t holding back anymore.
Welcome to Anywhere, America. The houses are identical, two-story buildings covered in clapboard and pinched in by two swathes of tightly mown lawn. The streets are wide and well-maintained. The sidewalks are after-thoughts, stopping and starting at seemingly random intervals. It doesn’t matter where they go or how wide they are because their use is intrinsically marginal. Suburbs were not designed with the pedestrian in mind.
Despite their seeming ubiquity, suburbs are an experiment, just one answer to the question of how to house and organize humanity. It’s easy to forget how quickly we’ve come to this stage. Three centuries ago, the most common profession by far was sustenance farming. Most people were illiterate village dwellers. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities while more than 90% of the world’s young adults are literate. In the past 200 years the global population has septupled.
Conterminously with all of these developments has been the largest migration in human history. Not from country to country or region to region but from the hinterlands to the city. The effects of this demographic transformation are difficult to overstate.
“I don’t care if people don’t think feminism is important, because I know it is,” the musician and early Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna says toward the end of “The Punk Singer,” Sini Anderson’s 2013 documentary about her. “And I don’t care if people don’t think late-stage Lyme disease exists, because I have it and other people have it. . . . If they don’t want to believe in it or they don’t want to care about it, that’s totally fine, but they should have to stay out of my way.” She describes an experience common to many sufferers from chronic illness—that of being dismissed as an unreliable witness to what is happening inside her. Since no single medical condition, a doctor once told her, could plausibly affect so many different systems—neurological, respiratory, gastrointestinal—she must be having a panic attack.
But it isn’t only a question of whether or not individual patients are believed. An enigmatic disorder that might have justified a great influx of research money and ingenuity has instead remained stalled and under-investigated, with key players unable to agree on basic facts, such as what it does, how to tell who has it, and what, if anything, can treat it. The standard two-tier test for Lyme, established in 1994, is extremely imprecise, prone to false positives and false negatives. It detects only the antibodies mustered to combat the bacteria, so it isn’t a reliable way to ascertain current, persistent infection. (Whether the symptoms are caused by ongoing infection or are merely an aftereffect of an earlier one is among the most contested questions in the so-called Lyme wars.) The test will give a pass to patients whose immune response has been quieted by antibiotics yet can be triggered by certain antibodies that may be present in non-sufferers.
No doubt about it, middle-aged women are having a moment. Isabella Rossellini was recently reinstated as the face of Lancôme after being fired by the French cosmetics house in 1996 for, she says, being too old (she was a haggard crone of 43). At this year’s Academy Awards, a majority of the best actress nominees were over 40 and the winner, Frances McDormand, is 60. This marked a great leap forward for Hollywood, which has traditionally cast women older than 38 in five roles: crazy mother-in-law, cameo librarian, Shirley MacLaine, lady with a dog at the crime scene or frumpy yet endearing confidante of the hero, a guy who was two years above said actress at college. You could call this the Harrison Ford Problem.
Ageism may well be the last taboo, but keeping it in place is not just male prejudice but the female’s secret dread of losing her youth. Rossellini says that Lancôme told her women dream of looking young. How does it feel to have your sexual currency depreciate that abruptly — and what stock, if any, can replace it? There has been remarkably little good writing about this thorny topic but here, with excellent timing, comes Pamela Druckerman’s pitch-perfect and brutally frank “There Are No Grown-Ups.”
In spite of these occasional infelicities and awkwardnesses, “Circe” will surely delight readers new to the witch’s stories as it will many who remember her role in the Greek myths of their childhood: Like a good children’s book, it engrosses and races along at a clip, eliciting excitement and emotion along the way. The novel’s feminist slant also appeals, offering — like revisions of Medea including Rachel Cusk’s 2015 adaptation of the play or David Vann’s 2017 novel “Bright Air Black” — a reclamation of one of myth’s reviled women. Purists may be less enchanted, bemused by Miller’s sentimental leanings and her determination to make Circe into an ultimately likable, or at least forgivable, character. This narrative choice seems a taming, and hence a diminishment, of the character’s transgressive divine excess.
I often think of a 2016 profile of DeWitt, which noted that she likes to use the phrase "the life of the mind." The journalist wrote that she said it "without irony" — as if it were a little tacky, or a little cute, to do so. Maybe a more socially adept author would be cooler about it, or more self-deprecating. But DeWitt doesn't bother adapting. In her fiction, she uses Greek if Greek is called for, or graphs if graphs are called for. Ideals such as likeability and accessibility seem irrelevant, if not quaint, in the face of her wonderfully irritable intelligence.
I do not and have never really lived in nature. After growing up in a suburb of Chicago and going to college in Columbia, Missouri (pop. 120,612), I moved to Boston. When I look out my window, I see a small parking lot and a dumpster, flanked on either side by recycling bins. I am not sure whether this makes me the intended audience for the pastoral writings of Wendell Berry and Bernd Heinrich or the opposite of it, but I have a great affection for both in any case. Their new books, The World-Ending Fire and A Naturalist at Large respectively, are both career-spanning compendiums of essays on a wide variety of nature and nature-adjacent subjects. Their serendipitous simultaneous publication offers both an opportunity to consider their approaches together. Perhaps more significantly, they also offer a reprieve from the unending drive to refresh Twitter in search of the latest snippet of political news.
That such a reminder should be necessary is one of the more remarkable facts of twentieth-century cultural history. Beckett, after all, risked his life to work for the French Resistance, even though he was a citizen of a neutral country, Ireland. The astonishing works with which he revolutionized both the theater and the novel—Waiting for Godot and the trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—were written immediately after World War II and the Holocaust. Vladimir’s question in Godot, “Where are all these corpses from?,” and its answer, “A charnel-house! A charnel-house!,” hang over much of his writing. Torture, enslavement, hunger, displacement, incarceration, and subjection to arbitrary power are the common fates of Beckett’s characters.
Yet there is a long tradition of seeing him as not merely apolitical but antipolitical.
But what if the nature of the economic puzzles that corporations evolved to solve have shifted? Thanks to software, the internet and artificial intelligence, the expenses that Coase identified can now be reduced just as well with tools from outside the company as they can from within it. Finding freelance workers via online marketplaces can be less costly, less risky and quicker than recruiting full-time employees. Collaboration tools are opening up space for manager-free forms of work. And contracting costs are likely to fall markedly thanks to the advent of blockchain protocols – algorithms that replace trusted third parties, and instead automatically verify transactions using a huge digital ledger, spread across multiple computers. As a result of these innovations, a new way of working is emerging: a series of interactions that are open, skills-based and software-optimised. Where once we had the ‘corporation’, instead we are witnessing the ascendancy of the ‘platform’. The question is: should we see this as a promise, or a threat?
One of my clearest childhood memories is of my father washing his face. He did so in a most particular way, with a vigor and thoroughness that made me feel somehow cleaner for simply having watched him. In the mornings, while he got ready for the workday, I’d sit on the toilet seat brushing my teeth as he went through the various stages of his ablutions. This was in the early nineteen-seventies, when we lived in a low-end red brick rental complex near the Sound in New Rochelle. Our second-floor apartment was a small two-bedroom with a living-dining area and a worn galley kitchen. It had one cramped bathroom, its dulled chrome fixtures speckled with rust and the tiles coming loose in spots, but even my mother wasn’t fretting too much. We were just a couple of years landed in the country, and this was as suitable a place as any. My kid sister and I loved the playground and grassy field that the apartment overlooked—you could check who was out there and sprint down in a breath—and my mother appreciated the southeast-facing windows, as drafty as they were, for the brightness they let in. My father was settling into his first doctoring position, as a staff psychiatrist at the Bronx V.A. hospital, and although extra money was scarce, our family was moving up in the world.
The stories in “Some Trick” return often to this artistic drama; in them, painters, writers, and musicians attempt to preserve their genius in the face of a hostile world run by vulgar businessmen, mercantile agents, and idiot fashion designers. An aesthetic category clearly of interest to DeWitt (as it is to Sheila Heti in her novel “How Should a Person Be?”) is the ugly work of art, the difficult artifact that cannot be easily assimilated. In “Trevor,” a very early story (dated “Oxford, 1985”), a man and a woman debate the proposition that “a painting of a beautiful subject is almost invariably a rotten picture. Guaranteed kitsch, in fact . . .” To accompany and embody the debate, DeWitt’s own prose turns deliberately kitsch and ingratiating, all faux-Jamesian mink: “For his own stream of remarks had been gurgling and chattering in the sunlight briskly on, and had just been coursing down a little cascade of cheery murmurs about tea, so that the abrupt cessation of the agreeable warm undercurrent of consent”—and so on. It’s a slight text, interesting now because it could be a work by the Liberace of “The Last Samurai.”
The result is unnerving; for the reader, it’s like trying to walk on ice. Resistance, however, is futile. The only possible thing to do is to submit to this sense of disorientation, even of queasiness – and, perhaps, to take comfort in the artist’s marvellously inky drawings, whose thick lines bring to mind both woodcuts and the movies of Hitchcock in his 60s heyday (also, Victorian funeral cards).
As with all of Thomson’s elegant and troubling novels, Never Anyone But You exerts a menacing – but never histrionic – power. Like the revenant ghost that Cahun eventually becomes to Moore, this quietly passionate coupling of Eros and history lingers on to haunt the darkest recesses of the reader’s mind.
On November 20, 1962, three months before her death, Sylvia Plath was living in Devon, England, when she wrote to her college benefactress and mentor — Olive Higgins Prouty, a novelist living in the United States — about a second book she was writing. Plath wanted to dedicate it to her:
It is to be called “Doubletake”, meaning that the second look you take at something reveals a deeper, double meaning […] it is semi-autobiographical about a wife whose husband turns out to be a deserter and philanderer although she had thought he was wonderful & perfect. I would like very much, if the book is good enough, to dedicate this novel to you. It seems appropriate that this be “your” novel, since you know against what odds I am writing it and what the subject means to me; I hope to finish it in the New year. Do let me know if you’d let me dedicate it to you. Of course I’d want you to approve of it first!
In Plath’s characteristic aplomb, even in times of distress, she signed off, “With love, Sylvia.” The novel, however, disappeared.
If you live in an apartment in a city like New York or Paris, chances are you secretly spy on your neighbors. It’s hard not to. In my New York apartment, my living room window is only about 30 feet away from my neighbor’s. You notice things–like the fact that my neighbor had red plaid curtains until a woman started showing her face. The curtains quickly disappeared.
Turns out I’m not alone in my morbid curiosity about my neighbors’ tastes in window coverings. New York-based photographer Gail Albert Halaban has spent 13 years photographing people’s relationships with those they can see from their windows–and actually helping them meet each other. For her sprawling, multi-city photo series Out My Window, Halaban helps a person meet the folks who live across from them, and then stages a photograph of those people with their permission. She sets up lighting in their apartment, and then photographs them from across the way, capturing their lives through the window.
Ordinary experience used to include wild, nonhuman nature. It was around people as they worked and loved and took part in ritual. Wild creatures were a constant source of dramatic and mythical meaning. Why else do so many birds feature in poetry? One reason for the melancholy now felt by nature lovers is that the loss of wildlife threatens our ability to renew these meanings. And in times of environmental danger, we need to be skilled, collectively, at recognising the intricate links between ecosystems. The presence of wildlife teaches us this.
At least, Cocker argues, the collapse should not be allowed to occur without communal soul-searching. His title, Our Place, challenges Britain, in its social, ethnic and generational diversity, to begin that conversation. This resourceful and eloquent book could prove to be important.
