MyAppleMenu Reader

Archive for June 2018

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Who Gets To Be A Mad Scientist?, by Hernan Diaz, The Paris Review

From Prometheus to Dr. Faustus, Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Griffin, Dr. West, or Dr. Banner, mad scientists in literature have one thing common: they all challenge some sort of law. In one way or another, they “practise more than heavenly power permits,” as the chorus in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faust says in its final admonition. Not only do they break the rules of established paradigms—their methods are never recognized as proper science by academic institutions—but, more importantly, they defy the very laws of nature. “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through,” says Victor Frankenstein. By redefining life, matter, and even space-time, the greatest mad minds defy the basic concepts on which we build our sense of reality. The rejection of the world everyone sees in favor of an alternate reality nobody else can perceive is both one of the most commonplace descriptions of madness, and a prerequisite for scientific breakthrough. And, precisely because the work of these mad scientists is so groundbreaking, there is seldom legislation in place to address the ethical issues that may arise. Mad scientists operate in a legal limbo, when they are not overtly breaking criminal laws. World-domination, as anyone who has watched an episode of Pinky and The Brain knows, can be their main drive. In short, mad scientists violate institutional protocols, twist what we thought was the unbendable order of nature, or contravene, in super-villainous ways, the rule of law.

Recording Audiobooks For My Dad, Stephen King, by Owen King, The New Yorker

My father gave me my first job, reading audiobooks on cassette tape. He had caught on to the medium early, but, as he explained later, “There were lots of choices as long as you only wanted to hear ‘The Thorn Birds.’ ” So, one day, in 1987, he presented me with a handheld cassette recorder, a block of blank tapes, and a hardcover copy of “Watchers,” by Dean Koontz, offering nine dollars per finished sixty-minute tape of narration.

This was an optimistic plan on my father’s part. Not only was I just ten years old, but when it came to reading aloud I had an infamous track record.

From Lawrence Of Arabia To Breaking Bad: The Desert As A Cultural Oasis, by William Atkins, The Guardian

Fifty years on from the first publication of Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey’s classic account of his time as a ranger in Utah’s Arches national park, the desert still represents freedoms unavailable elsewhere. Abbey could evoke the raw, alarming beauty of arid landscapes as effectively as any writer, but he was also capable of startling cruelty and obtuseness, particularly towards immigrants. In a 1977 essay titled The Great American Desert he at once extols the desert’s appeal and discourages those who would follow him there. “Survival hint #1: Stay out of there. Don’t go. Stay home and read a good book, this one for example.” As well as the bloodsucking kissing bug and a half-dozen species of rattlesnake, there are black widows, Gila monsters, the deadly poisonous coral snakes and the giant, hairy desert scorpions. “Something about the desert,” he adds, “inclines all living things to harshness and acerbity.”

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Why We Don’t Read, Revisited, by Caleb Crain, New Yorker

A little more than a decade ago, I wrote an article for The New Yorker about American reading habits, which a number of studies then indicated might be in decline. I was worried about what a shift to “secondary orality”—a sociological term for a post-literate culture—might do to America’s politics. “In a culture of secondary orality, we may be less likely to spend time with ideas we disagree with,” I wrote. I suspected that people might become less inclined to do fact checking on their own; “forced to choose between conflicting stories,” they would “fall back on hunches.”

I’ll go out on a limb and say that I don’t think that I got this part wrong. But I’ve often wondered whether I was right about the underlying trend, too. Were Americans in fact reading less back then? And are they reading even less today? Whenever I happen across a news article on the topic, I wonder if I’m about to find out whether I was Cassandra or Chicken Little.

Balancing Act: Richard Sennett’s “Building And Dwelling”, by Josh Stephens, Los Angeles Review of Books

What Sennett does do — probably better than any other scholar could — is pull urban planners out of the daily grind of pragmatism. He offers the sort of intellectual provocation that can make inquisitive planners question just about everything they do and everything they think about cities. That’s not to say that Building and Dwelling will cause anyone to abandon their principles. Rather, it presents a time-out for the reassessment of principles and a reminder that city-building is, to invoke another duality, as much an intellectual endeavor as it is a pragmatic one.

The Promise Of Failure By John McNally, by Laura Moretz, Ploughshares

Throughout the essays, McNally’s self-deprecating humor and openness about stumbling blocks, including depression and addictive behaviors, are a comfort to fellow sufferers who continue to seek methods of reinvention for work that failed to launch. There is a balm in knowing that other writers persist, despite depression, despite everything, which is perhaps why many writers congregate on social media in the first place. In a culture that values instant success, this is a book to hand to a writer who is planning to continue writing for the long term.

Twins, Foils, Frauds: A Posthumous Novel On The Puzzle Of Free Will, by Scott Bradfield, New York Times

In this and his other books, Mathews appreciates frauds and forgers, those who recognize the disconnect between who people are and who they pretend to be. In one of the most memorable stories-within-a-story in this book, a Polish refugee named Malachi develops his own Oulipian game for selling refurbished Ford automobiles while presenting a televised dramatic serial that relies on a “theory of syntactic fracture as a new way of getting viewers involved in a plot.” The trick, he decides, is to create “writing that cuddles up to the so-called truth but never pretends to be it” — a fine and memorable expression of the magic that happens when readers read good fiction, especially the good fiction of Mathews. Then, in this small novel’s final pages, just when the various convolutions and tale-tellings seem too various and contradictory to resolve, the fractured identities come together in a set of small, miraculous and carefully contrived revelations that never feel contrived at all.

The Rise And Fall Of The British Nation And These Islands Review – The Fate Of 'Bullshit Britain', by Christopher de Bellaigue, The Guardian

Edgerton’s penultimate chapter, A Nation Lost, is about Thatcher’s Britain. She inherited, “uniquely in British history”, a nation self-sufficient in food and – thanks to North Sea oil – about to become a net energy exporter. She left behind a net importer of manufactures whose assets had been flogged, a riven people increasingly captive to European federalism – anything but the socially conservative Britain with a strong manufacturing base in private hands that she seems to have wanted. Thatcher planted the “bullshit Britain” that was harvested by Blair, a polity simultaneously capable of and vulnerable to centrifugal separatisms even as it encourages “fantasies of transformative revival and distinctiveness”.

It is a measure of declinism’s grip that, for Brexiters, leaving Europe is the only way to escape it, while for remainers the same course of action will make it worse. Edgerton prides himself on being immune – which makes his final bilious pages all the more disconcerting. “Only satirists, not historians, could do justice to this turn of events” is his last line, referring to the spectacles of Blair working for dictators and a state funeral for Thatcher. Hearken to the sound of an intellectual throwing in the towel.

Friday, June 15, 2018

No Two People Read Exactly The Same Book, And That’s A Good Thing, by Craig Morgan Teicher, New York Times

But reading aloud in this way, to and with my children, still feels like a new experience. I had to train myself — it took a couple of years, honestly — to be able to say the words on the page and to also take them in, to understand them, as I would if I were reading alone, to myself, in my head. It’s a many-layered pleasure, chiefly because, unlike with movies, one can supply one’s own images, one’s own sensory details. And I’ve learned some strange things about myself from paying attention to how I do this. For instance, I do not imagine fictional characters as having facial features — in my mind, though I can smell characters and touch the fabric of their clothes, their faces are blank, gray patches. I often wonder why this is and what it says about me.

