Until last week, the world of science was unaware of the scutoid. The scutoid is a basic three-dimensional shape, like a cube or a sphere but not like either of those things. It’s more like a column with half of one end lopped off at an angle; popular accounts have described it as a twisted prism, although that’s not so helpful. “It’s a prism with a zipper,” Javier Buceta, a biophysicist at Lehigh University and one of the scutoid’s discoverers, told me excitedly. This was also not so helpful.
What matters is that mathematicians had never before conceived of the scutoid, much less given it a name. What matters even more is that scutoids turn out to be everywhere, especially in living things. The shape, however odd, is a building block of multicellular organisms; complex life might never have emerged on Earth without it. Its existence, Buceta said, “allows you to understand the fundamentals of morphogenesis and development—how cells act together when they’re forming and developing.”
Last year, I moved to the island of Okinawa, off the southern coast of mainland Japan, and discovered that the Australian café is flourishing there, too. Good Day Coffee, which is situated near one of Okinawa’s biggest American military bases, was opened by a Japanese surfer, Tatsuya Miyazato, in March of 2016. Miyazato, whom I have never seen not dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, was inspired by the cafés he encountered on surfing trips to Australia, particularly those on the so-called Gold Coast, which is renowned for its waves, and in the hippie town of Byron Bay, where the coffee beans he serves are roasted. “I get tourists from the mainland, but also from Taiwan and Korea,” Miyazato said. “Many people in Asia now understand the Australian café.”
On an early spring morning in Tokyo, I had lunch with Bill Granger, the restaurateur who is most responsible for the Australian café’s global reach. The forty-eight-year-old Australian, who now lives in London, owns eighteen eponymous restaurants in Japan, Hawaii, the U.K., Korea, and, of course, Australia. We met at a branch in Ginza, but it may as well have been his Bondi Beach flagship. Nearing noon, diners’ plates were piled high with fried eggs and what Americans would call Canadian bacon. (The rest of the world would call it bacon.) Although we were in a densely populated shopping district, sun streamed in through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
In some respects, the pudding can feel overegged; although not unexplored territory, the relationship of a single woman to a couple whom she idealises and feels drawn to as a unit, rather than as two individuals, is rich enough to make additional devices and embellishment unnecessary.
The West, the professor contended, has a problem with the idea of things having spirits and feels that anthropomorphism, the attribution of human-like attributes to things or animals, is childish, primitive, or even bad. He argued that the Luddites who smashed the automated looms that were eliminating their jobs in the 19th century were an example of that, and for contrast he showed an image of a Japanese robot in a factory wearing a cap, having a name and being treated like a colleague rather than a creepy enemy.
The general idea that Japanese accept robots far more easily than Westerners is fairly common these days. Osamu Tezuka, the Japanese cartoonist and the creator of Atom Boy noted the relationship between Buddhism and robots, saying, ''Japanese don't make a distinction between man, the superior creature, and the world about him. Everything is fused together, and we accept robots easily along with the wide world about us, the insects, the rocks—it's all one. We have none of the doubting attitude toward robots, as pseudohumans, that you find in the West. So here you find no resistance, simply quiet acceptance.'' And while the Japanese did of course become agrarian and then industrial, Shinto and Buddhist influences have caused Japan to retain many of the rituals and sensibilities of a more pre-humanist period.
Like winning the Powerball, the odds of Hoover’s win were 1 in 250 million. There were two ways to win the Monopoly grand prize: find the “Instant Win” game piece like Hoover, or match Park Place with the elusive Boardwalk to choose between a heavily-taxed lump sum or $50,000 checks every year for 20 years. Just like the Monopoly board game, which was invented as a warning about the destructive nature of greed, players traded game pieces to win, or outbid each other on eBay. Armed robbers even held up restaurants demanding Monopoly tickets. “Don’t go to jail! Go to McDonald’s and play Monopoly for real!” cried Rich Uncle Pennybags, the game’s mustachioed mascot, on TV commercials that sent customers flocking to buy more food. Monopoly quickly became the company’s most lucrative marketing device since the Happy Meal.
Inside Hoover’s home, Amy Murray, a loyal McDonald’s spokesperson, encouraged him to tell the camera about the luckiest moment of his life. Nervously clutching his massive check, Hoover said he’d fallen asleep on the beach. When he bent over to wash off the sand, his People magazine fell into the sea. He bought another copy from a grocery store, he said, and inside was an advertising insert with the “Instant Win” game piece. The camera crew listened patiently to his rambling story, silently recognizing the inconsequential details found in stories told by liars. They suspected that Hoover was not a lucky winner, but part of a major criminal conspiracy to defraud the fast food chain of millions of dollars. The two men behind the camera were not from McDonald’s. They were undercover agents from the FBI.
This was a McSting.
Have you ever wondered how your life might be different if you could see beyond the visible light spectrum—into ultraviolet or infrared? For one thing, you might be immune, or less susceptible, to implicit racial bias. Inna Vishik, an applied physicist at U.C. Davis, says if you weren’t limited to the typical range of colors most humans see, “everyone would be the same color (except for people with a fever)”—yellowish. You’d also be able to know which places have great wifi and cell phone reception, she says, and whether you “really should wear sunscreen today.” No doubt if you had this special ability, it would benefit not just yourself, but your family and friends, too.
Something like this scenario has actually been discovered in nature, albeit not with humans. Within a certain population of tree-dwelling primates in Madagascar—Verreaux’s sifaka, a kind of lemur, to be precise—a recent study found, nearly one in four females has trichromatic color vision (like humans). Unlike most other members of their sex—and all the males—these females can tell red and green apart, perceiving color much as we humans do. And the perks of this genetic gift may extend to the entire lemur group, says Carrie Veilleux, a biological and molecular anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin, and the study’s lead author.
Writing is torture. Particularly while writing a novel, there is an inherent terror in the process, a fear that the whole enterprise will reveal itself to have a major, irreparable flaw and everything will fall apart (a lot of times, it does). They’re not much fun, those early drafts. This is nothing new. That’s not what I’m talking about.
No, I’m talking about something else. One of the most ridiculous things I’ve read recently was embedded in an appreciation of Denis Johnson, a writer whose work I loved. The article quoted someone who’d praised Johnson for his humility, for not indulging in the usual “ego humping” whenever an author publishes a new book — the readings and tour and interviews. This is about as laughable of a misconception of writers as you can get. “Ego humping”? That’s the last thing most writers are seeking or anticipating when they release a new book. Rather, what they’re really hoping to do is avoid abject humiliation.
The story of this burgeoning relationship is only one strand of her captivating debut, A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings. In it, Jukes charts how a year spent looking after a beehive helped her throw off the deadening grind of her working life and reconnect with friendship and the natural world. As the bees buzzed back and forth, her growing fascination with the changing rituals of the insects living in her garden offered new perspectives both on her job and everything outside the office walls. What she saw when she lifted off the lid of the hive was so alien that by looking at them intently she became steadily more attuned to her own humanity.
The Argentine writer Jorge Barón Biza once said that his parents didn’t have a marriage so much as a “passionate, infinite divorce.” His father, Raúl Barón Biza, once chased his mother, Rosa Clotilde Sabattini, with a gun and thirty-two bullets; later, Raúl ran, still armed, into his in-laws’ house. (He told police that he had wished only to commit suicide.) Raúl was born in 1899, the scion of wealthy landowners in Argentina. After spending his twenties partying, he began publishing novels. He also got involved in politics, which is how he met Clotilde. She was the daughter of Amadeo Sabattini, a famous politician whose party, the Radical Civic Union (U.C.R.), controlled Argentina’s government throughout the twenties; it was removed from power, in 1930, in a military coup. By 1936, Raúl had married Clotilde and been accused of financing the leftist resistance. He invested in olive oil and mining while editing papers that supported the nationalization of all means of production. Clotilde became a prominent feminist and academic, specializing in pedagogy. When a U.C.R. faction regained the Presidency, in 1958, she was appointed president of the National Council for Education.
It’s in these passages that Brockes gets at the undeniable but typically unspoken competitiveness among women when it comes to fertility. One child would be much easier, and cheaper, and place her on an even playing field with L and her one child. And yet, “way down deep in my bones I am cheering them on,” she says of her impending babies. To be fertile is to be celebrated. To be multiply fertile, even better. This frank admission of self-satisfaction in “good” numbers is to be reminded of how agonizing it must have been for Katkin, the Type A, to be continually held back after the starting gun in the race to reproduction. There’s “ability” right there in her title. Hold these two books up against each other and, certainly, “Conceivability” is primarily a story about technology as a means to beat infertility. But “An Excellent Choice” isn’t purely a story about love. They’re both accounts from the front lines of reproduction, a place where there is no such thing as absolute fairness.
Mel Brooks has just turned 92, and, as far as anyone can tell, he is unaltered. He has blue-gray eyes and a rakish smile; his hair is white and full; the voice remains powerfully hoarse, with traces of Louis Armstrong’s music filtering through the guttural tones. When Brooks gets excited, that voice bursts out of him like a tiger bursting out of the bush. At other times, he murmurs rapidly, teenage-style, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” No one is ever likely to miss a Mel Brooks joke, since he speaks, sometimes roars, with great precision. His normal speaking voice—not the Yiddish-accented voice of the comedy routines—could be called classical Brooklyn, the sound I remember as a New York kid from encounters with taxi drivers, baseball fans, and teachers. Those men had a definite flavor, and they meant to be understood.
The Victorian critic John Ruskin coined the phrase “pathetic fallacy” to describe the morbid attribution of human feelings to animals and inanimate objects. According to Ruskin, an artist’s skillful deployment of such imagery could yield insight into the human condition. What he objected to was sloppy, overwrought language that depicted both nature and emotion untruthfully and unbeautifully. “It is a fallacy caused by an excited state of feelings, making us, for the time, more or less irrational,” he wrote. “All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things.”
After the separation, I was afraid of appearing irrational, violent, pathetic and fallacious, revealing what Ruskin called “a mind and body in some sort too weak to deal fully with what is before them or upon them; borne away, or overclouded, or over-dazzled by emotion.” So I couldn’t dwell on the parakeets’ cries over their shattered nest, or the heartbreak and toil of building a new one. To imagine how and why their home had ripped in two might just overcloud me with despair.
This is a story about a book that just kept selling, catching publishers, booksellers and even its author off guard. In seeking to understand the reasons for the book’s unusually protracted shelf life, we uncover important messages about our moment in history, about the still-vital place of reading in our culture, and about the changing face of publishing.
How am I supposed to feel about the fact that for the first time a graphic novel has made it on to the Booker longlist? As someone who loves comics, and who has championed them in this newspaper for more than a decade, it should go without saying that I’m thrilled. Sabrina by Nick Drnaso is a good book by any standards: as deeply rich in mood, voice and plot as any regular novel I’ve read this year.
But in truth, I can’t help but be irritated by all the fuss, too. To me, it’s as if someone had suddenly pointed out that music is great, or trees, or swimming pools. Given the thriving state of the comic, and the relative weediness of certain other literary forms, surely the bigger story here by far is the fact that the poet Robin Robertson’s wondrous verse novel, The Long Take, is also on the list.