Midway through “The Desert and Its Seed,” a searching and original novel by the Argentine writer Jorge Barón Biza, the narrator, 23-year-old Mario Gageac, has a revelation in front of a painting. Looking at Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s “The Jurist,” which depicts a man composed of bits of fish and poultry, he observes that the portrait contains two contrary personalities: “At first sight, it captured the astonishment of the victim, but then it acquired a different gleam, revealing the sinister mind of the strategist.”
A fixture in England and on the Western world’s literary landscape, the TLS is a weekly book review journal with a reputation for being a bit dowdy — less progressive than The London Review of Books, a biweekly, and less agile than the books section of The Guardian, to name two of its competitors.
Yet the TLS, founded in 1902, occupies a stalwart position in the book world. It puts serious reviewers on scholarly books other publications rarely touch. It has published important criticism by everyone from Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot to Mary Beard and Clive James, as well as major poetry from figures like Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney.
I’m not alone in thinking that kisses are unromantic and overrated: Over half of the world’s cultures don’t kiss romantically. It simply doesn’t have to be like this. Kiss scientists—a job title only a notch less creepy than "pick-up artist"— have suggested two theories about kissing. Either it’s something biologically inherent, like smiling, that comes from moms “kiss feeding” their babies (a.k.a. regurgitating food into their child’s mouth—the absolute zenith of romance). Kissing may also have been a way for early hominids to smell each others’ saliva to see if their pheromones were compatible, which seems like a risk in a time before oral hygiene, when everyone in your tribe fought over a long-dead rabbit carcass for lunch.
Humans have long trapped animals in cages, nets and snares, but the tangled webs of vanity, curiosity, cruelty and fear we cast over other creatures may be even more perilous. We see our virtues and vices reflected in animals — hardworking beavers, indolent sloths, innocent lambs, greedy vultures — through a glass darkly. But these well-worn clichés blind us to a world far more dazzling and varied, according to Lucy Cooke, the acclaimed zoology-trained author and documentary filmmaker, in her new book, “The Truth About Animals.” As she writes, “Painting the animal kingdom with our artificial ethical brush denies us the astonishing diversity of life, in all of its blood-drinking, sibling-eating, corpse-shagging glory.” (Yes, corpse shagging. The penguin portion is not for the faint of heart.)
The M.I.T. professor Alan Lightman has produced a highly personal polemic targeting the subversive impact on civilization of the increasingly frenetic pace of life. His book, “In Praise of Wasting Time,” proposes “that half our waking minds be designated and saved for quiet reflection.” Failure to heed his recommendation, Professor Lightman warns, will result in the collective destruction of “our inner selves and our creative capacities.”
Straight away, I think it is in the common interests of transparency and full disclosure to tell you that over the last few weeks since I — and I fear this is no coincidence! — began reading the book that is the subject of this review, there has been a gradual, yet very distinct, change in my outlook, demeanor and even my worldview. My life has assumed an overreaching hue that can be described only, and I do mean be described only as, well, Sedarian.
Still, despite and perhaps a little because of its lackadaisical approach to its subject, “Live Work Work Work Die” manages to capture something essential about Silicon Valley that has eluded other authors. This is because Pein starts from the grimy underbelly of tech and never makes it out, which accurately reflects the experience of many tech workers. We only learn of those who make it big — Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. We rarely hear of the people who fail, or work uselessly and endlessly hard, without much in the way of reward.
I’m not who I was supposed to be. No aspiring writer sets out to be a minor writer. I didn’t dream of growing up and writing books that sell modestly, are received quietly, and reviewed indifferently. I was indoctrinated by hours spent curled on the sofa and in bed at night reading great writers and feeling, somehow, in their presence. Whoever it is who first gets his or her hooks into you, Jane Austen, Saul Bellow, J.D Salinger, or, in my case, Jack London and then Joseph Heller, it feels as if he or she understands you, from thousands of miles away and even centuries ago. To become such a writer, a so-called major or important writer, that becomes the dream.
Yet not all of us make it. For me, there was no map to becoming a major writer. (There might be one now, more on that below.) I read the lives of writers and how they came to their majesty and they were impossible to track. Jack London worked at a cannery. Joseph Heller wrote advertising copy. Harper Lee took airline reservations.
Some answers are direct and literal, but others require you to think about the familiar in an entirely different way. There are questions that seem unsolvable until you consider outlandish possibilities: Does this answer read backward? Do multiple letters reside in a single box? It was during these moments that our real bonding took place. We challenged strongly held perceptions, released ideas that felt accurate but did not represent the only truth. Using a combination of logic and flexibility, together we arrived at places that once seemed impossible.
I much preferred puzzling to watching my son pack up his countless possessions: camping equipment, snowboard gear, carabiners and ropes. Calculus books in one pile, Calvin and Hobbes in another. It all reminded me of that teary car ride years ago, after first dropping him at college. I didn’t cry because I missed him — he hadn’t been gone long enough for that — but because I thought I’d done such a flawed job raising him. Like me, he ate much too fast and could barely fold a T-shirt. I remember thinking, “If I just had more time.” As if time could solve what I truly was stuck on.
When I’m shopping, I feel no pain. If I’m sick, I don’t feel sick anymore. My right hip stops hurting. I don’t feel hunger. My adrenaline is pumping. I love the anticipation of shopping — just thinking that I’m going to go buy a new dress makes me happy. It’s only about a week later that I’ll say, “Why did I spend $3,000?” I do return things, but that doesn’t help the problem. I think I use it as an excuse to shop, to be honest. I’ll tell myself, “Go ahead and get it; you can always return it.”
"In tarot, the Fool begins the journey. With an innocent heart and a soul full of wonder he sets out on his wanderings, looking to explore the universe, delighting in all things, trusting in all things the Fool is a card of exploration, hope."
I love that line — which occurs some 300 pages deep in Claire North's new gut-punch of a novel, 84k I love it because it is so goofy, so stilted in its language and heavy-handed in its significance. I love it because, in a lesser novel, it would've been a framing device — thrown down early to serve as guideposts for the early phases of the hero's journey. Mostly I love it because it is a complete lie.
“Country Dark” is dark, but deeply humane. The love in this book is deep and powerful. And winsome twinkles shine through the blackness throughout, thanks in no small part to Offutt’s keen ear and eye. The coffee remains “strong enough to float a rock.” An old boy is commended for still being on his “hind legs.” Beanpole is fat with “table muscle” and Tucker remains “either-handed as a spider.”
Everyone thought he would go on forever. And didn’t many of us assume that the public retirement was merely private retrenchment—that Philip Roth was still writing every day at home, because he could never not write? More than any other postwar American novelist, Roth wrote the self—the self was examined, cajoled, lampooned, fictionalized, ghosted, exalted, disgraced, but above all constituted by and in writing. Maybe you have to go back to the very different Henry James to find an American novelist so purely a bundle of words, so restlessly and absolutely committed to the investigation and construction of life through language. (In the English tradition, that writer would be D. H. Lawrence, who seems Roth’s truer precursor in every way.) You could find him at times repetitive, only intermittently good; you could certainly find his increasingly conservative politics resistible, and hope that, one day, he might represent relations between men and women as something other than purely erotic. But I admired him above all other living American novelists because his life and work had the only quality that really matters: that of unceasing necessity. He would not cease from exploration; he could not cease; and the varieties of fiction existed in order for him to explore the varieties of experience. Roth wrote some essays, and some of them are really fine. His memoir of his father, “Patrimony,” is a beautiful book. But he was essentially a monomaniac, a fanatic of fiction. The novel was the only instrument that mattered. He lived with it and through it, like any demented virtuoso. Purity of heart is to will one thing, says Kierkegaard. Roth, that vitally dirty-minded man, was very pure.
Roth’s explorations were ultimately metaphysical: What is a self? Don’t we invent ourselves, and isn’t this invention the very definition of life? What is desire? What is Jewishness? How should we live, and how should we die? Roth’s men (yes, all men) live their lives suspended between “the fantasy of endlessness” and “the fact of finitude,” as he put it in “Sabbath’s Theater” (the book that, increasingly, seems to lie at the very center of his work). Desire expands life, and holds off death. And comedy does the same, which is why we are so moved when Nathan Zuckerman, in “The Ghost Writer,” imagines telling his parents that he has made good by marrying Anne Frank, who has somehow survived the Holocaust—it’s a great, rude, risky joke. (“Fuck the laudable ideologies,” sings Mickey Sabbath.) Like all great comedy, it brings the dead back into an eternal comic present.
Any family that names its seaside cottage “the Sea Section” and seriously considers “The Amniotic Shack” as an alternative is not exactly normal. But “Calypso” reveals the later-day Mr. Sedaris to be more ruminative, more serious, and a little less inclined to play everything for laughs. He is 61 now, and life has crept up on him.
His quick, charismatic and acerbically clever late mother is revealed in the essay “Why Aren’t You Laughing?” to have been an angry alcoholic who abused and embarrassed her family even as they refused to acknowledge what was going on. The essay “Now We Are Five” poignantly discusses, in Mr. Sedaris’s familiarly discursive way, the suicide of his troubled sister, Tiffany.
But the vicissitudes of his daily life are not so different from the vicissitudes of your life and mine, even if his eye for detail and way of processing the world around him are wholly his own. And one of his gifts as a writer is his ability to slip so easily between the profound and the mundane.
With big dreams come rude awakenings, and the dreams that built a thriving metropolis in a remote corner of Southern California were bigger than most. Los Angeles was once a sparsely settled hinterland, isolated by desert and mountains, constrained by the trickling water supply of the Los Angeles River. As Gary Krist gently puts it in his new book, “It was no sensible place to build a great city.”
Anyone even casually acquainted with Los Angeles has probably heard a version of that sentiment before. But then “The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles” doesn’t pretend to overhaul our understanding with cutting-edge theories or historical bombshells. Krist, who wrote novels before turning to popular histories of Chicago (“City of Scoundrels”) and New Orleans (“Empire of Sin”), marshals his considerable storytelling skills to capture Los Angeles at a critical moment: the period between 1900 and 1930, when an agricultural town of 100,000 people became a burgeoning city of 1.2 million, replete with new industries, a new identity and, crucially, newfound water.
To the casual observer, it is chaos; commuters packed shoulder-to-shoulder amid the constant clatter of arriving and departing trains. But a closer look reveals something more beneath the surface: A station may be packed, yet commuters move smoothly along concourses and platforms. Platforms are a whirl of noisy activity, yet trains maintain remarkable on-time performance. Indeed, the staggering punctuality of the Japanese rail system occasionally becomes the focus of international headlines—as on May 11, when West Japan Railways issued a florid apology after one of its commuter trains left the station 25 seconds early.
Tokyo is home to the world’s busiest train stations, with the capital’s rail operators handling a combined 13 billion passenger trips annually. Ridership of that volume requires a deft blend of engineering, planning, and psychology. Beneath the bustle, unobtrusive features are designed to unconsciously manipulate passenger behavior, via light, sound, and other means. Japan’s boundless creativity in this realm reflects the deep consideration given to public transportation in the country.
Above all else, it was my passive state that I grappled with the most. The accident may have stripped me of my ability to work with my hands, but not my desire to create with them. As I lay on the couch, day after day, I would scroll through my food-themed Instagram, pore over cookbooks and binge-watch “The Great British Bake Off.” I longed to lose myself in the production process of what I saw. Once, in January, I was left in tears after an evening in which my family made, and we all ate, Georgian soup dumplings. I, too, wanted to work the rounds of dough — to fill and pleat my own little purses of soup, meat and happiness. To do so, however, required both hands. I just sat there and looked on, maddened and disheartened.
