While you might think of Spam as a basic canned meat, it’s actually one of the greatest business success stories of all time: Since Hormel Foods Corporation launched the affordable, canned pork product in 1937, it’s sold over eight billion cans in 44 countries around the world.
On July 5, Spam celebrates its 82nd anniversary. It’s fitting that this comes only a day after the birthday of the United States. The product is up there with Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut as one of the most distinctive American brands of all time.
But the ramen currently available in commissaries, sold for 40 to 60 cents a pack, contains dangerous amounts of sodium — between 66 and 72 percent of the daily recommended intake. Those who consume the noodles are more susceptible to health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, all chronic illnesses that affect incarcerated people at significantly higher rates than the general population (an estimated 40 percent of jail and prison inmates reported suffering from persistent health problems).
Describing his incarceration as a wake-up call, Freeman’s focus is on improving the lives of the 2.2 million people in the United States’ jails and prisons while also appealing to the pockets of the government, which pays billions of dollars in correctional health care costs each year.
We’re in a period of atonement for the 1990s. In the last few years, TV series and movies have revisited and revised narratives about the lives of Marcia Clark, Tonya Harding, and Anita Hill. A forthcoming series about Lorena Bobbitt will do the same. Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, who became fixtures of national news in the 90s, have resigned amid allegations of misconduct. In the wake of #MeToo, Monica Lewinsky reflected on the humiliation that the media and powerful figures inflicted upon her decades ago.
In her trenchant book 90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality, Allison Yarrow looks back on that decade with a heightened awareness of sexism and connected forms of discrimination. Yarrow hones in on the 90s because, she says, Americans had assumed that feminist gains of the past several decades would continue. Instead, the 90s brought many disappointments. The press demeaned women who sought influence, and in Victoria’s Secret stores and on the pages of Cosmo, consumerism masqueraded as female empowerment. “The trailblazing women of the 90s were excoriated by a deeply sexist society,” Yarrow writes. “That’s why we remember them as bitches, not victims of sexism.”
There was never any shortage of exclamation points online, nor a shortage of curmudgeons to bemoan their ubiquity. But there were some who welcomed our enthusiastic new punctuation overlords. David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, in their 2007 email etiquette guide Send, were particularly prescient. “The exclamation point is a lazy but effective way to combat email’s essential lack of tone,” they wrote. So long as email failed to convey affect, they predicted, “we will continue to sprinkle exclamation points liberally throughout our emails.”
They were right. Eventually, most people seemed to stop resisting their rise. In 2012, a Boston Globe columnist found himself giving in to the pressure. “I could feel the shame creeping into my fingertips the first few times I started adding this faux emphasis to pleasantries,” he wrote. “Now there is no turning back.”
To say that the 58-year-old guy who created and wrote the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” is now a food travel show host is more than a little unexpected. But at heart, Rosenthal is a foodie in the purest sense of the word. He says things like “goose might be the world’s best meat” and “the fat is the delicious part” and frequently asks servers if they have any Japanese whiskey.
On his first travel food show, “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having,” which aired on PBS in 2015, he traveled to what he likes to call “Earth’s greatest hits”: Tokyo, Paris, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Italy and Hong Kong. When the PBS show wasn’t picked up for a second season, Rosenthal signed a deal with Netflix for 12 episodes of “Somebody Feed Phil.” Carving out his own space in the streaming service’s growing stable of food shows, Rosenthal is fond of telling journalists, “I’m exactly like Anthony Bourdain if he was afraid of everything.”
GDP maps our past, present and future. No wonder this statistic has been dubbed one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. And yet, what is it exactly? It sounds simple. GDP is the sum of the value of all goods and services produced within a country’s territory without allowing for wear and tear. But this does not count something that is “out there”. What is out there are car factories, the warehouses of online retailers, and fees charged per hour by lawyers and doctors. This means that GDP is something quite abstract, as is “the economy” for which GDP stands. And both are of relatively recent vintage. Until the early 20th century the word “economy” was used to denote frugality, not the economic system which it evokes today. These abstractions have to be made up. They have to be put together by registering millions of acts of highly varied activity and production and incorporating them all into a single sum.
The insight that the economy is “made up” is no longer new. Depending on your intellectual tastes you could credit the idea to Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Polanyi or Michel Foucault. As we come to terms with an environmental crisis, there has been a rash of books about the growth fetish and how to overcome it. David Pilling’s book isn’t the first or the deepest, but it certainly has a claim to being the most engaging and fast paced. In a wonderfully cosmopolitan survey he shows us the work that goes into making up the world economy. He introduces us to Chinese accountants struggling to scrub their numbers of lethal pollution, Nigerian economists trying to count the informal economy, shamefaced British statisticians valuing sex work.
It wasn’t always like this. In the years before Xi became president in 2012, the internet had begun to afford the Chinese people an unprecedented level of transparency and power to communicate. Popular bloggers, some of whom advocated bold social and political reforms, commanded tens of millions of followers. Chinese citizens used virtual private networks (VPNs) to access blocked websites. Citizens banded together online to hold authorities accountable for their actions, through virtual petitions and organising physical protests. In 2010, a survey of 300 Chinese officials revealed that 70% were anxious about whether mistakes or details about their private life might be leaked online. Of the almost 6,000 Chinese citizens also surveyed, 88% believed it was good for officials to feel this anxiety.
