For those of us who love books, libraries are sacred places. Ask any reader to describe their childhood library — if they were lucky enough to have one — and you’ll likely get a lovingly detailed portrait. (Mine? Down a staircase, smelling deliciously of old paper and rain and acetate book covers and possibility, and featuring a favorite librarian — I never knew her name — who had very long hair and a way of whisking cards through the stamping machine at a speed so breakneck I worried her fingers would get tangled.)
Susan Orlean, known for her literary nonfiction in The New Yorker and in book form (“The Orchid Thief,” “Rin Tin Tin”), grew up visiting the Bertram Woods Branch Library in suburban Cleveland with her mother, and treasured those trips. Over the years of her career as a writer, she occasionally had idle thoughts about writing a book about the life of a library. “It was nothing more than just thinking, wow, libraries are interesting places and I wonder how they work and wouldn’t that be an interesting book,” she said in a recent phone interview.
If the Foundation trilogy still appeals to a wide audience — as well as to corporations hoping to associate themselves with its vision of tomorrow — this has less to do with the plots or characters than with the books’ fictional science of psychohistory, a system for predicting future events even thousands of years from the present. The notion captivated fans like the economist Paul Krugman, who recalled of the mathematician and psychologist portrayed by Asimov as the creator of psychohistory: “I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon.” The books made an equally profound impression on a teenage Newt Gingrich, who later wrote, “For a high school student who loved history, Asimov’s most exhilarating invention was the ‘psychohistorian’ Hari Seldon.”
One stormy night in 1816, while staying at Lord Byron’s villa near Lake Geneva, an 18-year-old woman tossed and turned in the thunder-filled darkness. Her name was Mary Shelley, and she was having a nightmare about a monster made from scraps of humans.
Frankenstein, the novel Shelley would fabricate from her vision, is regarded as a fable of science gone wrong. Yet it is also a rumination about art. Victor Frankenstein, the monster’s creator, is as much sculptor as scientist. Like Pygmalion, the sculptor from Greek myth, he makes a body and it comes to life. And what is this monster but a collage? A full century before the likes of Kurt Schwitters and Georges Braque, Shelley seems to have presaged every modern artistic discipline that sticks together fragments of the world, from collage to photomontage to assemblage art.
With these allusions to vampire folklore already swimming through the bloodstream of Marxist theory, it’s not difficult to imagine a reading of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula or Tod Browning’s 1931 Universal adaptation of Stoker’s tale as a parable of the perils of capitalism. Count Dracula’s bloodlust mirrors that of capitalism, where eros and thanatos commingle. The vampire’s continual need for possession and consumption resembles the ravenous thirst of capital, and the thirst it conjures up in those under its spell. Count Dracula, like a capitalist, grows in strength through his predation—a strength increasing in inverse proportion to his bite-victim’s weakening. Similarly, Marx pointed out, “the capitalist gets rich, not like the miser, in proportion to his personal labor and restricted consumption, but at the same rate as he squeezes out labor-power from others, and compels the worker to renounce all the enjoyments of life.” There is also the self-replication of capitalist consumerism, consuming consumers who must continue the pattern of consumption, and the enslavement through this replication, which is there in Dracula too. “We become as him,” according to Mina Harker’s journal in the novel, “we henceforward become foul things of the night like him—without heart or conscience, preying on the bodies and the souls of those we love best.” For the vampire does not merely drain his bite-victim of his or her blood, the transaction is reciprocal—though not equivocal—with the victim receiving the vampire’s blood in exchange. “My blood now flows through her veins,” the Count gloats to Van Helsing. Through this exchange of blood, the bite-victim also receives the vampire’s curse, becoming a vampire, a bloodsucker, a consumer—Nosferatu.
In 2009, Alexander McQueen sketched a shoe that would forever change footwear, even for those like me who’d never try it on or even see it in person. The shoe was shaped like a crab claw and covered in glittering scales. It had a nine-inch spiked heel and an interior platform, where the wearer would stand on tip-toes, feet curved into the extreme arch of a plastic Barbie doll, or a ballerina in pointe shoes. It was aggressively ugly. McQueen didn’t intend to make these “armadillo shoes” (as they came to be called) available to the masses; they were designed as show pieces. The collection that season was filled with fantastical items, objects that came from a future where “the ice caps would melt … the waters would rise … and life on earth would have to evolve in order to live beneath the sea once more or perish,” McQueen said. “Humanity would go back to the place from whence it came.”
These shoes are ugly, and yet these shoes are beautiful. They captured the attention of Lady Gaga, who was gifted three pairs from her then fiancé, the actor Taylor Kinney (he bought them from Christie’s New York). This was after McQueen’s death and after Gaga had become famous for her grotesque displays, her willingness to contort her body and disturb audiences with extreme costumes and extreme performances. She posted about the shoes on Instagram with the caption “Look monsters, we got a sign of love from the beyond.” McQueen, most people agreed, would have approved.
It is uncanny when a book arrives at a particularly riveting moment, one in which the book’s reflection of current events is dizzying. How would an unsuspecting reader know that Bernice L. McFadden’s latest novel — a tale of modern-day slavery in another hemisphere, depicting the practice of trokosi — would resonate so deeply on our own shores?
Leonard Cohen does not use language to pose, startle or to reinvent. Words are his old comrades, and see him through to the end.
“A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic,” the cosmologist Carl Sagan once said. “It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years.”
As a physical object and a feat of technology, the printed book is hard to improve upon. Apart from minor cosmetic tweaks, the form has barely evolved since the codex first arose as an appealing alternative to scrolls around 2,000 years ago.
So when Julie Strauss-Gabel, the president and publisher of Dutton Books for Young Readers, discovered “dwarsliggers” — tiny, pocket-size, horizontal flipbacks that have become a wildly popular print format in the Netherlands — it felt like a revelation.
Buy hardcover copy of “Infinite Jest” at brick-and-mortar bookstore. Touch paper and feel connected to hundreds of years of printed language. Flash cashier knowing, learned smile. Commend self for protecting bookstores from onslaught of crass digital commercialism.
For 30 years, Charles Band has been the master of a universe. Not the universe. His powers are much more modest. But since 1988, Band has headed the company now known as Full Moon Features. That’s meant overseeing an empire built on killer puppets, possessed playthings, malevolent bongs, a giant psychic head, and other unusual elements while working outside the mainstream — sometimes way outside the mainstream. It’s also meant directing dozens of films and producing hundreds more, sometimes operating out of L.A., other times out of Italy, and still others in Romania, where he became the first American producer to open a production facility in the country after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
It’s also meant working constantly and for many years to diminishing returns—pressing on when the profits dropped and the outlets dried up and the audience seemed to dwindle, convinced that the world needed Demonic Toys: Personal Demons and Puppet Master: Axis of Evil and making sure the films reached everyone who wanted to see them. Band ensured that the universe he created kept expanding, however slowly and however inhibited by the limitations of a modest budget, year after year and movie after movie. John Carpenter, who edited a now-lost early Band movie, once told an interviewer “When the atomic bomb goes off, all that will be left will be cockroaches, and I think the other survivor will be Charlie Band.” He seems to have meant it as a compliment.
Here at the bottom of the world, a place all but free of human settlement, humanity is scrambling one of the ocean’s richest wildernesses. Fossil-fuel burning thousands of miles away is heating up the western peninsula faster than almost anywhere else. (Only the Arctic compares.) The warming is yanking apart the gears of a complex ecological machine, changing what animals eat, where they rest, how they raise their young, even how they interact. At the same time, the shrimplike krill upon which almost all animals here depend for food are being swept up by trawlers from distant nations. They’re being processed into dietary supplements and pharmaceuticals, and fed to salmon in Norwegian fjords and to tropical fish in aquariums.
So much here is changing so fast that scientists can’t predict where it’s all headed. “Something dramatic is under way,” says Heather Lynch, a penguin biologist at Stony Brook University. “It should bother us that we don’t really know what’s going on.”
If you were to build your own time capsule, what would you want people—or alien beings—a million years from now to know about us? That we were loving, or warmongering, or dopes strung out on memes and viral videos? That we flew to the moon and made great art, ate Cinnabons (that we measured at 880 astonishing calories), and committed atrocities? How could you begin to represent these times, as lived by nearly 8 billion people? And what would give you, of all people, the right to tell the story?
After these questions would come another wave of more logistical ones. Assuming the capsule was found, how would it be translated into the language of the future, whatever that language might be? And what materials could be employed that might last that long? And how could you lead a future race of beings to the capsule itself, assuming our planet might be buried under ice or oceans of red sand by then?
It's this very vision of an earth one million years from now that changed Martin Kunze's life forever. About ten years ago, he read a book called The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, a thought experiment in how quickly things on our planet will deteriorate once humans have been eradicated. Weisman imagines New York City's Lexington Avenue as a sudden river, unmanaged petrochemical plants spewing toxins like Roman candles, then with the passage of real time, neighborhoods becoming overgrown wildlands and houses moldering beam by beam until eventually there's nothing but the incoherent ruin of us left behind: the flooded Chunnel, the slow erosion of Mount Rushmore, all of our horrific plastic nurdles swimming the seas. Most importantly, the book points out that ceramics, which are not unlike fossils, stand the greatest chance of living on as they already have from previous ancient civilizations.
Between February 18, 1960, and February 4, 1963, a week before Sylvia Plath committed suicide, at the age of thirty, she sent a series of candid letters to her close friend and former psychiatrist, Ruth Beuscher. What has happened to these documents in the intervening years is a case study in Plath’s legacy. In the nineteen-seventies, fourteen letters, which cover in detail Plath’s estrangement from her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes, were passed from Beuscher to Harriet Rosenstein, a feminist scholar who was working on a biography of Plath. Stymied by the Plath estate, Rosenstein never published the book, and the letters, unknown to the public, remained in her files. In 2017, they were put up for sale by an American book dealer. Images of the letters, with passages clearly legible, were posted online; as rumors about their contents spread, Smith College, Plath’s alma mater and home to a collection of her papers, filed a lawsuit. The case was settled, the letters went to Smith, and Frieda Hughes, Plath’s daughter and literary executor, who had only recently learned of their existence, reviewed them for possible publication.
Plath used letters, often brilliantly, to master appearances. “I am the girl that Things Happen To,” she wrote to her mother, when she was twenty. “I have spent the morning writing a flurry of letters: all sorts, all sizes: contrite, gay, loving, consolatory.” The fact that she could toggle among these conflicting moods, then boast about it, all in a single morning, suggests how important letters were to her sense of herself as adaptable and presentable, whatever the occasion. The hundreds of missives that she sent home to her mother, almost invariably peppy, beginning when she was a seven-year-old away at her grandparents’ house and ending just a week before her death, are the most continuous thread running through “The Letters of Sylvia Plath” (Harper), which has been published in two volumes: the first in 2017, the second this November. But the Beuscher letters, included in the new volume, are different; they are among the most revealing pieces of prose that Plath ever wrote, in any genre. In them, she alleges that Hughes “beat me up physically” a couple of days before a miscarriage, “seems to want to kill me,” and “told me openly he wished me dead.” In a foreword to this volume, Frieda, who was not yet three when Plath killed herself, maintains, “My father was not the wife-beater that some would wish to imagine he was”.