As a parent of a child with special needs — who is, in special-needs parlance, “very involved,” meaning deeply affected, extremely different from me — a central question of my life is what he is understanding, how differently he apprehends the world. When he hears words, what do they mean? All the context for language that my life — that a typical life — has provided doesn’t apply to him. When he hears the word “red” — he also has cortical vision impairment, meaning that his eyes work perfectly, but they’re like windows his brain isn’t always looking out of — he can’t possibly envision what I do.

A Ramble About Books About Walking, by Geoff Nicholson, Los Angeles Review of Books

I think Roth is speaking for a great many writers, especially novelists. Writing is a lonely and isolated desk job, and although I have no hard psychological or statistical data on the subject, my intuition is that many of us like it that way, we want our whole life to be about writing in a room by ourselves. That’s why we became writers in the first place.

Yet even the most reclusive of us, either at our own or other people’s insistence, do feel the need to leave that room every once in a while; and stepping outside for a walk, a drift, a meander, a perambulation, is the easiest and perhaps the most obvious way of doing it.

Florida By Lauren Groff Review – Rage And Refusal As Earth Reaps The Whirlwind, by Lauren Elkin, The Guardian

Lauren Groff’s new story collection is a portrait not so much of a place as of a particular kind of feeling about a place, as experienced by a series of characters, some of whom seem to be the same woman. She is the mother of two sons, and – like Mathilde in Groff’s acclaimed 2015 novel Fates and Furies, named book of the year by both Amazon and Barack Obama – she is furious beyond all measure. Unlike Mathilde, though, she has children, which raises the stakes. Also unlike Mathilde, she has no name.

'Light Of The Stars' Looks To Other Planets To Illuminate Climate Change On Earth, by Adam Becker, NPR

It seems somewhat facile to claim that a new myth can solve the wicked geopolitical problems at the heart of climate change, but storytelling is our oldest and most powerful technology. One story, told at the right time, can tear down a wall, build a city, or inspire a revolution. Frank's book isn't the one story about climate change — but it's a good story, and a valuable perspective on the most important problem of our time.

A Startling Debut Novel From A South African Poet, by The Economist

This sense of something being separated from what made it whole runs through the novel. Ms Kilalea sketches this sad, slightly surreal situation without mawkishness or morbidity. “OK, Mr Field” introduces a striking new voice in fiction.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

My Suicide Week, by Ashley Feinberg, Huffington Post

It’s the ache of being reminded of what I’ve lost, sure, but it’s also the anxiety of not knowing what to do — how to comfort those dealing with what I’m dealing with, what to tell those who have no idea what it’s like but want to help, whether it’s ridiculous of me to think I’m qualified for any of this in the first place.

The cynicism and the concern work together in weird ways. On a day like Friday, I end up feeling watched.

A Community Cracked Open By Fracking, by Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

Any ideology operating under the seismic pressures of the actual world will reveal a seam of inconsistency, a line of vulnerability running through it like a stress fracture. Free-market conservatives, for instance, have tried to square their support for big business with their professed fondness for little communities, sometimes by suggesting that the interests of both are one and the same.

Eliza Griswold will tell you what happens when they’re not. Scratch that: Eliza Griswold will show you what happens when they’re not. Her sensitive and judicious new book, “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America,” is neither an outraged sermon delivered from a populist soapbox nor a pinched, professorial lecture. Griswold, a journalist and a poet, paid close attention to a community in southwestern Pennsylvania over the course of seven years to convey its confounding experience with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process that injects water and chemicals deep into the ground in order to shake loose deposits of natural gas.

James Wood’s New Novel Confronts The Mystery Of Other Minds, by Vivian Gornick, New York Times

In the end, it all comes down to the mysterious matter of inborn sensibility. The question of why a writer can make the words on the page come to felt life in one genre but not another — why the gift of expressiveness is extended here while that of appreciation goes there — this question remains unanswerable. For the reader, it is only necessary that gift there be — the one that makes us feel alive to literature and ourselves when subject, writer and form are brilliantly matched.

Years Ago I Wandered Into A Used Book Store And A Man Named X Handed Me This Gem, by Michael Dirda, Washington Post

Browne’s four Paul Pine novels — now gathered together in “Halo for Hire” — are quite consciously written in the wise-cracking, tough-guy mode of Chandler’s fiction and 1940s Humphrey Bogart films. Yet even with their faint tongue-in-cheek air (and an astonishing amount of cigarette smoking), they make for heavenly reading: Who doesn’t sometimes long to wander down mean streets while listening to the world-weary voice of a down-at-heels private eye? Browne’s alliterative shamus even quips like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, regularly encounters gorgeous dames with bedroom eyes, swallows a lot of scotch, and frequently stares out through the half-open Venetian blinds of his dingy office while rain falls steadily on all the living and the dead.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Last Bat: The Mystery Of Britain’s Most Solitary Animal, by Patrick Barkham, The Guardian

We cannot speak of its loneliness, but it must be Britain’s most solitary animal. For the last 16 years, every winter, a male greater mouse-eared bat has taken up residence 300 metres inside a disused and exceedingly damp railway tunnel in West Sussex. The greater mouse-eared bat has been all but extinct in this country for decades. This is the only remaining one we know of. The future of the species in Britain appears to rest with one long-lived and very distinctive individual.

The greater mouse-eared bat is so large that observers who first discovered it in Britain likened one to a young rabbit hanging from a wall. In flight, its wings can stretch to nearly half a metre – an astonishing spectacle in a land where bats are generally closer to the size of the rodent that inspired their old name: flittermouse.

Between The Coats: A Sensitivity Read Changed My Life, by Sarah Gailey, The Book Smugglers

Of course I wanted to forget. I wanted to forget the same way that I want to forget I have a heart murmur (surely this will be the year I finally get that checked on). I wanted to forget the same way that I want to forget about the hurricanes that get worse every year and the coastlines that are crumbling fast, fast, faster. I wanted to forget because I knew in my bones that being queer meant my time was going to be short, and the time I had wasn’t going to be good.

I knew because I’d read the stories. The girls who fall in love and wind up dead; the boys who get to kiss just once onscreen before one of them is Taken Away. The queer-coded villains who are evil enough to deserve what they get at the end of the movie. The beatings, and the disownings, and the corrective rapes, and the suicides, and the murders, the murders, the murders.

Of course I wanted to forget.

Stephen King: Master Of Almost All The Genres Except “Literary”, by Douglas E. Cowan, Literary Hub

For his part, King accepts the reality of “being dismissed by the more intellectual critics as a hack,” though he points out that “the intellectual’s definition of a hack seems to be ‘an artist whose work is appreciated by too many people.’” Indeed, few such reviewers pause to ask why we find King haunting airports, train stations, and bus terminals around the world. Fewer still seem to realize that many of King’s readers seek their escape in his sinister storyworlds precisely because of the plain, unremarkable, yet profoundly disturbing “us” he presents. Reflected there in his dark mirror, we see shades of ourselves.

What Two Writers Found When They Bought A Plane And Touched Down On Main Street, U.S.A., by Marc Lacey, New York Times

There is no right way to get to know America. I’ve seen patches of it over the years by car, by bicycle, by train, by bus and by foot. All of those modes of transportation have their pluses and minuses. These days, it’s by air that I usually get around, which generally means leaving one metropolis and then arriving in another. One sizable drawback of this approach, of course, is too much interesting countryside is flown over at high altitude, and thus ignored.