For Xi Jinping, however, there is no distinction between the virtual world and the real world: both should reflect the same political values, ideals, and standards. To this end, the government has invested in technological upgrades to monitor and censor content. It has passed new laws on acceptable content, and aggressively punished those who defy the new restrictions. Under Xi, foreign content providers have found their access to China shrinking. They are being pushed out by both Xi’s ideological war and his desire that Chinese companies dominate the country’s rapidly growing online economy.
I am the algorithm, and I know you. I know you better than your friends know you. I know you better than your family knows you. I know things about you that you have yet to acknowledge about yourself. I know you because I am the sum of every move you’ve ever made online. I know you because I am you.
Mark Twain was dazzled by the Windy City. “It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago,” he wrote in 1883. “She outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them.” From mail-order to the remote control, the Ferris wheel to the drive-in bank—Chicago was the birthplace of them all. And while the term “skyscraper” has come to connote New York landmarks such as the Flatiron, Woolworth and Empire State buildings, it was first used to describe towers that rose on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Dressed in a leather jacket and a shoelace-thin tie, or with Armani trousers flapping around his trainers, Eric Griffiths would begin as soon as he reached the lectern. He spoke, as Hamlet instructed the actors, “trippingly”, pausing only to take small sips of a drink that looked like water, or one that looked like apple juice. His lectures were packed; they were such a hot ticket at Cambridge in the 1980s that Varsity, the student newspaper, listed them in its entertainment guide. When Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, now a professor of English at Oxford University, first attended, he asked the student next to him, “Are these going to be any good?” “Don’t bother taking notes,” she said, “just enjoy the show.”
Among this next-gen crowd of plant-based milk analogs, soy milk, the first widely available nondairy milk, stands apart as the unfashionable older sister—a bit dowdy, a bit behind the times. But within the family of soy foods, soy milk is a relative newcomer, with a thin history prior to the 20th century. Other soy foods, such as tofu, tempeh, and yuba, have long been used in a variety of ways in multiple East Asian cuisines, but soy milk played only a limited role in traditional diets in China. The liquid produced from ground-up soybeans that were soaked overnight, it was sometimes served as part of a Chinese breakfast, warmed up and sweetened; seasoned with salt, it became a dipping sauce for youtiao, or fried crullers. Most often, it was not a final product but an intermediate step in the production of tofu.
Unlike the ubiquity of miso or soy sauce, the popularity of soy milk in the US is not the result of the adoption of a traditional foodstuff by a widening group of consumers. In the hands of American technologists, Adventist missionaries, hippie environmentalists, and East Asian entrepreneurs, soy milk was always viewed as a food of the future, a salvific beige fluid that held the solution for all our nutritional, spiritual, and environmental travails. For decades, soy milk’s acolytes in the US waited for its time to come, believing that a world that embraced soy milk was a world where the future could overcome the woes of the past. But, although soy milk’s day did arrive at last, its moment in the spotlight of American consumer affections now seems vanishingly brief.
Imagine that the language you speak with your friends, with your family, with people on the street, a language unique to your country and objectively very interesting and cool, is, officially, considered lesser and unworthy. This kind of thing has happened around the world throughout history: African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) speakers in the United States, for example, have also had their language marginalized and demeaned by the ruling power. Now, it’s happening in Singapore.
Singapore is an immigrant country with four official languages: English, Malay, Tamil, and Mandarin. Officially, English is the most commonly spoken language in Singaporean homes, having recently and just barely edged out Mandarin. Unofficially? That’s completely wrong. Because what’s likely the actual most common language spoken does not appear on the census. That language is called Singlish.
Elyse has eaten this way for as long as she can remember. But until a therapist diagnosed her eating disorder last year, nobody knew why. When she was growing up, doctors and family friends told her parents they just needed to be more strict. But when her parents did try to force her to eat, Elyse gagged or vomited up every bite. She avoided sleepovers or birthday parties. Sometimes the other kids’ parents pushed her or thought she was being rude.
“I was always so ashamed of how I ate. When you navigate those weird questions and stares every day, it becomes part of your identity that you are weird and wrong in some way,” says Elyse, who asked me to change her name because she fears the stigma attached to her eating habits. “All my life, I’ve been told that eating this way will kill me. People said I wouldn’t live to age 30.”
Elyse says the people around her making such comments never meant them maliciously. Sometimes it was said as a joke — her pediatrician liked to say that Elyse “lived on air” — sometimes, in desperation, by a loved one who despaired of her food choices. “I suspect, often, they just weren’t thinking about how terrifying and shameful it is for a kid to hear I might die for something that’s ‘all my fault’ but feels impossible to change,” Elyse says. “I’ve never known what it is to not be afraid of food.”
Many doctors have been distinguished writers — Anton Chekhov, William Carlos Williams and Abraham Verghese, to name a few. But we haven’t heard enough from nurses, whose world is just as arcane and important. Christie Watson helps close this gap. “The Language of Kindness” could not be more compelling or more welcome: It’s about how we survive, and about the people who help us do so.