Behemoth, bully, loudmouth, thief: English is everywhere, and everywhere, English dominates. From inauspicious beginnings on the edge of a minor European archipelago, it has grown to vast size and astonishing influence. Almost 400m people speak it as their first language; a billion more know it as a secondary tongue. It is an official language in at least 59 countries, the unofficial lingua franca of dozens more. No language in history has been used by so many people or spanned a greater portion of the globe. It is aspirational: the golden ticket to the worlds of education and international commerce, a parent’s dream and a student’s misery, winnower of the haves from the have-nots. It is inescapable: the language of global business, the internet, science, diplomacy, stellar navigation, avian pathology. And everywhere it goes, it leaves behind a trail of dead: dialects crushed, languages forgotten, literatures mangled.
In whatever language, the available color words cluster around a small category of what linguistic anthropologists often call basic color terms. These words do not describe a color; they merely give it a name. They are focalizing words, and are usually defined as “the smallest subset of color words such that any color can be named by one of them.” In English, for example, “red” is the basic color term for a whole range of shades that we are willing to think of (or are able to see) as red, whereas the names we give any of the individual shades are specific to them and don’t serve a similarly unifying function. Scarlet is just scarlet.
Like many interdisciplinary efforts, this reexamination of the Lorax began at an academic dinner with assigned seating. Nate Dominy, a biological anthropologist, was put next to Donald Pease, a literary scholar. “He’s one of the most famous and popular professors on campus, [and] sitting next to him was really intimidating,” says Dominy. “I was desperate for something to talk about.”
Pease is a world expert on Theodore Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss. So Dominy started telling him about the patas monkey. “It’s a funny-looking monkey,” he says. “When I’m introducing it in class, I always say, ‘If Dr. Seuss were to create a monkey, that would be the one.’ It looks ripped off the pages.”
The fact that the libertarian wonderland of absolute sexual and economic freedom only ever worked in Rand’s melodramatic novels and helium-voiced Rush songs — that her philosophy of “Objectivism” has never been successfully applied to actual governance — does not seem to cross the minds of libertarian true-believers. And to many of them, it seems not to matter: a fealty to Rand, to heroic ideas of intellectual superiority and capitalism’s grandeur, is more important than what puny mortals consider political or intellectual reality. If you try arguing sense with them, you’ll quickly wish you hadn’t.
Why should we care, then, about a discredited goofball ideology from deep within the last century? Because Ayn Rand–style libertarianism has probably never been more assertive in American politics than it is today.
There are no right or wrong answers in this area, but as Kornfeldt implies, the rhetoric of such debates still revolves around a few presumptive virtues that are rarely interrogated deeply. The aim of greater “biodiversity”, for instance, often cited by the de-extinction researchers she interviews, is never, in truth, an absolute goal. We could save millions of people a year if we eradicated the malaria-carrying mosquito – perhaps, as researchers are now trying to do, by replacing them with genetically sterile individuals – but that would be a decrease in biodiversity. The fungi threatening to kill off some of our best-loved tree species, also covered here, are themselves organisms, as much as the trees they attack. Inevitably, those discussing such ideas are always choosing one species over another, and judging one ecosystem as somehow more authentic than another – not that nature itself cares much either way, being the most brutal engine of extinction on the planet.
The real hallmark of Early Work is the language. Martin has a remarkable ear for natural dialogue and pitch-perfect, witty banter, giving the novel a polished feel and a confident tone that herald more great fiction to come from this author.
Rewind to 1978. Annie Hall won the Oscar, the Bee Gees were at the top of the charts, and the “childhood think-tank troika” of Leonard Marsh, Hyman Golden, and Arnold Greenberg accidentally fermented a batch of carbonated apple juice. Merging the names “snappy” and “apple” produced a name that the three men agreed on: Snapple. The brand made a name for itself through clever marketing, including the now infamous tagline that suggests Snapple-branded iced tea and juice is made from “the best stuff on Earth.”
While it would take years of trial and error to find their niche in the world of ready-to-drink beverages — which would eventually lead to an $18.7 billion deal and help make the seventh-largest food and drink company in the U.S. — Marsh, Golden, and Greenberg ultimately created a brand with wide appeal. Snapple gained traction in 1987 from the production of its ready-to-drink iced tea, but it wouldn’t be until an ad campaign starring a vivacious — albeit highly unorthodox — customer service representative named Wendy that the bottled drink would take on a life of its own.
Bees are wasps that went vegetarian. This was a brilliant evolutionary move: they now outnumber wasps by around three to one. Instead of hunting creatures that would rather not be eaten, they turned to living things that offered themselves on a plate. Bees and flowers evolved together in a gorgeous spiral of mutual dependence. Nectar and pollen feed the bees; in return, the plants get to procreate.
Ms Soli honours the history she uses to tell her tale by the care she takes with her storytelling, and by the way she laces through the book documents and photographs from the era. She does not shy away from violence, but nor does she revel in it; most notably, the climactic battle is barely described. But by that point the reader’s imagination has been well-schooled by the author’s art: the horror is more vivid for being created in the mind’s eye.
Like all the other creatures out there, I will eat flesh. Unlike the rest, I won’t catch the animal that will be my meal. And perhaps unlike them—but who really knows what dolphins think?—I’ll question whether my actions are ethical.
As humans gain an ever-increasing understanding of animals’ ability to think, feel, and experience pain, many of us are asking whether eating meat is morally acceptable. Can you care for animals and also eat them?
There’s a difference between compassion and sentimentality and, after all, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. As I’m grilling steaks later, trying to visualize the cow killed for this meal, I wrestle with the question.
But the arrival of LED lightbulbs – more efficient and durable – the closure of old businesses and a government crackdown on outdoor structures have started to push neon lights out of the streets, and Hong Kong residents are trying to work out how to preserve the unique glow of their cityscape.
When we talk about ruins, we often turn to ancient examples — Machu Picchu, the Acropolis, Pompeii. It takes a certain depth of historical knowledge, along with a leap of the imagination, to picture such ruins as intact, teeming with human activity. Ruined malls, on the other hand, have an immediate and intuitive effect; most American adults have a visceral understanding of what these buildings meant at the height of their influence. Freud described the uncanny as “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar,” which might explain the eerie magnetism of these videos: We remember the aura of magic and possibility with which these spaces were once imbued, but in a dead mall, the aura is sucked clean out, like a living, breathing person reduced to a glassy-eyed doll.
A single female narrator, uninterested in sex, completely focused on work that doesn’t constitute a “career,” is a departure from the norm in Japanese literature as much as it is in English. “I don’t think there’s been anyone, at least that I’ve come across, quite like Keiko,” Takemori tells me, “especially in not even missing having a relationship!” Sexuality as a woman is central to Murata’s work, and her novels often feature a lot of sex — though it isn’t necessarily pleasant. Murata is interested in the bizarre pressures society puts onto women. In her newest novel, out this summer in Japan, she is quite explicit: “She sees society as this big baby factory. When you become an adult you become part of this factory to create more humans.”
I was somehow able to dodge getting my first kitchen burn until the age of twenty-five, and the timing couldn’t have been more on-the-nose: It happened about a month after my dad died, just weeks after I exited my cocoon of grief in that cramped apartment in New Jersey where my mother lived. I returned to New York in a bid to re-assimilate into life as I knew it before my father’s final hospital stay. The city’s surrounding stimuli felt abrasive; I could barely get through conversations without wanting to cry.
I figured an ideal mourning period would have been free of disturbances of my own creation. So much for that.
A story may be things that happened, embellished for interest, but that’s not a book. Many stories don’t get good until the end. Some stories — true ones even — are hard to believe. Other stories are just too short, don’t have enough tension, or frankly aren’t that interesting. The stories we tell that enrapture our friends and families may be extraordinarily boring to those who don’t know us. Those stories are not a book.
This is exposure of a deeper, darker kind than he’s attempted before: exposure of himself, and of his former careful management of his and his family’s stories. Looking for truth in the courtroom sense in Sedaris’s essays has always been a mug’s game, missing the point. Truthfulness, though – emotional, spiritual – he’s always traded on these. And with Calypso, he’s given us his most truthful work yet.
The use of raw potato to treat any ailment. Guard booths and gates. Buying barrels of water during blackouts. Leaving the television on to know exactly when the electricity comes back on. And the graphic news reports, the car bombs, the kidnappings, the ever-present fear in your gut that something terrible could happen to someone you love at any moment.
It’s vividly specific details like these that made me wince in recognition while reading Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s “Fruit of the Drunken Tree,” a beautifully rendered novel of an Escobar-era Colombian childhood. Although this debut novel is inspired by the author’s personal experiences (as noted in an afterword), you don’t need to have grown up in Bogotá to be taken in by Contreras’s simple but memorable prose and absorbing story line.
For those of us for whom books and reading have been an integral part of existence, perhaps even thinking ourselves superior because of it, it is well to be reminded that literacy and authorship are not in themselves unequivocally good. Kalder points out that if Stalin had remained illiterate, as he might easily have done, the world would have been saved a lot of trouble; nor would the world have been much the poorer without Mein Kampf or Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung. The country churchyard may contain many a mute inglorious Milton, but it might likewise contain many a mute would-have-been Hitler.
The prestige of the book as a cultural artifact has declined steeply of late, as is daily observable almost everywhere, but in the totalitarian century it was undiminished. Every tyrant wanted to publish a book; to have written one (or at least have his name affixed to it as the author) was proof of intellectual gravitas. In the Romania of the Ceausescus, for example, Elena’s great work, a dissertation called Stereospecific Polymerization of Isoprene, was widely available, even when most other commodities were in short supply. As with Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, this was a book more to be seen with than read; it was the proof of loyal belief in the Ceausescus’ superior intellect (Elena’s husband, Nicolae, was known as the “Danube of Thought”).
My father once showed me an 8 ½” x 11” photo of a McDonald’s drive-through sign, set against a landscape of red dust. There was nothing around for miles; yellow arches were the only humanizing marker in an endless plain. He asked me where I thought the picture was taken. I had no idea. He later showed the picture to our neighborhood friends at a party and explained that it was land he was considering purchasing south of our home in Chandler, AZ. They nodded, asking about prices and contracts with polite interest. Once this had gone on long enough, he revealed he had actually edited those golden arches onto a stock image of Mars. I cringed, all the adults laughed. It was a summer day. The sun burned with its typical intensity, insistent on my skin. The cracked concrete around the pool tessellated outward like the Martian ground. I let my feet dangle in the water, watched them become silhouettes, ghostly in the unnatural blue. All seemed well.
Years later, on July 20, 2017, temperatures in the City of Phoenix reached 119 degrees, the fourth hottest day the city had ever experienced. The city’s national weather service branch represented the highest temperatures in a shade of brilliant magenta. These areas were designated as “rare, dangerous, and possibly life threatening.” All of Phoenix and its surrounding suburbs glowed pink.
By the end of the day, I would learn that the downside of being on a tour was not, in our case, our fellow tour-goers (who, though mostly older than we were by an average of 12 years, were an energetic, friendly bunch). Rather, it was exactly what the upside of the tour was supposed to be: the schedule, which included meal times and number of sites visited per day. You went where and when the tour took you, even if you would have preferred a good long après-lunch nap.
If there is a philosophy behind this food, it is more about eating than about cooking. “I think many people today haven’t really eaten for years,” said Amanda Bechara, who with her husband, Daniel Goldstein, owns Carthage Must Be Destroyed, a color-filled and lofty cafe hidden in an unmarked alley in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “Especially people who eat in New York restaurants all the time.”
Ms. Bechara is emphatically uninterested in inventing the next fish-skin chicharrón or rye-bread gelato, the kind of culinary innovations and challenges that usually drive New York chefs forward. Instead, her formidable creative energy is diverted into finding the products she wants: flavorful tomatoes, a steady supply of organic avocados and really ripe mangoes — not an easy task, even in this food-loving city.