James and Deborah Fallows came up with a reasonably efficient way of delving into the country’s guts. They splurged for a small propeller airplane, which they then piloted hither and yon, not to the major transit hubs we all come and go from in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and Chicago but to small landing strips in and around places like Holland, Mich.; St. Marys, Ga.; Allentown, Pa.; Charleston, W.Va.; Guymon, Okla.; and Chester, Mont.

Sinking Cities, by Rafaela Bassili, Los Angeles Review of Books

The separation of art from science — largely at the hands of scientists themselves to preserve their rigor — has created a dangerous by-product: a distance from the environmental dangers and threats that paint our landscape. In her lyrical and fact-packed investigative effort, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, Elizabeth Rush successfully attempts to bridge the gap between the scientific and a terrifying aesthetic by studying the effects of sea level rise on seaside communities and marginalized groups of people.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Strange Case Of The Missing Joyce Scholar, by Jack Hitt, New York Times

So was Kidd one of Joyce’s prophesied professors, made so busy by the puzzles and enigmas that he was driven to literal madness? It seemed impossible to say, because not long after that newspaper article was published, Kidd simply vanished. Over the last 10 years, I would occasionally pick up the telephone, trying to scratch out some other ending to the story. I harbored this idea, a fantasy really, that John Kidd had abandoned the perfect “Ulysses” to become the perfect Joycean — so consumed by the infinite interpretations of the book that he departed this grid of understanding.

I started by contacting all the homeless shelters in Brookline. Then I wrote all of Kidd’s old colleagues on the faculty at Boston University, working my way through the directory. “I’d heard that he died,” wrote John Matthews, a Faulkner scholar, “and I suspect that actually is true. ... Kidd was a public eccentric in town — the whole ‘talking to the squirrels’ deal. A sad ending.” James Winn, a Dryden man, now retired, wrote that he had “heard rumor of his death, but nothing substantive.” And, if you scour the very bottom of the internet, the last tiny mentions in stray comment sections all speak of a miserable death.

Not long ago, I came upon a Romanian scholar, Mircea Mihaies, who confirmed it. In fact, Mihaies wrote about the calamity in his history of “Ulysses.” In an interview for the release of the book, Mihaies explained: John Kidd “died under sordid circumstances in 2010, buried in debt, detested, insulted, alone, abandoned by everyone, communicating only with pigeons on a Boston campus.”

That sounded like a complete story, except for one thing. I couldn’t find an obituary.

The Lifespan Of A Lie, by Ben Blum, Medium

It was a defining moment in what has become perhaps the best-known psychology study of all time. Whether you learned about Philip Zimbardo’s famous “Stanford Prison Experiment” in an introductory psych class or just absorbed it from the cultural ether, you’ve probably heard the basic story. Zimbardo, a young Stanford psychology professor, built a mock jail in the basement of Jordan Hall and stocked it with nine “prisoners,” and nine “guards,” all male, college-age respondents to a newspaper ad who were assigned their roles at random and paid a generous daily wage to participate. The senior prison “staff” consisted of Zimbardo himself and a handful of his students. The study was supposed to last for two weeks, but after Zimbardo’s girlfriend stopped by six days in and witnessed the conditions in the “Stanford County Jail,” she convinced him to shut it down. Since then, the tale of guards run amok and terrified prisoners breaking down one by one has become world-famous, a cultural touchstone that’s been the subject of books, documentaries, and feature films — even an episode of “Veronica Mars.” The SPE is often used to teach the lesson that our behavior is profoundly affected by the social roles and situations in which we find ourselves. But its deeper, more disturbing implication is that we all have a wellspring of potential sadism lurking within us, waiting to be tapped by circumstance. It has been invoked to explain the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War, the Armenian genocide, and the horrors of the Holocaust. And the ultimate symbol of the agony that man helplessly inflicts on his brother is Korpi’s famous breakdown, set off after only 36 hours by the cruelty of his peers.

There’s just one problem: Korpi’s breakdown was a sham.

When Poets Write Novels, by Caoilinn Hughes, Granta

As the years went by, I found my way into the novel form, first as a reader, and later as a writer. I began to see that the distance between the two forms doesn’t need to be vast, and sometimes it isn’t – it was a matter of finding the right novels. A novelist can share a poet’s sensibility, precision, generosity, slant, view, broodiness, relationship with language, imagery, metaphor and the visual. But what about the novelists who are poets? Do their novels betray them as such? If so, how? I began to compile a list of my favourite contemporary novels by poets. To my eye, all expose their authors as poets, but this is no failing. Quite the opposite.

The “Simpsons” Jokes That Never Quite Made It (And A Few That Barely Did), by Mike Reiss, New Yorker

Occasionally on “The Simpsons,” you’ll see a scene that’s weird, even by our standards: it’s not conventionally funny, and it may have nothing to do with the story. Odds are this scene is padding. One skill I learned at Harvard was how to stretch a five-page paper into a fifty-page thesis, and this served me well when I was running the show with Al Jean. For some reason our episodes were always short, and we had to find a way to make the network minimum length: twenty minutes, twenty seconds.

The Female Persuasion By Meg Wolitzer – Review, by Eva Wiseman, The Guardian

With affection and generosity, Wolitzer exposes the limits of power through a handful of well-meant lives and she leaves us uneasy. The sense that we may have smashed a glass ceiling, but now are standing in the shards, discreetly bleeding.

Far From The Shore, A Happy Couple Takes A Turn For The Worse, by Sarah Lyall, New York Times

Low-key menace pervades the narrative, even before anything overtly weird (leaving aside the grave-digging scene) takes place. The writing has the muscular urgency of the present tense, throwing us off-kilter in real time.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Bitter Aftertaste Of Prohibition In American History, by Roger Catlin, Smithsonian

“Organizing around alcohol is in some ways a politically correct way to go after other immigrants,” Grinspan says in the documentary. “It’s not entirely polite to say, ‘I want to get all of the Catholics out of America.’ But it’s very polite to say, ‘Alcohol is ruining society.’”

“That’s one of the big changes in recent scholarship,” says Peter Liebhold, a curator in the division of work and industry at the American History Museum, who is also featured in the series. “A lot of people are looking at the success of the temperance movement as an anti-immigrant experience. It becomes code for keeping immigrants in their place.”

How Too Much Research Can Ruin Your Novel, by Nick Dybek, Literary Hub

I found myself stuffing in details and anecdotes just to prove that I knew them. I found myself afraid to make a wrong choice—or, worse, an uninformed choice—until I was barely making any choices at all. After a year of working on the novel, I had to accept that I was doing something wrong. The pages I’d produced felt detailed, but also overdetermined and unsurprising; in short: dead on arrival.

The French composer Claude Debussy once complained to a friend that he found so much of the music that was popular in his time to be overworked, needlessly complicated. “They smell of the lamp, not of the sun,” he said. It was obvious that my manuscript smelled of the lamp, but less clear what I needed to do differently to let in some sun.