Even though Central Park, like the rest of Manhattan, is largely man-made, not natural, it is a place to experience in person, not secondhand through images, regardless of their authenticity, nor through narratives, no matter how illustrative.
That said, Stephen Wolf, who teaches literature and humanities at Berkeley College in New York, offers up a combined guidebook and autobiography that’s the next best thing to being there.
Franzen sat on his kitchen counter, drinking an espresso he had made, his feet up on the island. The sun came through the slat blinds on the windows, so that they cast what looked like prison bars across his body. Above him hung a piece of artwork made of wires twisted to look like a surveillance camera that he and Chetkovich bought in Utica, N.Y., at the art studio of a friend of a friend. Surveillance is a theme of “Purity,” but a kitchen-mounted camera is an actual plot point of “The Corrections.”
He wasn’t angry that the show appeared to be canceled, he said. He had been paid for the work. He did the work. He did a good job. (Later, on the phone with me, Scott Rudin, who optioned “Purity” and set it up at Showtime, used the word “excellent” to describe the scripts.) And Franzen did it with no attachment to the outcome. “I’m a ’70s guy,” he said. “I’m a process guy.”
It’s for the best. Really. Really. Now he could fully turn toward the projects that had been whispering in his ear during all these months of writers’ rooms and outlining and script writing. He wanted to write a story for National Geographic about seabirds. Their population is down two-thirds since 1950. “Seabirds are in great trouble,” he said. “Seabirds are amazing, and they are in great trouble.”
Photography on social media, if you know where to look, can astonish with its hypnotic stream of inexact repetitions. We think we are moving through the world, while the whole time the world is pulling us along, telling us where to walk, where to stop, where to take a photo. Why have so many people looked straight down a stairwell at the New Museum and taken a photograph there? Each person who does it feels a frisson of originality but unknowingly reveals something that was latent in the stairwell all along.
The resultant images are rarely individually “great.” What they offer, as a sequence or as a grid, is a fleeting form of poetry: the poignant commonality of our eyes. The world individually mesmerizes us toward reiteration. Our coincident gazes overlay the same sites over and over and over again, as though we were caught up in a slow-motion religious fervor. Through the affordances of terrain, we are alleviated of the burden of originality without always being aware that we are being unoriginal. Take a photo here, the site whispers. It’s yours, but not yours alone.
We tend to think of ‘the city’ as expansive, even endless; a vast nervure of connectivity; a network rendered by myriad fragments and countless pathways. But Chombart de Lauwe, an urban sociologist, was trying to illustrate the narrowness of our real lived urban experience. Because when we say that we live in Paris or London or New York, we actually mean to say that we live somewhere in Paris or London or New York—in some (not-so) arbitrary collection of spaces, environments and zones. We live, that is to say we experience, a tiny specialised version of the city, itself inflected by concomitant associations and memories. His diagram tries to illustrate the city as it’s lived—not in expanse but in peculiarity.
To look at one’s own movements from a great distance, decontextualised, seems always to illustrate how one is enmeshed in the same coercive patterns as everybody else.
Trauma is a lot of things. It defies analogy. But it isn’t an excuse. We don’t write off the things we destroy by saying, “Once upon a time I suffered”. We heal. We take the shards out of ourselves and take responsibility for the things we’ve cut. We put things back together.
We come off the ledge.
We stop going onto ledges.
Reading is at once a lonely and an intensely sociable act. The writer becomes your ideal companion—interesting, worldly, compassionate, energetic—but only if you stick with him or her for a while, long enough to throw off the chill of isolation and to hear the intelligent voice murmuring in your ear. No wonder Victorian parents used to read out loud to the whole family (a chapter of Dickens a night by the precious light of the single candle); there’s nothing lonely about laughing or crying together—or shrinking back in horror. Even if solitary, the reader’s inner dialogue with the writer—questioning, concurring, wondering, objecting, pitying—fills the empty room under the lamplight with silent discourse and the expression of emotion.
“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” is a disarming title for an essay collection by Alexander Chee, given that he’s fresh from the success of a novel that on the face of it was anything but autobiographical. That book, the justly celebrated epic “The Queen of the Night” (2016), was an operatic drama that followed a fictional 19th-century soprano as she rises to fame in Paris and navigates Second Empire intrigue on a scale to make Victor Hugo proud. What could be farther from Chee’s own life? But one of the things you learn in this collection is that, for most writers, “novels are accidents at their start,” an answer to questions the author never knew to ask. In Chee’s telling, the writer’s life always lurks just beyond the page, and not only in the way that Gustave Flaubert was Madame Bovary or Henry James the prepubescent heroine of “What Maisie Knew.” In a revealing essay called “Girl,” Chee recalls his first time in drag, on Halloween in the Castro in 1990. The cosmetic transformation allowed him to collapse his identities as a gay man, a Korean-American and a New England transplant into a pleasing totality: “This beauty I find when I put on drag, then: It is made up of these talismans of power, a balancing act of the self-hatreds of at least two cultures, an act I’ve engaged in my whole life, here on the fulcrum I make of my face.”