But Ellis writes with insight and acuity in the present tense, just as he always has in the past tense, and in “American Dialogue” he draws connections between our history and our present reality with an authority that few other authors can muster. It may cost him some of his readership on the right, but Ellis, clearly, has reached the limit of his tolerance for the mythical, indeed farcical, notion that the anti-Federalists won the argument in the late 18th century, or that the founders, to a man, stood for small and weak government, unrestrained market capitalism, unfettered gun ownership and the unlimited infusion of money into the political sphere. There is a healthy argument to be had about the legacy of the founders, but as this book makes clear, it has to start with the facts.
Berlin (1936-2004) was a writer of tender, chaotic and careworn short stories. Her work can remind you of Raymond Carver’s or Grace Paley’s or Denis Johnson’s; her stories mine a blue-collar vein even when she’s writing about men who went to Harvard and drive Porsches. With their bed-head and heartsickness, her characters can also seem to have fallen out of Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis” album.
In the years since bodice-rippers first rose to prominence within the genre and the marketplace, romance writers have been grappling with the questions raised by these sorts of assumptions about their work. Clinton’s reductive framing was rebutted in the Post by Lisa Kleypas, an author of historical romance and contemporary fiction. “The romance genre has undergone remarkable changes in the past 30 years,” Kleypas wrote. “Romance readers give a variety of reasons for why they love the genre: It’s empowering, it’s an escape, it explores the complexities of relationships in ways that cause them to reflect deeply on their own lives.”
The author’s sentiments echoed those that the prolific novelist Lindsay McKenna shared with Publisher’s Weekly in November 2017. “One of the things I teach in my books is how men should treat women, because most people don’t have a fucking clue,” McKenna said. “Back in the 1980s it was about a man being dominant and a woman was second best, and calling it love. That’s not love, I’m sorry. That sucks.” These kinds of books have not entirely faded into obscurity; popular titles from the ’70s and ’80s are still circulated heavily online and in stores. But broadly speaking, the genre’s tide is shifting to account for lessons learned in the interceding decades.
To understand the literary Gothic – to even begin to account for its curious appeal, and its simultaneous qualities of seduction and repulsion – it is necessary to undertake a little time travel. We must go back beyond the builders putting the capstone on Pugin’s Palace of Westminster, and on past the last lick of paint on the iced cake of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House; back again another six hundred years past the rap of the stone-mason’s hammer on the cathedral at Reims, in order to finally alight on a promontory above the city of Rome in 410AD. The city is on fire. There are bodies in the streets and barbarians at the gates. Pope Innocent I, hedging his bets, has consented to a little pagan worship that is being undertaken in private. Over in Bethlehem, St Jerome hears that Rome has fallen. ‘The city which had taken the whole world’, he writes, ‘was itself taken.’ The old order – of decency and lawfulness meted out with repressive colonial cruelty – has gone. The Goths have taken the Forum.
Ireland is a proudly haunted island, its landscape defined by ancient cairns and standing stones, by ruined abbeys, castles and cottages.
The spectral comes in many famous forms: the ladies — the White Lady of Kinsale (who threw herself off the walls of Charles Fort after her husband was shot); the Waiting Lady of Ardgillan Castle (on vigil for her drowned husband); the Faceless Lady of Belvelly Castle (survived a siege but went insane upon discovering she was no longer beautiful); the incarcerated (Cork District Lunatic Asylum, the Wicklow Jail); and the casualties of war (the Jacobites of the Battle of Aughrim and King James ll who is said to haunt Athcarne Castle where he stayed before being defeated in the Battle of the Boyne ).
So if you are looking, there are plenty of ghosts to be found in Ireland.
Or you can do what we did and just bring them with you.
I didn’t change my last name in some symbolic act of patricide; it never felt that radical. I’d been estranged from my father and his family for most of my adult life. Throughout my childhood he appeared like the occasional summer storm cloud in an otherwise blue sky — the kind that quickly accumulates in hot weather, brings momentary relief from the sun, and then, with the most incremental atmospheric change, explodes with lightning and crushing torrents of rain. If the idea behind a surname is to serve as a marker of the people you come from, the tribe you belong to, then mine should have always reflected my mother. Simple.
Davies is a wonderfully alert and nimble guide and his absorbing and edgy book will help us feel our way to a better future. After all, it is only through understanding our anxiety and acknowledging our pain that a different world can be made. Psychotherapists call this “the work” and Davies is doing some of the heavy lifting and probing for us.
Like the news, cookbooks often put me in a sour mood. After confronting one too many recipes in a row that call for carrot peeling, garlic mincing, or artichoke turning, I start to grumble: Why aren’t there more cookbooks written for people like me?
As even casual readers of my work probably understand, the reason is probably that there aren’t many people like me—eager home cooks who are flush with ambition, hampered by the usual time constraints, and in possession of only one fully operational arm. My lopsided brethren and I—the congenitally malformed, veterans of war, gangrene survivors, pirates, et al—constitute something of a niche readership whose numbers fall somewhere in between those of avid at-home canard à la presse practitioners and amateur miso makers. You might be surprised, then, to learn of a small and not-growing genre of cookbooks that ostensibly appeal to those lacking in limb.
Two years ago, faced with the rising cost of living in the greater Boston area, my family decided to put our lots in together and buy a property that could accommodate my middle sister, Kerri; my mother; and my oldest sister, Kirsten, her husband and their two children. I live in New York, but I was a part of this too, if only because of that fantasy of every kid who has grown up poor — that I would know I was successful when I could buy my mother a house.
I couldn’t, alone, afford to buy a house for her. We all bought this house together. If you live close to any major city in the United States and are not part of a family with the wealth and means to secure stable housing, chances are you’ve experienced this kind of displacement in the past decade — the kind that means that the place you know as your home does not belong to you. I have a friend from rural Tennessee who has seen even his family graveyard swept up by developers hoping to “revitalize” the holler.
So when I tell you that Rosewater is a science fiction mystery that is simultaneously about an alien invasion and a man trying to avoid being murdered, I do so knowing that each of those elements may conjure familiar generic conventions. If you add them up, you’ll have a relatively good sense of what reading Thompson’s first novel in the Wormwood Trilogy is like. But at a certain point in the book, you may find yourself dramatically reassessing those assumptions while spinning backward and cringing with horror-tinged delight. I urge you to throw your hands up and enjoy the ride.
It took me until the end of the book to realize this wasn't a fantasy novel, but a work of historical fiction telling the origin story of Madame Tussaud. It took me that long because the book's affect, its style, its concerns, its sadness and loneliness and empathy, were so thoroughly those of Carey's fantasy series that I was left thinking helplessly about how inadequate are our conversations about genre.
One of the pleasures of historical fiction is the way it allows us to re-examine the events of our own time from a longer perspective, though writers and readers must always be aware of regarding the past through the lens of our own values. Historical crime has to walk an especially fine line in this regard, since crime fiction is concerned with matters of justice, law and social order, concepts that have changed significantly over the centuries. CJ Sansom’s terrific Shardlake series, which has so far spanned more than a decade of turbulent Tudor history, has always achieved this balance with great skill, principally through the character of Matthew Shardlake, the hunchbacked lawyer detective who finds himself reluctantly embroiled in political intrigue and murder.
Books have been used by many, consciously or not, as a form of therapeutic relief. I plunged into them as desperately as I usually seek my morning coffee. Each Christmas, I have a habit of returning to old favourites that complement the mood, such as Jane Eyre. Sometimes, to seek refuge from the bitter cold, I run back to the heat that I am used to, so will read a lot of books set in Africa. Whenever the cold becomes too much to bear, I reach for Titsi Dandaremga’s Nervous Conditions. One character in the book, Nyasha, embodies the mental disparity of girls who have grown up balancing cultures, the archetypal diasporic woman caught between her cultural customs and western ideals.
Before his death, Chad filed a claim for federal benefits, joining more than 1,400 people who said they became sick from radiation exposure for work done within the last 20 years at the lab, according to data obtained by the Santa Fe New Mexican under the Freedom of Information Act. An additional 335 dead workers also had claims filed on their behalf.
Angela would later discover that Chad’s personnel file contained little mention of the radiation exposures and no record of the safety scares her husband had told her about over the years.
Now, in the church, she listened to the country music playing softly and to the minister in prayer. After his treatments, Chad would laugh and tell his friends, “I get more radiation sitting in my office at Los Alamos.” Even when he was suffering and in pain, he would smile and say he was living the dream.
Looking at his closed coffin, Angela wished she could go back 18 years and tell him to find a different job, far from laboratories and nuclear weapons.
When I was a little girl, my parents told me that crying, while not necessarily for the weak, is most definitely for the categorically dramatic. Tears, they informed me, should be private. If you really had to cry, for God’s sake, take it to the bathroom and make sure that when you returned, you didn’t look like a heap of histrionics.
For me, this required mastering geometry and gravity. Geometrically speaking, I would clean my tears with the sharpest triangular point of a neatly folded tissue. The slightest daub of pressure would quickly remove any inkling of human emotion. Because tears, like all else on this damned earth, follow the law of gravitational force, it’s impossible to make them run upward—which meant standing very still, head thrown back as if possessed, unblinking, making sure the tears retreated into my ducts.
So you can imagine my conundrum when, after days of consecutive defeats, I needed to bawl, in the open, on a New York subway train.
Morgan is very good at the mild, pleasurable alienation of unexplained but workable-out vocabulary items: “immies” are VR entertainments; a very powerful gun, of the sort Veil used to wield against troublesome ship mutineers, is a “deck broom”.
Most of all, Tak Veil’s first-person narration is addictive and deceptively highly wrought: it’s casual and coarse, as befits a former mercenary, yet highly imagistic and sensuously attuned. He’s the hero who has seen it all before and didn’t much like it the first time round: in his jaded refrain of “So forth” there is an echo of Kurt Vonnegut’s “So it goes” in Slaughterhouse-Five. Same shit, different planet. By the end, rather unkindly, you hope he gets sucked back into it in a sequel.
Have you ever sat in a math classroom and wondered, “When will I ever use this?” You might have asked yourself this question when you first encountered “imaginary” numbers, and with good reason: What could be less practical than a number described as imaginary?
But imaginary numbers, and the complex numbers they help define, turn out to be incredibly useful. They have a far-reaching impact in physics, engineering, number theory and geometry. And they are the first step into a world of strange number systems, some of which are being proposed as models of the mysterious relationships underlying our physical world. Let’s take a look at how these unfamiliar numbers are rooted in the numbers we know, but at the same time, are unlike anything we have imagined.