In Praise Of An Afternoon At The Movies, by Donna Masini, Literary Hub

4:30 is my favorite time to go to the movies, and I’ve found I’m not alone in this. At 4:30 I can slip into a theater with a bottle of water. No line. Little chance it will sell out; that a tall man will, well into previews, station himself in front of me. Nothing odd about seeing a movie alone at 4:30. On Saturday night at 8:00, it’s hard not to feel too visible, pathetic. Have the urge to wear a sign: I have many friends. I am loved; drape a coat on the seat beside me until the lights go out—like Miss Lonelyhearts in Rear Window, setting a wine glass for an imaginary companion. At 4:30 I can sink back in the dark, in the company of strangers, many of whom are also alone, sip my water, and wait for those enormous figures to move across the screen. Wait to lose myself.

Now We Can Talk Openly About Men By Martina Evans – Poetry Review, by Kate Kellaway, The Guardian

There is a garrulous humanity and humour in Evans’s writing – her women are both spendthrift talkers. I was diverted by the furious zest with which the bible is co-opted into Kitty’s tale. She links the possibility of her reprobate husband’s return to an unwitnessed resurrection. “How many times did he fall down and rise again like an India rubber ball?/And what was there to stop him rising/again? The body wasn’t found and no one/saw Jesus rise on Easter Sunday either.” The sense in this book is that words will save you – but only up to a point. Laughter, on the other hand, might prove no laughing matter.

History Of Violence By ÉDouard Louis – Review, by Tim Adams, The Guardian

The self-consciousness can occasionally feel contrived, or at least French, but the book at heart is both brave and ambitious in its determination never to let its reader, or its author, escape lightly the damaging realities it describes.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Is Ketchup The Perfect Complement To The American Diet?, by Amy Bentley, Boston Globe

Ketchup is an exemplar of New World-style industrialized food, its distinctive sweet-and-tangy flavor borne of the rigors of mass production. Quintessentially American, ketchup is seamlessly standardized and mass-produced — qualities, along with cleanliness and low cost, that Americans have traditionally valued in their food, often at the expense of taste. Shelf stability, in essence, created what we call “American flavor.”

Ketchup was not invented in the United States. It began as a fermented fish sauce — sans tomatoes — in early China. British sailors bought the sauce, called ke-tsiap or ke-tchup by 17th-century Chinese and Indonesian traders, to provide relief from the dry and mundane hardtack and salt pork they ate aboard ship.

The Magic Of A Cardboard Box, by Alexandra Lange, New York Times

These 21st-century storytellers turned to cardboard for the same reasons that children have long preferred the box to the toy that came in it: cardboard is light and strong, easy to put up, quick to come down and, perhaps most important, inexpensive enough for experiment. Cardboard constructions can be crushed, painted, recycled and stuck back together. Cardboard furniture can be adjusted as children grow, and cardboard creations become more sophisticated as children gain skills: It is as malleable as the body and the mind.

Processes Of Memory: Christa Wolf’s “Eulogy For The Living: Taking Flight”, by Fiona Bryson, Los Angeles Review of Books

As part of a comprehensive guide to Christa Wolf’s often controversial literary history, Eulogy provides a perfect starting point, an important introduction to her oeuvre, unraveling her complicated political and human positions from the beginning stages of her life. One can assume that Gerhard Wolf’s opening quote in his afterword to Eulogy sums up what must have been a lifelong dilemma, and is similar to Handke’s objectification of himself in order to chronicle memory: “Not wanting to know the truth about oneself is the contemporary state of sin; one redeems oneself these days through self-awareness […] with the self as the object of study. — Kazimierz Brandys.”

Antonia White’s Frost In May Explores And Invokes The Rituals Of Power, by Tessa Hadley, The Guardian

First published in 1933, Frost in May is based on Antonia White’s own pre-first world war girlhood experiences at a convent school in Roehampton, and its enthralling story has become part of our history of women’s lives and women’s writing. Something happened to her at that school, by all the biographical accounts, which marked her for life – obsessed her and damaged her. The experience prevented her from writing for years, but in the end it also gave her this small masterpiece of a novel, exquisitely poised between a condemnation of the school and a love letter to it. Even as White – who died in 1980 – anatomises and sees through the school’s twisted, self-punishing ethic and its casual cruelty, she’s still under the spell of its seductions. That’s how Frost in May, which found new readers when it was chosen in 1978 to launch the Virago Modern Classics list, has exerted such power over generations; outrage at the closed, heated world of the convent school is entangled, in White’s lovely prose, with a yearning to succumb to it, to belong to it. And it’s through this emotional combination that overweening cultural systems exert lasting influence on us.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Has Fiction Lost Its Sense Of Humour?, by Sam Leith, the Guardian

A more interesting question might have been: was the comic novel ever alive? Is there something distinctive you can point to that can be called “comic fiction”? And are those two questions, or a different way of phrasing the same one? The late Philip Roth was rightly praised for his humour – David Baddiel said he was funny in the way a standup was funny – but none of the obituaries called him a “comic novelist”. Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels are very funny, but you probably wouldn’t call them comic novels. AL Kennedy is extremely funny, but, again, doesn’t seem to merit the label “comic novelist”. Others seem to travel more in that direction, but it’s a matter of fine judgment where the line is crossed. Anthony Powell? Evelyn Waugh? Ronald Firbank? Malcolm Bradbury? Vladimir Nabokov? Stella Gibbons?

The Immeasurable World By William Atkins Review – Voyages In The Desert, by Gavin Francis, The Guardian

At the outset of The Immeasurable World, William Atkins explains how his first trip to the Empty Quarter of Arabia was occasioned by the end of a love affair. “The woman I’d lived with for four years had taken a job overseas,” he writes. “I would not be going with her. The summer before, in the name of research, I’d spent a week with a community of Cistercian monks.” His flight to the deserts of this book is thus framed not as discovery but recovery; his impulse is an ascetic one, rather than voyeuristic or sybaritic. Atkins is not in thrall to deserts – in his words “dead”, “forsaken” places – but loves them for their austerity, and the clarity of thought they grant. From Oman to Australia, from China to Arizona, deserts offer him allegories of humanity’s mistreatment of the planet, and of one another.

Into the shifting sands of Oman he follows the stories of Wilfred Thesiger, Bertram Thomas and Harry St John Philby, mesmerised by a stillness in ceaseless motion: “The desert … leaves you dazed,” he writes, “and yet it quickly becomes apparent that, just as the desert is not silent, it is far from being still.” In Australia he visits the Maralinga nuclear test sites, superbly described as “a ruined place whose silence is less tranquillity’s than that of a battlefield where the killing has just ended”. The British director of nuclear testing, William Penney, saw in the undulating Australian desert “the appearance of English downland”. In Atkins’s imagination those outback dusts merge with the blood-red circles on cold war maps – the ones predicting the radii of nuclear devastation.

Stephen King Still Knows How To Creep You Out by Michael T. Fournier, Chicago Review of Books

In some novels King has stumbled with endings, tending to focus too much on the supernatural. Here, he understands that less is more. There’s no reliance on portals to distant lands or repetition of incantations. Instead we’re given solid detective work that pieces together the mystery of El Cuco while connecting it to Terry Maitland. The otherworldly is kept to a minimum, allowing readers to envision horrors on their own.

Everything Was A Fake, by Nathan Scott McNamara, Los Angeles Review of Books

Helen DeWitt's story collection Some Trick, her third book, arrives with great anticipation. A polyglot with a PhD in Classics from Oxford, DeWitt wields an immense intellectual palate that, in each of her books, she uses to cynically delight her readers.