Yet, the same creative urge that left me frustrated propelled me into the kitchen again. I needed to push back against the passivity, for sanity’s sake. A few weeks after the accident, on New Year’s, I discovered that, with the help of a stand mixer and nearby helpers, simple cakes were within my reach. Giant black-splint in tow, I barked orders more than carried them out. I nonetheless felt proud when, out of the oven, our spiced apple torte emerged: a smashing success if we hadn’t accidentally burned it. A month and a half later, an inspired act of self-love on Valentine’s Day motivated me to attempt another cake. This time, a perfectly baked success with blueberries, hazelnuts and ricotta. Aside from the zesting and chopping, I managed the feat completely and proudly on my own.
But Goodall’s case and the right-to-die movement have their critics, in both the religious and the secular sphere. And end-of-life debates more generally — whether they’re instances of suicide like Goodall’s or controversial cases like that of terminally ill UK infant Alfie Evans, whose parents lost the fight to keep him on life support — raise vital questions for which we, as a society, do not have fully articulated answers.
Who has the right to end a life — and why? And what does it mean to make assumptions that a life is, or is not, worth living? At what point do the sometimes competing ideas of “best interest,” individual freedom, and the inherent goodness of life overlap, and where do they contradict each other? And what does the increasing medicalization of death say about our attitude to life?
When I’m on vacation, I try to read books set in the place I’m visiting or, if not set there exactly, at least evocative of the mood of the place. These often set the tone of my stay, the restaurants I choose or the ways I spend my time. It’s easy on vacation to change plans because of a book and pretend I never made them to begin with. I recently visited New York for the first time in nearly a decade and was spoiled for choice—I bought too many books set there and lived inside the world I was reading about, despite the fact that the real version of that world was right outside the window.
The artist has time, but no money. The consumer has money, but no time.
Scholar Michael Collings writes that King’s poems “concentrate on the small, the minute. They are not themselves trivial, but they carry an implicit sense of triviality when considered next to the bulk of The Stand or IT … or even the lesser weight of Carrie, Salem’s Lot, and the other novels.” Given such criticism, why read King’s poetry at all?
Poetry was a formative influence on King. He studied and wrote it extensively in college, which helped him develop the keen ear that still confounds some critics. As part of a generation of writers weaned on TV and Hollywood films, King also describes himself as “an imagist” who uses vivid language in his prose the same way poets convey ideas visually or metaphorically. Just as some of his early short stories tinker with concepts he explores at greater length in the novels, some of King’s early poems introduce ideas and images that reemerge in later works.
In 2004, when several of King’s college poems were reprinted in The Devil’s Wine, an anthology of horror writers’ poetry, Publishers Weekly declared them “good enough to make readers hope the Master Spellbinder revisits his muse more frequently.” Ardent King fans are particularly interested in his poetry because much of it is hard to find and yet well worth seeking out. These early works have enough raw energy and memorable lines to be compelling literature in their own right. Besides, as King writes in Danse Macabre, his 1981 nonfiction study of the horror genre, poetry doesn’t require justification: “to simply delight the reader is enough, isn’t it?”
The year I got my first job in publishing, 2008, was one of the industry’s gloomiest. Major bookstore chains were going under: Borders was doomed and the Kindle had launched a year earlier. It was already obvious that the deepening financial crisis would gut the big publishers and cast out many of the small ones. But my fellow editorial assistants avoided these elephants in the room, and instead spent their days exchanging stories about their bosses: about how they used to frequent dinner parties with Susan Sontag or do coke with Bret Easton Ellis. These conversations depressed me. Why were we talking about the good old days of people older and more powerful than us? That the charmed lives of management often entailed bad behavior we now justly condemn only made the obsession that much more unseemly.
Four years later, I was implicated in boss stories when I went to work for Peter Mayer, one of the stars of book publishing. If anyone in the industry had the right to diffuse their nostalgia, it was Peter, who died at 82 last Friday. The publisher of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and thus the costar of l’affaire Rushdie, Peter wasn’t otherwise famous for his writers and acquisitions. He was known for his charm, his temper, his savvy, his smoking, and for the relentless dynamism he brought to an industry that often preferred to react or sit still. I never got to see him in action at the Frankfurt Book Fair, but I imagine him spending entire days in conversation with many decades’ worth of friends and colleagues.
The terminal has its share of surprises. And now, passengers arriving or departing there are greeted with one more: a piece of live, performance art.
In a space outside security that used to be a Hudson News kiosk, the writers and close friends Gideon Jacobs and Lexie Smith, who both live in Ridgewood, Queens, have set up a writing nook with stacks of books, wooden furniture, rugs and a vintage typewriter. There they are, writing unique, fictional stories for fliers.
NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan believes we’ll find “definitive evidence” of alien life by 2050. Probably microbes in a chemical soup somewhere, similar to how life began on Earth, but who knows? Maybe we’ll encounter intelligent aliens who bestow their wisdom unto us, like the paternalistic aliens of science fiction. In Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End, aliens free Earth from crime, war, and disease (the story’s ending is a bit more complicated). In Carl Sagan’s Contact, aliens provide humanity a paradigm-shifting understanding of the universe; in Arrival, the aliens’ gift is a new understanding of time. In these stories, humans develop meaningful relationships with aliens based on common goals, fairness, and decency.
However, Liu Cixin’s award-winning Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy raises the question of whether NASA transmitting the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe” toward Polaris or sending the Golden Record beyond the solar system was such a wise idea.
Besides, I agree with much of what Pinker has to say. His book is stocked with seventy-five charts and graphs that provide incontrovertible evidence for centuries of progress on many fronts that should matter to all of us: an inexorable decline in violence of all sorts along with equally impressive increases in health, longevity, education, and human rights. It’s precisely because of the validity of much of Pinker’s narrative that the flaws in his argument are so dangerous. They’re concealed under such a smooth layer of data and eloquence that they need to be carefully unraveled. That’s why my response to Pinker is to meet him on his own turf: in each section, like him, I rest my case on hard data exemplified in a graph.
This discussion is particularly needed because progress is, in my view, one of the most important concepts of our time. I see myself, in common parlance, as a progressive. Progress is what I, and others I’m close to, care about passionately. Rather than ceding this idea to the coterie of neoliberal technocrats who constitute Pinker’s primary audience, I believe we should hold it in our steady gaze, celebrate it where it exists, understand its true causes, and most importantly, ensure that it continues in a form that future generations on this earth can enjoy. I hope this piece helps to do just that.
My preferred take is this. The absurdity of our situation is only troubling if it implies that nothing really matters and that all human pursuits are inherently meaningless. But none of the accounts of absurdity canvassed above have that implication. If you love what you’re doing, and if what you love has genuine human-sized value (roughly, the moral philosopher Susan Wolf’s definition of meaningfulness), your life can have depth and purpose even if it involves incongruity and failure, and even if the Universe cares naught for it, or for you. Talking seriously about philosophy with teenagers, while your back collapses, their hearts break, their parents struggle, and the country falls apart – you could call it absurd. But you could also look up from your window seat, catch yourself in the thick of it, and, after a twinge of embarrassment, call it beautiful. Then get back to work.
Who can remember everything? Who would want to? Jaunts offline into nature are primarily a way to scrub our minds of the endless textual shouting of internet discourse. And yet, creating a record of what makes internet writing internet writing is a useful exercise in understanding what it is we do all day and why it compels us ever-maddeningly forward.
Because I hate myself, and because I want my future robots to remember my contributions to this wild weird world before it all dissipates into the ether, or becomes a wasteland of Russian bots and Incels, I spoke with writers, journalists, novelists, and normal people to come up with a definitive list of essential internet reading. This required coming up with a working theory about what makes internet writing uniquely “internetty.”
Over-the-top luxury foods are a reliable public-relations gambit for any attention-hungry restaurant—even in the years before the advent of Instagram, my e-mail inbox would fill up with thousand-dollar omelettes and millionaire Martinis, constructed with a laundry list of pricey ingredients. But, short of treating caviar like mashed potatoes or serving a whole white truffle to be eaten like an apple, it’s virtually impossible for a restaurant dish to reach a truly eye-popping price tag without an assist from the mineral world—like, say, the diamond that rested at the bottom of the glass of the the ten-thousand-dollar Martini once served at Vaucluse, a night club in Hollywood. (For a hundred grand, the club was happy to serve it with a bigger rock.)
Earlier that day, I had gotten messages from nine different friends, all saying they’d planned on attending but something had come up and they couldn’t make it. Each of their explanations was understandable—sick children, stuck at work, car troubles—but also it seemed cruel that every one of them would have an emergency on the same night. My wife was there, in the second row and I sent her a text from the front of the room: can we just leave? Will anyone notice?
I did not leave. I had promised to do an event, and the library had made space for me, and even if only one person was in the audience, I had a responsibility to deliver. But in those next two minutes—as I kept hoping for, say, a bus full of book critics to break down outside—I was thinking grim thoughts about the creative life.
The author’s description of Holmes as a manic leader who turned coolly hostile when challenged is ripe material for a psychologist; Carreyrou wisely lets the evidence speak for itself. As presented here, Holmes harbored delusions of grandeur but couldn’t cope with the messy realities of bioengineering. Swathed in her own reality distortion field, she dressed in black turtlenecks to emulate her idol Jobs and preached that the Theranos device was “the most important thing humanity has ever built.” Employees were discouraged from questioning this cultish orthodoxy by her “ruthlessness” and her “culture of fear.” Secrecy was obsessive. Labs and doors were equipped with fingerprint scanners.
The heart of the problem, Carreyrou writes, was that “Holmes and her company overpromised and then cut corners when they couldn’t deliver.” To hide those shortcuts, they lied. Theranos invented revenue estimates “from whole cloth.” It boasted of mysterious contracts with pharmaceutical companies that never seemed to be available for viewing. It spread the story that the United States Army was using its devices on the battlefield and in Afghanistan — a fabrication.
In 2018, we’re 45 years away from first contact with the Vulcans, and 217 years away from the start of NCC-1701’s historic five-year deep space mission. But in this moment, not only has Star Trek avoided cultural obsolescence, it’s as relevant as ever. What does that mean for the next five, even 10 years? Should fans already be worried about recent history repeating itself?
Welcome to the shopless shop, where customers pay for decisions to be taken out of their hands. Since 2014 the number of visitors to subscription shopping websites has grown by 800%. Customers receive a “curated box” of items of beauty products, clothes for work, even toys for their pets. The companies’ success (in the US they’re booming) lies in the surprise. Today, if you know what you want, you can buy it on your phone in a single click. If, instead, you simply want… something, the subscription box promises a personalised experience from the gift-ish unwrapping to the possibility that the contents inside will change your life. Could this be the future of shopping?
William Trevor is one major writer about whose life I know only odd scraps; yet this feels appropriate. I know that he was of southern Irish Protestant stock; that his real name was Trevor Cox; that he worked in the same advertising agency as the poet Peter Porter; that he took holidays on Porquerolles, a Mediterranean island with no vehicular traffic; and that he shared the Irish short story writer’s traditional fate of being called “an Irish Chekhov”. But I can’t think of any public statement he made, or any cause he publicly adhered to, or any time when the non-literary pages of newspapers were interested in him. Was he knighted? Did they make a South Bank Show about him? I met him once, in 1999, after he won the David Cohen prize, but was left with only a strong impression of courtliness, charm and reserve.