“Early Work” is a tidy and perfectly ornamented novel with no unsanded corners or unglossed surfaces. It rewards as much attention as you want to give it. Read it on a beach for the refreshment of a classic boy-meets-girl plot, or turn the pages more slowly to soak in some truly salty koans and morally insolvent characters. If I were a millionaire I’d start a foundation to subsidize novels like it, because I worry about them. It’s not a book that will inspire hot takes or incendiary tweets; the author is unfashionably male and the concerns unfashionably universal. It’s an accomplished and delightful book, but there’s no hashtag for that.
As evening fell, 80,000 spectators took their seats and the lights were turned back on. The sleeping moths stirred, and soon thousands were zigzagging among the players. Photographs taken that night show annoyed football officials picking moths off each other’s suits, while the swarm blocked the lenses of TV cameras and hung from the goalposts. Perhaps the highlight came when Cristiano Ronaldo sat injured and weeping on the pitch, while a lone Silver Y sipped his teardrops away.
As the Portuguese superstar had discovered, the mingling of urban development with the natural world can throw up some weird and wonderful occurrences. Cities are like mad scientists, creating their own crazy ecological concoctions by throwing all kinds of native and foreign elements into the urban melting pot, then spicing it up with artificial light, pollution, impervious surfaces and a host of other challenges. Researchers around the globe are documenting how globalisation and urbanisation are changing the behaviour and evolution of animals.
Indeed, evolutionary biologists no longer need to travel to remote places like the Galápagos to discover their holy grail: speciation, the formation of new and distinct species in the course of evolution. The process is going on right in the very cities where they live and work.
Last fall a friend told me a story about Ryuichi Sakamoto, the renowned musician and composer who lives in the West Village. Mr. Sakamoto, it seems, so likes a particular Japanese restaurant in Murray Hill, and visits it so often, that he finally had to be straight with the chef: He could not bear the music it played for its patrons.
The issue was not so much that the music was loud, but that it was thoughtless. Mr. Sakamoto suggested that he could take over the job of choosing it, without pay, if only so he could feel more comfortable eating there. The chef agreed, and so Mr. Sakamoto started making playlists for the restaurant, none of which include any of his own music. Few people knew about this, because Mr. Sakamoto has no particular desire to publicize it.
It took me a few weeks to appreciate how radical the story was, if indeed it was true. I consider thoughtless music in restaurants a problem that has gotten worse over the years, even since the advent of the music-streaming services, which — you’d think — should have made it better.
Jonathan Gold was a restaurant critic, one whose roving intellect uncovered a new story about food in America, one about everyday, often immigrant-run restaurants, not just fine dining. That alone made him revolutionary. But Los Angeles is not in mourning because of the loss of a food-writing pioneer. The second-largest city in America just lost a secular saint. It’s mourning a welcoming guide and a listening ear, a curious palate and an endless appetite, a man who saw the very best of the city, and told the rest of America that a place written off by the national media as vapid, soulless and sun-dazed was actually the country’s beating heart.
Breast versus bottle is but one of the many debates wending through Kurlansky’s often fascinating (“Thomas Jefferson liked to serve ice cream on sponge cake with a lightly baked meringue on top”), sometimes mundane (“In addition to milk, cheese and porridge, the Dutch ate huge quantities of butter”) and occasionally weird (“There are also records of women in the highlands of New Guinea breast-feeding piglets, pre-European Hawaiians breast-feeding puppies, and Guyanese women breast-feeding deer”) new book, which can be seen as nothing less than an attempt to tell the history of the world via what is, let’s face it, a bodily fluid.
“Convenience Store Woman” is short, and it casts a fluorescent spell. Like a convenience store, it is chilly; it makes you wish you had brought a sweater. At the same time, it’s the kind of performance that leaves you considering the difference between exploring interesting topics and actually being interesting.
The many-layered types of discomfort in “Orange World” come together into a story that outlines the difficulty of giving love, especially motherly love, when that love is always accompanied by a fear of loss. Meanwhile, the looming figure of the devil-creature complicates the distinction between rational versus irrational fear. It reminds us that the act of contemplating risks is always necessarily a form of fortune-telling, of guessing at a future that still doesn’t exist—in a way, rendering fear itself as an act of speculative fiction.
Conjuring a different view of the world is a rare talent requiring an extraordinary leap of imagination: Hamlet, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina are artistic one-offs based not on deep understanding, but yarns we spin about each other’s intentions and motivations. We make up stories about our spouses, our kids, our leaders, and our enemies. Inspiring narratives get us through dark nights and tough times, but we’ll always make better predictions guided by the impersonal analysis of big data than by the erroneous belief that we can read another’s mind.
At the time my wife and I were beginning to date, I owned a broken bed. The box spring had a biggish crack on one side, which caused you to feel like you were being gradually swallowed in the night—an effect seriously exacerbated by the presence of a second person. I had not bothered to buy pillows when I moved to Milwaukee, reasoning that old pants stuffed in a pillowcase could not possibly feel that different. I did, however, have a desk, which I had carried from the Salvation Army, a mile and a half, on my shoulders, in August. I should mention here that I have never been what anyone would consider macho. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that I was allowed to live any other way.
My wife now amuses guests by narrating this period in our lives in the sitcom gender-essentialist mode: the silly, uncivilized man; the patiently exasperated woman.1 I defend myself by citing my actual poverty at the time—I was a graduate student with no savings, from a working-class family, for whom a $12,000 yearly stipend was a massive windfall. But she and I are both right: My choices rested on many years of socialization, as much as they unfolded against a background of economic precarity. Were there not buses? Could I not have asked a friend with a car to help me? Who purchases a Riverside Chaucer and a copy of the Go-Betweens’ 16 Lovers Lane before he gets around to pillows? I would never have put myself through all of that if I hadn’t spent my life believing that it was my job to be, precisely, a man.
What is strange is that many Angelenos I talked to echoed this view of interstate gridlock as a kind of contemplative lacuna. I was told on multiple occasions that in order to be truly at home in this city, you had to make peace with your commute.
“My car is my safe space,” one person told me.
“It’s all about the podcast,” said another.
Kitchen Arts and Letters doesn’t present as one of the world’s great bookshops. It has no library ladders or espresso bar, no smell of bookworm or brass polish, and nowhere to sit. It has only slightly more bookish allure than the nail salons and hardware stores that surround it on a commercial block of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. But since opening in 1983, it has been a destination bookstore for chefs, cooks, academics and eccentrics from around the world.
Kitchen Arts and Letters is not where you go to find all the cookbooks. It is where you go to find the right cookbooks.
For decades, self-publishing was derided as an embarrassing sign that an author couldn’t cut it in the “real” publishing industry —“the literary world’s version of masturbation,” as Salon once put it. And Amazon, the world’s biggest e-commerce site, with its bookstore-beating prices, was painted as an enemy to authors. But now its self-publishing service, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), has made it easy for people to upload their books, send them out into the universe, and make money doing so. Its store has created a place for readers to go and easily find inexpensive self-published books. The site that got its start by radically changing where books are sold is now reshaping how books are published and read.
Getting laid has always been a way that outsiders have attempted to conquer (and to write about) the big city, from Tom Jones to Frédéric Moreau to Alexander Portnoy. Kumar himself arrived at Syracuse University in the late eighties from Delhi via Ara; he is now a professor at Vassar and has written six books of nonfiction, one of poetry, and a previous novel. The new book falls between genres. Its aim is not to tell a story, exactly, but to create a portrait of a mind moving uneasily between a new, chosen culture and the one left behind. Kailash’s journey toward sexual integration in the West is cast (to quote the author’s note) as “a work of fiction as well as nonfiction, an in-between novel by an in-between writer,” complete with multiple epigraphs, pictures, footnotes academic and digressive, and both pop-cultural and literary-theoretical references. So the form of “Immigrant, Montana” calls to mind works by Teju Cole (to whom the book is dedicated), Sheila Heti, and Ben Lerner. Can we believe in the immigrant who happens to write in the hippest, Brooklyniest form going? What sort of outsider knows the rules so preternaturally well?
After a certain age, old newsmen start shedding inhibitions and, in a spiral of crotchetiness, picking ill-considered fights with editors, colleagues, sources, and finally, readers. For Seymour Hersh, that age was 26, and his subsequent descent into terminal grouchdom has continued for almost six decades. “Fuck them before they fuck you,” a neighbor advised the young Hersh. The advice stuck. Hersh’s memoir bears the arid title Reporter, but Fuck Them would better convey the author’s diction, and his attitude toward enemy and ally alike.
Nearly every night of our lives, we undergo a startling metamorphosis.
Our brain profoundly alters its behavior and purpose, dimming our consciousness. For a while, we become almost entirely paralyzed. We can’t even shiver. Our eyes, however, periodically dart about behind closed lids as if seeing, and the tiny muscles in our middle ear, even in silence, move as though hearing. We are sexually stimulated, men and women both, repeatedly. We sometimes believe we can fly. We approach the frontiers of death. We sleep.
Earlier this week, the International Commission on Stratigraphy announced that the current stretch of geological time, the Holocene Epoch, would be split into three subdivisions.
This is particularly noteworthy to the human species, as we have been living in the Holocene for the last 12,000 years. After this announcement, we still live in that epoch, but we also live in the youngest of these new subdivisions: the Meghalayan Age.
For decades, this has been the kind of technical declaration that even most geologists could safely ignore.
But lately, the study of geological timescales has attracted far more public attention—and scholarly f-bombs. Stratigraphy, the effort to name and describe rock layers, has become the site of a proxy battle over climate change, environmental change, and how deeply the natural sciences should integrate with history and politics.
In his celebrated 2005 book-length essay, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, Franco Moretti drew attention to the relevance of diagrams and graphs for understanding the larger forces that shape literature. Such models, Moretti argued, can provide us with quantitatively supported insights into the emergence (and fall) of literary genres across vast expanses of time and space. Consider the rise of the novel — not just Ian Watt’s 18th-century British tradition but the narrative genre in late-18th-century Japan, in mid-19th-century Spain, or in mid-20th-century Nigeria. What might computer-generated models teach us about the historical behavior of a corpus so enormous and diverse that it exceeds the ability of a single reader to navigate it?
As it turns out, quite a lot. For the “rise of the novel” follows a pattern that is at once stunningly predictable and revelatory of the broader market forces shaping literary history. A rapid growth in the number of book publications produces a reorientation of the reading public toward contemporary titles, which in turn gives rise to a balkanization of literature into genre niches (detective novels, sporting novels, school stories, et cetera). That pattern, however, only becomes visible from the panoramic vantage point of computer-generated graphs. Hence the need for “distant reading” — and, with it, the return to structure and form as central preoccupations of literary criticism.
Last April, I attended Alexander Chee’s talk on reporting the self at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace conference in Boston. In between discussing research methods, how to interview subjects, and ways to mine your old journals and emails for memoir-worthy information, he got to what seemed to me to be the heart of everything: “The thing that you remember is the thing that you live with.”
The thing that Emily Skrutskie really nails in Hullmetal Girls is all the nitty gritty of bodies being invaded by machines. So much care and thought has gone into every spliced muscle and metal port that it's easy to visualize the cyborg monsters these teens have become, and really feel the pain and dysmorphia that they experience. Readers are along for the ride, from the horror of not being in control of your own body to the joy of leaping with superhuman legs.