Friday, June 8, 2018

From The Copa To Wakanda: How Single-Take Shots Invaded Franchise Movies, by Jayson Greene, The Ringer

As cameras share equal time with computers or disappear from sets altogether, big franchise action movies increasingly rely on fluid camerawork to smuggle some of the visceral reality that has been slowly vacuumed out of moviegoing. Often, these “long takes” are more a metaphysical idea than an old-fashioned single shot, but they share one thing with their predecessors: They begin as a mad gleam in a director’s eye. Michael P. Shawver, who edited Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther as well as his 2015 Rocky reboot, Creed, says that Coogler “wanted to do that entire sequence, from the moment Lupita’s character fires a shot up into the rafters — as one continuous shot.” Coogler, in particular, seems to have a fondness for these “oners”; Creed contains a number of fantastic single takes, including the gripping, claustrophobic first fight sequence. “But with all the stuff going on — action happening on two floors, wires, multiple fights, guns firing — it just wasn’t possible.”

So they constructed a “single take” of at least seven or eight distinct shots with the seams erased. (If you’ve seen Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, you’ve seen this technique, the same one Alejandro González Iñárritu tripled down on for 2014’s Birdman). It’s a complicated process that blurs the roles of director, director of photography, editor, and even fight coordinator. Shawver, for one, found himself somewhere he almost never is the day of Black Panther’s “oner”: on set.

Heat, Hurricanes And Hallucinations In Lauren Groff’s ‘Florida’, by Sara Cutaia, Chicago Review of Books

If you’ve never heard of the “Florida man” phenomenon, here’s a summary: the citizens of Florida people have become notorious for unusual crimes that often make headlines, thus spurring the internet to create a meme that has given Florida a reputation for the weird. The stories in Lauren Groff’s new collection Florida sit so perfectly within this context that it’s no surprise she lives in the state with such fame, absorbing the mythos and infusing her writing with characters fit for tabloids. The eleven stories in this collection not only capture this cultural identity, but they also overflow with imagery so powerfully tangible that it’s hard to believe the humidity and rainstorms aren’t truly escaping from the page to touch you.

Fluid Friendships: A Literary Ode To The Shifting Nature Of Human Bonds, by Alexandra Kleeman, New York Times

Not every reader will find the dense, intricate mundanity of these interlinked monologues easy to appreciate. As in actual life, it can sometimes be difficult to tell whether something crucial is happening, or nothing at all. But those who find connections among these disparate moments will be rewarded with a rare and fragile experience: a rediscovery of the strength of narrative bonds, impossible to dissolve and difficult to forget, a miraculous substance that links the characters to one another and holds them in companionable relation.

The Aviator By Eugene Vodolazkin Review – A Time-traveller’s Life, by Simon Ings, The Guardian

But Vodolazkin’s grip on this narrative is iron-tight, and what we take at first to be Innokenty’s pathology – or the working out of a literary method – turns out to be something much more important: a moral stand, of sorts. Innokenty knows, in a bitter and visceral fashion, that history is merely a theory abstracted from the experiences of individuals. So he chooses to care about the little things, the overlooked things, “sounds, smells, and manners of expression, gesticulation, and motion”. These are the things that actually make up a life; these are the true universals.

Aristotle’s Lisp, Why Socrates Loved Dancing And Other Tales Of Ancient Thinkers, by Michael Dirda, Washington Post

Throughout “The Practicing Stoic,” Farnsworth beautifully integrates his own observations with scores of quotations from Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne and others. As a result, this isn’t just a book to read — it’s a book to return to, a book that will provide perspective and consolation at times of heartbreak or calamity. For the Stoic, as Farnsworth reminds us, “the work of life is to turn whatever happens to constructive ends.”

Don't Eat Before Reading This, by Anthony Bourdain, New Yorker (April 19, 1999)

Say it’s a quiet Monday night, and you’ve just checked your coat in that swanky Art Deco update in the Flatiron district, and you’re looking to tuck into a thick slab of pepper-crusted yellowfin tuna or a twenty-ounce cut of certified Black Angus beef, well-done—what are you in for?

The fish specialty is reasonably priced, and the place got two stars in the Times. Why not go for it? If you like four-day-old fish, be my guest. Here’s how things usually work. The chef orders his seafood for the weekend on Thursday night. It arrives on Friday morning. He’s hoping to sell the bulk of it on Friday and Saturday nights, when he knows that the restaurant will be busy, and he’d like to run out of the last few orders by Sunday evening. Many fish purveyors don’t deliver on Saturday, so the chances are that the Monday-night tuna you want has been kicking around in the kitchen since Friday morning, under God knows what conditions. When a kitchen is in full swing, proper refrigeration is almost nonexistent, what with the many openings of the refrigerator door as the cooks rummage frantically during the rush, mingling your tuna with the chicken, the lamb, or the beef. Even if the chef has ordered just the right amount of tuna for the weekend, and has had to reorder it for a Monday delivery, the only safeguard against the seafood supplier’s off-loading junk is the presence of a vigilant chef who can make sure that the delivery is fresh from Sunday night’s market.

Generally speaking, the good stuff comes in on Tuesday: the seafood is fresh, the supply of prepared food is new, and the chef, presumably, is relaxed after his day off. (Most chefs don’t work on Monday.) Chefs prefer to cook for weekday customers rather than for weekenders, and they like to start the new week with their most creative dishes. In New York, locals dine during the week. Weekends are considered amateur nights—for tourists, rubes, and the well-done-ordering pretheatre hordes. The fish may be just as fresh on Friday, but it’s on Tuesday that you’ve got the good will of the kitchen on your side.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

A Defense Of The Suburbs, by Anthony Alofsin, The Atlantic

Open-minded curiosity can also teach much about another foreigner in our midst: the American suburb. Often vilified or ignored by urbanites, architects, and critics, the suburb is nevertheless the residential heart of America. Its citizens have much to learn about how it works and does not work, and why people choose to live there: because they can afford to buy houses there, because the homes are of higher quality than they get credit for, and because the builders who design and build them are responsive to home buyers’ desires.

Understanding and responding to those justifications doesn’t require endorsing the suburbs as they are today. In fact, it might help improve urban design in the sometimes overlooked places where Americans live.

First Contact: What If We Find Not Organic Life But ET’s AI?, by Caleb Scharf, Aeon

We have a problem. In a 10-billion-year-old galaxy there should have been ample opportunity for at least one species to escape its own mess, and to spread across the stars, filling every niche. That this species doesn’t seem to have come calling leads to Fermi’s Paradox – if life isn’t impossibly rare, then where is everyone? Efforts to scan the skies for signs of intelligent life have come up blank too, adding to the puzzle. Perhaps the vast gulfs of interstellar space and the narrow windows of time for communicative species to exist within shouting distance of each other are to blame. Intelligences might be like small ships passing in the night in a vast ocean. Actual close encounters of any kind could be exceedingly unusual.

Another explanation for the great silence of the galaxy is that any surviving intelligence out there is so different from us, so radically evolved, that we can’t even conceive of its forms or behaviours. As a consequence, actually detecting and recognising it could be next to impossible. That’s a bit of a downer.

But there is also a possibility that lies between such extremes and it might be the most probable of all. When our first encounter or detection finally occurs, it could be a machine intelligence that appears in our sights.