Atlas may have written only two biographies but he has thought long and hard about the pitfalls of the genre: he likens himself to “a car mechanic, repair manual in hand, peering under the hood of a steaming engine”. His book motors smoothly along: it is well written, wide-ranging, packed with gossip and has some of the best footnotes you’ll ever come across. But it’s hard to miss the suffering underneath – the story of a life made sadder by the writing of a Life.
Of course, there is an explanation. Human sperm cells develop better at a slightly lower temperature than the rest of our body seems to prefer. Humans aren’t alone in this respect: Most male mammals have testicles that migrate through the inguinal canal during gestation or infancy and eventually take up residence outside the abdominal cavity, suspended in a temperature-sensitive adjustable hammock. This allows the sperm cells to develop at the temperature that’s just right.
But is it really just right? Only if you accept that the ideal temperature is a special fixed property of the universe, like Planck’s constant or the speed of light in a vacuum. Evolution could have simply tweaked the parameters of sperm development so the ideal temperature of its enzymatic and cellular processes was the same as the rest of the body’s processes. Hematopoiesis, the creation of new blood cells, is a close parallel of sperm development in terms of the tissue architecture and cellular events involved, yet bone marrow doesn’t grow outside our body. Nor do ovaries, for that matter.
The answer to the central question at the heart of modern science, ‘Is nature continuous or discrete?’ is as radical as it is simple. Space-time is not continuous because it is made of quantum granules, but quantum granules are not discrete because they are folds of infinitely continuous vibrating fields. Nature is thus not simply continuous, but an enfolded continuum.
In the late 1960s my friend J. G. Ballard phoned me full of outrage. Feeling weighed down by the bad prose cluttering his study, he had dug a pit in his back garden and thrown his review copies in, splashing them with a little petrol. But they proved harder to burn than he thought, so he put one in the kitchen oven, which had a suitable thermometer, to test the igniting heat of book paper. “Bradbury was wrong!” he complained. “Fahrenheit 451 isn’t the temperature at which book paper burns!” But, I asked, hadn’t Bradbury phoned the Los Angeles Fire Department to get the temperature right?
“Well, they’re wrong, too!” announced Ballard, who admired Bradbury and whose own early Vermilion Sands stories echo Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Ray Bradbury, he said, had shown him that science ﬁction was worth writing.
Ironically, Bradbury, like Ballard, was primarily a fantast. He wrote very little science ﬁction, even as he became a measure of how good the genre could be. He said so in a 1999 interview with the Weekly Wire: “I don’t write science ﬁction. I’ve only done one science ﬁction book and that’s Fahrenheit 451.”
In real life, Boughton says, “we have American food being the dominant food that’s spread across the world because we won the war. So we had to basically reverse that idea.” A diner set in the narrow neutral zone between the feuding dictatorships is shown in the first season of The Man in the High Castle to have a menu that Boughton says suggests that the “Depression era never left.” You can still get a hot dog; it just may not look like an Oscar Mayer frank because other factories are now making sausages. In the second season, a greasy spoon in a Japanese-occupied territory still has decent counter service and waitresses with pluck. But it’s now the place to slurp ramen instead of chicken noodle soup on your lunch break. “That sort of mixing of ideas is what we like to do to take the viewer of out of it,” Boughton says.
In Los Angeles, the man driving the car I am sitting in the backseat of wants to tell me how much he likes my name. I nod. It’s a powerful name, he tells me. A friend of his son has the name. He asks me if I am Muslim, and then asks me if I know what my name means. This happens often: I am in a car, being driven by someone who perhaps has a name close enough to my name for them to ask me if we are of a shared faith. The question “Do you know what it means?” is both test and icebreaker, and the answer is yes, I do know what it means. Although some days, depending on the eager energy of the car’s driver, I might pretend that I don’t, just so they can have the satisfaction of telling me.
In Los Angeles, though, I say that I know what it means. Today I would like to be the one unboxing my own complications. The name Hanif, in so many words, translates to “true believer.” I tell the driver this and he nods with a satisfied approval. “The one true believer,” he tells me. “What do you do with that burden?”
I imagine the question to be rhetorical.
Then the questions started. Sergeant Clipboard asked me if I understood that all my responses would be documented. He asked me to state my name and address, where I attended high school and whether or not I was enrolled in the University of Illinois, Navy Pier Campus. I answered affirmatively and the typist recorded my words almost as fast as I spoke them. His speed was impressive. For my college papers, I used the “hunt and peck” system on an old Smith Corona.
The questions, which seemed banal and routine, continued for almost half an hour. I was a bit surprised because they already had all this information. Then Sergeant Clipboard asked a question that almost knocked me off my seat.
“When did you become a member of the Communist Party?”
In retrospect, it all felt in line with my Soviet past: reading books for the invisible other-books they contained. I’ve always had a taste for writing that stimulates language on both a narrative and metaphysical level. Within the act of storytelling, I want to feel like language is becoming and the content can walk through walls (my own, cellular, and the four walls of the room).
I don’t believe that censorship guarantees this experience, nor that it is a prerequisite. But when the space between the lines is activated, language can move in every direction.
A theme of the age, at least in the developed world, is that people crave silence and can find none. The roar of traffic, the ceaseless beep of phones, digital announcements in buses and trains, TV sets blaring even in empty offices, are an endless battery and distraction. The human race is exhausting itself with noise and longs for its opposite—whether in the wilds, on the wide ocean or in some retreat dedicated to stillness and concentration. Alain Corbin, a history professor, writes from his refuge in the Sorbonne, and Erling Kagge, a Norwegian explorer, from his memories of the wastes of Antarctica, where both have tried to escape.
What endures in this final book, though, is a fixation with the past as a portal to present misères, whether persistent gender inequalities or economic disparities as extreme as those of the industrial age. Images, she taught us over decades, have a unique capacity to indict those wrongs, and, as artists’ representations of others’ misfortunes have lately occasioned protests and even calls for destruction, Nochlin reminds us that there is nothing ethical in closing your eyes.
But The Outsider gives King fans exactly what they want at the same time as cramming in new ideas, proving the least surprising thing of all: that his novels are as strong as they ever were.
If plastic had been invented when the Pilgrims sailed from Plymouth, England, to North America—and the Mayflower had been stocked with bottled water and plastic-wrapped snacks—their plastic trash would likely still be around, four centuries later.
If the Pilgrims had been like many people today and simply tossed their empty bottles and wrappers over the side, Atlantic waves and sunlight would have worn all that plastic into tiny bits. And those bits might still be floating around the world’s oceans today, sponging up toxins to add to the ones already in them, waiting to be eaten by some hapless fish or oyster, and ultimately perhaps by one of us.
We should give thanks that the Pilgrims didn’t have plastic, I thought recently as I rode a train to Plymouth along England’s south coast. I was on my way to see a man who would help me make sense of the whole mess we’ve made with plastic, especially in the ocean.
Psychedelic therapy, whether for the treatment of psychological problems or as a means of facilitating self-exploration and spiritual growth, is undergoing a renaissance in America. This is happening both underground, where the community of guides like Mary is thriving, and aboveground, at institutions like Johns Hopkins, New York University and U.C.L.A., where a series of drug trials have yielded notably promising results.
I call it a renaissance because much of the work represents a revival of research done in the 1950s and 1960s, when psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin were closely studied and regarded by many in the mental health community as breakthroughs in psychopharmacology. Before 1965, there were more than 1,000 published studies of psychedelics involving some 40,000 volunteers and six international conferences dedicated to the drugs. Psychiatrists were using small doses of LSD to help their patients access repressed material (Cary Grant, after 60 such sessions, famously declared himself “born again”); other therapists administered bigger so-called psychedelic doses to treat alcoholism, depression, personality disorders and the fear and anxiety of patients with life-threatening illnesses confronting their mortality.
Ellen Forney has a new book out, and the fact that it's about mood disorders is just gravy. Maybe that sentence needs some explaining — starting with the "mood disorders" part. If you suffer from some form of depression or bipolar disorder, you've probably noticed a divide that exists amongst books on the subject. On the one side are probing, literary accounts of what it's like to experience these illnesses — William Styron's Darkness Visible, Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind. On the other side are books about coping. The latter, however comprehensive and necessary, tend to lack poetry (one exception is Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon). To do them justice, it's hard to be poetic about communicating effectively with medical professionals, taking pills on schedule and getting enough sleep.
Unless, that is, you've got a special knack for making poetry look easy — which is to say, unless you're Ellen Forney. The comic artist is known for writing in a friendly and lovely way about riot girls, drugs, political activism and, in 2012, her battle with bipolar disorder. The bestselling Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me showcases the combination of traits that make Forney particularly well-suited to address a difficult and dangerous topic like mental illness. Her writing is unpretentious, occasionally goofy and manifestly replete with love for her fellow humans. Her art is full of love, too; her rich, swooping line seems to cradle the reader's eye.
Maintenance texts are the glue that holds modern relationships together. I don’t want to get all “how to date in the world of the Internet,” but we are all online and therefore on-phone almost constantly. No one has time to stop in and have lunch at your office during their break, which apparently used to be a thing. And you can only deliver flowers every so often before it becomes weird. Enter: the maintenance text. A maintenance text is a text that does not convey important information. No directions. No plans.
Cringeworthy offers several sensible pointers for readers, perhaps on trains, who would like to overcome awkwardness. But the most passionate advice is to be “grateful for this odd little emotion and the power it has to connect us … There will always be awkwardness, and the only way to keep it from isolating us is if we start cringing together.”
Ten years old, I reached behind my head on the pillow and felt the rough black wooden walls of my bedroom, the cool smooth copper in the spaces between the boards. The square window, up by the ceiling, slowly filled with soft, white snow, but we were warm, underground. Upstairs, from the kitchen, the sounds of my mother loading the dishwasher. Closer, my father’s voice flew up and circled and perched; back then it was capable of whispers, fluid modulation. Now, 40 years later, he no longer reads to me; also, his voice has changed — it falters and breaks and catches, escalates beyond his control.
I stand on the long, golden grass of Watership Down, wind rushing around me, tears in my eyes. When I was told I could visit any place I had read about but never physically visited, I first thought of Earthsea, of Narnia — landscapes that cannot be reached by car or boat or airplane. Watership Down can be reached more easily. It is in Hampshire, 60 miles from London, near the village of Kingsclere. Standing on the Down, I squint at that distant village of 3,000 humans. Closer, the buildings of a stable: An array of paths, horse gallops, stretch toward me. I turn a slow circle, then stumble all tharn with a huge paper map blown around my head, across my face, as every animal mocks and flees from me.
On the walk home, while the sky pissed rain, I slipped the cards under my sweater. It occurred to me that I knew approximately zilch about how an identity could be apportioned in ten parts the size of petals.
Thumb marks were used as personal seals to close business in Babylonia, and, in 1303, a Persian vizier recounted the use of fingerprints as signatures during the Qin and Han Dynasties, noting, “Experience has shown that no two individuals have fingers precisely alike.” The Chinese had realized that before anyone: a Qin dynasty document from the third-century B.C.E, titled “The Volume of Crime Scene Investigation—Burglary,” pointed up fingerprints as a means of evincing whodunnit.
The dream is of a day when we’ll each have a Doritos of our own.
Yes, the processed food industry has gotten pretty good at making food to please the masses. New Yorker staff writer Helen Rosner once argued that anyone who’s tasted chicken tenders loves them, even if they no longer choose to ingest them. New York Times reporter Michael Moss famously explained how snack food companies have learned to lure us by tweaking proportions of salt, sugar, and fat to a “bliss point” ratio most human beings find irresistible. But Cohen’s argument is that existing models of flavor design only work in crude broad strokes. And he thinks his artificial intelligence (AI) tool is the doorway into a new landscape where food and beverage companies know more about us than ever before, with product offerings that respond ever more individualized hungers.