Though we all went to the same school, and Harvard’s name likely opened doors for many of us, at the end of the day—or at the end of 30 years since graduation, in this case—what was so fascinating about meeting up with my own richly diverse class during reunion was that no matter our original background, no matter our current income or skin color or struggles or religion or health or career path or family structure, the common threads running through our lives had less to do with Harvard and more with the pressing issues of being human.
Life does this. To everyone. No matter if or where they go to college. At a certain point midway on the timeline of one’s finite existence, the differences between people that stood out in youth take a backseat to similarities, with that mother of all universal themes—a sudden coming to grips with mortality—being the most salient. Not that this is an exhaustive list, but here are 30 simple shared truths I discovered at my 30th reunion of Harvard’s class of 1988.
There’s more than a hint of the “holiday novella” — so popular in the romance genre — to “Elevation,” and I imagine many fans would be satisfied if King settled into a late career of one heavy meal and one amuse bouche every year. While the final pages are reminiscent of one of his son Joe Hill’s best short stories (to mention the title would give away too much), there’s a sweetness that feels like something new for King. It’s heavy out there right now. Here’s something that’s not.
Beneath its spooky exterior The House at Vesper Sands is a paean to the unshowy virtues of determination, diligence and loyalty. It is also a cracking good read. The book ends with an epilogue that could be dismissed as superfluous, except that it plainly lays the ground for a sequel. Regardless of where one ends up filing this novel on the bookshelves, that is excellent news for us all.
How much needs to be said about a writer who has very little left to prove? Across four decades Deborah Eisenberg has steadily enlarged her vision while refining her art. Her writing adds to our collective store of wit, empathy, and intelligence. If you haven’t read her yet, by all means start with Your Duck Is My Duck, and then waste no time in getting your hands on her Collected Stories, the chunky 2010 trade paperback that gathers the rest of her singular body of work.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation ends with a bizarre fever dream in which the narrator’s wildest yearnings materialize—alongside the devastation of 9/11, which she views through the lens of her supposed rejuvenation. It’s an effective demonstration of our protagonist’s vapidity. Watching a woman leap to her death from the Twin Towers, the narrator romanticizes the horror: “There she is,” she rhapsodizes idiotically, “a human being, diving into the unknown, and she is wide awake.” It’s an absurd peek into the narrator’s deranged mind. Yet by giving her narrator’s myopic vision pride of place, Moshfegh extends that myopia and deprives readers of an outside vantage point, without which the irony is extinguished. The result is a novel that’s better at emulating, rather than skewering, its target.
Just inside Shelley Jackson’s Brooklyn brownstone, a pastel-splotched creature several feet tall held out its plastic paws in an attitude of supplication, or welcome. Its huge eyes had a lysergic taint, like those of a feverish child. Jackson, the author of six physical books and three works of hypertext, as well as the progenitor of many hard-to-categorize literary experiments, is a self-declared lover of—and advocate for—the monstrous. Among the other treasures jostling for space inside her living room were a taxidermied two-headed chick, a tchotchke of conjoined twins, an ear trumpet from the eighteen-hundreds, and a ventriloquist’s dummy. “I like things that give me the creeps,” she told me. “That’s really where I start writing anything—when I have a reaction that is uneasy, squeamish in some way.” Jackson had found the giant pastel creature, a kangaroo, on the side of a street. She and I stood and considered it for a moment. “I think she’s a diaper holder,” Jackson said, lifting a grubby-looking plastic apron to reveal a cavity stuffed with plastic bags, which she uses on walks with her three-legged dog, Bailey.
For Jackson, inanimate objects—like the bizarre marsupial—bear the suggestion of sentience and the strange promise of communication. She feels, she told me, as if “they’re kind of trying to tell you something, but, because they can’t fully articulate it, it stays suspended there.” Her new book, “Riddance; or, The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children,” is a ravishing novel charged with the idea of the incommunicable. It’s set in a boarding school for stammerers, where a megalomaniacal headmistress named Sybil Joines trains her pupils to speak with the dead—an act of necromancy that requires, Joines claims, a complete erasure of self. The book takes place in 1919, when a flourishing of spiritualism coincided with the arrival of new communications technology. As Jackson has pointed out before, Thomas Edison believed that he might be able to get the dead on the phone.
The seven-story Don Quijote megastore in the Shibuya district of Tokyo is open 24 hours a day, but it’s hard to say when it’s rush hour, because there’s always a rush. A labyrinth of aisles leads to one soaring, psychedelic display after another presided over by cartoon mascots, including the mascot of Don Quijote itself: an enthusiastic blue penguin named Donpen who points shoppers toward toy sushi kits and face masks soaked with snail excretions and rainbow gel pens and split-toe socks. The candy section is vast, with cookies and cakes printed with Gudetama, Sanrio’s lazy egg character, and shiny packages of dehydrated, caramelized squid. It’s one of the few places where an extensive array of Japan’s many Kit Kat flavors are for sale. Though the chocolate bar is sold in more than 100 countries, including China, Thailand, India, Russia and the United States, it’s one of Japan’s best-selling chocolate brands and has achieved such a distinctive place in the market that several people in Tokyo told me they thought the Kit Kat was a Japanese product.
A Kit Kat is composed of three layers of wafer and two layers of flavored cream filling, enrobed in chocolate to look like a long, skinny ingot. It connects to identical skinny ingots, and you can snap these apart from one another intact, using very little pressure, making practically no crumbs. The Kit Kat is a sweet, cheap, delicately crunchy artifact of the 20th century’s industrial chocolate conglomerate. In the United States, where it has been distributed by Hershey since 1970, it is drugstore candy. In Japan, you might find the Kit Kat at a drugstore, but here the Kit Kat has levels. The Kit Kat has range. It’s found in department stores and luxurious Kit Kat-devoted boutiques that resemble high-end shoe stores, a single ingot to a silky peel-away sheath, stacked in slim boxes and tucked inside ultrasmooth-opening drawers, which a well-dressed, multilingual sales clerk slides open for you as you browse. The Kit Kat, in Japan, pushes at every limit of its form: It is multicolored and multiflavored and sometimes as hard to find as a golden ticket in your foil wrapper. Flavors change constantly, with many appearing as limited-edition runs. They can be esoteric and so carefully tailored for a Japanese audience as to seem untranslatable to a global mass market, but the bars have fans all over the world. Kit Kat fixers buy up boxes and carry them back to devotees in the United States and Europe. All this helps the Kit Kat maintain a singular, cultlike status.
Some months ago—actually, it’s been over a year now—I moved from one part of Manhattan to another. The distance wasn’t tremendous, less than a mile, but the psychological shift was sizable; I was vacating a way station that had passed as a home, for a room of my own. Even though I’d lived in the apartment I was leaving for over twenty years, I’d shared it with a number of friends and too many ideas about what constituted generosity and receptivity. If you had a roof over your head, then it behooved you to share it with others, no matter the financial and spiritual cost—giving might make someone else, anyone else, better. That was my mother’s ethos; she raised me and my five siblings in Brooklyn.
But, in the last years leading up to leaving my first Manhattan apartment, I’d felt crowded in it, or, more accurately, crowded out of it. Even though I ostensibly lived alone surrounded by piles—books, records, photographs, magazines—my body had been afflicted by emotional piles for a long time before I left all that junk behind. You see, everything that I’d learned about hospitality from my mother had caved in on my soul; I could no longer sustain the platonic soup kitchen that I’d been raised to stock and preside over. I could no longer maintain my mother’s lessons of the heart. By the end of my stay in my first New York place, all those bodies that had crossed my threshold had impressed themselves on me. Those former friends were now a part of my body, and I could no longer bear their weight, or the weight of any of it.
We will soon be able to identify the likelihood that a newborn baby – perhaps your baby – will be susceptible to depression, anxiety and schizophrenia throughout his or her life? We will know the probability that our newborns will have difficulty learning to read, become obese and be prone to Alzheimer’s disease in their later years. Good news?
Robert Plomin thinks so. In Blueprint, he argues such insights should make us more tolerant of those who might be overweight or prone to depression; they will enable us to support our children better and plan for our own life’s course. He is equally pleased with the discovery that much of what we think of as nurture – the caring, supporting environments we build for our children – has, on average, no impact on our loved ones’ development. Plomin explains that nurture in the home is as irrelevant as the school environment for influencing whether we become kind or gritty, happy or sad, wealthy or poor, and that this leads to greater equality of opportunity than would have otherwise been the case. The only thing that matters for our personalities and much else is the DNA that we inherit and those chance events of our lives beyond anyone’s control.
“We are all singing from the same hymn sheet,” remarked the pioneer of Translation Studies at the end of our conference; among young translators particularly, there was a “fervor,” a “zealotry,” that was admirable and encouraging.
This desire for unanimity and solidarity is understandable, and no doubt, at a deep level, we do all share a passion for literary translation and a wish that the practice thrive. This is why we invest so much time in learning our languages and working on our writing—so that our translations will be better. It is the logic behind every course that teaches translation: that one can improve. If someone is not happy with the hymn sheet, or with hymn sheets in general, let’s hear them.
The first fiction about Mars arose from speculation about its moons. Although Mars was one of five planets known to the ancients (along with Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn) nothing was known about it except for its fast and often erratic movement about the heavens—the very word “planet” comes from the ancient Greek for wanderer. But no details could be discerned of any of these planets until the invention of the telescope. When Galileo focused his telescope on the planet Jupiter in 1610 he saw four attendant satellites. The first of Saturn’s moons, Titan, was discovered in 1655, with four more over the next 30 years. Astronomers suspected there were further moons to find, many of which, as the natural philosopher William Derham surmised in Astro-Theology (1714), would be too small to see with the strength of the telescopes at the time. Nevertheless, at the time he was writing, it was known that since the Earth had one moon, Jupiter four and Saturn five, it seemed logical that Mars must have at least one and more likely two. So while it seemed remarkable when Jonathan Swift revealed in Gulliver’s Travels in 1726 that the astronomers of Laputa had discovered the two moons of Mars, Swift was only repeating what many already suspected.
Why do we universalize the experience of half the world and obscure, deny and control that of the other? And why is it that when the obscured half speaks up to assert her experience, she is so often met with annihilating rage? “No age can ever have been as stridently sex-conscious as our own,” Woolf wrote, citing as proof the library, which contained thousands of books by men on the topic of women and none by women on the topic of men. “The Suffrage campaign was no doubt to blame. It must have roused in men an extraordinary desire for self-assertion.” And when one is challenged, she concluded, “one retaliates, if one has never been challenged before, rather excessively.”
She knew what the Angel demanded of women — “purity” above all, and a childlike, trusting innocence, of which “experience” was the enemy. But we are experienced now. We speak from experience. Why accept a system that depends on its denial?