On The Radio, It’s Always Midnight, by Seb Emina, The Paris Review

I love listening to radio, but sometimes I don’t want to listen to a particular station, genre, or category. Sometimes I want to listen to a time of day. Which is, of course, entirely possible thanks to the rise of online streaming at the expense of older analogue broadcast methods. If I am feeling afternoony in the morning, I can leave the world that is “governed by time” and join whichever community of radio listeners—in Mumbai, Perth, or Hong Kong—is currently experiencing three P.M. The optimism of a morning show somewhere to my west offers a fresh beginning to a day that’s become lousy by midafternoon, whereas the broadcasts of early evening, burbling across the towns and cities to my east, can turn my morning shower into a kind of short-haul time machine past those hours in which I’m expected to be productive. But for the loosest and strangest of broadcast atmospheres, I am drawn most often to the dead of night, to the so-called graveyard shift.

What Data Has Done To Capitalism, by David Leonhardt, New York Times

Mayer-Schönberger and Ramge offer several intriguing ideas for limiting the excesses of data-rich capitalism. One idea is a “robo tax” as a partial replacement for the payroll tax — machines would be taxed more and human employment less. Another idea is mandated data sharing — an echo of the patent system, which also depends on disclosure, the authors note — to allow new entrants a fair chance to compete.

These ideas won’t get much of a hearing in today’s Washington. But the shift toward an information-based economy will outlast the current administration. Eventually, this country will have a government interested in encouraging the best parts of modern capitalism while restraining the worst.

Wartime Acts, Postwar Retribution: A Mother’s Risky Legacy, by Penelope Lively, New York Times

“The past … never remains in the past.” That is the signature theme of Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, which juggles time in much the same way that memory does, interlacing the war years of the 1940s with their immediate aftermath and then jumping forward a decade or so, only to dart back to the war again. At the outset, Ondaatje’s narrator, Nathaniel, is 14; by the last page he is in his late 20s. In between is the intricate, subtly rendered account of what happened to his mother, Rose. The warlight of the title is the London blackout of World War II, when familiar landscapes were darkened, mysterious, uncertain. It epitomizes nicely the climate of a narrative that is itself devious and opaque, that proceeds by way of hints and revelations.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

James Wood’s Subtle Subversions, by Alexander C. Kafka, Los Angeles Review of Books

How dare the most incisive, independent-minded living literary critic writing in the English language also produce serious novels? Does dance critic Alastair Macaulay leap onto the stage and perform Afternoon of a Faun? Does rock writer Jon Pareles grab a Gibson and shred with the Foo Fighters? Does classical music sage Anne Midgette hip-check Emanuel Ax into the concert-hall wings and tear into Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2?

What, then, gives James Wood the right to practice the art he’s spent a lifetime appraising? Check the bylaws. They stipulate that those who can’t do teach and those who can’t teach review. Triple-fie on Wood, then, for he is a critic, a teacher, and a novelist.

The Best Asian Food In North America? Try British Columbia, by Taras Grescoe, New York Times

On a steamy Friday evening, early last summer, I exited a Korean-made metro train with a crowd of teenagers and parents with young children, who filled the elevated platform at Bridgeport Road with a congenial babble of Cantonese, English, Tagalog and Mandarin. Crossing an expansive parking lot, we entered a makeshift village of canopied stalls, set amid a forest of simulated cherry trees whose LED blossoms lent the turquoise twilight a pinkish hue.

Vendors barked out pitches for Pikachu plushies, fidget spinners with strobing lobes, and Cosplay anime onesies for adults. On a small midway, the roar of an animatronic brachiosaurus was briefly overwhelmed by the jets of a Boeing 787 bound for one of the megacities of mainland China. The unmistakable odor of octopus and squid grilling over charcoal permeated the air.

It could have been the Temple Street market in Kowloon, Hong Kong, or one of Singapore’s open-air hawker centers. But I was on the North American side of the Pacific Ocean, in a city the Chinese have dubbed Fu Gwai Moon (Fortune’s Gate). Richmond, as it is more commonly known, is a suburb-city built on flat islands embraced by arms of the Fraser River that lead into the Salish Sea.

How Cooking Frees My Mind To Think About Writing, by Jenna Blum, Literary Hub

Food in life and books means so many things: Connection. Culture. Inheritance. Science and mystery. Love. And for me, a bridge between the fictional and real. Cooking food from books I love is a way of making the imaginary real, something I can hold in my hands—and eat. It’s magic, a way to make the imaginary come true.

The Vast World Of Islam, In 300 Recipes, by Mayukh Sen, New York Times

Her ninth cookbook, “Feast: Food of the Islamic World,” was published by Ecco at the end of May. At over 500 pages, the book is backbreaking in size. In it, Ms. Helou traces a line from Islam’s advent in 610 to the glories of the Mughal dynasty. The book’s 300 recipes span continents, traveling to far-flung parts of the world where Islam spread, from Xinjiang to Zanzibar.

Different treatments for deceptively similar dishes reveal the expansiveness of the foodways throughout North Africa, the Middle East and far beyond. In Morocco, she writes, rice pudding is typically milk-based and flavored with orange blossom water. The rice pudding of Turkey, though, usually involves no milk at all, and it’s laced with saffron.

Rachel Cusk Strips The Novel Down To Its Frame. Again., by Jenny Offill, New York Times

It is hard to overstate the difficulty of the technique Cusk has chosen. It is as if a dressmaker had disavowed fabric in order to make clothes out of air instead. Narrative is so central to the way human beings describe and understand their world that there is a whole branch of psychology devoted to it. Narrative psychologists have noted that by the time people reach old age the majority have organized their life stories in one of two ways: It all came to nothing in the end, one person might conclude, while another will claim that It all came together in the end. These story arcs are so common that they have been given names. The first is called the contamination narrative, the second the redemptive narrative.

Fiction Of Dystopian Times: Ahmed Saadawi’s “Frankenstein In Baghdad”, by Sam Metz, Los Angeles Review of Books

Dystopian fiction combines components of reality specific to the time in which it’s written with science or fantasy elements that depict the nightmarish direction we are bending toward. Frankenstein in Baghdad reverses this typical formula: the dystopian elements of the novel are not rooted in its speculative, supernatural elements but rather in the very real, nightmarish violence of 2005 Baghdad.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Half The Joy Of Travel Is The Anticipation, by Stephanie Rosenbloom, Literary Hub

When imagining the mosque, I didn’t imagine the things I might pass on the walk there from the harbor: the woman in the window raising a bucket on a string, the men with pushcarts of fruits and vegetables, cats dozing between the flowerpots. These are the street scenes that whisper, the particulars that make a place real, that make a trip our own. The Şakirin mosque appeared more vivid in photos in the book than when I stood before it. And the photographer had zoomed in on design features, creating striking, abstract, images. Yet there was no little girl at the foot of the stairs. There were no women laughing. What is a place of worship without people? What is Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s fashionable pedestrian boulevard, without crowds strolling it in the evening, stopping to buy ice cream cones and eat fish in the cozy restaurants on its side streets?

To anticipate is to court joy, to fall in love with a place the way it is in a book or a movie, or an Eartha Kitt song. But to stay open to the unexpected is to truly embrace anticipation—to know that it serves its purpose before the journey begins and must then be set aside for reality, for whatever beautiful, strange, unpredictable thing awaits when we step off the ferry.