Few ideas have had a racier history than the idea of infinity. It arose amid ancient paradoxes, proceeded to baffle philosophers for a couple of millennia, and then, by a daring feat of intellect, was finally made to yield its secrets in the late 19th century, though not without leaving a new batch of paradoxes. You don’t need any specialized knowledge to follow the plot: the main discoveries, despite the ingenuity behind them, can be conveyed with a few strokes of a pen on a cocktail napkin. All of this makes infinity irresistible meat for the popularizer, and quite a few books in that vein have appeared over the years. The most extraordinary figure to try his hand at this was David Foster Wallace. As readers of Infinite Jest might suspect, its author had a deep and sophisticated grasp of mathematics and metaphysics. Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞—written five years before Wallace’s suicide in 2008 at the age of 46—was his attempt to initiate the mathematically lay reader into the mysteries of the infinite.
“What’s the blues when you’ve got the greys?” sings Scott Hutchison, found dead at age 36 last week in Edinburgh, on the opening track of Frightened Rabbit’s debut album. Instantly he marks the border between melancholy and depression, anguish and the art it creates. But already he’s blurred that line. This is a shredding, stomping indie-rock single that recounts Scott’s worst weeks in unromantic terms — the sweat-stained bed, self-enforced solitude, and that visceral, permeating nausea with no relief: “I’m sick of feeling sick and not throwing up, and you sit in my stomach and you seem to be stuck.”
Above all, though, The Burning Chambers is a tour de force, a compelling adventure that views the past with insight, compassion and humour, and reminds us of the variety of women’s voices so often forgotten in the official accounts.
Holt is an amphibious kind of writer, so capably slipping from theology to cosmology to poetry, you’re reminded that specialization is a modern invention.
Once you know what to look for, natural wines are easy to spot: they tend to be smellier, cloudier, juicier, more acidic and generally truer to the actual taste of grape than traditional wines. In a way, they represent a return to the core elements that made human beings fall in love with wine when we first began making it, around 6,000 years ago. Advocates of natural wine believe that nearly everything about the £130bn modern wine industry – from the way it is made, to the way critics police what counts as good or bad – is ethically, ecologically and aesthetically wrong. Their ambition is to strip away the artificial trappings that have developed in tandem with the industry’s decades-long economic boom, and let wine be wine.
But among wine critics, there is a deep suspicion that the natural wine movement is intent on tearing down the norms and hierarchies that they have dedicated their lives to upholding. The haziness of what actually counts as natural wine is particularly maddening to such traditionalists. “There is no legal definition of natural wine,” Michel Bettane, one of France’s most influential wine critics, told me. “It exists because it proclaims itself so. It is a fantasy of marginal producers.” Robert Parker, perhaps the world’s most powerful wine critic, has called natural wine an “undefined scam”.
For natural wine enthusiasts, though, the lack of strict rules is part of its appeal. At a recent natural wine fair in London, I encountered winemakers who farmed by the phases of the moon and didn’t own computers; one man foraged his grapes from wild vines in the mountains of Georgia; there was a couple who were reviving an old Spanish technique of placing the wine in great clear glass demijohns outside to capture sunlight; others were ageing their wines in handmade clay pots, buried underground to keep them cool as their predecessors did in the days of ancient Rome.
For whatever reason, the way I’d always pictured the proper death of one’s dog was like a scene taken from the 1957 Disney film Old Yeller (1956): after years of steadfast companionship, when man’s best friend no longer derives joy from chasing rabbits and can barely lift his head, his owner has to muster the resolve to get out the rifle to put him out of his misery. Although an oddly bucolic fantasy for someone living in Los Angeles, at least part of it was no doubt influenced by how I’d learned to think about death as a physician.
In human medicine, we’re used to implementing any and every life-saving intervention right up to the very end. As a medical intern 20 years ago, I remember thinking about the futility of that approach with patients in pain and suffering from multisystem organ failure, sustained only by machines and a regimen of some 30 or 40 medications, and unlikely to ever make it out of the hospital. What was the point? Whatever happened to quality of life? But those reservations be damned, we never gave up, and among the interns who transferred care to each other from shift to shift, the dictum of patients ‘not dying on my watch’ was something to which we all held fast.
Every morning, Stephen Wright gets up at around 4.30AM, makes a cup of tea, sits beneath the oak tree in his back garden and pretends he's the first person awake in the world. There are no sounds of passing traffic or nearby building sites, only the birds and the smell of bluebells. Whenever he sees a robin, he thinks of Donald. Then he finishes his tea and walks into his House of Dreams.
Stephen is an artist. In the late-1990s he made the decision to turn his semi-detached south London home into a work of art called The House of Dreams. It started out in just one room, but over two decades spread everywhere. He created sculptures, mosaics, paintings, writings and collages, and gathered thousands of recycled objects. The house has become a reflection of his memories, dreams and reflections, no matter how painful or personal. It’s his greatest work, and also where he eats, sleeps and lives.
I nap outside as often as I can. It is one of the great joys of my life, I think. As Walt Whitman wrote in Song of the Open Road, “Now I see the secret of making of the best persons, / It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” In bed, my dreams are only my subconscious pile-driving me with cute narratives themed anxiety or doubt. But outside—sunny days in a field or under a tree when it’s drizzling—I dream of big sounds or gestures or shapes; I sometimes wake up humming. Not camping, with a sleeping bag and tent and careful preparation for bed and the constant scrape of polyester. No, I’d rather be huddled somewhere and a little underprepared, nothing overhead or below, day or night, in the way Mary Oliver writes in Sleeping in the Forest.
“The Perfectionists” succeeds resoundingly in making us think more deeply about the everyday objects we take for granted. It challenges us to reflect on our progress as humans and what has made it possible. It is interesting, informative, exciting and emotional, and for anyone with even some curiosity about what makes the machines of our world work as well as they do, it’s a real treat.
Microdosing is hot. If you haven’t heard — but you probably have, from reports of its use at Silicon Valley workplaces, from Ayelet Waldman’s memoir “A Really Good Day,” from dozens of news stories — to microdose is to take small amounts of LSD, which generate “subperceptual” effects that can improve mood, productivity and creativity.
Michael Pollan’s new book, “How to Change Your Mind,” is not about that. It’s about macro-dosing. It’s about taking enough LSD or psilocybin (mushrooms) to feel the colors and smell the sounds, to let the magic happen, to chase the juju. And it’s about how mainstream science ceded the ground of psychedelics decades ago, and how it’s trying to get it back.
This truthfulness of fragility is William Trevor’s credo. It is why we honor him as the supreme master of his honest art.
The year after I started teaching in Texas, his novel came out. Ten years after the event of our relationship, ten tortured years where we continued to communicate, a sort of communication that involved him reaching out, letting me know I made all the wrong decisions in my life, and then, asking for forgiveness and another chance, I thought I should teach his novel in my classes. The novel itself was important, won the Pulitzer, and by teaching it enough times, I thought it would do the trick. The classroom is sacral: all that goes through it turns magical and I would emerge whole. I would finally be rid of my ghost-love and I could sanitize our past through the distance offered by teaching and making a monument of his work for my students. Somehow, that plan failed.
What I do is teach, write, and think on, most often, feminist texts and theories. Such a pedagogy has not just carried me through the classrooms over the decades, but become a mooring post in life. It offers me a vision and a strategy, a way to love radically, think fearlessly, and keep renewing, as I can, the bridges between projects of feminism and social justice. Gloria Anzaldua’s vision, a vision that has carried many a woman through a dark day, has been valuable in thinking through the rubble of this event in my life. In Borderlands, Anzaldua offers a prophetic amalgam that helps women identify the productive potential of the mestiza way, the middle spaces she calls the nepantla. For women of the many elsewheres, women who continually travel and cross borders, Anzaldua’s psychic restlessness gives a fist bump of legitimacy, an anchor in the cultural collisions many of us remain mired in. Rather than a counter stance, she speaks of developing a position that is inclusive, inaugurating for us the amasamiento, a creature of both light and darkness.
Of all the things that could have broken Scott Jurek on a 2,189-mile run, it was a small tree root that crushed his spirit. He was 38 days into an attempt to beat the speed record for completing the full length of the Appalachian Trail, the mountainous hiking path that snakes along America’s East Coast, from northern Georgia to the top of Mount Katahdin, in Maine. Jurek, one of the greatest ultramarathoners of all times, was in trouble. After battling through a succession of leg injuries, then slogging through Vermont’s wettest June in centuries, he had to make up ground over a particularly merciless stretch of the trail, New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Delirious from just two hours of sleep following 26 straight hours of hiking, he was stumbling along the trail when he encountered the root in his path.
“As I saw it coming, I didn’t know what to do,” Jurek recalls in his new memoir, North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail, co-written with his wife, Jenny. “Was I supposed to step around it or over it? I just couldn’t remember.” So he hit it and toppled. “I’d forgotten how to raise my legs,” he writes. “How to run like a sane person.”
“Every woman becomes like their mother,” Oscar Wilde once quipped. “That’s their tragedy.” For some women, “tragedy” strikes early in the form of mommy-and-me outfits, those often creepy-cute clothing clones that tend to leave at least one party looking age-inappropriate. In recent years, celebrity offspring like Blue Ivy Carter and North West have taken “twinning” with their famous moms to stratospheric levels of Instagram likes and paparazzi attention. But mother-daughter dressing has been cycling in and out of fashion for more than a hundred years, reflecting changing attitudes about motherhood and femininity.
The matchy-matchy look flourishes in “time periods when there is more cultural emphasis on the family and the mother-daughter relationship,” said the fashion historian Jennifer Farley Gordon, who researches children’s clothing. In practice, the matching style can also signal affluence: a mother with leisure time to sew—or money to shop for—mirror-image outfits, and who is more likely to be a stay-at-home mom. Part of the idea, also, is that there’s not much point in being one half of a matching set if you’re not spending significant amounts of time together in public.
Writers can get grumpy when they get letters from clueless readers. When Susan Akers discovered an irritated reply from Truman Capote among some papers she was going through, what surprised her was the identity of one clueless reader who had sent Capote a note after his first published story appeared in Mademoiselle magazine.
That clueless reader was her mother, a junior in college at the time — which was mid-1945.
I’m not sure how far along I was before I came clean and told my family that dad’s misshapen skateboarding book had become a book about, well . . . us. The secret grew inside me until I finally admitted to my sons, Sean and Leo, to my wife, Mary, and to myself that the story had evolved, grown more personal, more cathartic for me but more fraught for us all.
When we had “the talk,” my kids and my wife were understanding and generous in ways that I’ll never be able to repay. But coming clean was just the beginning.
“The original selfie was a very, very serious object,” Negar Mottahedeh, a cultural critic at Duke University who has written at length on selfies, told me. She considers pilgrim-mirrors among the earliest instances of self-portraiture.
Seven hundred years later, in Indonesia, where I live, a popular new tempat wisata selfie, Indonesian for “selfie tourism destination,” has come under fire for blatantly plagiarizing immersive art works by the likes of Yayoi Kusama, Chris Burden, and even the “Museum of Ice Cream,” the immersive, traveling, smash-hit American exhibition whose tickets cost $38 a piece. Rabbit Town, in the city of Bandung, is a shrine to the ubiquitous life activity of taking photos of yourself.