In 2014, a graduate student at the University of Waterloo, Canada, named Cohl Furey rented a car and drove six hours south to Pennsylvania State University, eager to talk to a physics professor there named Murat Günaydin. Furey had figured out how to build on a finding of Günaydin’s from 40 years earlier — a largely forgotten result that supported a powerful suspicion about fundamental physics and its relationship to pure math.
The suspicion, harbored by many physicists and mathematicians over the decades but rarely actively pursued, is that the peculiar panoply of forces and particles that comprise reality spring logically from the properties of eight-dimensional numbers called “octonions.”
After Literati, I read at two more bookstores: Books Are Magic and Politics and Prose. Both are bookstores I’ve long admired (Politics and Prose was actually the first indie bookstore I ever stepped foot in), and at both readings, I wore my Literati shirt. The primary reason for this costume was to rep my indie bookstore love. But hidden underneath that love was a more confused desire. I wanted to feel like I belonged in those bookstores. For some reason, the fact that I was an author invited to read in the bookstore was not reason enough to feel comfortable there.
I first became intimately aware of smoothies’ utilitarian mealworthiness when, in 2014, I moved to a Manhattan apartment that ended up having no cooking gas for ten of the twelve months I lived there. Grilling frozen chicken on my roommate’s George Foreman was getting tedious, so one night, conscious of the fact that I hadn’t yet eaten a single vegetable that day, I made a smoothie for dinner. Not, mind you, the kind of “green” smoothie your hippie yogi friend drinks that looks like liquefied grass clippings and tastes like, well, liquefied grass clippings. My smoothie was a calorically bountiful blend that was physical shorthand for a bunch of complementary foods liquefied—milk, overripe bananas, end-of-season berries, arugula, oats. Despite being thrown together with the limited number of edible items already in my kitchen, it tasted good. This, for me, was a novelty. And, because it was comprised of so many largely unprocessed foods, I didn’t feel guilty for having put it inside my body. Another novelty.
Max Neely-Cohen says he’s long harbored the idea for this kind of project, but wasn’t sure existing technology could manage what he had in mind. “There are all these visuals that work off of different parameters of live music,” he briefed me over the phone, after my visit. “A lot of them are just volume, but more sophisticated ones can analyze pitch and all these different things. They create a visual space out of that. I wondered, can you do that with a reading? For a really long time, the answer I got was ‘no.’ And the reason is that speech-to-text sucks for live transcription. But it’s been getting better.”
You could argue that the sudden death is a narrative convenience introduced to enforce a dramatic conclusion. But Donkor’s principal achievement is the dignity and generosity of spirit with which he imbues a central character from a largely invisible seam of African society.
What could be simpler than a bubble, a thin little floating membrane, the symbol of an innocent, trouble-free childhood? But it is said that one cannot live in a bubble—it’s right there in the definition: “a good or fortunate situation that is isolated from reality or unlikely to last.” In this jagged world, bubbles burst.
A Bubble, the artist and musician Geneviève Castrée’s posthumously published last work, is, in essence, a children’s board book. It begins with the caption “Maman lives in a bubble,” above a drawing of a little blond child in cat-face knee socks gazing at her mother, who floats in the titular sphere. “I love you very much,” the mother says, her freckled face anxious, her choppy hair concealed under a beanie hat.
“You are alone out there,” my college track coach said, pointing to the farmland that stretched to the horizon. Years later, I know his words also describe writing a book.
Han’s novel Human Acts, set against the backdrop of the Gwangju Uprising and spanning three decades, is a work of tremendous intellectual and philosophical ambition. It continues the inquiry into violence and self-determination that Han began in The Vegetarian, in which a housewife resists the strictures of her family life by gradually refusing to eat: a self-abnegation that literally diminishes her body. The rest of the book’s characters struggle to rationalize her increasingly erratic behavior. Plausible justifications for her fasting—health concerns, religious doctrine, faddishness—ultimately fail. Her rebellion, they are slow to realize, is against the idea of the family itself.
Han also writes about bodily suffering in harrowing detail throughout Human Acts, but here her characters are above all preoccupied with the nature of the soul. Where does it go after the body is destroyed? How do the soul and body separate? How do souls communicate with one another?
About 5,000 years ago, someone decided to paint a battle scene between archers in a cave in Spain — perhaps one of the first instances of what we’d call “war graffiti” today. That person was probably an early grunt who had just finished griping that the chow was bad and that he’d had to march too far that day. Because as long as there has been war, there have been soldiers leaving behind their doodles, names or other markings for historians to muse on why they did so.
In combat, full lives can be snuffed out with no notice paid to the person behind a name. As a veteran of Afghanistan and now a company commander in the National Guard, I am well acquainted with the impermanence of life. Like the American-style graffiti that dominated cities across the country in the 1970s and 1980s, the drawings of war are part of a culture that comes with its own vocabulary, characters and aesthetics. “Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing,” the street artist Banksy wrote in 2001. “And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty, you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss.” If he replaced “cure world poverty” with “win the war,” he would have perfectly captured the sentiment behind soldiers’ doodles. These drawings, scratchings and markings serve a far greater purpose than merely offering a glimpse into the past: They are a defiant and public proclamation of a human being’s existence.
In the past few years, researchers have found them in unexpected places scattered around the world: modern beaches. Finding ancient footprints in such a dynamic environment seems counterintuitive. Is there anything more ephemeral, after all, than footprints in the sand? You’d think that the action of waves and wind would wipe footprints away quickly. But, in 2012, massive storms in Wales revealed fossilized forests—and the footprints of a child, facing a prehistoric sea. In 2013, researchers stumbled across the 800,000-year-old tracks left behind by children and adults, a small family perhaps, playing on a windswept English beach. The following year, researchers working on British Columbia’s Calvert Island found footprints dating back to the earliest days of human presence in the Americas. The one thing they all have in common is proximity to the ocean.
On 7 October 1967, the Financial Times, then the most buttoned-up newspaper in Britain and quite possibly the world, discreetly added a regular new page to its Saturday edition. Buried deep inside the paper, behind the usual thicket of articles about share prices and companies and pensions, the page was introduced to readers a little euphemistically, as “a guide to good living”. In small letters across the top of the page, the FT spelled out what “good living” meant. The page was called How to Spend It.
In the still slightly austere postwar Britain of 1967, where the great majority of the FT’s prosperous readership of 150,000 lived, spending opportunities were limited. The new, monochrome page had an article about installing home central heating, then a relative luxury; about a new electric coffee maker; and about how to select and cook a pheasant: “Choose carefully. Hens are always best.” The most expansive piece was on an old-fashioned Scottish hotel owned by state-run British Rail. “The visitor is received with all the ceremony of an arrival at a country house,” wrote the reviewer. “You go into the immense hall and no one takes any notice.”
Having customers order a ‘toasted teacake’ in the West Yorkshire sandwich shop where I worked as a teenager wasn’t unusual, yet even this simple request always necessitated a follow-up question: ‘plain or currant?’.
While to me a ‘teacake’ naturally implies a plain, savoury bread roll, most of the country outside West Yorkshire believes a teacake to be a sweet bread laden with plump currants. I’d say, logically, that that should be known as a ‘currant teacake’, but what can you do?
It’s a shame that not everyone can read this book, but Cheng claims it is incumbent on those of us who can to use compassion and logic to argue productively with those who can’t. In this way, advanced mathematics could make a meaningful contribution to creating a better society as well as happier conversations and relationships. There is a sense in which this book is proof it can.
Huge questions vex the future of food—how to feed 9 billion mouths, how to farm in an era of unprecedented climate uncertainty, how to create more resilient and nutritious foods for a public wary of the new technology. Plant scientists are already using Crispr and related technologies to reshape food crops in dramatic ways—editing wheat to reduce gluten, editing soybeans to produce a healthier oil, editing corn to produce higher yields, editing potatoes to store better (and not throw off a carcinogen when cooked). In both industrial and academic labs, new editing tools are being developed that will have a profound impact on the foods all of us eat. Yet this newfound power to transform food traits coincides with a moment when the agriculture business has consolidated into essentially three mega-conglomerates. Those companies have the money to put this new technology to use. The question is: What use will they put it toward?
Dozens of similar rooms, or “hutches,” are arrayed around this huge, doughnut-shaped building, a type of particle accelerator called a synchrotron. It propels electrons to near light speed around its 500-meter-long ring, bending them with magnets so they emit light. The resulting radiation is focused into intense beams, in this case high-energy X-rays, which travel through each hutch. That red laser shows the path the beam will take. A thick lead shutter, attached to the wall, is all that stands between Dopke and a blast of photons ten billion times brighter than the Sun.
The facility, called Diamond Light Source, is one of the most powerful and sophisticated X-ray facilities in the world, used to probe everything from viruses to jet engines. On this summer afternoon, though, its epic beam will focus on a tiny crumb of papyrus that has already survived one of the most destructive forces on the planet—and 2,000 years of history. It comes from a scroll found in Herculaneum, an ancient Roman resort on the Bay of Naples, Italy, that was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. In the 18th century, workmen employed by King Charles III of Spain, then in charge of much of southern Italy, discovered the remains of a magnificent villa, thought to have belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus (known as Piso), a wealthy statesman and the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. The luxurious residence had elaborate gardens surrounded by colonnaded walkways and was filled with beautiful mosaics, frescoes and sculptures. And, in what was to become one of the most frustrating archaeological discoveries ever, the workmen also found approximately 2,000 papyrus scrolls.
A few months ago, as I was on my way to see “A Mile in My Shoes,” an exhibition staged by the Empathy Museum as a pop-up outside London’s Migration Museum, a woman walked down the aisle of the train I was on, asking for money or food. I gave her the bag of almonds I had in my tote bag, but I don’t think it was empathy that made me do it. The sun was shining through the window that day, and I was in a good mood as I drank my coffee and ate my breakfast. The shame of being happy and satisfied in front of someone who was turning their unhappiness into a public performance made me hand over my snack. Plus, I remembered that I was going to the Empathy Museum.
The truth is that every time I pass a person sleeping or begging on the streets, I am terrified by the thought of what would happen if I did truly empathize with them: If I, even for a moment, felt the precariousness of their life as my own, wouldn’t I have to offer them more than bag of almonds? Wouldn’t it demand that I offer everything I have?
For three years, the French writer Thomas Clerc cloistered himself in his 50-square-meter Parisian apartment, compiling an annotation of his possessions, including some 700 books, two old pornographic magazines, one electric kettle and one small spider who had taken up residence in his living room. The project became a book — “Interior,” a “poetics of property,” a room-by-room tour of his home, published in France in 2013 and now translated into English.
What we get instead of narrative momentum is a richness of theme and an abundance of detail. Van den Berg’s previous work, her short stories in particular, are prized for their thoughtfulness and descriptive intensity, and this book seems to me a refinement and intensification of those skills.
When Martha Graham was a child, she often visited her father’s office after work hours. One such day, she climbed on a pile of books so she could see the top of her father’s desk, where he was looking at a drop of water on a glass slide. When he asked her what she saw, she described it as “pure water.” He slipped the slide under the lens of a microscope, and she peered once more through the lens. “But there are wriggles in it,” she said in horror.
“Yes, it is impure,” he replied. “Just remember this all your life, Martha. You must look for the truth—good, bad, or unsettling.”
“Movement,” he taught her, “never lies.” It was a lesson she would recall years later, as she dictated her memoir, Blood Memory, at age ninety-six. “In a curious way, this was my first dance lesson,” Graham writes, “a gesture toward the truth. Each of us tells our own story even without speaking.”