A Taxonomy Of Wind, by Ben Shattuck, The Paris Review

Why aren’t there names for the wind? I thought. For these parentheses of the weather, binding up clouds and rain and snow and sun. Only in wind’s velocity do we really notice it, give it a name. Bob. Harvey. Force 5. Sandy. Katrina. Titled in violence, or as the famous overseas giants: mistral, bise, trade winds. It’s not surprising the wind often has a bad reputation—even Ahab, the psychopath hunting earth’s largest predator, finds it an imposing competitor: “ ’Tis a noble and heroic thing, the wind! Who ever conquered it? In every fight it has the last and bitterest blow. Run tilting at it, and you but run through it.”

Yet most of the time, the wind is a gentler and more ubiquitous thing. It’s just a tree rustler. Hem player. As Marilynne Robinson writes in Lila, “The wind always somewhere, trifling with the leaves, troubling the firelight.” Something to put your face to on a hot day. The quotidian winds go unnamed in the shadow of the bigger ones—as if thunderhead were the only cloud I knew.

What Silicon Valley Could Use More Of: Inefficiency, by Gal Beckerman, New York Times

If this sounds like Tenner is a man impassioned, I should be clearer: This is no manifesto. There is not much blood flowing through this book, which reads more like a report issued by a concerned think tank. Maybe it’s just that preaching moderation doesn’t lend itself to writing that pulls your face to the page.

But it would be unfortunate if Tenner were dismissed as just a cranky man in his 70s who thinks we spend too much time on our phones. What he is asserting is something we all know to be true. It’s bigger than the tyranny of efficiency. What he’s really asking is that we remember that the tools we’ve invented to improve our lives are just that, tools, to be picked up and put down. We wield them.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Why Professors Distrust Beauty, by Charlie Tyson, Chronicle of Higher Education

Academe styles itself as the aristocracy of the mind; it is generally disdainful of the body and of the luxury goods commercial society finds beautiful. In short, professors distrust beauty. The preening self-abasement with which they do so, Stanley Fish wrote in the 1990s, is why academics take pride in driving Volvos.

In truth, beauty’s conflicted status among academics probably derives less from the elevation of mind over body and more from the long exclusion of women from the professoriate. For most of the 20th century to be a professor was to be male, and therefore theoretically unsexed, and thus seemingly exempt from the female gendered standards of the fashion industry and mass entertainment. Female academics face a double bind: Look attractive and you seem unserious; look homely and you seem dour. Male academics, for their part, loll in ink-stained corduroys and rumpled shirts. The fashion-conscious few adopt intellectual aesthetics, for instance, riffs on Foucault with black turtlenecks, sleek, shaved heads, and big plastic glasses thrown in for good measure.

In Praise Of Eating Almost Anything With A Spoon, by Hannah Goldfield, New Yorker

The introduction to the most recent version of Emily Post’s Table Setting Guides includes the following mandate: “Only set the table with utensils you will use. No soup; no soup spoon.” Sounds pretty reasonable, as far as Emily Post rules go, but I beg to differ. Who says that soup spoons are only for soup, or should even be called soup spoons at all? I have long admired the way utensils are used in parts of Southeast Asia, including Thailand: the spoon is the most important instrument, held in the dominant hand and used to bring food—soupy or otherwise—to the mouth; the fork plays a supporting role, used only to push morsels onto the spoon, and chopsticks are generally reserved for noodles. I’ve been eating Thai food this way ever since I learned about the custom, dipping spoonfuls of rice into coconut curries, herding green-papaya salad, spangled with peanuts, chili, and tiny dried shrimp, into the curvature of a spoon. It feels elegant, efficient, economical—nary a drop or a morsel is wasted.

Only recently did it occur to me that I could apply the same principle to all kinds of other foods I’d normally eat with a fork. Working from home one day, I used a spoon to eat leftover rice I’d fried with peas and eggs and doused in chili oil. I’ve never taken to the Italian practice of using a spoon to aid in twirling long pasta around a fork, but short pasta—fusilli coated heavily in Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce and grated parmesan, for example—seems made to be eaten with a spoon. Leftover slow-roasted salmon, tender enough to fall apart at the slightest touch? Pan-fried cubes of tofu with florets of steamed broccoli? Creamy curds of butter-scrambled egg, doused in hot sauce? Spoonworthy, all. Even salads are good candidates, so long as the ingredients are bite-size, as evidenced by the chef Michel Nischan’s popular recipe for “Use a Spoon” Chopped Salad. The current vogue for “grain bowls” is nothing if not spoon-friendly.

I, Sy: Seymour Hersh’s Memoir Of A Life Making The Mighty Sweat, by Michael M. Grynbaum, New York Times

Not for the first time in his career, the editors prevailed. “Reporter,” a 355-page memoir, will be released on Tuesday. The book is by turns rollicking and reflective, sober and score-settling. It reconstructs his reporting on Vietnam, his feuds with Henry Kissinger, the foibles of former bosses like A.M. Rosenthal at The New York Times and William Shawn at The New Yorker. It also exhumes journalism’s flush, predigital heyday — when newspapers felled presidents and Mr. Hersh, as a newbie at The Times, was put up at the Hôtel de Crillon while on assignment in Paris.

Sentiment, though, is scarce, befitting the flinty style of Mr. Hersh, who has a knack for cycling through employers and exhausting his editors. (After a messy split with The New Yorker, he no longer has a regular venue for his work.) He knocks reporters for laziness and editors for timidity. He notes that major publications passed on his My Lai exposé, fearful of government denials that American soldiers had murdered dozens of Vietnamese civilians. In the end, Mr. Hersh syndicated the stories himself, and won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts.

Bill Clinton And James Patterson Team Up To Imagine A True Fantasy: Sane Politics, by Janet Maslin, New York Times

It’s driven by star power and persuasive-sounding presidential candor. “Savagery in the quest for power is older than the Bible, but some of my opponents really hate my guts,” says President … Duncan. Clinton has made sporting use of public loathing here, playing not only on readers’ voyeurism but on the chance to reinvent himself as a misunderstood hero. It’s transparent, but it works. Who wouldn’t enjoy a president who shouts “No! No politics today,” and actually means it?

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Curiosity And What Equality Really Means, by Atul Gawande, New Yorker

We are in a dangerous moment because every kind of curiosity is under attack—scientific curiosity, journalistic curiosity, artistic curiosity, cultural curiosity. This is what happens when the abiding emotions have become anger and fear. Underneath that anger and fear are often legitimate feelings of being ignored and unheard—a sense, for many, that others don’t care what it’s like in their shoes. So why offer curiosity to anyone else?

Once we lose the desire to understand—to be surprised, to listen and bear witness—we lose our humanity. Among the most important capacities that you take with you today is your curiosity. You must guard it, for curiosity is the beginning of empathy. When others say that someone is evil or crazy, or even a hero or an angel, they are usually trying to shut off curiosity. Don’t let them. We are all capable of heroic and of evil things. No one and nothing that you encounter in your life and career will be simply heroic or evil. Virtue is a capacity. It can always be lost or gained. That potential is why all of our lives are of equal worth.

The Defeat Of Reason, by Tim Maudlin, Boston Review

Aristotle emphasizes another characteristic. Humans alone, he tells us, have logos: reason. Man, according to the Stoics, is zoön logikon, the reasoning animal. But on reflection, the first set of characteristics arises from the second. It is only because we reason and think and use language that we can be hoodwinked.