Some purists believe that even switching up the order of how ingredients are added can throw off a Cuban’s delicate balance. So when someone finds a recipe that works, it becomes religion. That’s especially true of Tampa’s legendary Columbia Restaurant, the country’s oldest Hispanic restaurant. There, chefs dole out over 600 Cubans daily using the same family recipe that’s been a mainstay since 1915.
But for Hyunmin Cho and Geunmin Kang, the owners of the South Korean sandwich shop Tampa Sandwich Bar, in Seoul, the invitation to compete in Tampa against dozens of other local, statewide, and international vendors at the 2017 International Cuban Sandwich Festival “was a dream come true”. Some of their competitors had been churning out Cubans for decades. Kang and Cho had started making them less than two years before the festival.
I do not remember a time in my life when I was not aware of being marginalized as an immigrant. I may not have known those words exactly, but their meaning has always been felt. So it’s a strange thing to be told at 33 — when I’ve written a book about what it means to migrate and try to settle into a new life and lose parts of yourself in between — that my book is so relevant right now. That it sounds topical or timely, as if I must’ve jumped at this opportunity, this moment when my community is being vilified and targeted and sent away in droves by an administration that got elected on the racist notion that Mexicans are rapists and bad hombres. There’s also the well-intentioned but equally upsetting reaction from white people who say my book is sure to do well because immigration is so important right now.
The mysterious Mr. Lee returned to China, never to be heard from again. But his spontaneous appraisal—$3.5 million—still forms the basis of a price that has steadily grown, from $40 million to $60 million to $75 million and beyond. And Mr. Lee’s recognition of Lao Tzu’s legendary pearl is at the heart of an 80-year-old hoax that has left a trail of wreckage across the United States—a satin mirage many try to grasp, before the jaws snap shut.
Bits of the legend are true. The pearl really was discovered when a diver drowned; Cobb really did acquire it from the local chief; and gazing at the pearl, you really can discern the face of a turbaned man. The rest is a fantasy Cobb invented.
The problems began as soon as I read the entrée descriptions. Squid ink pasta is so cliché. Why not bull semen pasta? Or Bic-pen ink pasta? Give us something we don’t expect. Also show, don’t tell. Instead of writing “grass-fed beef” on the menu, let me divine the beast’s culinary proclivities by tasting the earthy richness of the field. Let me feel the sun on my hide. Make me one with the cow.
Powers is the rare American novelist writing in the grand realist tradition, daring to cast himself, in the critic Peter Brooks’s term, as a “historian of contemporary society.” He has the courage and intellectual stamina to explore our most complex social questions with originality, nuance, and an innate skepticism about dogma. At a time when literary convention favors novelists who write narrowly about personal experience, Powers’s ambit is refreshingly unfashionable, restoring to the form an authority it has shirked. A former computer programmer and English major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Powers has written novels about the history of photography, artificial intelligence, nuclear warfare, race and miscegenation, the Holocaust, neuroscience, virtual reality, the chemical industry, and genetic engineering. It was only a matter of time before he took on the greatest existential crisis human civilization faces: the destruction of the natural conditions necessary for our own survival.
There are two kinds of extremely smart books: The ones that make you feel small and stupid, as if the author is telling you how far above you their intelligence lies, and the ones that makes you feel smart reading them, that demonstrate the author's respect for her reader. Rubik, the debut novel by Australian writer Elizabeth Tan, is the best example of the second kind. It's the kind of book that reminds you of nights — and they are somehow always nights — when you discussed Big Concepts like Life and the Universe and Reality with your friends, and fell asleep with your mind gently buzzing.
Sarvas tackles big questions — about what constitutes restitution, the nature of faith, the essential role of storytelling in our lives. A twist at the end, the book’s ultimate con, is too good to spoil, and left me rethinking the characters and the story. It’s a testament to Sarvas’s skill that such a trick felt like a gift.
The very notion of what in the ancient world defines the human being in contrast to all other living things is simple: upright posture. Best known of the ancient commentators is Plato, who, according to legend, is claimed to have seen the human as bipedal and featherless. To describe humans as “featherless” sounds odder to modern ears than does the functional association of bipedalism and intelligence, but Plato sees the absence of bodily covering as a move away from the base toward the human, for he is quite aware that the other bipedal animal is the bird. Greek thought gives the bird a middle role between the human and the gods, since birds are connected to the gods through their use in divination. Responding to Plato’s contorted definition of man, Diogenes of Sinope, known as the Cynic, notoriously plucked a (bipedal) chicken and took it to Plato’s Academy, declaring, “Here is Plato’s man.”
For many of us, expectations of an “always-on” working life have made hobbies a thing of the past, relegated to mere memories of what we used to do in our free time. Worse still, many hobbies have morphed into the dreaded side hustle or as paths to career development, turning the things we ostensibly do for fun into … more work. (“Like embroidery? You should be selling your creations on Etsy!”).
But it’s time to divest hobbies from productivity. Their value lies in more than their relationship to work. Yes, studies have shown that having a hobby can make you more productive at work, but hobbies can also remind you that work isn’t everything.
It was October by now, and as my mom faded, the routine helped anchor my days. Almost every night, I stirred the starter into some flour and water; almost every day I baked it into something new: loaves and loaves of bread, plus also biscuits, English muffins, waffles, crumpets, pizza dough, even a sourdough chocolate cake. I pretended it was to feed my family, and it did, but it was more to sustain myself.
When does writing begin? The act of committing the first words to a page—as I am doing now—is cited for its difficulty. Though those words might well be deleted from the final draft, the resistance of the blank page is justifiably famous. It’s an entrance to the unknowable, like the doorway on your first school-going day as a child. Once you’ve gone through, you’re in a different domain; you’re in the story, which involves inhabiting a new space and a new self. Before going in, you stare at the lit doorway of the blank page, partly with anxiety and partly with exhaustion. Exhaustion because the blank page is not only the beginning but the end of something. It’s the end of the hours or days or months you’ve spent considering both the subject and the prospect of writing about it. Arriving at the blank page represents our coming to the end of the undecided space we call living. Now we must get down to telling.
I am content with the series as it stands, the television show filling in gaps when it can. For me, it was never about the end. I started reading because a man I thought I loved recommended it to me. But I kept reading, and continue to read, because the magic of Martin’s world is breathtaking to behold.
And that magic exists regardless of whether or not he ever produces another book.
On freedom as a woman, though, Feigel is exceptional. This is just as true when she writes about Doris Lessing, or her characters, as when she writes about herself. She embodies Lessing's "determination to always be complicated: to question everything — not only what those around her thought, but what she herself thought." Critical memoir can do this better than any other form. Free Woman is worth reading as a piece of complicated thought, and one that's funny and sexy and frank, to boot. And if you haven't read The Golden Notebook, don't worry. I promise, you'll go buy a copy the moment you're done.
Change may seem a broad category inside which to corral the infinitely detailed ways our bodies work, don’t work, develop and decline. But feeling, or appearing to be in some way altered is surely the fundamental experience of being embodied. There is no static corporeal condition in life, or in death. (As John Donne puts it in his Devotions: “Variable, and therefore miserable condition of man! This minute I was well, and am ill, this minute.”) Francis, who works as a GP in Edinburgh, is interested in physical changes wrought by time, illness and accident – hormonal slumps and rages, anorexia’s chilling progression, the fantastical inventions of a florid psychosis – but also in the bodily metaphors that have “preoccupied poets, artists and thinkers for millennia”. While his literary reference points are mostly classical, he includes Borges on memory, Ursula K Le Guin on menopause and the essayist Anatole Broyard on the black comedy of his prostate cancer. In a consideration of the ambiguities of human gender, Francis turns to TS Eliot’s version of Tiresias, “throbbing between two lives”.
Kushner doesn't make a false move in her third novel; she writes with an intelligence and a ferocity that sets her apart from most others in her cohort. She's a remarkably original and compassionate author, and The Mars Room is a heartbreaking, true and nearly flawless novel.
But the life of a shaman is not an easy one. When she was younger, Min would perform kut for neighbors and clients, but when she encountered them in public afterward they would pretend not to know her, ignoring her as they walked by. “We take on their problems. Then they act like they don’t know us. That’s the thing I didn’t like the most. The most painful part.”
Throughout Korean history, shamans have been hunted in the name of social order by Confucians, in the name of modernity by Japanese imperialists, and, most recently, in the name of industrialization and anti-superstition under President Park Chung-Hee. Modernization and the erosion of folk culture is not unique to the Korean nation. What is unique, however, is the way in which folk customs were forcibly eradicated by presidential command in the late twentieth century.
The following summer, two friends from college, Jane and Amanda, moved to the city, and Jane and I decided to share an apartment. We found a place on West Tenth Street, still tiny but palatial compared to my studio. Midway between uptown and Brooklyn, our place became the obvious meeting spot for impromptu weeknight dinners and before going out on the weekends. We cooked elaborate feasts in the galley kitchen and held whimsical parties; parties where we only served cheap champagne, bourbon, and cupcakes; parties that in the summer meandered onto the fire escape and up to the roof of our building, technically off-limits but perfectly accessible. I began running, and that’s how I learned the zig-zagging streets of the West Village.
Still, I had the nagging sense that real life was happening elsewhere. I’ve always had serious wanderlust, and my life those first years in New York, which in retrospect seems pretty dreamy, felt sort of square and pedestrian to me at the time. My ex-boyfriend was working at an NGO in rural India; I had friends teaching English in Japan, ski-bumming around Colorado, and living in communes in the Bay Area. I had the typical complaints about the city: the bleak winters, the limited access to nature, and on top of it, everything was outrageously expensive. Sure, I’d always thought I’d end up in New York someday, but being here, working a regular nine-to-six job, at age 23—then 24, then 25—felt like a failure of either imagination or nerve.
“Sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask,” Chee writes. Each of these excursions into a kind of lived fiction allowed Chee to confront and accept something he had, at least in part, rejected about himself: his mixed heritage, his queerness.
What makes this airport bar unforgettable is, perhaps, the same reason your favorite en-route-to-somewhere-else haunt is so beloved. (Okay, admittedly, location is everything, and Nick's Tomatoe Pie is pretty much the only place to sit down and get a drink and something to eat in the concourse.) But that's exactly it. The beauty of any airport bar is not what's in it, at least not in terms of its food or microbrews or glitzy clientele. It's that it offers a chance to capitalize on this increasingly rare moment in modern life: You have time to kill, and nothing better to do while you wait — why not sit down for a spell, talk to some fellow travelers (surely they have interesting stories to share), and, if not, simply have a drink and a bite while you check your email?
The game begins once your clothes are off and you’re wearing nothing but a paper gown, your feet in the stirrups. The set designers have created an atmosphere of grim realism. The room is cold and harshly lit. A small pubic-hair tumbleweed lurks in a corner. The puzzles in this game rely on a basic understanding of biology, self-knowledge, and intuition, but with a twist: ultimately, the only way to escape this room is to defer to the older, male doctor who thinks he knows more about your vagina than you do.
This tells most of all in the inane and imperious axiom that says ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ It’s a well-meaning attempt at democratisation, allowing us all the power to declare beauty even where others might dissent. But this unthinking homily never interrogates the mysterious criteria by which we deem artworks, objects, even ideas, beautiful.
Then there’s the problem of indeterminacy. Sometimes, the word ‘beauty’ aspires to the solidity of a proper noun, grand and true. Other times, it seems a more nebulous term for an elusive kind of experience. We can be careless about the beautiful, shrugging it off as a matter of mere appearance. It is not grave like the stuff of our political lives, or profound like our moral considerations. Certainly, we know to admire the beautiful in its different forms – a painting, a song, a building, sometimes even an act or a gesture – and we might go so far as to believe that our engagement with beautiful things constitutes a deep and meaningful experience, as though it were a momentary pause in the hectic thoroughfare of our lives. But we rarely permit matters of beauty the same seriousness that we customarily grant big ideas such as ‘democracy’ and ‘justice’.