Tisdale does not write to allay anxieties but to acknowledge them, and she brings death so close, in such detail and with such frankness, that something unusual happens, something that feels a bit taboo. She invites not just awe or dread — but our curiosity. And why not? We are, after all, just “future corpses pretending we don’t know.”
Andrew Orchard lives near the northeastern coast of Tasmania, in the same ramshackle farmhouse that his great-grandparents, the first generation of his English family to be born on the Australian island, built in 1906. When I visited Orchard there, in March, he led me past stacks of cardboard boxes filled with bones, skulls, and scat, and then rooted around for a photo album, the kind you’d expect to hold family snapshots. Instead, it contained pictures of the bloody carcasses of Tasmania’s native animals: a wombat with its intestines pulled out, a kangaroo missing its face. “A tiger will always eat the jowls and eyes,” Orchard explained. “All the good organs.” The photos were part of Orchard’s arsenal of evidence against a skeptical world—proof of his fervent belief, shared with many in Tasmania, that the island’s apex predator, an animal most famous for being extinct, is still alive. The Tasmanian tiger, known to science as the thylacine, was the only member of its genus of marsupial carnivores to live to modern times. It could grow to six feet long, if you counted its tail, which was stiff and thick at the base, a bit like a kangaroo’s, and it raised its young in a pouch. When Orchard was growing up, his father would tell him stories of having snared one, on his property, many years after the last confirmed animal died, in the nineteen-thirties. Orchard says that he saw his first tiger when he was eighteen, while duck hunting, and since then so many that he’s lost count. Long before the invention of digital trail cameras, Orchard was out in the bush rigging film cameras to motion sensors, hoping to get a picture of a tiger. He showed me some of the most striking images he’d collected over the decades, sometimes describing teeth and tails and stripes while pointing at what, to my eye, could very well have been shadows or stems. (Another thylacine searcher told me that finding tigers hidden in the grass in camera-trap photos is “a bit like seeing the Virgin Mary in burnt toast.”) Orchard estimates that he spends five thousand dollars a year just on batteries for his trail cams. The larger costs of his fascination are harder to calculate. “That’s why my wife left me,” he offered at one point, while discussing the habitats tigers like best.
That might seem obvious, given the pervasively political valence of “Orwellian” discourse and the politically charged touchstones of Orwell’s famous novels, the Bolshevik revolution in Animal Farm and totalitarian thought control in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But the degree to which Orwell was steeped in the crosscurrents of radical politics has been routinely underestimated. So much has been said about Orwell’s legendarily plain speech and his free-thinking worldview that he now figures, for many, as an icon of non-doctrinaire and even anti-doctrinaire thought.
George Orwell, whose most celebrated novel features a thirty-page tract by a fiery Trotsky-like ideologue on “the theory and practice of oligarchical collectivism,” is often treated as a quixotic naïf whose socialism was moral rather than theoretical, intuitive rather than intellectual. The truth is more complex.
Orwell was an iconoclast, but within the socialist tradition, not outside it. His satires of ideological excesses rang true because he knew those excesses intimately — ideologically, culturally, and theoretically.
Though our sense of self is constantly shifting, there are nonetheless moments when we perceive ourselves as more explicitly serous. At such moments, these fluctuations feel more pronounced and emphatic, their effects more immediate and their ramifications more long term. Often, they compel us to consider afresh our position in the world.
In literature, this compulsion evidences itself in various ways.
We can’t live without sleep, and yet it is our most powerful metaphor for death.
Setting non-English words in italics is a standard practice for American English style guides (including Quartz’s). But some multilingual writers are pointing out that hitting command + i is no longer simply a neutral expression of style.
The format is meant to be used for clarity, to indicate to a reader that she hasn’t come across a typo or an English word she doesn’t know. But the practice reinforces a monolinguistic culture of othering, some writers believe, and it simply doesn’t sound natural. For the world’s bilingual population—by some estimates, more than half—it’s not the way people really talk.
Since I quit writing about quitting things, I’ve had so much more time to do healthy stuff, such as exercising and exploring the outdoors—even though, when I’m hiking or camping, I always have to reckon with my essay “Birds Are Actually Not Very Interesting: Why I Quit Birding.”
Since I kicked my personal-essay-about-kicking-habits habit, I’ve also picked up a couple of hobbies, such as writing personal essays about starting things—and not just so that I can quit them, though I often do. I wrote an essay recently about starting a cult. I also mentored many of my followers as they wrote personal essays about leaving my cult. Then, after control of the cult was wrested from me, I quit the cult myself and didn’t even write about it. Aren’t you proud of me?
But so many minor moments of quotidian grace and wit also filter through “The Cost of Living” — while she is discussing melons or plumbing or garden writing sheds — that it is always a pleasure to consume.
She isn’t collecting her thoughts here so much as she is purposefully discollecting them. Calm and order, she suggests, are vastly overrated.