My first novel was about my father, a criminal defense attorney who broke the law and ended up going to jail. I worked on it in secret, in a tangle of grief, love, anger, and guilt so intense I found it almost impossible to write. I would sketch out a scene, feel like a traitor, erase the scene, and then take the subway to my parents’ apartment to make sure my father was still alive, that I hadn’t magically killed him. Usually, I found him in front of the TV, downing antidepressants and eating vast quantities of leftovers. He was having a hard time rejoining society.
That was my problem too, in a way. I’d just finished an MFA and desperately needed a job, but couldn’t find anything. Then a friend got me an interview with a professor of Korean Buddhism, a former Buddhist monk, who was starting a publishing company to produce scholarly books on Korean religions. I didn’t know anything about Korea, but I had spent some years in Japan and was “comfortable” with East Asian cultures—that was my selling point.
In 1890, one of fiction’s first, and certainly greatest, “consulting detectives” proclaimed his place in the world: “I am,” Sherlock Holmes announced, “the last and highest court of appeal in detection.” When the police are out of their depths, Holmes declared, “the matter is laid before me. I examine the data, as an expert, and pronounce a specialist’s opinion.”
And twice in the following decades, Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, was to put himself in the same position in the real world, harrying the police, examining data and giving a specialist’s opinion to correct what he saw as travesties of justice.
Daisy Johnson’s debut, Fen, was a bewitching collection of stories set in a marshland town where humans turn into animals and cannibal temptresses lure lovers to their doom. The magic realist style let Johnson approach topics such as anorexia and domestic violence from surprising angles while giving the sense that she felt the business of generating otherworldly thrills was a worthy artistic goal in itself.
The judge looked over Her Cocky Doctors. “Two male figures. One seems to be wearing a stethoscope, indicating he is a doctor, but he is stripped to the waist.”
“Doesn’t look like my doctor, your Honor,” said the lawyer drily.
They were gathered there that day because one self-published romance author was suing another for using the word “cocky” in her titles. And as absurd as this courtroom scene was — with a federal judge soberly examining the shirtless doctors on the cover of an “MFM Menage Romance” — it didn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
What are you doing? I don’t mean what are you doing with your life, or in general, but what are you doing right now? The answer, in one respect, is simple enough: you’re reading this magazine. Obviously. From a certain economic perspective, however, you’re doing something else, something you don’t realize, something with a sneaky motive that you aren’t admitting to yourself: you are signalling. You are sending signals about the kind of person you are, or want to be. What’s that you say—you’re reading this in the bath, or on your phone in bed, or otherwise in private? Well, the same argument applies. You are acquiring the tools for a “fitness display.” This, the economist Robin Hanson and the writer-programmer Kevin Simler argue in their new book, “The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life” (Oxford), is an advertisement of “health, energy, vigor, coordination, and overall fitness.” Fitness displays “can be used to woo mates, of course, but they also serve other purposes like attracting allies or intimidating rivals.” So there you go: that’s what you’re doing, there in the bath with the magazine. Your rivals are right to feel intimidated.
Wait, though—surely signalling doesn’t account for everything? Hanson, in a recent podcast interview with Tyler Cowen, a colleague at George Mason University, was asked to give a “short, quick and dirty” answer to the question of how much human behavior “ultimately can be traced back to some kind of signalling.” His answer: “In a rich society like ours, well over ninety per cent.” He was then asked to cite a few voluntary human activities that “have the least amount to do with signalling.” The example Hanson came up with was “scratching your butt.”
“I want a life with people that is almost explosive in its excitement,” she wrote,“fierce and hard and laughing and loud and gay as all hell let loose.” It seems to me she had that life—and that it’s one worth looking at. Even searching for.
“Why should I be a footnote to someone else’s life?” she once asked. Perhaps it’s up to us now to make sure that can’t—won’t—happen.
I have always felt that I owe it to books (my longest and greatest love) to hear them out, especially when it’s one recommended by someone whose opinion I value. I also feel that if I don’t finish a book, I will somehow get in trouble (?) with someone (??). I’m competitive with myself, and if I read 62 books last year, I want to read at least 63 this year.
Forget about the correspondence, diaries, and scribbled cabinet agendas through which he trawls. Post-millennials barely recognize each other’s signatures—they certainly don’t know how to compose a handwritten letter. Emails are deleted or die on obsolete hard drives; few people admit to writing diaries; political leaders communicate via tweets; film, music, and literary celebrities curate their own narratives on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook.
Ultimately, though, the reason to read this compelling and hypnotic novel is not the execution of the plot or the sleight-of-hand final revelation. What makes it stand out is Abbott’s expert dissection of women’s friendships and rivalries. She is an investigator of the human heart and mind, and “Give Me Your Hand” is a fine addition to her body of work — one that should cement her position as one of the most intelligent and daring novelists working in the crime genre today.
Principal dancers Marianela Nuñez and Alexander Campbell glide past. More arrive in white tutus, fresh from rehearsals for Swan Lake; a graceful, giggling wave of youthful energy, chatting about barbecues and Instagram. Some complete bespoke cardio drills, calibrated using oxygen-uptake tests, to get fit for quick-tempo allegro routines. Others strengthen their soleus calf muscles, which on-site electromyography (EMG) analysis suggests can help stabilise their ankles. Every workout is uploaded to Smartabase, a data-analysis platform also used by the US military. Meanwhile, fatigued dancers apply Game Ready leg wraps, which harness Nasa space-suit technology to deliver tissue-repairing cold therapy, and learn how adding omega-3-rich anchovies to their salads can reduce muscle inflammation.
The Royal Ballet is rich in tradition, but the company’s 97 dancers are now supported by a 17-strong team of sports science and healthcare experts. “Our facilities are now similar to those of a Premier League football club,” explains Gregory Retter, clinical director of ballet healthcare. “Strength, jumping, force attenuation, cardiovascular fitness, psychological wellbeing and nutrition; all support the dancer to be free to create artistic excellence. This is a completely new concept in dance.”
Gus, a polar bear at the Central Park Zoo, swam ceaselessly. He’d dive into his pool, slither across the bottom, surge to the surface, and backstroke to the other side. Then, he’d tuck his head into the water and do it again. And again. And again. Twelve hours a day. Every day. Gus was New York’s woolliest neurotic. And when the tabloids got hold of his story in the mid-1990s, it took off. David Letterman cracked wise. The rock band The Tragically Hip asked, “What’s Troubling Gus?” And the $25,000 the zoo spent on an animal behaviorist became a national punchline.
But a couple of decades later, the joke has lost a bit of its zing. Gus’s compulsive behavior, a growing pile of research suggests, is distressingly common among captive animals. The gorillas behind the glass are plucking their hair, and the orangutans are incessantly masturbating. Dolphins ram their heads into the sides of pools, and sea lion pups try to nurse from each other instead of adult females.
At the turn of the 21st century, New York literati would often shut down attempts to discuss the latest television shows with the sniffy refrain “I don’t even own a TV.” I remember one particular book party at which a cluster of hot young novelists collectively agreed that they wouldn’t mind having their books optioned for the small screen—as long as no one ever got around to making them. TV in those days was still scorned as a distraction factory churning out bland entertainment in standardized 30- or 60-minute chunks punctuated by Pavlovian laugh lines and pre-commercial-break cliff-hangers.
That snobbery gradually turned inside out as the medium evolved from delivering conventional network fare aimed at the broadest possible audience into a vehicle for the much-hyped new golden age. Prestige dramas and idiosyncratic comedies put a premium on nuance and experimentation, on complex characterization and scintillating dialogue. In other words, all the things for which literary fiction is known. So utterly has the literati’s disdain for the small screen dissolved that nowadays novelists are lining up to have their books adapted. If you eavesdrop on any gathering of serious writers, they’re as likely to be discussing Killing Eve or Better Call Saul as they are the latest book by Zadie Smith or Rachel Kushner. Even the University of Iowa is launching TV-writing programs this fall.
No Way But This is an unusual biography; it is written with deep admiration for its subject and with perhaps a little too much indulgence. But then, Robeson was the kind of urbane, politically engaged celebrity that we rarely find in our age of millionaire poseurs such as Kanye West and Jay-Z; that he died in relative obscurity and in deep depression is a tragedy. He will always be a reminder of what authentic, soulful art can achieve and the responsibility we all carry to speak truth to power.
She’s still “far from wise,” she cautions, “but being slightly less clueless is an improvement, and I’ll take it. My index cards have made me happier. They’re the start, at least, of what I craved while growing up: to have more knowledge, less regret and a better grasp of what’s happening.”
That definition of being a grown-up isn’t catchy enough for a 40th birthday card, but it sure is a lot more useful.
While I hope Guiraudie’s novel will draw interest from jaded literati and disgruntled laymen alike (plus everyone in between), I’d like to think that it will also give the lie to their moral outrage, perhaps even proffer nourishment for their empathy. We listen to a narrator like Gilles because we want to know what makes him tick, and because we want to understand why someone we find unreliable and immoral can still remind us so much of ourselves. Few readers, I think, will be able to overlook in the lineaments of the narrator’s monologue the reflection of their own bad faith. In this sense, Alain Guiraudie’s Now the Night Begins is just the sort of queer decadence that the Trump era had coming. May it prove appealing, then, to those who deserve to be disturbed by it.
The Cost of Living is filled with the feeling of travel, and yet one of its main preoccupations is home. Levy is clearly not sorry to have sold the house where she lived with her husband. "To strip the wallpaper off the fairy tale of The Family House in which the comfort and happiness of men and children have been the priority," she writes, "is to find behind it an unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted woman." Levy has been that woman for years, trying to "please everyone all the time in a bid for approval, home, children, and love." No wonder that now she wants motion.
“The Secret Habit of Sorrow” is a deeply somber book, but that just serves to make the few moments of triumph all the more affecting — for some of her characters, surviving at all is a kind of victory. There’s not a story in the book that’s less than great; it’s a stunningly beautiful collection by a writer working at the top of her game.
For the last 25 years, in novel after novel, Houellebecq has advanced a similar critique of contemporary sexual mores. And while Houellebecq has always been a polarizing figure — admired for his provocations, disdained for his crudeness — he has turned out to be a writer of unusual prescience. At a time when literature is increasingly marginalized in public life, he offers a striking reminder that novelists can provide insights about society that pundits and experts miss. Houellebecq, whose work is saturated with brutality, resentment and sentimentality, understood what it meant to be an incel long before the term became common.
A rising wall of snow-cloud and Canada geese flee the coming squall. From the sunroom at the back of my house I can track storms rolling in over the harbor. This winter, the impulse to step through that pane of glass hit me hard. There’s a magnetic force to Collingwood’s glinting harbor when it’s under ice. I figured that must be the appeal of ice fishing . . . why anglers are notorious for safeguarding their favorite spots. There was nothing for it but to trudge down to the Spit and enter that secret world.
The last few El Niño-warm Decembers, Nottawasaga Bay remained a stretch of midnight blue open water. This year, there’s a freeze-up. The wind off the bay has ground the pack ice, rounding off its edges to form giant lily-pads. Hank Barris, all-season fisherman from the age of ten, is jabbing at the ice with a four-foot chisel.
The first shot of John McClane in Die Hard is his left hand digging into the armrest as his plane lands at LAX. We can see he’s wearing a wedding band on his ring finger. His seatmate then gives him an unusual piece of advice about surviving air travel: once he settles in, he should take off his socks and shoes and make fists with his toes on the rug. Then he reaches up to the overhead bin, revealing a holstered gun dangling from his midsection.
All of this is mundane stuff. It’s also a prime example of why Die Hard remains the greatest American action movie since it was released 30 years ago this week.