Cleansed of its abstract mathematics, the paper is an ode to memory, loss and the oldest of human yearnings, the desire for transcendence. As the doomed figure in Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” sings, “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”
Dr. Hawking was the manifestation of perseverance; stricken by Lou Gehrig’s disease, he managed to conquer the universe from a wheelchair. The fate of matter or information caught in a black hole is one that defined his career, and it has become one of the deepest issues in physics.
Legitimate scientific questions can be asked about specific foods—their nutrient content or digestibility, for example—but most such issues were addressed ages ago. Foods are not drugs. To ask whether one single food has special health benefits defies common sense. We do not eat just one food. We eat many different foods in combinations that differ from day to day; varying our food intake takes care of nutrient needs. But when marketing imperatives are at work, sellers want research to claim that their products are “superfoods,” a nutritionally meaningless term. “Superfoods” is an advertising concept.
Up until about five years ago, I didn’t have much experience being black outside the United States.
What I mean is, with the exception of a few family vacations in the Caribbean and Mexico, I didn’t know what it might feel like to travel while black abroad.
Then I decided to spend the fall semester of my junior year abroad in Florence, Italy.
In her introduction to the second volume of Plath’s collected letters, Frieda Hughes marvels that her mother and her father, the poet Ted Hughes, were able to work and start a family in such tight quarters. The “stifling proximity” is her partial explanation for why the marriage so famously imploded — Hughes went off with another woman and Plath, left to fend for two small children, killed herself.
To write about the House of Hughes is to share that feeling of constriction — of standing in the middle of a cramped flat. There is little room to maneuver, few possible steps to take. Everything seems to have been said in the poems, journals, biographies and snowdrift of scholarship — and now these volumes of letters, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, totaling more than 2,000 pages.
When I first started The Travelling Cat Chronicles — by Hiro Arikawa, translated by Philip Gabriel -- I was admittedly skeptical. I am a cat lover, obsessed with my own kitties as well as the myriad cat memes and wholesome videos that pepper my social media, but I wasn't sure how to react to what seemed, at first, like a schmaltzy novel partially voiced by a proud male stray. But soon I realized what the trouble was — and it wasn't with the book, but with me. My busy, cynical, constantly enraged mind didn't know what to do with a book that was, at its core, joyful. As a book critic, I tend to engage with so-called Serious Books that take on Big Issues. But The Travelling Cat Chronicles is no less valuable for facing issues of friendship, family, loss, and grief with an optimistic and loving outlook. In fact, the book's greatest strength is that it allows its readers to experience vicarious happiness even as a sense of impending loss begins to creep through the pages.
Anyone who has read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House will find a couple of details of its 1959 reception almost too neat to be true. Jackson had been writing novels and stories for nearly two decades before embarking on her tale of Hill House, a mansion set under a hill where visitors can turn up any time they like but find it rather harder to leave. These earlier works were striking, wrote Jackson’s biographer Ruth Franklin a couple of years ago, not only because they were such accomplished contributions to the strain of American gothic that includes Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James, but because they foregrounded women – single women desperate for the social acceptance of marriage, or married women trapped in domestic situations so stifling they were (often malevolent) characters in their own right. Jackson herself was increasingly desperate in her marriage and in the imposed role of homemaker.
The Haunting of Hill House was her first book to earn its advance, and more: Franklin notes that Jackson used the surplus to pay off her mortgage. It was optioned, and then filmed by Robert Wise, who had just finished making West Side Story and would go on to make The Sound of Music; Jackson used that money to remodel her house, buying sheets in such vivid colours that the small Vermont town in which she lived remembered them for years. The book was a finalist for a National book award along with novels by Saul Bellow, John Updike and Philip Roth (who won with Goodbye, Columbus) – writers who became household names synonymous with seriousness, while Jackson’s oeuvre was dismissed as middlebrow thrills, skilfully produced by a housewife who, unhelpfully to herself, sometimes claimed to be an amateur witch. Shortly after The Haunting of Hill House was published, Jackson became so ill with agoraphobia and colitis that she barely made it to the premiere of the film in 1963. “I have written myself into the house,” she said to a friend, and it was true in many more ways than one.
I brought a friend with me the first time I saw Princess Mononoke in an American movie theater. He had no experience with Miyazaki or with Japanese culture or animation, but he was intrigued to see what promised to be a grand adventure story, especially one that was appearing in the United States under the auspices of Disney. In the middle of watching the movie, however, he started nudging me. “Who’s the good guy?” he hissed irritably. “I can’t tell which is the good guy and which is the bad guy!” “That’s the whole point!” I whispered back.
Princess Mononoke inaugurated a new chapter in Miyazakiworld. Ambitious and angry, it expressed the director’s increasingly complex worldview, putting on film the tight intermixture of frustration, brutality, animistic spirituality, and cautious hope that he had honed in his manga Nausicaä. The film offers a mythic scope, unprecedented depictions of violence and environmental collapse, and a powerful vision of the sublime, all within the director’s first-ever attempt at a jidaigeki, or historical film. It also moves further away from the family fare that had made him a treasured household name in Japan.
My first real memory may very well be the opening scene from Star Wars: A New Hope, in which, after the floating text tells us the world is at war, Darth Vader and his stormtroopers seize Princess Leia’s ship. While rebel soldiers line the hallways, stormtroopers blast open the air-locked door and begin firing lasers. A moment later, Vader comes through with his black mask and heavy breath, cape sweeping the ground behind him, and sometime after that we see lightsabers and landspeeders, X-wing and Tie-fighters, the Millennium Falcon and the Death Star, and I’ll say now “ignite” is too weak a word to apply to what that movie did to my imagination.
Suddenly we were all looking at the stars, wondering what went on above our heads. Or we were arguing if lightsabers were real, if we could learn to use the force to move things with our minds or convince our mothers to take us swimming if she said no the first time. I still wonder, occasionally, when I’ve left a light on after climbing into bed, if I couldn’t just turn it off with the wave of a hand.
Imagine working as a server during brunch at a busy restaurant, walking up to a table of six, and being unable to say your name. Putting an order in at the bar, stuttering on half of the drinks, and being laughed at by your coworkers — again. Shuffling through a list of synonyms in your mind all day to avoid words starting with the letter “W” (“water” is out; so is “waiter”). Losing shifts because of the way you talk.
“I remember I was serving a table, a family,” says Avital Masri, a server who’s worked in Gainesville, Florida, and at Hillstone in New York City, “and every time I stuttered the dad would throw something back at me, or mock me, or repeat it to me. He would say, ‘Why are you saying it like that? Is there something wrong with the food?’ At a certain point I was like, ‘No, sir, I stutter, and this is just the way that I talk,’ but he still didn’t let up.”
Bekonscot is the oldest continuously open miniature village in the world. Almost 16 million people have visited since 1929, and about 15,000 call in each month. In an age of Netflix, Fortnite and artificial intelligence, we may regard it as remarkable that such a thing has not only endured, but thrived and even expanded. How can one possibly explain the appeal? Nostalgia, certainly, but there are numerous bigger, shinier miniature worlds that Bekonscot has inspired – what about them? Is there something else at play? Something utopian perhaps, or something darker for our troubled and unstable times?
The American writer Virginia Faulkner (1913-1980) did not care for bores. She had a method, at the table, for dealing with them. “I ask the gentleman on my right, ‘Are you a bed-wetter?’” she wrote, “and when we have exhausted that, I remark to the gentleman on my left, ‘You know, I spit blood this morning.’”
There is nothing like blood to grab the attention, as anyone who has found some in their urine will testify. The estimable British journalist Rose George has now written an entire, very good book about what Goethe called this “amiable juice.” Its title, “Nine Pints,” refers to how much blood the typical human body contains. If you give blood, which she highly recommends you do, you will still have eight, until your body self-replenishes.
In 1960, the literary critic Leslie Fiedler delivered a eulogy for the ghost story in his classic study “Love and Death in the American Novel.” “An obsolescent subgenre,” he declared, with conspicuous relish; a “naïve” little form, as outmoded as its cheap effects, the table-tapping and flickering candlelight. Ghost stories belong to — brace yourself for maximum Fiedlerian venom — “middlebrow craftsmen,” who will peddle them to a rapidly dwindling audience and into an extinction that can’t come soon enough.
Not since Herman Melville’s publishers argued for less whale and more maidens in “Moby-Dick” (“young, perhaps voluptuous,” they dared to dream) has a literary judgment been so impressively off the mark.
I was bundled up in my sleeping bag shivering while the tent rattled loudly in the wind. I had already twisted toilet paper into earplugs and placed every extra article of clothing underneath me. But to no avail. Our campsite was on a glacier 11,000 feet high. We were waiting for midnight to begin our push for the summit.
Disappointment Cleaver, a massive rock buttress protruding out of Rainier’s eastern face like a crooked nose, looked down at our camp condescendingly. Earlier that day, I had watched the hundred climbers who attempted the summit come down. Their heads were bowed in defeat. Some said that the Cleaver was “too steep,” some “too dangerous,” and some, with shell-shocked faces, said: “The wind was blowing us off the mountain.” Half of my group had attempted Rainier a year before, only to turn around at The Cleaver.
At midnight, we put on our windbreakers, helmets, headlamps, and crampons. We began moving up the glacier roped together, unable to see much beyond our next step. Once we got to The Cleaver, I clipped onto fixed ropes to traverse a path no more than two feet wide, with a vertical drop below. I looked down. Even with my lamp turned on to its highest setting, I could see nothing but darkness.
I have carried this memory around with me all my life, but never looked at it very hard. What gave this disappointment its status over other childhood sorrows? Why did they fade to nothing, while this one became a vivid memory? Children are conformists. Was being given petals from the “wrong” flower so afflicting because it set me apart from the other children, making me seem different? Or was there something more to the memory than that? Something primitive, symbolic, essential. Are roses better than peonies? When I recoiled from the peony petals, had I stumbled on some knowledge of the natural world not otherwise available to a child of five?
Today, the Louvre possesses one of the world’s largest collections of frames, with around six thousand in use and another three thousand in storage. This year, all of them are being inventoried for the first time, under the direction of Charlotte Chastel-Rousseau, a curator in the Department of Paintings. She and her team recently put together an exhibition, “Regards sur les Cadres” (“Looking at Frames”), which ends next month. The idea is “to interrogate the complex role of the frame,” Chastel-Rousseau said the other day. “The frame must valorize the painting. With a successful frame, you don’t see the frame. But if a frame is too weak, or not up to the level of the painting, it seems improperly hung.”
Until very recently there was a large foreign-language bookstore in Cambridge, Mass. called Schoenhof’s. Before it closed in 2017 it had been there for over 150 years. When I was in college—before I admitted to myself that I was basically cognitively incapable of learning any actual foreign language—I sometimes shopped there. I don’t remember much about which books I bought at Schoenhof’s, apart from a more or less obligatory undergraduate infatuation with the works of Gerard de Nerval (“Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la Tour abolie…”). But I do remember the bookmark they gave you when you bought something. It had the store logo in the foreground, and in the background, doodled there by some journeyman graphic designer, was a map, presumably intended to evoke the foreign-ness of Schoenhof’s books.