In particular, texts tagged along as missionaries fanned out to proselytize across the New World. When it came to converting indigenous people to Christianity, religious texts were a powerful weapon in missionaries’ arsenals, and psalms, confessions, and other liturgical texts—written in Spanish, Latin, and scores of indigenous languages—were printed in Europe and shipped across the ocean to New Spain. This land, encompassing present-day Mexico and other portions of Central and South America, was an epicenter of conversion efforts, and it soon became a hub for the printed word, too.
It’s easy to imagine how books could become casualties of a life that was itinerant by design. “Missionaries’ whole mission was to go out and constantly be on the move, and the books were, as well,” says Melissa Moreton, an instructor at the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa. Before they did, monasteries and convents often made a bold claim to ownership. With a scalding tool, they seared distinctive marks onto the pages.
On the evidence of Figures in a Landscape, Theroux’s powerful persona is, oddly, not matched by an equal vox. Open a Burgess, or a Greene or a Naipaul collection of such picked-up pieces and you know at once, from the voice, who’s writing. There are several highly entertaining essays here, and some quotably arresting lines, but the voice is elusive, unfixed and dissonant – an echo of the divisions within.
Yes, there’s the sense of a literary feminist time-capsule, capturing a key moment of generational societal shift. What’s less expected, and a bonus, is that the women (questioning, raging, joking, contemplating) often sound so current. Granted, it’s a selective, largely bohemian group. But you’re still left with the feeling, not only of how women were then, but also how modern women still are – as Smith says, just, well, talking.
What explains the lack of decisive progress on human-driven climate change? Having invested half of my 62 years in reporting and writing climate-related stories, blog posts, and books, I’ve lately found it useful—if sometimes uncomfortable—to look back for misperceptions or missed opportunities that let the problem worsen.
Can we name the main culprits? There are almost as many theories and targets as there are advocates of one stripe or another. Among them: lack of basic research funding (I was often in that camp), industry influence on politics, poor media coverage, and doubt-sowing by those invested in fossil fuels or opposed to government intervention. There’s also our “inconvenient mind”—my description for a host of human behavioral traits and social norms that cut against getting climate change right.
Suddenly this kind of “autofiction” – fictionalised autobiography that does away with traditional elements of the novel such as plot and character development – is everywhere. Thumping on to your desk in the form of the last volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic account of his life, My Struggle; touching more lightly down in the case of Kudos, as Rachel Cusk completes her elegant trilogy in which a novelist, “Faye”, journeys around Europe absorbing the stories strangers and acquaintances tell her; in Motherhood, in which Canadian writer Sheila Heti dramatises her own interrogation of what it might mean to choose – or choose not – to have children. Édouard Louis’s History of Violence, Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story, Joanna Walsh’s Break.up, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series – these books don’t simply use the biographical details of their authors’ lives as inspiration, but also to disrupt and complicate our experience of story and subjectivity, to find a new way to describe reality at a time when, as Kathy says in Crudo, it is “hard to talk about truth” and perhaps even harder to write it.
Paleontologist Steve Brusatte loves Jurassic Park. Without it, he jokes, he wouldn’t even have a job. So he’s not going to criticize all the inaccuracies in the Hollywood franchise. But he’s also studied dinosaurs his whole life (real ones, with feathers), so he loves talking about giant creatures that ruled over the Earth millions of years ago.
In his new book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World, Brusatte, a professor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, charts the origins of dinosaurs from the beginning of the Triassic period all the way to their abrupt disappearance about 66 million years ago. He also takes a close look at the evolution of the field of paleontology, and how it has diversified and grown by leaps and bounds in recent years — thanks in part to Steven Spielberg’s iconic 1993 movie.
Writers fetishize all sorts of things. Writers who refuse to work with any but one brand of pen, or at any but one time of day, or without lighting candles, or playing music, fetishize their process. Others fetishize their fears. Some embed these fetishes into the work itself. Take Stephen King’s Misery, for example, or Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story.
Based on a True Story, published in French about three years ago, sold half a million copies, inspired a film by Roman Polanski, won several prizes, and purportedly became an “international sensation.” The novel appeared in English, translation by George Miller, last year. The story is simple: a writer named Delphine, like her creator, is drawn into a strange, invasive friendship with a woman referred to as “L.”
When I awoke, and after I’d finished my first bout of violent vomiting, I heard my parents already talking through the options to get me out. My mom had been an emergency-room nurse and a physician’s assistant for 35 years. But on the 700 missions she and my dad had conducted as volunteers for the Bend, Oregon, search and rescue team, neither had ever dealt with a rattlesnake bite.
Lying on my back in the grass, I thought maybe that was all the venom would do—make me sick. Or maybe I was dying. I didn’t know it then, but in the medical community, the rule about rattlesnake bites is “time is tissue.” How many minutes or hours elapse before you get the antivenom, usually in a hospital, determines your fate: an afternoon in the ER, amputation, or perhaps, in my case, death on a stone bridge.