What could have been simply a cutting satire — or thought experiment — about our tech dependence and craving for quick-fix pop psychology becomes something far warmer and funnier.
You’d figure that an area with so many Mexicans, from third-generation dining dynasties to families fresh across the border, would get some love from food critics. Nada. They instead obsess about the Mexican food in Los Angeles or San Antonio, which makes sense. Even New York’s Mexican food gets more foodie love. So does the American South. Austin. Portland.
Even I’ve ignored the Central Valley throughout my career — and I literally wrote the book about Mexican food in the United States. But after spending three days on Highway 99, eating from Bakersfield to Sacramento and back — from taco trucks to high-end restaurants, in rest stops and swap meets, from big cities to towns with barely 3,000 people — I am now a convert. And I’ll say it: Only Los Angeles and Houston — maybe — have better Mexican food scenes than the Central Valley.
In the early morning of Sept. 24, 2015, my friend Nick Louvel was driving north on Route 114 between East Hampton and Wainscott, New York, when deer appeared in the road, causing him to swerve and crash into a tree. This accident was witnessed by a taxi driver, stopped on the other side of the deer, who called 911, and a medical helicopter was dispatched and took Nick, who had suffered blunt-force trauma to his head, neck, and torso, to Stony Brook University Hospital, where doctors attempted to revive him. They were unable to, however, and he died, though I wouldn’t know until about eight hours later, when I received a succession of calls, the last of which was from Nick’s sister Diane.
In the months that followed fiction stopped working for me. I don’t mean to say I expected a novel to be a Xanax or my salvation. But I did of course, and I suspect anyone who has spent a good deal of their life reading and writing does. E.M. Cioran said he quit philosophy when it couldn’t cure his insomnia. I always took this to be a put-on, but here I was in my own version of that circumstance. I don’t just mean that fiction couldn’t take my mind off things. It was more total than that. Nearly every work of literature I picked up then struck me as misbegotten, a waste of human energy.
How do we tell our stories? What form best fits the autobiographical? Poetry and nonfictional prose each offer unique angles and approaches to addressing a past event or personal experience. But for many writers, working in one genre is not sufficient, or else a single genre does not exhaust a writer’s obsession with their subject matter.
“On a day somewhat early in September, the year of the first March on the Pentagon, 1967, the phone rang one morning and Norman Mailer, operating on his own principle of war games and random play, picked it up.” So begins Norman Mailer’s “The Armies of the Night,” and, as I read it almost fifty years after its first appearance, two things seem true and surprising about that sentence and the epoch-marking book it superintends. First, how funny it is, and then how self-aware—not self-aware only in the sense that made the book notorious on its first publication, with Mailer having cast himself in the third person as the protagonist of his own story, but self-aware in a more mischievous sense, with the author well aware of the notoriety that the “egocentric” choice will induce and delighted to risk the consequences. The promotion of author to picaresque hero here is more high-hearted than hubristic. Indeed, the humor and the self-awareness are two sides of the same effect, and central to what is, a half century later, the book’s enduring charm. “The Armies of the Night” is not a journalistic account of a protest so much as a satiric poem of fathers and sons. It tells of how one generation of American radicals confronted and comically misunderstood the next.
Hodgson’s book is a demonstration of how swimming pools are genetically photogenic. Perhaps it’s that a pool somewhat resembles a photograph: a field of glittering action, bordered by white. Or that before digital cameras, to develop a photograph meant to submerge it in a series of three pools—developer, stop bath, fixer. Or that both center around the joys of seeing—light dancing on water, bodies glowing in the sun. Photography might as well have been invented for swimming pools.
While another writer might give us a lengthy tour of this turbulent water, Levy doesn’t slow down. There’s joy in her maneuvering through the rapids, difficult though they may be. And there’s joy for us in watching her.
The EU could be seen not the way Poirier sees it, as Paris-created bulwark, but as sociologist Wolfgang Streeck envisioned it – a deregulation machine exposing its citizens to capitalism gone wild. I would argue that, were Sartre and De Beauvoir alive, they would share Streeck’s view. But let’s not leave Paris without yielding, just a little, to Poirier’s rose-tinted image of its charms. Interviewed for the book, Juliette Greco recalled evenings 60-odd years earlier, strolling with Miles Davis from jazz club to bistro, as their love blossomed. She was white, he black, she had no English, he no French. “I have no idea how we managed,” she laughed. “The miracle of love.” Or the miracle of Paris, which is much the same thing.
Who doesn’t like a pretty idea? Physicists certainly do. In the foundations of physics, it has become accepted practice to prefer hypotheses that are aesthetically pleasing. Physicists believe that their motivations don’t matter because hypotheses, after all, must be tested. But most of their beautiful ideas are hard or impossible to test. And whenever an experiment comes back empty-handed, physicists can amend their theories to accommodate the null results.
This has been going on for about 40 years. In these 40 years, aesthetic arguments have flourished into research programmes – such as supersymmetry, the multiverse and grand unification – that now occupy thousands of scientists. In these 40 years, society spent billions of dollars on experiments that found no evidence to support the beautiful ideas. And in these 40 years, there has not been a major breakthrough in the foundations of physics.
Today, nearly all scientists say that coincidences are just that: coincidences – void of greater meaning. Yet, they’re something we all experience, and with a frequency that is uniform across age, sex, country, job, even education level. Those who believe that they’ve had a ‘meaningful coincidence’ in their lives experience a collision of events so remarkable and unlikely that they chose to ascribe a form of grander meaning to the occurrence, via fate or divinity or existential importance. One of the most commonly experienced ‘meaningful coincidences’ is to think of your friend for the first time in a long while only to have her telephone you that instant. Any self-respecting statistician would say that if you tracked the number of times you thought of any friend, and the number of times you had that friend immediately ring you, you’d find the link to be statistically insignificant. But it is not necessarily irrational to attribute grander significance to this occurrence. To those who believe in meaningful coincidences, statistical insignificance does not undermine an event’s causality or importance. To them, just because something could happen doesn’t mean it wasn’t also fated to happen.
But however serious Vonnegut was being, the idea that semicolons should be avoided has been fully absorbed into popular writing culture. It is an idea pervasive enough that I have had students in my writing classes ask about it: How do I feel about semicolons? They’d heard somewhere (as an aside, the paradoxical mark of any maxim’s influence and reach is anonymity, the loss of the original source) that they shouldn’t use them. To paraphrase the band War, semicolons—and rules about semicolons—what are they good for?
“The Boatbuilder” offers a decidedly gentle, sometimes quietly rewarding window onto the attempted recovery of an American opioid addict. It’s a fictional companion piece of sorts to nonfiction books about self-reliance like Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soulcraft” or Alexander Langlands’s “Craeft,” which argue for the emotional benefits of unplugging and working with your hands. Capturing those interior benefits in fiction is a delicate act, and Gumbiner, the managing editor of The Believer magazine, pins a sense of well-being to the page while other times approaching his themes too explicitly.
It seems clear that the separation of what C. P. Snow in 1959 called “the two cultures” is no longer tenable if our species (and the planet) is to prosper, let alone survive. Humanists have long said that science needs the humanities. Now scientists themselves and the scientific establishment seem to be on board, acknowledging that we need to read and creatively imagine “what if” scenarios lest we wear blinders. A significant indicator of this new mood: the second issue this year of the internationally influential research journal Science featured a cover image, an editorial and a long article devoted to “the lasting legacy of Frankenstein.” An 18-year-old girl’s literary creation is now required reading, as it were, for scientists.
These early food pages weren’t perfect — there was more than a little man-pleasing advice and a distinct lack of cultural and economic diversity, both in the newsrooms and on the pages. Yet the food pages were among the first public, published places women could begin to reframe their role in society, find agency in political conversations, and highlight issues they found important. Those who do remember these early decades of food writing often dismiss it as a forum where housewives shared recipes or shopping tips, but this ignores the major cultural shifts the coverage pushed.
The achievement of this new book is that it never disparages Zeke, who in other hands might come across simply as a mansplainer. His vision is hindered by a blind spot, but in this, Tillman seems to say, he is like us all.
You might have seen the cartoon: two cavemen sitting outside their cave knapping stone tools. One says to the other: ‘Something’s just not right – our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free-range, and yet nobody lives past 30.’
This cartoon reflects a very common view of ancient lifespans, but it is based on a myth. People in the past were not all dead by 30. Ancient documents confirm this. In the 24th century BCE, the Egyptian Vizier Ptahhotep wrote verses about the disintegrations of old age. The ancient Greeks classed old age among the divine curses, and their tombstones attest to survival well past 80 years. Ancient artworks and figurines also depict elderly people: stooped, flabby, wrinkled.
All of this is to say the Tour de France is everyone’s golden ticket. Its automatic invitation is the main reason 18 teams vie for World Tour status. And for the four wild card teams that cross over from Pro Continental events to the big time, it’s a chance to pay all their bills and remain competitive in their smaller arena. The fact that it happens in July means the Tour is where business for the next year is conducted. It’s where all the cycling brands — bicycles, components, clothing, accessories — go to show off their wares and start talking about sponsorship for the next season. It’s where riders and their agents whose contracts are expiring secure their next deal.
Everyone is at the Tour de France — sponsors, potential sponsors, riders, managers, agents, fans, journalists, and more. No other race can say this.
My parents did not like emotional conversations. They did not say I love you. On parents’ visiting day at school, other kids’ parents left them notes that said “We’re proud of you!” My note said, “We hope you will continue to improve this year. Please read books other than the series, The Baby-Sitters Club.” The closest they had come to addressing the issue of emotion were the times they asked me, “Why are you crying?” By which they meant, Stop crying. And so I tried never to cry in front of them. I held my tears through dinner. I cried only alone, in my room, or on the phone with friends. It seemed to me that the heart was a dangerous territory for Chinese and so I kept the two apart. It was in English that said I love you to a boy for the first time, English in which I cursed aloud. In books written in English, the intricacies of feeling and mysteries of human existence were explored. It was in the love of this language that, early on, I found the determination to become a writer.
But sitting there in the classroom as a college freshman, staring at those three-hundred-some words that made up the Eileen Chang short story, everything I knew was torn apart. No story written in English had ever made me feel what this story made me felt. It was the most profound reading experience I’d had with short fiction, and the story had been written in Chinese. It was as though the two worlds I was used to traveling between had suddenly collided.
For those committed to the written word, there is a temptation to see innovation as a threat, to worry that the book will not withstand the bells and whistles of new and augmented texts. Will a burst of music or a celebrity narrator prove the fatal flourish that distracts us forever from the page in front of us?
Better to focus on what we might gain. As someone who frequently interviews authors on stage, I’m aware of the unique insight to a text produced by hearing someone read their own work; I’ve frequently re-interpreted a passage after such an experience. But that has had no impact on whether or not I’ll read a book by a writer I will never hear reading.
A world inhabited only by robots, their billionaire owners and a large and increasingly restive population is the plotline for countless dystopian fantasies, but it’s a reality that appears to be drawing closer. If we continue on the path we’re on, we will need to make fundamental choices about how to support human livelihoods and ensure equal participation in our economy and society. Most basically, we will have to confront the realities of vastly unequal economic and political power. Even if we manage to enact a U.B.I., it will not be nearly enough.
Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize–winning presidential historian who, through his sporadic television appearances, has taken on the role of the sober optimist. He is a man who has studied history in depth and who is able to recognize its echoes in the present day. Whenever a television host tries to make a claim about the “unprecedented” nature of our current politics, Meacham is quick to point out a similar occasion in American history.