It wasn’t a map of anywhere in particular, and really it was just a fragment of a map, but I still remember some of its topographical details: smooth gray rolling hills, with a crooked little blue river wiggling its way down and out on to some nameless plains. I was weirdly fond of this mysterious cartoon land, and when I was out of sorts over something, a bad grade or some romantic reversal, which was pretty often, I would sometimes think about the Land Behind the Schoenhof’s Logo, and how when I eventually went to live there I wouldn’t have these kinds of problems anymore.
I cannot tell you how affecting I found this: Tóibín’s open-hearted interpretation of the letters almost as much as the notes themselves. Desire goes on and on and on, and never believe anyone who tells you otherwise.
America’s Great Observatories — the Hubble, Chandra, Compton and Spitzer space telescopes — have peered into the unknown and made breakthrough discoveries about newborn stars, dark matter and the age of the universe itself.
But these telescopes, whose era began in 1990, are aging, if not already dead, and there is no budget or political will to replace them. This sobering reality was underscored this month when two were beset by technical problems, including the Hubble Space Telescope, that temporarily halted their science.
Shrinking budgets and delayed projects means astronomers will lose some of their key eyes in the skies before NASA can launch new telescopes. It will make some research impossible.
The remoteness of the trail is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, there are razor-sharp mesas and ghostly valleys, making for unforgettable scenery. But this being rural Colorado, the weather can be unpredictable. Heat makes the trail brutally uncomfortable in summer; the snow and ice make it impassable in winter. As a result, it’s only open for two months a year — May and October.
“These canyons are rough, desolate, harsh,” explained Zebulon Miracle, a geologist who leads dinosaur walks for guests at the Gateway Canyons Resort, an unexpected luxury outpost in the middle of the red rock peaks, 53 miles from Grand Junction.
The lingerie manager in the long-gone Michigan department store where I worked spent as much of her wages on store merchandise as she did on her rent. On the other hand, she could forgo expensive lunches for the 35-cent grilled-cheese sandwiches always available behind the secret swinging door to the employee cafe.
When car plants close, we mourn the loss of factory jobs, and for years afterward, former workers gather in union halls and bars near plants and mills, telling stories of a more prosperous time. When stores close, though, we don’t really think about the department managers, sales clerks, stockers and janitors who created the special retailing world where not just customers but also workers could escape their routine lives and aspire to the promise that shiny new goods offered.
Unsheltered echoes how many of us, of various generations, are feeling these days — cheated out of a future that was never really owed us to begin with and exhausted from attempting to get others to understand how we see the world. But it also makes space for the small moments of comfort and joy that are so often missing in a time when we wield cynicism and irony as shields to protect our softer feelings.
I’m not sure if this is a novel or a series of short stories, articles, blog posts or semi-autobiographical jottings, but whatever the hell it is, it’s funny. It’s a funny book in the same way that, say, Gulliver’s Travels, or Three Men in a Boat, or the collected articles of Fran Lebowitz are funny books. It’s a novelty, an oddity: neither a 19th-century style realist novel nor an avant-garde piece of experimentalism, but a nice little comedy squib, with just enough heft and bite.
You can be an expert on brains and spend 30 years studying mental disorders, and it still will not prepare you for your own madness. Expertise won’t explain why you no longer recognize your house or car, or why you’ve gone for a morning jog with a plastic bag full of purple henna on your head and have no idea where you are, even though this is your own neighborhood, your own streets, and these are the trees and flowers you pass every day.
If anyone should have been able to recognize the changes in her own behavior and connect them to transformations in her brain, it was Barbara Lipska. As a neuroscientist and director of the Human Brain Collection Core at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, Lipska has poked, prodded, examined, sliced, diced, and analyzed countless brains, trying to find the distinctions between sickness and health.
Yet when she lost her own mind in 2015, Lipska didn’t know that things were going awry. Neither did her family of doctors. “We were completely oblivious to it,” she says.
Cotton Mather, third-generation New England Puritan divine, wrote in his 1721 pamphlet India Christiana that “we have now seen the Sun Rising in the West.” Mather’s conceit was allegorical, yet an aspect of poetry’s power is its refusal to let you forget the implications of the literal. In a fascinating bit of ecumenical consilience, an Islamic Hadith agrees with Mather that Judgment Day awaits for when “the sun rises from the West.” Both demand their hypotheticals. A westerly dawn, the blood-skied evening transposed to morning, would be such a strange sight that one wonders if the human mind would even be able to initially comprehend what was seen. An apocalypse of the subtle unexpected.
Mather’s vision inspired my dissertation and would dominate the better part of a decade for me. The western dawn was striking to me, so arresting, that my reasons for that academic work flowed from this origin (even if the process was far from uncomplicated). Justifications for what one studies are always personal, but from that one line I built a personal cottage industry of bringing up Mather in incongruous circumstances, a familiarity with the stodgy, pudgy, wig-bedecked Calvinist I wouldn’t have anticipated.
A dissertation is normally a method of working through some stuff. For me, among other things, I was working through sunsets. Technically I was writing about early modern representations of western migration, but I was really chasing the sun. Dusk feels like weight to me, when apprehension and beauty are comingled, an hour that prefigures death. I would cite Barbara Lewalski on Protestant poetics and Leo Marx on technology and the pastoral; Louise Martz on medieval traces in Renaissance lyrics, and Sacvan Bercovitch on Puritanism, but fundamentally all of that was just filler. I simply wanted a method to approach the dusk.
People on the internet are saying I am the queen of Sweden, because in the legend of King Arthur, he was given a sword by a lady in a lake, and that meant he would become king. I am not a lady – I’m only eight – but it’s true I found a sword in the lake. I wouldn’t mind being queen for a day, but when I grow up I want to be a vet. Or an actor in Paris.
Now, whenever I go swimming in the lake, I will be looking to see what I can find. It feels like that lake might be a little bit magic. On that day I felt a little bit magic, too.
What was America? The question is nearly as old as the republic itself. In 1789, the year George Washington began his first term, the South Carolina doctor and statesman David Ramsay set out to understand the new nation by looking to its short past. America’s histories at the time were local, stories of states or scattered tales of colonial lore; nations were tied together by bloodline, or religion, or ancestral soil. “The Americans knew but little of one another,” Ramsay wrote, delivering an accounting that both presented his contemporaries as a single people, despite their differences, and tossed aside the assumptions of what would be needed to hold them together. “When the war began, the Americans were a mass of husbandmen, merchants, mechanics and fishermen; but the necessities of the country gave a spring to the active powers of the inhabitants, and set them on thinking, speaking and acting in a line far beyond that to which they had been accustomed.” The Constitution had just been ratified at the time of Ramsay’s writing, the first system of national government submitted to its people for approval. “A vast expansion of the human mind speedily followed,” he wrote. It hashed out the nation as a set of principles. America was an idea. America was an argument.
The question has animated American history ever since. “For the last half century,” the historian and essayist Jill Lepore told an interviewer in 2011, academic historians have been trying “to write an integrated history of the United States, a history both black and white, a history that weaves together political history and social history, the history of presidents and the history of slavery.” Over the same period, a generation of Americans have had their imaginations narrowed, on one side by populist myths blind to the evidence of the past, and on the other by academic histories blind to the power of stories. Why, at a time when facts are more accessible than at any other point in human history, have they failed to provide us with a more broadly shared sense of objective truth?
Rock music has always had a kinship with violence, from Jerry Lee Lewis’s flaming piano to the pantomimed gun deaths in Childish Gambino’s recent “This Is America” video. Many a concert has turned bloody, and many a player suffered an untimely death.
The earliest victim might be Johnny Ace (“Pledging My Love”), cut down on Christmas 1954 by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The disturbing yet deeply involving new novel by Jeff Jackson, “Destroy All Monsters,” is dedicated, in part, to Ace, and he’s described as “the ghost that haunts rock and roll” — though he gets more and more company as Jackson’s apocalyptic vision unfolds.
Reading medieval literature, it’s hard not to be impressed with how much the characters get done—as when we read about King Harold doing battle in one of the Sagas of the Icelanders, written in about 1230. The first sentence bristles with purposeful action: “King Harold proclaimed a general levy, and gathered a fleet, summoning his forces far and wide through the land.” By the end of the third paragraph, the king has launched his fleet against a rebel army, fought numerous battles involving “much slaughter in either host,” bound up the wounds of his men, dispensed rewards to the loyal, and “was supreme over all Norway.” What the saga doesn’t tell us is how Harold felt about any of this, whether his drive to conquer was fueled by a tyrannical father’s barely concealed contempt, or whether his legacy ultimately surpassed or fell short of his deepest hopes.
Jump ahead about 770 years in time, to the fiction of David Foster Wallace. In his short story “Forever Overhead,” the 13-year-old protagonist takes 12 pages to walk across the deck of a public swimming pool, wait in line at the high diving board, climb the ladder, and prepare to jump. But over these 12 pages, we are taken into the burgeoning, buzzing mind of a boy just erupting into puberty—our attention is riveted to his newly focused attention on female bodies in swimsuits, we register his awareness that others are watching him as he hesitates on the diving board, we follow his undulating thoughts about whether it’s best to do something scary without thinking about it or whether it’s foolishly dangerous not to think about it.
This world devours every person and moves on. It does not stop moving, even as we pass through the middle of life telling ourselves it is the front end. Before the children arrived, there was not much difference from one year to the next. In some ways, in the adult, professional sphere, there still is not much difference. In a chair, at a computer screen, 47 doesn’t feel that far from 37. A little trouble in the lumbar region, that’s all. Some wiry gray at the temples in the bathroom mirror.
This is the illusion of adult timekeeping, and children make it unsustainable. Life moves along at an unexceptional, unexamined pace and suddenly it’s the first day of school, and then it’s the first day of school again. The jeans I remember just buying him are up above the ankles. The younger boy kisses me back when I kiss him good night, but by last year the older boy started to twist away from holding hands a few yards before the school door, to dart off ahead. Now he just walks to school on his own. There’s time still for him to circle back for a hug at day’s end. Someday, though, a hug will be the last one.
Inspired by the meritocratic ideal, many people these days are committed to a view of how the hierarchies of money and status in our world should be organised. We think that jobs should go not to people who have connections or pedigree, but to those best qualified for them, regardless of their background. Occasionally, we will allow for exceptions – for positive discrimination, say, to help undo the effects of previous discrimination. But such exceptions are provisional: when the bigotries of sex, race, class and caste are gone, the exceptions will cease to be warranted. We have rejected the old class society. In moving toward the meritocratic ideal, we have imagined that we have retired the old encrustations of inherited hierarchies. As Young knew, that is not the real story.