Though Renaissance nobles could not have missed the unfortunate traits that ran like fractures through the House of Habsburg, not until the 1830s did the term heredity acquire its modern connotation as a biological legacy. Because the term first specified material inheritance, often from eldest son to eldest son, we tend to think about heredity in terms of straight lines: bloodlines, patrilines, and eventually germ lines. Our word for a diagram of the lines of descent—pedigree—is probably derived from the French pé de grue, or “crane’s foot,” evoking an image of a pencil-like leg ending in straight, splayed toes.
Yet linear thinking doesn’t begin to do heredity justice, and in his sprawling, magisterial new book, the science writer Carl Zimmer shows why. She Has Her Mother’s Laugh brims with rich stories and colorful actors—some sinister, some brilliant, some both—and delves into scientific research, history, and ideas made intimate through the author’s personal experiences. The result explodes any unitary idea of heredity. Zimmer limns portraits of multiple intersecting heredities, more like the web of a spider than the foot of a bird.
So why write a memoir at all? Throughout his career, Lynch has faced constant questions about his celebrated but often divisive, occasionally impenetrable projects, from the groundbreaking TV show Twin Peaks to movies like Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Dr. He's always been reluctant to unpack his nightmarish symbolism, or let inquisitive fans past the surface level of his life.
Still, fans looking for insight into Lynch's methods will certainly find it in the book's accumulation of memories and opinions, drawn from his family, romantic partners, and collaborators. Lynch and his co-author, journalist Kristine McKenna, alternate chapters in the book, with McKenna first presenting a traditional, heavily sourced report on an era in Lynch's life, and Lynch discussing the same years from a more personal point of view. They describe the results as "basically a person having a conversation with his own biography."
All this to say: The straw is officially part of the culture wars, and you might be thinking: “Gah, these contentious times we live in!” But the straw has always been dragged along by the currents of history, soaking up the era, shaping not its direction, but its texture.
The invention of American industrialism, the creation of urban life, changing gender relations, public health reform, suburbia and its hamburger-loving teens, better living through plastics, and the financialization of the economy: The straw was there for all these things — rolled out of extrusion machines, dispensed, pushed through lids, bent, dropped into the abyss.
You can learn a lot about this country, and the dilemmas of contemporary capitalism, by taking a straw-eyed view.
But after the high, there’s always a comedown, and this is true both in the short term (as in, the next day’s hangover) and in the long. Turns out the book’s seemingly diffuse structure, while unsuitable for carrying a quick plot, is actually essential to accomplish this other greater goal: understanding how people change over a lifetime, how a self is built, how the past is revised to suit the present, how adults come to epitomize exactly what they hated most as children, how secrets and pain and trauma play out in a mind and a body over the decades.
Why is it worse to conclude with “Kind regards” than “Yours sincerely”? Because kindness is something that necessarily involves the other person, the one to whom you are writing, and it’s that person, the recipient of the message, who ought to be judging whether what you’ve said is kind or not. It isn’t for you, the sender of the regards, to say. Sincerity, on the other hand, is feasibly in the power of the sender to judge, so it is an appropriate thing to claim on his or her own behalf (even if the recipient may have good cause to suspect a complete absence of sincere feelings).
All this is only to argue that any discussion or history of manners has to concern itself as much with their reception as with their acquisition or imposition. To be understood as polite or civil, a way of speaking or behaving needs another person to recognise it as such. What also needs to be recognised is that an alternative, impolite way of handling the same subject or situation is always available (and indeed sometimes unleashed by politeness, as in the stream of expletives following that toilet notice).
This isn’t a book written in the shadow of death, as Inside the Wave was; there’s not the same resonance and intensity, and some of the stories are slight. But there are new departures on the themes that preoccupied Dunmore: childhood, motherhood, war, friendship, forgotten lives. And where her subject is women under threat or siege, the writing takes off.
Like Language poetry, Gregory’s poems are difficult in the sense that they resist sense, at least common sense. But, like all good poetry, “Yeah No” invites you in by slowly teaching you its codes, and by reminding you that sense is not always the point: “You are reading this if you don’t understand.”
There is a word, sad and resonant, for the last member of a dying species. The word is endling. Martha, who perished at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, was the endling for the passenger pigeon—the final representative of a bird once so prolific its flocks blackened the sky. The Tasmanian tiger's endling, Benjamin, froze to death in the Hobart Zoo one night in 1936, when his keepers accidentally locked him out of his enclosure. Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise, expired peacefully in 2012, at around 100 years old.
It is entirely possible that the endling for a bashful porpoise called the vaquita is today swimming somewhere off the Mexican coast. Vaquitas dwell exclusively in the Gulf of California, the tongue of the Pacific Ocean that laps the Baja Peninsula, in a tiny pocket of turbid sea that could fit three times within Los Angeles and its suburbs. At just five feet long, vaquitas are the world's smallest cetaceans, the order that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises. They eat fish and squid, which they locate with high-frequency clicks. They avoid the rumble of boat engines, prefer traveling in inconspicuous duos, and refrain from jumping, splashing, or slapping their tails. They are a headache to study. For all their secrecy, they are adorable—endowed with a snub snout, fetching dark eyepatches, and black lips whose coy smile, researchers have written, recalls a marine Mona Lisa. Cross Flipper with a very shy panda and you've bred a vaquita.