What has become truly necessary is stating the obvious: No work of art, no matter how incisive, beautiful, uncomfortable or representative, needs to exist. Yet the internet — the same force that has increased awareness of social-justice movements — has hyperbolized all entreaties to our fragmented attention spans. It’s now as easy to see all the incredible and twisted ways the world causes suffering as it is to waste a couple hours scrolling through Twitter. The concerned citizen’s natural response is to prioritize. It’s why so many outlets seem to invoke moral outrage as a growth strategy — and why being told what you need to read or watch starts to be appealing.
The prospect of “necessary” art allows members of the audience to free themselves from having to make choices while offering the critic a nifty shorthand to convey the significance of her task, which may itself be one day condemned as dispensable. The effect is something like an absurd and endless syllabus, constantly updating to remind you of ways you might flunk as a moral being. It’s a slightly subtler version of the 2016 marketing tagline for the first late-night satirical news show with a female host, “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee”: “Watch or you’re sexist.”
My neighborhood is like a peninsula, but surrounded by graveyards. The two streets near my place end in dead ends in three places which lead to graveyards, and one which leads to the streets. So when I say I live in a graveyard, I guess technically I'm in a plot of land surrounded by graveyards, but it's not like I'm on a path in the middle of a graveyard. Have you ever rode the L or the J past Broadway Junction and seen that huge graveyard? That’s what I’m next to.
You’re an author looking to make a splash in the literary world. You want to write something so different, so far out of the box, that readers everywhere will sit up and pay attention to your unique voice.
Then it comes to you: write a story from a second-person point of view! You’ve heard countless times before that this is something to avoid. “But rules are made to be broken,” you declare, as you boot up your word processor and begin drafting a story where ‘you’ is the primary pronoun. You soon discover, though, that the second person can be harder than it looks.
The physics of atoms and their ever-smaller constituents and cousins is, as Adam Becker reminds us more than once in his new book, “What Is Real?,” “the most successful theory in all of science.” Its predictions are stunningly accurate, and its power to grasp the unseen ultramicroscopic world has brought us modern marvels. But there is a problem: Quantum theory is, in a profound way, weird. It defies our common-sense intuition about what things are and what they can do.
“Figuring out what quantum physics is saying about the world has been hard,” Becker says, and this understatement motivates his book, a thorough, illuminating exploration of the most consequential controversy raging in modern science.
Academics have found increasing evidence that happiness through adulthood is U-shaped – life satisfaction falls in our 20s and 30s, then hits a trough in our late 40s before increasing until our 80s.
Forget the saying that life begins at 40 – it’s 50 we should be looking toward.
This marvelous book is a history of one of the hardest things to explain: why something did not happen. Histories of non-events are inherently difficult to write because of the methodological commitment of historians to stick close to documentary sources, and things that don’t happen rarely leave an obvious documentary trail. In this case, the non-event that Samuel Moyn describes in his new book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, is the institutionalization of a political ethic of material egalitarianism.
The most telling symbol of the modern era isn’t the automobile or the smartphone. It’s the chicken nugget. Chicken is already the most popular meat in the US, and is projected to be the planet’s favourite flesh by 2020. Future civilisations will find traces of humankind’s 50 billion bird-a-year habit in the fossil record, a marker for what we now call the Anthropocene. And yet responsibility for the dramatic change in our consumption lies not so much in general human activity, but capitalism. Although we’re taught to understand it as an economic system, capitalism doesn’t just organise hierarchies of human work. Capitalism is what happens when power and money combine to turn the natural world into a profit-making machine. Indeed, the way we understand nature owes a great deal to capitalism.
People ask me all the time what California cuisine is. I’m not complaining, by any means: My business partners and I are opening a restaurant that we identify as having “all sorts of California coastal soul.”
The answer is not obvious; there’s no catchy, two-sentence description that will convey California cuisine’s essence. For me, the story is about a first-generation Chinese immigrant finding her way in America through food. It’s a story about that woman settling in the American Midwest and teaching her son how to cook the flavors that she remembered from her childhood in Asia. And it’s a story about the yearning for California and the Pacific Ocean that is embedded in the American consciousness.
If we want to live in a world that recognizes and accepts differences in consciousness, then we must start by believing one another about our different lived experience and recognize that we must spend time working to understand these different kinds of minds — especially any minds and lives that have been oppressed, disregarded, and marginalized — because they will have developed knowledge and survival strategies to which we otherwise would not have access. If we don’t, not only are we going to be in recurrent danger of harming those who aren’t recognized as people, but we’ll also be more likely to miss recognizing those who experience life — and suffering — in ways not classified as legitimate.
Most readers expect short fiction to bring a singular character to life. In many creative writing workshops, we’re taught it’s the base requirement for a short story: place someone (or some sentient thing) in a predicament, and show us how they change.
One of the factors that makes Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection, A Lucky Man, truly exceptional is that each story goes far beyond this basic formula. In Brinkley’s work, no character is left untended, no aspect of identity is overlooked, and the results are well-inhabited worlds that feel infinite. A lot of short stories exist in a snow globe, but the nine stories presented here are each a big bang. They burst forth through space and time. They are larger than the sum of their components.
“The Mars Room” makes you share her frustration. It’s one of those books that enrage you even as they break your heart, and in its passion for social justice you can finally discern a connection between all three of Kushner’s novels.
The lie I told most often in my twenties during the Reagan era was that I liked other people’s children although I didn’t intend to have my own. I taught at a Catholic college in a small town in Wisconsin and was married to a public school teacher. After my husband, Chuck, and I bought a house, even people we scarcely knew asked us when we were going to “start a family.”
I didn’t like other people’s children at all. I was shocked when my colleagues, in-laws, or neighbors stopped by unannounced with their toddlers in tow and sat drinking coffee, chatting, and making no attempt whatsoever to keep their children from touching everything in sight: my books, the stacks of mail I had just sorted through, my knitting supplies, the ceramic dishware I didn’t get a chance to put away. Standing in the checkout line of grocery stores behind women (it was always women) whose children were screaming, running around, or trying to toss items out of or into their carts, I wondered what kept these beleaguered mothers from abandoning both their provisions and their offspring and driving away. The empty car on an open road would feel like a shot of pure oxygen. I would not stop until I was a few states away, where I could start a new life under an assumed name. When my friends’ children kept interrupting the adult conversation, I excused myself, walked a safe distance away from the house, and pretended to smoke a (nonexistent) cigarette because I was afraid of what I might say or do if I’d stayed.
What have we aged into? We’re still capable of action, change and 10K races. But there’s a new immediacy to the 40s — and an awareness of death — that didn’t exist before. Our possibilities feel more finite. All choices now plainly exclude others. It’s pointless to keep pretending to be what we’re not. At 40, we’re no longer preparing for an imagined future life. Our real lives are, indisputably, happening right now. We’ve arrived at what Immanuel Kant called the “Ding an sich” — the thing itself.
Indeed, the strangest part of the 40s is that we’re now the ones attending parent-teacher conferences and cooking the turkey on Thanksgiving. These days, when I think, “Someone should really do something about that,” I realize with alarm that that “someone” is me.
“There’s a lot of negativity,” sighs Sam Cook, 34, a founder of Button Poetry, which specializes in spreading the gospel of poetry through YouTube. “Poetry has been such a niche space for so long, and the people in it feel like they’re entitled to decide what is good and what is bad.” They fret that the artlessness of Twitter, and the heightened self-consciousness of Instagram, is diluting poetry’s power, if not making a mockery of the whole canon.
“There are people,” Cook says, “that think it never should have gone to the Internet.”
So as I stood on the weed-eaten paths of our California yard last spring, I couldn’t make the same decision. But it wasn’t just because I knew the weeds, like the ivy, would keep coming back. It was because the moral costs of Roundup seemed to have compounded in the interim. In 2015, the World Health Organization had declared glyphosate a “probable” cause of human cancer. In 2016, my new home state of California notified the public that it planned to add glyphosate to the Prop 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer. In 2017, it did. And so our gravel disappeared under a blanket of green.
Then this past fall, Island Press, based in Washington, DC, and known for its books on big environmental problems, published Whitewash, an exposé on Roundup by longtime Reuters agricultural reporter Carey Gillam. Erin Brockovich promised it read “like a mystery novel” as it revealed “Monsanto’s secretive strategies.” I quickly reached for a copy, eager for a good read on the chemical’s unstoppable rise and a journalistically objective assessment of the full range of its health and environmental risks. The book, I’m sorry to report, isn’t quite a mystery novel. But it has stayed with me. By the time I finished it, I was more secure than ever in my decision not to spray Roundup, and I went to greater lengths than usual to bring home organic and pesticide-free foods for my family. But the book also raised more questions for me than it answered. And it made me aware of a troubling set of ironies embedded in the regulatory system charged with upholding health and environmental standards while securing economic interests.
Bristling with the urgency of lived experience, this is a short and beautifully written (translated by Deborah Dawkin) account of love’s autoimmunity. Whether or not it’s based on reality, it’s grounded in deep emotional truth.
Thanks to hip-hop and Hollywood, the United States is still the world’s leading cultural exporter. But, in recent years, American culture has increasingly been following a playbook made in Japan. Consider the fascination with “the Japanese art of decluttering.” Its guru, Marie Kondo, lives in Japan. She generally relies on an interpreter, and it has been four years since she published a book in the U.S. While she has largely fallen off the radar in her home country, her popularity shows no signs of waning among Americans. One video of Kondo folding clothes, dubbed in English, has close to four million views on YouTube. On Valentine’s Day, Netflix sparked joy among fans with an announcement that it had greenlit a Kondo reality show.
Tristan Gooley has got me lost in the middle of London – which, I’ll admit, isn’t a terribly huge achievement. I’m routinely lost in the middle of London. My journeys tend to consist of a hard stare at a map app, 50 paces in the wrong direction and then a kind of abject sustained fumble until I arrive at wherever I’m supposed to be 10 minutes after I’m supposed to be there. And that’s me with Google Maps. Without Google Maps, I’m 80% sure I would have given up and moved into a ditch some years ago.
However, this time is different. Gooley, often known as the Natural Navigator, has got me lost on purpose. He’s covered my eyes and led me by the arm through the backstreets of central London, taking time to spin me around every now and again for maximum disorientation. And now, right in the middle of nowhere, he’s asked me to take him to one specific Oxford Street branch of Wasabi.
At the offices of Kensington Publishing Corporation, in Midtown Manhattan, I am greeted by a wall of gently cascading water and an African American receptionist who ushers me into a meeting room. Kensington, which styles itself as “America’s independent publisher,” has been churning out fiction and nonfiction since the family business was founded in 1974, and chugs along smoothly still. In 2017, the publisher turned out just over 700 books, with about 35% of them falling under the romance umbrella, which includes historical, contemporary, suspense, paranormal, and so on. It is also the home of Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League miniseries, a trio of historical romances set during the American Civil War, specifically telling the stories of black men and women.