Young hated the term “welfare state” – he said that it smelled of carbolic – but before he turned 30 he had helped create one. As the director of the British Labour party’s research office, he drafted large parts of the manifesto on which the party won the 1945 election. The manifesto, “Let Us Face the Future”, called for “the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain – free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public-spirited, its material resources organised in the service of the British people”. Soon the party, as it promised, raised the school-leaving age to 16, increased adult education, improved public housing, made public secondary school education free, created a national health service and provided social security for all.
The MWI is surely the most polarizing of interpretations. Some physicists consider it almost self-evidently absurd; “Everettians,” meanwhile, are often unshakable in their conviction that this is the most logical, consistent way to think about quantum mechanics. Some of them insist that it is the only plausible interpretation — for the arch-Everettian David Deutsch, it is not in fact an “interpretation” of quantum theory at all, any more than dinosaurs are an “interpretation” of the fossil record. It is simply what quantum mechanics is. “The only astonishing thing is that that’s still controversial,” Deutsch says.
My own view is that the problems with the MWI are overwhelming — not because they show it must be wrong, but because they render it incoherent. It simply cannot be articulated meaningfully.
These were elaborate experiments, with hardware costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and headsets referred to internally as “gator vision,” due to the front sticking out like an alligator’s head. The headsets were so heavy they had to be suspended from the ceiling, and the high-end Silicon Graphics computers used for the software quickly raised the costs.
“At the time it was very expensive to do virtual reality anything,” says former designer Aaron Pulkka. “Since Disney was willing to apply the resources to buy the very best supercomputers to run [VR] and to build, internally, the very best head-mounted display for comfort [...] it seemed like it was a very unique place to actually explore this space that was otherwise not something you could do at home.”
DisneyQuest was about more than just virtual reality, but for many who worked there, it presented an opportunity to work on these projects that felt ahead of their time.
So I did what anybody would do: I walked to the closest cafe, bought an iced coffee, chugged it and filled the empty cup with milk.
This is how much I hate grocery shopping. I will do anything, including pilfer, to avoid the task. As a result, my kitchen is so barren and spotless that you could eat off the floor — if I ever had food to serve on it, that is. Were it not for my roommate, I’d probably unplug my fridge to save the energy.
My devotion to the Golden Arches is wholly American, even in its flaws. For better or worse, McDonald’s is one of the few pieces of culture we did not appropriate from outside our borders. In 1954, a Multimixer salesman named Ray Kroc visited a restaurant owned by Dick and Mac McDonald in San Bernardino, California and saw potential. In truly American fashion, Kroc stole the McDonalds’ name and their idea and expanded on it. Within three years, the McDonald’s Corporation sold its 100 millionth hamburger. The restaurants instantly became an American institution — a monument as important to American culture as the Spanish steps are to the Italians.
The values of Slow Food instruct you to build meals solely on dogma, rather than memory-making. These same values don’t create space for non-binary thinking — that people can truly enjoy a fast-food burger while simultaneously supporting fair labor practices and treatment of animals that may be lacking in a company like McDonald’s. It’s also not the antidote to lack of access to healthy, fresh foods. However, this fast-food empire has perfected what Slow Food has yet to uncover: allowing people the opportunity to enjoy a meal on their own terms, no baptism required.
Too often, though, works in this genre feel like social or psychological projects: their writers needing to either exorcise some childhood indoctrination, reveal or revise some history felt to be fraudulent, or expose some ancient prejudice that continues to infect contemporary minds and society. Jim Crace’s “Quarantine,” which focuses on Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert, is a mesmerizing book. But from the very epigraph, quoting a fictional scientist who says that it is physically impossible to survive for 40 days without sustenance, it’s clear that one door, at least, is closed.
“Children of God,” the first novel by the Norwegian writer Lars Petter Sveen to be translated into English, is the latest addition to this canon. It avoids the most obvious pitfall and is in no way propaganda for any “side.” Turning the last page, a reader will have little sense of what Sveen himself believes with regard to Christianity. Its neutrality seems to me a strength.
This is not a novel about spycraft, the drama of going undercover, or even – despite much allusion to the subject – the moral choices attending the profession of secret agent (we never find out what Tomás’s work actually entails, so it’s impossible to know what moral boundaries he may or may not transgress). Marías is above all interested in negative states: waiting, uncertainty, insignificance, ignorance, deception and self-deception. Throughout the book, he enacts his characters’ various degrees of puzzlement in winding digressions about the mists and vapours that obscure our knowledge of each other and ourselves.
Whether Orion ought to be feet- or head-up in the night sky depends on the hemisphere. When Stan, a 23-year-old student from South Australia, rides his bike through the Rocky Mountains, he marvels that the constellation is upside down. So does Jean, arriving in the Antipodes 16 months later from the States to cycle around Tasmania. In such celestial allusions lies the DNA of Heather Taylor-Johnson’s quirky debut, “Jean Harley Was Here,” a novel about stars and oceans and destiny, but also about bicycles and point of view.
Brief Answers is one of his last projects, completed for him after he died. It draws on half a million or so words stored over the decades in the form of essays, lectures, keynote speeches and – since A Brief History of Time made him a celebrity and his long struggle against illness made him an icon – it addresses some of the questions that, over the decades, so many people had often asked him.
Matt Haig is feeling hopeful. His first ever illustrated story, The Truth Pixie, is published in the UK on Thursday – and he is optimistic it will encourage young children to talk about their anxieties. “It’s a book I want parents to share with their children – a read-aloud bedtime story,” Haig says. “Bedtime is a time when children’s heads are full of fears, and those don’t go away by just ignoring them. They go away by talking about them, externalising them and dealing with them.”
While his books for children are usually full of jokes, Haig’s bestselling non-fiction titles for adults, Reasons to Stay Alive and Notes on a Nervous Planet, both explore his own struggles with mental illness. He says The Truth Pixie is “Reasons to Stay Alive for seven-year-olds – but with trolls and elves and silly jokes thrown in”.
The arrows of time we have observed in nature – due to growing entropy, cosmic expansion and certain physical processes in particle physics – make it extremely unlikely that human events will recur in time. As far as we can see, the Universe is ageing; Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence seems at odds with the world’s fundamental rules. On the other hand, if the Universe is infinite in space, there’s still a chance that planets nearly identical to Earth exist, untold light-years away. If we contemplate an endless cosmos, a spatial repetition of worlds could happen by mere chance. Perhaps on one of them, so far away that we could never hope to observe it, a replica of Blanqui walks free.
The 2014 right-wing fever dream of a film God’s Not Dead, a fantasy version of higher education for young adults raised on the Left Behind series, is a comic masterpiece, at least to me and my fellow college faculty. Kevin Sorbo (of Hercules: the Legendary Journeys fame) stars as a philosophy professor who believes — get this — there is no God. And he insists his students believe the same. He really insists. He insists with a passion that could only exist in the imaginations of people who have never taught, and perhaps never stepped on an actual college campus. In the mind of the American conservative, this is precisely what happens in college: Professors stand before students and scream the correct beliefs at them. When the students don’t reprogram quickly enough, we punish them.
In reality we don’t get paid enough to do the hard work brainwashing would require. Political indoctrination? I can’t even get students to read the syllabus. The American right is so heavily invested in the fantasy of radical leftist professors that no evidence can convince them otherwise. Many of them draw that conclusion without any contact with academia whatsoever. Turning Point USA frontman and diaper enthusiast Charlie Kirk, for example, spends his days spamming Twitter about left-wing bias on campus despite not having attended college.
This is a thoughtful and balanced work — and an aggressive one. He takes on all sides, starting with the French for "clinging to an empire" and underestimating their foe; the U.S. for its arrogance and foolish military strategy; and South Vietnam for its corruption and unwillingness to provide a better government for its people.
And he sharply criticizes the North, as well, comparing Ho Chi Minh and other leaders to Stalin — for their indifference to suffering among their populations and for creating a repressive state. "All those possessed of property or education became marked for exclusion, even death, under the new order," he writes.
Nine pints, give or take. That’s how much blood you have, surging in time to “the old brag”, as Sylvia Plath put it, of your heart. Although for Rose George in the opening scene of this book, it’s eight, since she introduces herself in the act of giving one pint to the NHS Blood and Transplant service. Ten minutes lying back hooked up to a bag, then eat a biscuit and go on your way. “The reality of it, that I am emitting a bodily fluid in public, is contained as much as possible,” she writes, “and not just in clear plastic bags.”
The ordinary act of giving blood is an astonishing one. But then blood is an astonishing and contradictory substance. It’s immensely valuable – although voluntary donation is the gold standard for safety, people worldwide routinely sell the contents of their veins. Yet for centuries, medicine was merrily letting it by the bowlful as a “cure” for every imaginable ailment. This passion for bleeding took lives: if the first bleed wasn’t effective, another was ordered. Bleeding was even recommended as a cure for bleeding.
Time has a way of sanding off the rough edges of historical memory, turning even the most convulsive, contentious lives into opportunities for national triumphalism and self-congratulation. With “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” the historian David W. Blight wants to enrich our understanding of an American in full who, for more than half his life, wasn’t even legally recognized as such. Now that Douglass is enshrined on his pedestal, shorn of what made him “thoroughly and beautifully human,” Blight notes how the “old fugitive slave” has been “adopted by all elements in the political spectrum,” eager to claim him as their own.
The night I broke my back in a ballet rehearsal was not the first time my own body betrayed me, but it was the first time I realized how I had been complicit in its sacrifice. It was a late-night rehearsal for a piece I was in as a college dance major, a misstep, a falling out of sync with my partner. The steps led me to him but the music seemed to lag, so I jumped late, or he caught me late, and we fumbled in the seconds before gravity took over. In a moment that has cleaved my life in two, I felt a snap down low, where my back was often sore, and before I knew what had happened I was on the floor staring at the ceiling, wanting only my mother. The other dancers’ faces appeared, sympathetic, but I was scared by how acute the pain was, and what it would mean about finishing my rehearsal that night.
That night in the hospital a doctor showed me, with the tip of his pen, the tree trunk of my spine, where two vertebrae had compressed and begun to leak fluid, and where my spine had fractured. My entire pelvis had also dislocated, something that had happened before and has happened since, but not with the same suddenness. I saw the doctor size up my frail frame, noting the fine hairs that had begun growing on my shoulders to keep a starving body warm. But I wasn’t ready to have that conversation for another year or two; that night, all I could focus on was whether I would ever dance again.
After knowing all of this, I don’t feel nearly as weird about saying “diggle dog” anymore. It’s a testament to me and my partner’s bond, and a way to strengthen it.
It’s also a little weird, though.
Barbara Kingsolver’s plump new novel, “Unsheltered,” is about writers and academics, past and present, who can’t hammer a nail. They live in old New Jersey houses that are crumbling.
Life pinches them in other ways. This book’s central character, a laid-off journalist named Willa Knox, asks this question: “How could two hardworking people do everything right in life and arrive in their 50s essentially destitute?”