My experience of living alone, in other words, was not a lonely one. I learned to relish my freedom and privacy; I was flourishing creatively, joyfully unburdened by other people’s temperature preferences and alarm clocks and laundry piles and bathroom-sink grime. (Your own grime, I’ve learned over the years, is much more tolerable than the grime of others.)
By my mid-20s, I was dedicated to spreading the gospel of living alone, even writing a spunky, service-y essay recommending certain simple steps that would make living solo feel like a privilege and not a punishment—like investing in good-quality bedclothes and treating yourself to brunches and vacations whenever and wherever you could afford to.
When the historian Nell Irvin Painter decided to leave a chaired professorship at Princeton to go to art school — embracing a new field and a new life at the age of 64 — it wasn’t so much the art part that baffled people as the school part. Art sounded like freedom; school sounded like drudgery. If she wanted to paint, why not simply retire and devote her days to painting? Why endure a crowded commute from her home in Newark to sweat it out with 18-year-olds for the minor distinction (for her) of yet another undergraduate degree?
As satisfying as it might have been to my fifteen-year-old self, it wouldn’t have rung true for the men to suddenly gain insight into their own hypocrisy, just as it wouldn’t have rung true for, say, Humbert Humbert. It makes more sense, after the girls try desperately to take back their narrative, that the boys would feel the need to steal it back from them. Any kind of self-realization on the narrators’ part would have cheapened the wonderful ambiguity of the ending, which is intended not to satisfy readers but to gnaw at them until they feel the injustice of the Lisbon girls’ stolen subjectivity
It is sci-fi in its most perfect expression — no robots, no explosions, no car chases. Reading it is like having a lucid dream of six years from next week, filled with people you don't know, but will. And its quietness is what belies any easy attempt to dissect it.
A lot of people say they don’t get poetry, as though poetry were one thing. And there’s still a ton of poetry out there that’s obfuscatory and worse. But these poems light both heart and mind. They stab you with memory’s shiny knife. “Ouch,” you say, and then “thank you.”
One eerie achievement of “Convenience Store Woman” is that the reader is never entirely sure how to think about Keiko. Is she monstrous? Brave and eccentric? For all the creepiness of her cheerful obedience to the manual, she is, at least, choosing a different kind of conformity than the rest of society, which insists that she marry and pursue a conventional career path.
Louis’s greatest strength as a writer is that he feels things so passionately, sometimes to the point of obsession, but that he also has a philosophical turn of mind that explores, rather than neutralises, his feelings.
Moviegoers have been eating in theatres for about as long as theatres have existed, in large part because theatres need us to. When the Great Depression threatened the movie-theatre business, owners started, somewhat reluctantly, selling cheap concessions at high margins. It was an instant success, and food has kept theatres afloat ever since, accounting, in recent years, for as much as forty per cent of profits. Eating and watching, in general, are a natural pairing, two intensely enjoyable, relatively passive activities that together inspired an entire category of frozen food.
As box-office numbers suffer—thanks, in part, to the culture of streaming movies and shows at home on the couch—more theatres (including, even, certain branches of the mega-chain AMC) are attempting to make theatre-going both as comfortable as being at home and as exciting, and expensive, as going to a restaurant. And why not? Sometimes popcorn and candy simply aren’t enough, a truth I learned early on, from my late grandmother, who used to smuggle foil-wrapped hamburgers into theatres, hidden beneath the knitting in her tote bag.
Today, one dollar is disposable. You can find loose singles on the street with some frequency, perhaps because they’ll get you very little these days in New York. At most street corner carts, a dollar won’t buy a cup of coffee, nor will it buy a copy of the New York Post. Dollar slice pizza is a revelation for New Yorkers, an easy exchange for the time-burdened—free of tax, coins, or time constraints. Just walk in, hand over a lone piece of currency, and receive pizza in return.
It’s a beautiful system, but it’s quickly vanishing from the city’s food landscape right from under our noses. The spots that used to churn out this style of pizza, many of which still have the awnings over them marking them as $1 slice establishments, are giving way to outside forces and silently raising prices to $1.25, $1.50, and even two dollars per slice.
A few days after the funeral, my older son, Josh, now 30, went on a shopping trip with my wife. He brought back a liter of Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon. I thought about it for a few seconds and said, “You know, I think that’s the first bottle of hard liquor we’ve ever had in our house.”
He looked up and replied, “You do realize that’s not normal,” the implication being that our example had, at some earlier juncture in his life, led him into thinking the occasional drink was some sort of moral failure.
He’d probably also discovered that living among four thousand or so books wasn’t exactly the American norm, either. That’s the way it is among families. Children absorb the culture of their homes and only later in life gain the distance to question it. Parents, either consciously or unconsciously, inculcate their values and loves. For much of my younger son’s 26 years, I tried to pass to him my love of reading literature.
The novel, then, is their picaresque journey, allowing for moments of pure soaring beauty to hit against the most mundane, for a sense of timelessness to be placed right beside a cleareyed version of the here and now, for a sense of vast dispossession to live beside day-to-day misery and poverty. Nothing in Orange’s world is simple, least of all his characters and his sense of the relationship between history and the present. Instead, a great deal is subtle and uncertain in this original and complex novel.