Not only can people be led astray, most people are. If the devout Christian is right, then committed Hindus and Jews and Buddhists and atheists are wrong. When so many groups disagree, the majority must be mistaken. And if the majority is misguided on just this one topic, then almost everyone must be mistaken on some issues of great importance. This is a hard lesson to learn, because it is paradoxical to accept one’s own folly. You cannot at the same time believe something and recognize that you are a mug to believe it. If you sincerely judge that it is raining outside, you cannot at the same time be convinced that you are mistaken in your belief. A sucker may be born every minute, but somehow that sucker is never oneself.

Weird Ways Of Seeing: Patrick Nagatani’s Nuclear Vision, by Jeffrey Moro, Los Angeles Review of Books

Nagatani’s photography resists a straightforward documentarian impulse. Rather, in its hyper-saturated colors, comic compositions, and weird phosphorescence, Nuclear Enchantment captures the unrepresentable strangeness of nuclear weaponry and its material, cultural, and biological legacies. Twenty-seven years after its publication, in a moment of political and ecological crisis, I want to consider these photographs as models for seeing through nuclear weaponry into a lurking violence that undergirds the American project.

Sabrina By Nick Drnaso Review – An Extraordinary Graphic Novel, by Chris Ware, The Guardian

What’s most curious and, ultimately, valuable about this book is that it is not a crime story; it’s a perspicacious and chilling analysis of the nature of trust and truth and the erosion of both in the age of the internet – and especially, in the age of Trump.

Sabrina’s story develops from the uncertain, unpredictable emotions of lived experience to the micro-paranoias of clickbait with a speed and, worst of all, a familiarity that is blood-curdling.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Man Who Says Science Blew Its Best Shot At An AIDS Vaccine, by Adam Rogers, Wired

In the late 1980s, Burt Dorman was ready to get out of the vaccination game. A biophysical chemist, he’d spent years running a successful company making animal vaccines—a dozen of them, against diseases like feline leukemia and vesicular stomatitis. Now Dorman was starting a new company in a new field, aiming at disease diagnostics.

And then the AIDS epidemic hit. The first hint that a new disease was killing people had come in 1981, in a publication called the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. What followed were years, decades even, of tragedy and homophobia-tainted ignorance. Still, by 1987 the first vaccine trial was underway, the World Health Organization had launched a global fight against the contagion, the playwright Larry Kramer had started the activist group ACT UP, and the first antiretroviral drug, AZT, was available.

Even so, science was still woefully short of understanding the plague or coming up with a vaccine that could prevent it. By the end of the decade, more than 100,000 people were infected in the United States. Absent treatment, the mortality rate for these patients, then as now, was effectively 100 percent. Dorman knew vaccines; he started talking to other people in the vaccinology world about being part of the fight. Don Francis, a longtime disease hunter then with the Centers for Disease Control and one of the main characters in the book And the Band Played On, got in touch—Dorman had beaten feline leukemia, and it’s caused by the same type of virus that triggers AIDS. Why not try to tackle HIV?

Salman Rushdie On Truth, Lies, And Literature, by Salman Rushdie, New Yorker

I don’t pretend to have a full answer. I do think that we need to recognize that any society’s idea of truth is always the product of an argument, and we need to get better at winning that argument. Democracy is not polite. It’s often a shouting match in a public square. We need to be involved in the argument if we are to have any chance of winning it. And as far as writers are concerned, we need to rebuild our readers’ belief in argument from factual evidence, and to do what fiction has always been good at doing—to construct, between the writer and the reader, an understanding about what is real.

Review: ‘The Book Of Why’ Examines The Science Of Cause And Effect, by Jonathan A. Knee, New York Times

The sometimes challenging technical aspects of the book should not dissuade anyone interested in the promise of intelligent systems. “The Book of Why” not only delivers a valuable lesson on the history of ideas but provides the conceptual tools needed to judge just what big data can and cannot deliver. Notably, “causal questions can never be answered from data alone.”

See What Can Be Done By Lorrie Moore – Wit Without Malice, by Claire Messud, The Guardian

Moore’s astringency always enlivens her observations, but rarely her assessments, even when critical. In print, at least, she is a wit without malice. See what can be done.

Kudos By Rachel Cusk, by Rachel Veroff, Ploughshares

The grotesque, meaningless perfection of this ending to the Outline trilogy leads me to one conclusion only. Rachel Cusk must be our era’s new feminist Friedrich Nietzsche. In any case, she definitely deserves that Guggenheim. She gets a “kudos” from me.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Is The Scripps National Spelling Bee Evil?, by Drew Magary, Deadspin

That fucking bell. There’s always a split-second between the moment a contestant at the Scripps National Spelling Bee finishes a word and the moment that bell rings out, and in that split-second you can see everything: panic, fear, terror, embarrassment, denial, anger ... all of it.

Most of the kids who took the stage at the Gaylord National Convention Center last night knew when they got a word wrong. And so the bell served as a confirmation of their worst fears. Or maybe they had a fleeting thought like, “Hey, maybe I stumbled my way into spelling it right!” only to have the bell dash those hopes in a hurry. A bell usually means: Dinner! Or: You can stop boxing for a few seconds now. Or: Ooooh, let’s ring this 500 times to see if the hotel clerk gets pissed. Those are all good things. The bell at the spelling bee is the hangman’s bell. It should ring out low and long, and Metallica should come roaring in as you’re whisked off the stage.

In An Age Of Gene Editing And Surrogacy, What Does Heredity Mean?, by Jennifer Raff, New York Times

This book is Zimmer at his best: obliterating misconceptions about science with gentle prose. He brings the reader on his journey of discovery as he visits laboratory after laboratory, peering at mutant mosquitoes and talking to scientists about traces of Neanderthal ancestry within his own genome. Any fan of his previous books or his journalism will appreciate this work. But so, too, will parents wishing to understand the magnitude of the legacy they’re bequeathing to their children, people who want to grasp their history through genetic ancestry testing and those seeking a fuller context for the discussions about race and genetics so prevalent today.

Milkman By Anna Burns Review – Creepy Invention At Heart Of An Original, Funny Novel, by Claire Kilroy, The Guardian

What starts out as a study of how things go wrong becomes a study in how things go right, and the green shoots are not the work of the paramilitaries. The narrator of Milkman disrupts the status quo not through being political, heroic or violently opposed, but because she is original, funny, disarmingly oblique and unique: different. The same can be said of this book.

A Novel Based On The True Story Of A Con Man And His Ghostwriter, by Olen Steinhauer, New York Times

Like so much autobiography, “First Person” is about nostalgia, for a lost age when once we could be horrified by outright lies, use the word “evil” to describe it and fear what might follow our acceptance of it.

What followed, Kif thinks in that Manhattan bar, was our world, “a world where something had ended and something else, something unimaginable, was beginning, against which we were powerless to act, but could only observe, waiting to wake up and scream, never knowing that we were in fact being condemned to a waking nightmare that never ended, a world where not one heart knew how to touch another.”

A world where everyone wants to be the first person.

Paul Theroux’s New Book Ranges From Literature To Landscapes, With Surprising Cheer, by Tom Zoellner, New York Times

Appropriately enough, Theroux professes irritation with writers who draw road maps to their souls, even as he compulsively writes about himself. Thus the final essay is titled “The Trouble With Autobiography,” which he derides as “a hinting form.” He coquettishly denies that he will ever write one. But he doesn’t need to. His essence has been captured by indirection, via a gigantic lifetime write-around. If you seek his monument, look at the “also by” page in the front of this book.