“A Mind Unraveled” is inspirational in the true sense of the word rather than in a gimmicky, self-help sort of way. It is written with great verve and wisdom by someone who has closely and thoughtfully detailed his own plight as well as the journey out of it. I found myself reading it obsessively, the better to discover what happens to Eichenwald as he stumbles from one traumatic misadventure to the next while managing all the while to keep his eye on the larger picture. It is a book to take heart from.
Near the still center of “The Blue Fox,” a sleek little enchantment by the Icelandic writer Sjon, a naturalist pauses to watch the sunrise while puffing, unexpectedly, at a pipe filled with “opium-moistened tobacco.” I can’t speak firsthand to the effects of that particular brand of pick-me-up, but I imagine them as very much like those from inhaling any of the four short novels Sjon has published in English since 2013. For the duration of the dose, the given world stands out with heightened clarity, to senses softly dilated, while at the edges trippy flickerings — like “the oldest tomcat in northern Europe” brushing against the naturalist’s foot — sharpen our attunement to all that might be possible. Reality lends weight to imagination, and imagination gives color to reality. The blueness and the foxness, as it were, are mutually stimulating.
From a distance, “CoDex 1962,” Sjon’s newly translated triple-decker, might look like a simple enlargement of the principle, composed as it is of three short novels: “a love story,” “a crime story” and “a science fiction story.” These works were first published at intervals spanning 22 years, so we can track, as the pages turn, Sjon’s abiding interest in history, science and everydayness, on one hand, and folklore, myth and fabulism on the other. Yet in ways small and large, the formulation of “CoDex 1962” departs from that of “The Blue Fox” and its siblings, and rather than toking gently on opiated tobacco, the reader of the trilogy may feel instead as if she’s ingested the legendary substance that crops up in an epilogue: “A fungus that can spread underground to cover an area of 60 square kilometers … probably the largest individual organism on earth.” In short, this book is psychedelic, it’s potent and it wants to consume the whole world.
The epigraph of Jeff Jackson’s harrowing sophomore novel Destroy All Monsters invokes the ghost of Johnny Ace, the first historical rock martyr, an accidental gun suicide on Christmas Day, 1954. Like any number of musicians who died young, Ace’s early demise imbues his music with a posthumous sense of vitality. Whether through violence or accident or overdose, untimely ends yield relevance . . . except for when they don’t. Which variable is more potent: the music or the story? Tragically, the same might be said of the coverage of violence: does media coverage plant seeds waiting to bloom in concert halls, public squares?
“The Poison Squad” offers a powerful reminder that truth can defeat lies, that government can protect consumers and that an honest public servant can overcome the greed of private interests.
The village idiot of the shtetl of Frampol was offered the job of waiting at the village gates to greet the arrival of the Messiah. “The pay isn’t great,” he was told, “but the work is steady.” The same might be said about the conditions of the bookish life: low pay but steady work. By the bookish life, I mean a life in which the reading of books has a central, even a dominating, place. I recall some years ago a politician whose name is now as lost to me as it is to history who listed reading among his hobbies, along with fly-fishing and jogging. Reading happens to be my hobby, too, along with peristalsis and respiration.
Like the man—the fellow with the name Solomon, writing under the pen name Ecclesiastes—said, “Of the making of many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” So many books are there in the world that no one can get round to even all the best among them, and hence no one can claim to be truly well-read. Some people are merely better-read than others. Nobody has read, or can read, everything, and by everything I include only the good, the beautiful, the important books.
In those pre-digital years, I knew nothing of Maugham’s biography except what I had read in the brief biographical note in the book. I didn’t know he was homosexual, had lost his parents at a young age and in the words of Christopher Hitchens, “was farmed out to mean relatives and cruel, monastic boarding schools. The traditional ration of bullying, beating, and buggery seems to have been unusually effective in his case, leaving him with a frightful lifelong speech impediment and a staunch commitment to homosexuality.”
Now that I’m middle-age, I find myself weary of readers wanting to “identify” with characters or to approach a novel as a vehicle for empathy-expansion. I read for intellectual stimulation, pleasure, the joy of navigating uncharted territory, but almost never for solace. Yet despite my vigilance—and almost against my will—I find myself occasionally ambushed by a sentence or a snippet of dialogue. It’s like turning the corner and glimpsing a beautiful woman—and you are disarmed, achingly vulnerable. The author has slipped off the authorial veil for a moment and I find myself receiving a message outside the premeditations of craft, plot and style—suddenly the author and I are both naked, and alone with one another.
The die-off forced a reckoning among European farmers. Hundreds of studies examined the safety of neonicotinoids, known as neonics, and their links to colony collapse disorder (CCD), in which worker bees abandon the hive, leaving the queen and her recent offspring unprotected, to starve. In 2013, the evidence led to a landmark European commission ruling, imposing a moratorium on clothianidin and two other major neonics – the world’s most popular pesticides. This April, Europe went a step further. The commission extended the ban on the trio of neonics to virtually everywhere outside greenhouses, citing evidence that by harming pollinating insects, neonics interfere with the pollination of crops to the value of €15bn a year. Environmentalists cheered the victory. Regulators beyond Europe plan to follow.
For Haefeker at the beekeepers association, who had spent years campaigning against the use of neonics, victory was sweet, but short-lived: faced with multiple threats from modern farming methods, beekeepers know the insecticide ban alone is not enough to save the honeybee.
In the end, maybe these stories enact the dark impossibility of true understanding. They show us how little we can know, how doomed we are when we seek absolute comprehension. Yes, they are funny and manic and unexpectedly entertaining, but beneath their antics rests a grim view of human congress, a kind of inevitable despair around life among people. However much we puzzle over these stories, Diane Williams knows perfectly well what she’s doing, and that’s perhaps all we can ask of a wholly original literary artist.
Early in The Library Book, Susan Orlean describes the joy of scanning a library’s shelves and discovering the dramatically different subjects that have somehow become neighbors. “On a library bookshelf, thought progresses in a way that is logical but also dumbfounding, mysterious, irresistible,” she writes.
That’s also an excellent description of Orlean’s own thought process as she writes her sprawling works of nonfiction. Her latest, The Library Book, is ostensibly about a fire that destroyed much of Los Angeles’ Central Library in 1986, the same way her bestselling book The Orchid Thief is about a flower poacher. The New Yorker staff writer has found a formula that works: She starts with a singular character or event and then lets her research take her where it will, delivering a series of fascinating anecdotes rather than a cultivated, coherent whole.
Norris, Taylor, and Chee have created stunning characters in each of their stories, anthologized within Everyday People, out now from Atria Books. Either they inhabit other people’s experiences in their mind or incorporate the feelings of others within their own bodies. Either way, queerness becomes a means of living outside one’s own body. These seem to be strategies for getting on, for surviving in a world that fails to account for the full color of everyone’s existence. After all, queerness is depicted in “Mine,” “Boy/Gamin,” and “Last Rites” as something other people know sooner than the very people forced to confront it within themselves, giving others the power to name it and define it, as Norris’ tragedy plays out for the Reverend. But one begins to understand that, if we’re all in some way ordinary, everyday people, we’re united by the fact that we appear broken. What sets us apart is the ability to imagine a light shining through our cracks.
Washington Black is an unconventional and often touching novel about the search for transcendence above categories. As she tries to do for her hero, Wash, Edugyan clearly aims to carry her readers up, up and away.
Novelists are often asked: “How is your novel based on your life?” Unless you’re a writer who openly embraces the blurring of life story with character/plot event—and there are many who do—the question is a fraught one. Ask me what’s autobiographical in my fiction and the answer I want to give is, “No.” Just no. It always feels like a shockingly personal question, like something you wouldn’t ask someone unless you’d known them for years and had once had to care for them during a stomach flu. And even then! But I don’t want to be rude, so in the past I’ve tried to sidestep the question. I’ve tried not to angrysplain the difference between memoir and fiction, and the techniques used to blur the two, none of which I currently adopt even if I admire contemporary writers like Rachel Cusk and Nicole Krauss who do this so well. As a reader and a writer, I have never been interested in the life of the writer behind the work, only in the work itself, whether it integrates autobiography or not. I only care about how it makes me feel when I read it, and then, secondly, how it accomplishes that from a technical perspective.
On a balmy afternoon in July, April Robertson, also known as Lyricina Musa XI, recited poems by Horace in a lecture hall at the University of Kentucky while plucking at strings that once belonged to a harp. No one knows what music sounded like in ancient Rome—there are no surviving records of musical scores—so she came up with the melodies herself. And because some of the cheapest lyres go for at least $395, Robertson—a 37-year-old, single mother who was wearing a shimmery white dress for the occasion—had built the instrument on her own. “The handles are gardening tools; the floating bridge, a door plinth; the metal clasp, a bird cage,” she said.
While ancient Rome has long perished, Robertson and her audience were trying to rebuild some of it—not just by reading Horace but also, curiously, by speaking his language. To them, Latin didn’t die with the Romans; it continued to flourish long after the empire’s demise, and prevails to this day, albeit in a more modern setting.
Around midnight, as most Parisians head to sleep after a long day at work, a parallel universe rouses to life inside a giant food market — slightly larger than the size of Monaco — five miles south of the French capital.
In a refrigerated hall the length of a soccer field, Pascal Dufays wiped a layer of crushed ice off the silvery flank of a Saint-Pierre fish and pointed to its eyes. They were perfectly clear — a sign of freshness.
There are at least ten other families from the Donbass region who have made the same long journey to the abandoned villages close to the exclusion zone.
Like Maryna, most of them came on the recommendation of old friends or neighbours. One woman even says she simply Googled “cheapest place to live in the Ukraine”. The result - near to Chernobyl.
On April 29, 1986, the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles caught fire and burned. Nobody died, though 50 firefighters were injured and more than a million books were damaged. The fire didn’t attract much attention at the time — maybe in part because that same week a nuclear reactor melted down in Chernobyl and sent the stock market crashing. The New York Times didn’t bother to mention it until the day after it had been extinguished, and only then as an aside, on Page A14. But even after arson was suspected, and a suspect identified, the fire never laid any claim to the public’s imagination. It was just one of the many senseless, regrettable things that happened, was briefly noted and then more or less forgotten. Maybe more to the point, nothing in the subsequent 32 years has occurred to heighten the natural interest of the subject. And yet now Susan Orlean — who, back in 1986, like most of the rest of the world, had failed to notice that there had even been a fire inside the Los Angeles Central Library — has written an entire book about it.
She’s done this sort of thing before — most famously with “The Orchid Thief.” Spike Jonze seized upon that one to make a movie (“Adaptation”), which was primarily a satire aimed at Hollywood but also a decent argument that there was no way to turn a Susan Orlean book into a movie unless you tossed the book out and replaced it with a more conventionally thrilling story. To which I now say: If you think “The Orchid Thief” was challenging to adapt, take a crack at “The Library Book.” The most cinematic thing that’s ever occurred inside the Los Angeles Central Library appears to be this one fire, and even the fire wasn’t all that cinematic, as fires go. Afterward, the most compelling related dramas were the various efforts to dry the books. Really, no one should search this material for a movie. But — and here’s both the mystery and the charm of Susan Orlean — it has made for a lovely book.