Typically, on his curious journey between laybys, Le Bas is met with the question, “katar avilan?” – “where do you come from?” By the end of the book, both he and the reader have a much clearer idea of how to answer.
But ultimately, it’s a book to be savoured less for its page-turning propulsion than for its granular evocation of family life. The ending – no grand payoff – is deliciously poised, adding to hints from the narrative’s occasional habit of zooming proleptically into the future that this hugely enjoyable and unashamedly old-fashioned novel might become the basis of a Galsworthy-style Essinger saga.
As New York enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is in imminent danger of becoming something it has never been before: unremarkable. It is approaching a state where it is no longer a significant cultural entity but the world’s largest gated community, with a few cupcake shops here and there. For the first time in its history, New York is, well, boring.
This is not some new phenomenon but a cancer that’s been metastasizing on the city for decades now. And what’s happening to New York now—what’s already happened to most of Manhattan, its core—is happening in every affluent American city. San Francisco is overrun by tech conjurers who are rapidly annihilating its remarkable diversity; they swarm in and out of the metropolis in specially chartered buses to work in Silicon Valley, using the city itself as a gigantic bed-and-breakfast. Boston, which used to be a city of a thousand nooks and crannies, back-alley restaurants and shops, dive bars and ice cream parlors hidden under its elevated, is now one long, monotonous wall of modern skyscraper. In Washington, an army of cranes has transformed the city in recent years, smoothing out all that was real and organic into a town of mausoleums for the Trump crowd to revel in.
By trying to improve our cities, we have only succeeded in making them empty simulacra of what was. To bring this about we have signed on to political scams and mindless development schemes that are so exclusive they are more destructive than all they were supposed to improve. The urban crisis of affluence exemplifies our wider crisis: we now live in an America where we believe that we no longer have any ability to control the systems we live under.
No one was certain which pizza cartel armed its drones first, or who fired the inaugural shot. Pizza disputes typically occurred at the borders, where rival drones would intuit certain addresses in questionable coordinates. The public was kept largely ignorant of the war between the companies by competing PR narratives that responded algorithmically to the other side with ever more absurd, but always vaguely plausible, storylines, which were then propagated with breathtaking speed by networks of AI influencers on social media.
Over time, the unregulated airspace over cities intensified — corporations jamming rival aircraft, hacking the opposition’s drones for data, and eventually aerial dogfights. Drone engagements happened at such high altitudes over disputed borders that most people remained unaware of the state of perpetual privateering above their heads. They felt the escalating delays, and occasionally heard rumors about drones crashing to city streets. But the pizzas always arrived, if a little later than expected, which mitigated civilian concern.
We might be rich or poor, young or old, fast or slow — but we each have a voice. To what end do we use it? The possibilities are haunting, and so is Crace's message, around which he has invented an entire world: We are only as meaningful as the help we give to others.
This novel derives its power from its limited focus and direct language. There are no adipose, word-glutted sentences. Reed is mostly content to give us strong silk thread, absent pearls.
When I first visited my birthplace, the story I wanted to tell myself—that the world wanted to tell about Brazil—was the triumphant tale of a country on the rise, emerging from a dictatorship to democracy. I spent that summer traveling the country by car, by bus, by boat, by plane, by foot. In my naivete, it felt as if Brazil were welcoming me home, but in retrospect I was as anonymous as any other gringo with a guidebook. Yet on an otherwise ordinary night at the bus station in downtown Belo Horizonte, I met my birth mother for the first time. She did welcome me home.
In the months and years that followed, I wrote maudlin fiction about Brazil, trying to render the city where I was born, the countryside where I grew up, trying to bring into focus a worldview of how I got from there to here and back again. Even thinking about that old work makes me cringe. The desperate wanting on the page. The desire to connect with my material, as if forging those links could make up for what was lost to me in real life.
Somewhere on the border between fantasy and fact, my imagination failed me. I needed to put aside the novel and return to my reporter’s notebooks.
Every ghost story is immortal. That's why we love them. Every ghost story ever can be twisted, repurposed, recycled and built into something else because, really, every ghost story is just a story of regret.
And Cargill gets that. He understands that a bad decision is what happens before the story starts and peace is what comes when it's done. In the middle is the change, the comeuppance, the duty, the sacrifice. In between is where the soul comes clean. All the blood and monsters are just window dressing.
Havoc should come with a health warning. Tom Kristensen’s novel, about a thirty-something literary critic who loses himself in a maelstrom of drink, jazz, and sex, is one of the most disturbing and absorbing accounts of self-destruction in modern European literature. Surely no one who reads it would think to disagree with the narrator of Per Petterson’s novel I Curse the River of Time, who says that Havoc “terrified me so the first time I read it that I promised myself and the god who did not exist that I would never ever touch alcohol.” Stretching to just over 500 pages, it is a Danish Inferno, a tortured descent through every circle of hell—and then some. Unlike The Divine Comedy, however, Havoc does not track the soul’s return to God; it is, rather, the story of a soul’s bewildering journey into itself.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.