Because of this reminding tendency, it should come as no surprise that, for his seventh book, he has attempted to offer a message of hope for the future of the United States. He does this not by presenting an idealistic vision for what that future will look like, but by examining the trends of the past and outlining his idea of a national soul, pulling from a variety of thinkers ranging from Socrates to Thomas Jefferson. Ultimately, the national soul can be understood as the national essence: whatever it is that makes America American. This incorporates positive aspects of the national creed such as equality of opportunity and fair play, but it also includes the dark chapters of our history, such as slavery and the internment of Japanese Americans.
But for the vast majority of our history, humans didn’t understand the number zero. It’s not innate in us. We had to invent it. And we have to keep teaching it to the next generation.
Other animals, like monkeys, have evolved to understand the rudimentary concept of nothing. And scientists just reported that even tiny bee brains can compute zero. But it’s only humans that have seized zero and forged it into a tool.
There are hundreds more, lost in the bush, never missed; drowned, washed into one of our three great oceans; murdered, buried in shallow graves thousands of kilometres from anywhere. Time settles over this brittle, brilliant continent, reclaiming us. Floodwaters drop and dust storms disperse; cotton farms are reclaimed by scrub, and Herefords left to wander beside the rabbits, foxes and other mistakes.
Perhaps the single greatest leap forward for women in the last 50 years has been the way legislation and medical advances have meant – for those of us living in more enlightened parts of the affluent west, at least – that motherhood is no longer almost inevitable but one of many possible courses for a life. This freedom has come with a cost, as the conservative press likes to remind us daily: while women are putting off childbirth in favour of professional success, finding the right partner or merely scrabbling together enough resources to make sure parenthood is not punitive, we will eventually slam up against the immovable deadline of our biology, with all the agony, regret and soul-searching that entails, if we dare to “leave it too late”.
Guardian journalist Emma Brockes and Canadian novelist Sheila Heti both found themselves in their late 30s weighing up the pros and cons of motherhood. Both, it must be noted, approach the issue from a position of considerable privilege, which they recognise: both white, middle-class professionals with no serious fertility problems, they have the luxury of considering the more abstract ethical questions around whether or not to have a child, and the potential ramifications for their own lives and the people who love them. It’s also important to note that these are not books about parenthood. They are specifically about the question of becoming a mother; it is impossible to imagine a man writing the equivalent of either book, not simply because the biological imperative against a ticking clock is less stark, but because fatherhood is not seen – culturally, psychologically, emotionally – to consume and usurp a man’s identity in the same way.
The earliest recipe book devoted entirely to making ice cream was “L’Art de bien faire les glaces d’office,” published in 1768 by a mysterious Monsieur Emy. The illustration on the frontispiece depicts roughly how ice cream was made at the time: By industrious flocks of chubby, naked cherubs with tiny wings, while the Holy Trinity — God and Jesus, languidly reposing in the clouds and flanking a rather startled dove — look down from the heavens.
That wasn’t exactly how it really went, but ice cream in 1768 might as well have been made by angels, so exciting and novel was the experience of eating it and so closely-guarded the process of making it.
“If you knew how to make ices, you had a meal ticket for life, and you would lock the door of your confectionery so nobody knew how you did it,” explained Robin Weir, co-author of “Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati: The Definitive Guide.” “If you knew how to make ice cream, you were absolutely laughing — you were set up for life.” Emy’s book underscored just how rarefied the dessert was in his day. Ice cream was something that only the very wealthiest people could afford. It required specialized knowledge and equipment, ice and sugar. Unsurprisingly, a pint of ice cream in the 1760s easily cost about as much as the average worker made in a week, if not more. But within the space of 100 years, that all changed.
One first weird thing in a very long list of weird things about palms is that they are not really trees. The word “tree” is not a horticultural term—it’s sort of like “vegetable,” in that you can kind of call anything a vegetable—but palms are not at all like the other plants commonly referred to as trees. They don’t have wood, for one thing; the interior of a palm is made up of basically thousands of fibrous straws, which gives them the tensile strength to bend with hard tropical windstorms without snapping. They are monocots, which is a category of plant in which the seed contains only one embryonic leaf; as monocots, they have more in common with grasses like corn and bamboo than they do with an oak or pine tree.
Southern California might not have been rich with trees, but it was rich with money and rich with sunshine. Once the railroads came to Los Angeles, in the 1880s, speculators realized this huge empty sunny place would be a great opportunity to sell land. But how to get people to move way out to the desert? One way was incredibly cheap train tickets; the railroads sold tickets from the Midwest for as little as one dollar. But, as with California ever since, the place had to be marketed.
Romance publishers say that they want to publish books with more diverse characters and settings, but argue that it’s a challenge in part because the majority of submissions still come from white authors. The genre’s largest organization, the Romance Writers of America, which has around 10,000 members, recently conducted a survey and found that nearly 86 percent of its members are white. The group has also faced growing scrutiny over its Rita Award, which has never gone to an African-American writer in the 36-year history of the prize. Black authors have accounted for less than 1 percent of finalists.
“It was eye-opening,” Dee Davis, R.W.A.’s president, said of the survey results. “We have a lot of work to do.”
You remember them if you grew up in the '80s or '90s, leering at you from drugstore racks: A morbid parade of covers featuring skeletons graduating from college, or playing piano, or dressed as surgeons and cradling babies; covers of teenagers brooding in attics and creepy kids, all with peek-a-boo die-cut covers opening up to reveal gorgeous art of menacing grandmothers and chortling, flame-shrouded demons, their titles embossed in gold foil: The Seeing, The Searing, The Sharing, The Spawning, The Suiting.
Welcome to the lost world of paperback horror.
What Diaz pulls off here is that rare feat of drawing on literary and filmic traditions, only to conjure something completely fresh and strange. In the Distance is a brutal, sad, tender coming-of-age story, set in a historical past that feels both familiar and at the same time like nothing we’ve ever encountered before.
I come to this defence of writing as an unabashed partisan of text, a diehard literate in an age pivoting to video – I barely watch television, which marks me as a philistine these days. Every week seems to bring fresh news of a dimmer future for writing, whether it’s thanks to AI-curated, voice-operated information interfaces or in the hopes pinned on emojis as a universal writing system. So after reading Scott’s book I was moved to throw some gravel at the thinking that rolls along this track: if writing is the offspring of accounting and keeps the powerful in power, then let’s unshackle ourselves and return to purity.
Who needs writing, anyway? Seen through the filter of a military analogy, writing might be like nuclear weapons (which were developed specifically by the military), or it might be like gunpowder, which was discovered by alchemists searching for life-prolonging substances hundreds of years before its use in weapons. The question is this: is writing the product of the state in every single stage of its evolution, invented de novo by administrative elites? Or is it composed of pre-existing representational practices that expanded to fill the needs of the state and complex society?
Humans love to read meaning into the unexpected and the improbable, even where there is none. As the title of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s best seller has it, we’re fooled by randomness. When Germany fails to make it out of the group stage of the World Cup, the pundits say it turned out to be a weaker team than anybody thought; when Ocasio-Cortez beats Crowley, we say that’s because she ran a powerful grassroots campaign that was largely invisible to the media elite; when Trump is elected president or when Britain votes to leave the EU, that’s because of ... [insert any one of a thousand explanations here].
None of these narratives is wrong, exactly; they just tend to overlook the simple fact that improbable events happen on a regular basis, and that for every improbable event that happens, there are dozens which don’t. In certain artificial contexts, the frequency of improbable events can even be quantified: If you’re playing backgammon or craps, for instance, you know that you’ll get double ones one time in every 36 rolls, on average. If you roll a pair of dice a hundred times and never get double ones, you might not be surprised, but at the same time something fishy is going on.
Leave it to a sneaker historian to note that when Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their famous Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, they stepped up to the podium shoeless, each sprinter carrying a single Puma Suede. (The gesture was meant to symbolize black poverty.) In “Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers,” Nicholas Smith is continually freezing such iconic moments and zooming in on the overlooked footwear.
While Plato and Aristotle were concerned with character-centred virtue ethics, the Aztec approach is perhaps better described as socially-centred virtue ethics. If the Aztecs were right, then ‘Western’ philosophers have been too focused on individuals, too reliant on assessments of character, and too optimistic about the individual’s ability to correct her own vices. Instead, according to the Aztecs, we should look around to our family and friends, as well as our ordinary rituals or routines, if we hope to lead a better, more worthwhile existence.
This distinction bears on an important question: just how bad are good people allowed to be? Must good people be moral saints, or can ordinary folk be good if we have the right kind of support? This matters for fallible creatures, like me, who try to be good but often run into problems. Yet it also matters for questions of inclusivity. If being good requires exceptional traits, such as practical intelligence, then many people would be excluded – such as those with cognitive disabilities. That does not seem right. One of the advantages of the Aztec view, then, is that it avoids this outcome by casting virtue as a cooperative, rather than an individual, endeavour.
In her book Animal Land, about the animals of children's literature, Margaret Blount points out that mice appeal to kids because they are small, furry, and secretive. Kids know what it's like to be small and helpless in a big, big world. Plus, it's fun to imagine that mice must have a whole mirror universe of tiny things in their secret mouse-houses: tiny clothes and tiny walnut beds and, in certain cases, tiny swords and/or motorcycles. And we can assume that mice are brave, because they live so awfully close to big people.
Thought makes swallowing nearly impossible. Once anxiety enters in, the pill becomes the enemy of your body. You can drink glass after glass of water, hoping to conceal the pill in a tidal wash, to no avail. Your tongue becomes a goalkeeper—agile, muscular, vigilant. Whenever the pill is swept toward the goal of the open throat, no matter what your brain urges, your mutinous tongue sweeps it to one side.
That morning, I decided to avoid the struggle altogether. I took the pill in two fingers and thrust it neatly down my throat, beyond the swallowing place. It was in.
At once, I knew how bad it was.
The book is also then—in the way that all great art contains its opposite—a testimony on the importance of human community and ritual. Simone Weil, in a famous essay titled “The Iliad or the Poem of Force,” wrote that violence is the poem’s central character, but that “Justice and love … bathe the work in their light without ever becoming noticeable themselves, except as a kind of accent.” The destruction, in other words, only underlines the importance of what is being lost. And those slow parts where Homer enumerates the Greeks’ ships, what they cost and who sent them, or names the dead and how they died, become not so slow when you realize that in the book’s logic it matters—every death, every person. A central lesson of the Iliad is the terrifying fragility of the things that bring us together, and the importance of safeguarding them.
Imagine you're at a busy airport, somewhere in Europe or the US. You're meeting your wife (let's call her Layla) after work and flying off for a mini-break. She's running late, so you sit down in a coffee shop to wait. Soon you're lost in thought, so you don't see your beloved waving from across the terminal. How can she get your attention? Shouting your name would work. But if she does that, bystanders will panic. Security will circle. Your law-abiding missus could be taken to a stark side-room and interrogated for hours.
What's the problem?
Your wife is a practising Muslim, and your name is Jihad.
The book is also a sad and tender survey of silences within a marriage, as well as within a friendship. Silences within analysis, meanwhile, are more comically handled: Thompson is very funny on the self-deceptions and revelations of a discipline that, Arthur fears, “was only pretending to exist”. Silence was one of Beckett’s great subjects, of course; yet again Thompson connects with his grandfather’s difficult friend in a way that is fertile and endlessly thought-provoking.
The philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum wants Americans to get in touch with their feelings; not in a fit of self-indulgence but as a righteous act of civic duty. In “The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis,” she writes against a (mostly male) tradition of philosophical and political thinking that minimizes emotions as merely a source of irrationality and embarrassment.
People tend to use the word “washed” as a pejorative, or as a mild, self-deprecating admission of defeat. But I'm not so sure. In fact, I'm beginning to suspect the word describes something far more ecstatic. Recently I turned 36, but I'd say I've been washed for some time now. Two years ago, I got married—itself a pretty washed thing to do—and my wife and I moved from New York City to Los Angeles. It's been a blur of home cooking and “getting into red wine,” crossword puzzles and daily exercise, Tom Petty and the Beatles on the Sirius XM satellite radio ever since. Going to bed at 10 P.M. I've even started to play golf.
There's no defending this last activity (or maybe any of these activities) from an aesthetic standpoint. No one looks cool doing it or sounds cool talking about it; it represents a half-dozen things I was raised to despise. But it has quieted my demons in some real and undeniable way. I go to sleep thinking about golf shots instead of my failures as a man and a husband and a writer.
He was looking for a chemical mixture—a potion or tonic perhaps—that would give him eternal youth. Instead, when it caught fire, the ninth-century Chinese alchemist discovered gunpowder. From there, our global obsession with fireworks was sparked. From then on, fireworks were used in celebrations to bring happiness and luck, and also to ward off evil spirits.
Almost a thousand years later, upon signing the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote to his wife that the day “ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” The first anniversary of Independence Day, in 1777, was indeed full of pomp and parade and illuminations. The fireworks were slightly more subdued than the ones that are used today, since colored fireworks, mixed with strontium or barium, would only be discovered in Italy fifty years later. For the first American Independence Day, orange would have to do.
It turns out that a means to linguistically unite the Indonesian nation has instead, due to the language’s simplicity and rigidity, created a new barrier that prevents communication on a deeper level – one that Indonesians circumvent by employing their own particularised speech, tailored to their specific regions, generations or social classes.
"The best thing I ever did, was not swim back to the boat," Levy writes. "But where was I to go?" She doesn't have any clearer answer to that question by the end of this memoir than she did at the beginning. Oddly, Levy's stubborn uncertainty should reassure her readers that they're not alone in their own confusions; that there are, in fact, a lot of other bemused swimmers out there, not drowning but waving.
What a fine ear Markovits has for the way people talk. His dialogue put me in mind of David Mamet’s remark that modern US drama is mainly about people not talking to each other. One by one, the Essingers come under fire, but they counter with deft defensive tactics. They change the subject, alter the pace and send the conversation spinning off at awkward angles. Each exchange is a prolonged, expert rally, with the book as the ball, bearing the imprint of each family member in turn.
There was an unearthly quality to the atmosphere inside the Frieze New York art fair, like the air in a plane—still but pressurized, with an unsettling hum—when the fiction writer Ottessa Moshfegh visited to speak about her work one afternoon in May. “I hate this fair already,” she said when she walked in, handing her ticket to a very tall, very pale man dressed entirely in black lace. Almost immediately, she was lost in the labyrinth of works for sale: Takashi Murakami’s lurid blond plastic milkmaids with long legs and erect nipples; the words “any messages?” spelled out in neon tubing. It was like an enactment of the world inhabited by the protagonist of Moshfegh’s forthcoming novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” who works at a gallery in Chelsea, amid objects like a quarter-million-dollar “pair of toy monkeys made using human pubic hair,” with camera penises poking out from their fur. “Did I do this?” Moshfegh said, only half kidding. She sometimes gets the sense that she has the power to conjure reality through her writing.
Though the details of Moshfegh’s books vary wildly, her work always seems to originate from a place that is not quite earth, where people breathe some other kind of air. Her novella “McGlue” is narrated by a drunken nineteenth-century sailor, with a cracked head, who isn’t sure if he has murdered a man he loves. “Eileen” is the story of a glum prison secretary, in the mid-nineteen-sixties, who is disgusted by her gin-sodden father and by her own sexuality (the “small, hard mounds” of her breasts, the “complex and nonsensical folds” of her genitals). Moshfegh’s characters tend to be amoral, frank, bleakly funny, very smart, and perverse in their motivations, in ways that destabilize the reader’s assumptions about what is ugly, what is desirable, what is permissible, and what is real. In her collection of short stories, “Homesick for Another World,” a little girl is convinced that a hole will open up in the earth and take her straight to paradise, if only she murders the right person. These characters share with their creator an intense sense of alienation, which she wrote about in a faux letter to Donald Trump: “Since age five, all of life has been like a farce, an absurd performance of a reality based on meaningless drivel, or a devastating experience of trauma and fatigue, deep with meaning, which has led me into such self-seriousness that I often wonder if I am completely insane. Can you relate at all?”
It’s the final day of this seven-night cruise and I am sitting in my moderately messy balcony stateroom aboard the Celebrity Summit finishing the last bites of a room service cheeseburger, bags as yet unpacked for tomorrow morning’s disembarkation, the vast undulating North Atlantic just over my starboard shoulder.
I am trying to summon up my arguments in support of the mass-market luxury cruise, and against the snarky subgenre of travel writing about mass-market luxury cruises, a snarkiness best exemplified by David Foster Wallace’s classic 1997 essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” piece that is hilarious and insightful and brilliant. And also wrong.
It’s wrong because he tills every square inch of the surreal journalistic soil available to him during his own seven-day Caribbean cruise aboard the now decommissioned Celebrity Zenith (which he redubs the Nadir), but after 98 exhaustive pages of skeet shooting, conga dancing, fruit eating and existential despair falling, he fails to unearth what I believe is the flowering root of the widespread appeal of cruises: their unapologetic, gleaming banality.
Perhaps nowhere else in America did businesses work harder—or show more creativity—in enticing motorists to pull over than along the famous Route 66, stretching from Chicago to the West Coast. Traffic along the highway was often seasonal and sporadic. To survive, businesses that lined the route had to try every means possible to get motorists to stop and spend their money. The most obvious of these tactics were the colossal fiberglass “people attractors”: giant hotdogs, guns, pies, cow heads, ice cream cones, and other items associated with the goods each proprietor was hawking.
Before long, the buildings themselves took on attention-getting shapes. Restaurants morphed into gigantic shoes, sombreros, and UFOs. Diners were served in retired trolley cars, cabooses, and airplanes. Motels assumed the appearance of log cabins, alpine cottages, and, of course, Indian-style teepees. At the Wigwam Village chain’s peak, seven of Frank Redford’s unique roadside inns lined Route 66.
Because the truth is, an apology is rarely a private exchange between two people: When you harm one person, you harm many. When I abandoned my wife, I also abandoned my community of friends, who were furious with me. I hurt others, who heard her story and were scared that their lovers could also leave them in a time of need.
Could this ripple effect work the other direction, too? An intimate relationship can scatter scars. I hope that an intimate apology, made public, can heal them.
Track practice. An hour and a half. A metal picnic table. Cold enough for hats and gloves, hot enough for shorts and flip-flops. Other parents talking about football and summer camps and the new high school.
Tennis practice. Second-story bleachers. Other parents scattered around, looking at phones or their children, who are learning to serve, to rush the net, to move their feet. Every now and then an intake of breath and a ball bounces into this upper deck. I save my document often.
Lunch break. The cafeteria-style section of Wegman’s grocery store, the overpriced pub in the hotel down the street from my office, the burrito place, the burger place, the salad place, the pho place. Me and my laptop and an hour to eat and write, 40 minutes if you count the drive, a chance to move this story along, just get words down, word count, produce content that may eventually be improved enough to be part of a novel. Maybe.
There is a children's book celebrated among literary types that stands quite apart from anything else. I first heard about Duck, Death, And The Tulip at a book event where author Mac Barnett called it out as the pinnacle of what a children's book can be. Unlike other kids' books, it has an endorsement from Meg Rosoff on the cover. There is a certain weight to its heavy stock pages. Written by German author Wolf Elbruch, the story begins the day Duck notices Death is following her. At first she is scared, but Death — who, by the way, is a skeleton in a dress — explains that he has always been there. They play. Death begrudgingly swims in the pond Duck loves, painted a brilliant, opaque turquoise that swallows their bodies, and Duck comes to feel a kind of comfort in Death's company. When he is chilly, she offers to warm him.
Cancer. A scary word, right? One you never imagine might be applied to your life. I knew even before the results came back from the biopsy, that the lump that had mysteriously developed was cancer. But for my doctor to say the words out in the open was a shock. Like stepping from my everyday world that I took for granted into an unknown world, one I would never have chosen to visit.
It's an unusual novel, is what I'm saying. Disconcerting in the strangest of ways. As a spy story, it is right in the sweet spot—moles and traitors, double-agents, lots of acronyms, trenchcoats and a war that needs settling. You can feel the London chill, almost hear the paper peeling off the walls of abandoned safehouses deep in enemy territory. But the addition of the supernatural vaults it into a whole different universe of odd, laying the spy stuff on a narrative armature that almost can't support it. Because when death is no longer the end, where do your stakes come from? And how do you know who wins and who loses?
Each year, about 23,000 inmates like Camper leave prisons in Ohio, and 640,000 are released from prisons across the country. Nearly two-thirds of them can’t find a job within the first year and a majority of them are arrested again within three years. Not getting a job doesn’t hurt just the former inmate, it hits the whole economy. One think tank estimated that the cost of not hiring felons is $87 billion in gross domestic product every year. Governments have tried to address the issue. In 2016, the Obama administration invited corporations to sign a “fair chance” business pledge to help reintegrate felons into civilian life. Major companies such as Total Wine & More promised to hire people with criminal records. Koch Industries and Walmart no longer perform a background check until after an applicant has been offered a job.
Joe DeLoss, a serial entrepreneur in Columbus, viewed former prisoners as business assets, not charity cases. He knew they were potentially loyal employees who would not take an entry-level job for granted. DeLoss aspired to build a company with a double mission: make money using a workforce the rest of the private sector had largely ignored. And he wanted to accomplish this goal using a somewhat unusual product: spicy fried chicken.
Are great chefs also great artists? They could be—if being “great” is taken as read. Food has appeared in art since time immemorial. In 1932, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published The Futurist Cookbook, in which the processes of cooking and eating are connected to avant-garde performance. Judy Chicago’s 1974 installation The Dinner Party set an iconographic table for women’s growing ownership of self in culture. Bronx collective Ghetto Gastro highlights New York’s racial inequalities with dinner installations. Grant Achatz paints dessert on a tablecloth at Alinea. Food intersects with art. But what makes either “great”?
The “great” that Noah Charney describes in his recent TASTE article fits a set of parameters: traits and qualities that chefs and artists can fulfill. His reference points—Aristotle, Giorgio Vasari, Eric Ripert, Ferran Adrià, Thomas Keller, David Gelb—all believe that food can be produced and appraised as an aesthetic object. They are all white. They are all male. They are all part of a Eurocentric tradition. Of the three women quoted—also all white—two, editor Bettina Jacomini and chef Ana Roš, are of the same opinion. The third, chef-owner Cindy Pawlcyn, says, “Food is nourishment to me, not art.”
In these high-stakes times, some may resist a book that delineates a narrow strip of male literary life in pre-Trump America. But the current president’s rise channelled anger at the cash and land grabs of the superrich that Klam brutally skewers, and the novel also deals seriously with the decline of traditional media and the ethics of memoir. Regardless of British qualms about the American takeover of the Man Booker prize, Who Is Rich? feels like another strong transatlantic candidate for 2018.