Cole’s stories are striking because of their intensity. Her back catalog may be abundant in novellas, but the Kensington phase of her writing is marked by the Loyal League novels. For the dramatic backdrops to her love stories, she has chosen war and other political upheavals — the civil rights movement and the fight for suffrage, for example — as well as post-apocalyptic settings. While most of her heroines are black women, the cast of characters are ethnically diverse. She admits to having lofty hopes for her books. “Sometimes I hear romance authors say they’re not writing the Great American Novel, and I’m like, ‘Well, if you're not trying to, that's on you,’” she says, laughing. “I'm never going to say that just because there are people having sex and love in [my books].” As a testament to her skill, a Kirkus review called her work “masterful” and An Extraordinary Union was named as a top pick of 2017 by publications as varied as Vulture, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly.
Time is a commodity: ours to buy, spend, save, keep, mark or waste. Time has volition: it flies, drags, stands still. The verbs alone suggest that we have always understood time as subjective, something experienced according to individual circumstance.
But they also suggest we may be a little confused about the journey from then to now. We are right to be confused, according to Carlo Rovelli’s elegant and wonderfully brief summary of what we do and don’t know about time. “One after another,” he says “the characteristic features of time have proved to be approximations, mistakes determined by our perspective, just like the flatness of the Earth or the revolving of the sun.”
In America, the story of French food, on the surface at least, is simpler: It was the pinnacle, then it wasn’t. There are any number of reasons why it was toppled from its position of pre-eminence: the emergence of viable alternative models; the winnowing away of pomp and circumstance from menus and dining rooms in the wake of the Great Recession; health concerns and simple fashion too, probably. Whatever the cause, the postwar giants — La Côte Basque, Le Cirque, Lutèce — closed one by one, and a more symbolic door seemed to have shut with them.
The reasons for French food’s resurgence in the years since Time magazine deified its new, emphatically non-French (and decidedly male) Gods of Food are as multifarious as the reasons for its original decline: Simple fashion, again, is probably only one of them.
Trying to do the right thing can tie us in knots. Each edible lifestyle choice comes with its own nasty aftertaste. It takes a lot to swim against the tides of the food industry’s many shills, and trying to offset the bad choices with the good creates a pretty dizzying mental seesaw, especially when you’re hungry.
It sounds like the perfect summer blockbuster.
A handsome king is blessed with superhuman strength, but his insufferable arrogance means that he threatens to wreak havoc on his kingdom. Enter a down-to-earth wayfarer who challenges him to fight. The king ends the battle chastened, and the two heroes become fast friends and embark on a series of dangerous quests across the kingdom.
The fact that this tale is still being read today is itself remarkable. It is the Epic of Gilgamesh, engraved on ancient Babylonian tablets 4,000 years ago, making it the oldest surviving work of great literature. We can assume that the story was enormously popular at the time, given that later iterations of the poem can be found over the next millennium.
“Automating Inequality” is riveting (an accomplishment for a book on technology and policy). Its argument should be widely circulated, to poor people, social service workers and policymakers, but also throughout the professional classes. Everyone needs to understand that technology is no substitute for justice.
Veteran gamblers know you can’t beat the horses. There are too many variables and too many possible outcomes. Front-runners break a leg. Jockeys fall. Champion thoroughbreds decide, for no apparent reason, that they’re simply not in the mood. The American sportswriter Roger Kahn once called the sport “animated roulette.” Play for long enough, and failure isn’t just likely but inevitable—so the wisdom goes. “If you bet on horses, you will lose,” says Warwick Bartlett, who runs Global Betting & Gaming Consultants and has spent years studying the industry.
What if that wasn’t true? What if there was one person who masterminded a system that guaranteed a profit? One person who’d made almost a billion dollars, and who’d never told his story—until now?
In 2009, Cormac McCarthy sold his Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter at Christie’s for $254,500. With it, he wrote close to five million words over the course of five decades, including his highly regarded novels The Road and the Border Trilogy, which brought him commercial success. Rather than graduate to a computer after the sale, McCarthy replaced his Olivetti with the exact same model—though one in a newer condition. He valued it because it was lightweight, reliable, and portable. For these same reasons, this classic Olivetti model was popular with traveling journalists in the ‘60s.
The dirty secret of puns is that people like them when they’re terrible as much as they do when they’re great. They just don’t like them anywhere in between. When puns are truly great, though, it’s undeniably impressive. There’s a kind of math undergirding most jokes, but puns are especially equational. Making one out of unlikely elements floating around in the air is like solving a verbal speed-puzzle. The best ones make you wonder how on Earth a person came up with something so perfect so quickly.
Today’s great question is whether those achievements can be repeated. The backlash against capitalism is mounting—if more often in the form of populist anger than of proletarian solidarity. So far liberal reformers are proving sadly inferior to their predecessors in terms of both their grasp of the crisis and their ability to generate solutions. They should use the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth to reacquaint themselves with the great man—not only to understand the serious faults that he brilliantly identified in the system, but to remind themselves of the disaster that awaits if they fail to confront them.
Sixty-nine years ago, Hannah Arendt wrote a phrase that has gradually become one of her most quoted and often interpreted: “the right to have rights.” The phrase summed up her skepticism of the concept of human rights—those rights that, in theory, belong to every person by virtue of existence. But how are these rights guaranteed? For that, Arendt suggested, one had to be not only a person but also a citizen. In other words, while the rights in the light-blue book might indeed “belong” to me, I can claim them because I also have the dark-blue passport.
There are many worlds to explore within this deceptively short book, which gallops towards its conclusion with a mythic inevitability. You won’t be able to turn back.
As should be made clear from these maritime anecdotes, ribbon cuttings were, from the start, dedicated to large events that required the work of lots of people, and often prominent people to do the honors of cutting those ribbons. New buildings are a great example of things that often invite a ribbon-cutting ceremony; bridges, even better. One thing appears to be clear, at least in terms of how we consider it today: The phenomenon of ribbon cuttings was nonexistent before the late 19th century, and barely on the radar during the early 20th century.
One day an envelope arrived with the word “COLLECTIONS” stamped across the front. I knew that word — it was one my mother cautioned about when she lectured us about credit cards. A first, a second, and then final version of an official-looking letter came, formed in a boilerplate template quite different than the others and lacking the excess of exclamation marks, check-box options and catalogue selections. No Sting. No Chris Isaac. I was in trouble.
Though many of its elements are familiar to the point of being worn out — saloons and wagon trains, Indians and gold prospectors — the novel is not. Mr. Diaz’s long study of North American literature, much of it steeped in the 19th century, allowed him to expertly plunder an antique genre for parts. The rebuilt mechanism is his own design, and it moves in unexpected directions: west to east, around in circles, down into the earth, and north to Alaska.
Which makes “In the Distance” an uncanny achievement: an original Western.
For an author who has primarily written poetry and nonfiction, and who is clearly comfortable with a confessional voice, Broder uses the fantastical elements to complicate and deepen her novel. The climactic conclusion works because of its strangeness, because of its imaginative reach and implications. Although some of Lucy’s psychological discoveries along the way may feel a bit indistinct, other insights ring strong and true, and the ending carries the emotional weight of the book because it is borne from the world Broder has created.
Anything that can be consumed is now understood as a brand — and on the internet, that’s every last bit of content. This is how a consultant like Eric Garland can, on the strength of a viral tweet storm about the “game theory” behind American politics, brand himself as a Russian conspiracy sage and market subscriptions to @gametheorytoday. It’s also why actual brands, like Hamburger Helper or Denny’s, hang around social media masquerading as people, posting jokes and memes and roasting haters. Even the most cynical internet users speak semiseriously about our posts being “on brand” or “off brand.” There is no refuge from the logic of the brand — and if there is, some up-and-coming strategist will soon enough bolster her own brand by colonizing it.
Sometimes I forget that I’ve never been to Dublin. I feel its cobblestones under my feet. I hear the “shouts in the street” of Irish schoolboys—what Stephen Dedalus calls “God” in James Joyce’s Ulysses—as clearly as I do the susurrations of my dog Bloom beneath my desk as I write. I picture the cemetery where my dog’s namesake, Leopold Bloom, attends the funeral of Paddy Dignam, spying at the edges of the funeral party a “lankylooking galoot” wearing a mackintosh, more vividly than I can any of the cemeteries in which my grandparents are buried. I have an uncanny familiarity with what Dedalus elsewhere calls the “items in the catalogue of Dublin’s furniture”: the Martello Tower at Sandycove, the Forty Foot promontory, the “scrotumtightening sea” below, the “unwholesome sandflats” of Sandymount Strand, the residence at 7 Eccles Street, Sweny’s Chemist, Trinity College, Merchant’s Arch, where a man might buy a smutty book like Sweets of Sin for his wife, and on through to the Liffey.
The appeal of what might be called literary tourism seems to be the shared hope that a spark of the celebrated author’s genius might be transferable, though the particulars might be a bit vague. Aspiring writers are drawn to the Starbucks on 23rd and Fifth Ave, where Edith Wharton’s home once stood, where, if nothing else, you are guaranteed a jolt of caffeination. I’m not a believer in the supernatural but there’s a term for this kind of thing: Akasha. The Sanskrit word translates to “unmanifested potential,” but in the Buddhist tradition, akasha refers to the idea that the energy of all the things that have ever happened in a place are always present.
What’s so radical then about Future Home of the Living God, among other traits, lies in the way it positions pregnancy, maternity, and birth control policies within a racialized and indigenous framework. It displaces and interrogates this new world order in a way that Atwood doesn’t. By having an indigenous protagonist, the novel is haunted by the issue of how whiteness has conditioned access to reproductive rights and body autonomy. Cedar grapples with her own Ojibwe identity, as a Native American adopted by a liberal white couple. Her allegiances are complex and she strives to make sense of the very idea of lineage, both for herself, for her son, and for a world where evolution is no longer functioning the way it’s supposed to.
Sleep is a precious commodity during events like AMC’s recent 31-hour Marvel Cinematic Universe marathon.
It’s all about planning: Fall asleep too early into the marathon, and there would be a good chance you’d conk out again during the main event, Avengers: Infinity War. Sleep too late, and you’d run the risk of feeling like garbage by the end. The human machines who can power through all 31 hours with no sleep are rare — almost as rare as the available outlets people flocked to when they entered the theater.
“A picture is a secret about a secret.” Percival Everett’s latest novel, So Much Blue, begins with this epigraph from Diane Arbus. It’s a fitting aphorism for this elliptical novel about a painter trying to work through the secrets and lies in his past. The line could also apply to Jay-Z’s 4:44, which is not just a rap album but a multimedia project that includes images of blackness and masculinity in popular culture, all set against the revelations of his own infamous marital infidelities.
But Broadway is a good deal more than that dazzling patch of neon and LED. It is a long, winding ribbon extending from Lower Manhattan through the Bronx and into the Westchester suburbs north of the city. Some blocks are graceful, many others far from it. Rarely, however, are they dull. In “Broadway,” his meticulously researched book, Fran Leadon, an architect steeped in New York’s heritage, takes us on an invigorating historical stroll along the 13 miles that are the thoroughfare’s Manhattan portion. Leadon offers textured snapshots of life as it once was, and sometimes still is, dividing his walk into 13 sections, one for each mile, from Bowling Green near the lower tip of the island to Marble Hill in what looks like the Bronx on a map but is administratively part of Manhattan.
At some point in the 1950s, Rodgers and Hammerstein transformed from a pair of hardworking men in the theater into An Enterprise, and by the time I was growing up in the ’70s, that enterprise was an established brand, reliably stodgy and comforting and firmly entrenched in Eisenhower-era values and, for me, not all that interesting. How these writers went from being considered brash, hungry innovators to drab gray-flannel-suit types, and how they have been restored to their rightful position as the progenitors of virtually all modern musical theater, is the story of Todd S. Purdum’s affectionate and richly researched “Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution.”