Scientists and engineers recognize an elusive but profound difference between precision and accuracy. The two qualities often go hand in hand, of course, but precision involves an ideal of meticulousness and consistency, while accuracy implies real-world truth. When a sharpshooter fires at a target, if the bullets strike close together—clustered, rather than spread out—that is precise shooting. But the shots are only accurate if they hit the bull’s eye. A clock is precise when it marks the seconds exactly and unvaryingly but may still be inaccurate if it shows the wrong time. Perversely, we sometimes value precision at the expense of accuracy.
Unlike the incompetent architect of the house in her latest book, Unsheltered, American novelist Barbara Kingsolver has proved herself a supreme craftsperson over the past three decades. She possesses a knack for ingenious metaphors that encapsulate the social questions at the heart of her stories.
Today, books with pop-up illustrations—flaps to be lifted, tabs to be pulled, and wheels to be turned—form a small niche of the book market. Mostly, pop-up books are meant to get young children interested in books and reading. Once that interest is kindled, they are discarded for more sophisticated reading material.
The charm and whimsy of pop-ups might seem far removed from the dry seriousness of technical literature. But during the first three centuries of printing, from about 1450 to 1750, most pop-ups appeared in scientific books. Moveable paper parts were once used to explain the movements of the moon, the five regular geometric solids, the connections between the eye and the brain, and more. Although there are examples in medieval manuscripts, pop-ups became prominent during the age of print, when there was a rising demand for books on scientific subjects.
“It was Sunday the 24th of May, 1863, that my uncle, Professor Lidenbrock came rushing suddenly back to his little house in the old part of Hamburg, No. 19, Königstrasse. Our good Martha could not but think we was very much behind-hand with the dinner for the pot was scarcely beginning to simmer.” And so began the Frenchman, Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Voyage, Journey to the Center of the Earth. The first English version of the story took some liberties in the translation. That version begins, “Looking back at all that has occurred to me since that eventful day, I am scarcely able to believe in the reality of my adventures. They were truly so wonderful that even now I am bewildered when I think of them.” The persona of the narrator changes with this shift from a simple relayer of information to interpreter of it. A note of disbelief is added and an identification with the reader. It’s the word “truly” my eyes rest on, though, when I read this for the first time. “Truly,” implies room for lack of truth, I remember a professor once telling me, suggests that facts here can’t speak for themselves.
The facts of the story are that Verne’s protagonists, Axel—a young German student—and his uncle, Otto Lidenbrock—a professor, scientist and savant—uncover a hidden runic manuscript that falls out of a book. Once decoded, the runic manuscript takes them to journey across the snowy wilderness of Iceland, glaciers all around, to an extinct volcano that the writer of the rune, Arne Saknussemm, assures them will lead to the very center of the earth. “Descend the crater of the Jokul of Snäfell,” the ancient rune reads, “that the shadow of Scartaris softly touches before the Kalends of July, bold traveler, and thou wilt reach the center of the earth, which I have done.” Axel and Lidenbrock and their trusted Icelandic guide, Hans, do descend the crater and, after a series of adventures and misadventures, find themselves at the center of the earth.
For three days and three nights, the rain falls in sheets, in swirls. It falls in gentle showers and falls sideways and is dumped like a bucket all at once. Tornados spin overhead as thunder and lightning rattle the walls and the roof, and families gather in their closets, squeeze together in the bathtub, pull mattresses over their heads.
The bayous fill, and the water runs into the streets; the streets fill, and the water fills the highways and the underpasses. The water swallows cars and trucks and entire families of people. It swallows fathers and mothers and babies. The water turns the highway into an ocean; the white peaks of waves crest and crash against the sides of buildings. People wade out of their houses, through the water, toward one another and dry land. They climb to the second floor, and then the third; they scramble to their roofs and wave white T-shirts or towels toward the rescue they believe will come. Cages like open coffins descend from helicopters, and people climb into them, one at a time or as an inseparable group. A mother clings to her children as they ascend from the water toward safety. She never lets them go.
My husband and I watch the rescues on the news. There aren’t enough helicopters for everyone who needs saving, aren’t enough high-water vehicles, or boats, or flashlights, or meals, or warm beds. We watch the water rising in our own neighborhood, filling the streets up to our ankles, our knees, up to our waists. We are trapped here, on the little island of our address. We occupy ourselves and the children in the ways we can: we eat, we drink, we play board games and curl together in the bed. My husband and I take turns going outside to check the water, watch it rise. When we wake on the fourth day of rain, it is still rising.
In the winter of 1897 a surgeon aboard the first research ship ever to spend a whole winter in Antarctic waters observed a worrying affliction among his crewmates. “The men were incapable of concentration, and unable to continue prolonged thought,” wrote Frederick A Cook of his time aboard the Belgica. “One sailor was forced to the verge of insanity but he recovered with the returning sun.”
Given that the darkness of a polar winter can last up to six months, this was no small problem, as a new book makes clear. Among the heroes in Icy Graves: Exploration and Death in the Antarctic are many who buckled under a strain to which few would – or could – openly admit.
We are all, someone once said, just one phone call from our knees. Sometimes being on our knees indicates supplication. Sometimes it involves desperation. For Toby Hennessy, it means desolation and separation from all he has rightly or wrongly held dear, a fierce comment on contemporary Western culture. This standalone may not be French's best novel so far, but it portends even better ones to come.
If it were only those close readings, “He Held Radical Light” would be a textbook; instead, the real joy is how beautifully it melds intellectual labor with humane fellowship, refusing to forget the flesh that made the words. Even the most transcendent art arrives via the transient vessels known as artists, and Wiman knows how to bring both to life on the page.
Twenty-five years have passed since Kennedy published Eve Was Framed, the groundbreaking precursor to her latest work. And while there has been some change – much of it initiated by Kennedy herself – progress has been halting and deep-seated reform is still urgently needed. “The smell of the gentlemen’s club permeates every crevice of the Inns of Court,” writes Kennedy. And it stinks.
Once, during an on stage discussion of the type literary festivals go in for, I frightened Neil Gaiman by channelling the voice of the Wicked Witch of the West from the film The Wizard of Oz. “And your little dog, too!” I cackled. “No! No! Don’t do that!” cried Neil. He then explained that he had been petrified by this green-tinted witch as an eight-year-old. Behold: a literary influence had been discovered!
The best children’s writers are, somewhere deep in their psyches, still eight years old. They know what is scary. They remember what it was like to have your hand plunged into a Halloween bowl of peeled grapes in a darkened room, having been told they were eyeballs. They relish the delights of being terrified in song and story. They understand the benefits of imaginary horror: yes, this is frightening, but ultimately it can be dealt with, at least in fictional form.
Take a bite of any of these dishes and you’ll discover a unique texture. But how exactly do you describe that perfectly calibrated “mouth feel” so sought after by local cooks and eaters alike?
Slippery? Chewy? Globby? Not exactly the most flattering adjectives in the culinary world.
Luckily, the Taiwanese have a word for this texture. Well, actually, it’s not a word, it’s a letter — one that even non-Chinese speakers can pronounce.
Is the novel perfect? Nope. There’s a genealogical subplot that goes nowhere, and the elder generation of Hennessys are mere shadows. Toby and his cousins are nearing 30, but in the company of their elders — whose contributions are sort of like the conversations of adults in the “Peanuts” cartoons, just trombone wah-wah-wahs — they seem much younger. Saintly Uncle Hugo is an exception, but he’s a bit of a stereotype.
These are mere quibbles, the kind reviewers are paid to make, I suppose. The bottom line is this: “The Witch Elm” is what another novelist, Stewart O’Nan, likes to call “a heapin’ helping.” The prose, as fine as it is, as dense as it is, as obsessive as it is, remains in service to the story. This is good work by a good writer. For the reader, what luck.
Is this a bleak book? Absolutely. But there’s beauty in it, too.
Under the cover of a domestic history, she has ambushed us with a chilling account of a disordered personality. Evelyn, trapped in her trophy house, is every bit as much a casualty of her time and place as her browbeaten husband. Page’s measured, intelligent novel treads nimbly around this bleak terrain.
That these seminal works — all authored by women — emerged during or immediately preceding a wave of feminism isn’t a coincidence. In fact, the pattern seems to point to the ways in which these feminist movements might work alongside these erotic texts. In examining the bonds of patriarchal oppression, including those internalized by women, and playing out fantasies of male domination, these forms of erotica offer a fuller, more nuanced understanding of female identity and sexuality. This is an important step toward empowerment, as well as a way to mediate the anxiety inherent in dismantling traditional gender roles. If we think about erotica in this way, it’s really no wonder that millions of women want to read about, or watch, a woman consensually subjugated by a man for pleasure. All too often, in the real world, male domination just has to be endured.
In fact, it is likely that male domination, as it rightfully becomes less acceptable in the social and political spheres, should become more appealing as a fetish. As Georges Bataille argued in Erotism: Death and Sensuality, eroticism is an essential way for man and woman to confront their own limitations, including their own mortality. Because humans, unlike animals, came to grasp with their own mortality through reason, it is only when we flout reason — when we lose touch with it entirely — that we can come close “to touching the infinite”; that we can ever achieve transcendence. In climax, many of us don’t know our own names — let alone the truth of our own mortality. Any sexual satisfaction has the possibility of offering such euphoria — but, for Bataille, fetishes, or acts that defy sexual taboos, are particularly potent conduits for transcendance since, by definition, they make even less sense than so-called mainstream predilections. In Bataille’s world, we should all give up meditation and pick up a fetish instead. Indeed he asserts, “Eroticism, unlike simple sexual activity, is a psychological quest […] eroticism is assenting to life even in death.”
The last time I attended a midnight book release, a small, blond, evil child grabbed the book everyone was waiting for, flipped to the last page, and shouted, “Snape killed Dumbledore!” At the launch party this past Monday for Haruki Murakami’s new novel (Killing Commendatore at the West Village independent bookstore Three Lives, there were no such spoilers. In fact, judging from a quiz about the first and last lines of Murakami novels, spoilers are not easy to come by in his work. “Until someone came and lightly rested a hand on my shoulder, my thoughts were of the sea,” reads out Ryan Murphy, a bookstore employee. It takes a few guesses before someone gets it right—it’s the final line of South of the Border, West of the Sun* (published in Japan in 1992 and in the US in 1999 in a translation by Philip Gabriel).
Even the Murakami superfans in attendance are stumped by “The blood must have already, in its own silent way, seeped inside” (closing sentence of Sputnik Sweetheart, 1999/2001, also Gabriel) and “All that is left to me is the sound of the snow underfoot” (last line of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1985/1991, Alfred Birnbaum). But they instantly peg “Again and again, I called out for Midori from the dead center of this place that was no place.” That’s the last line of Norwegian Wood (1987/2000, Jay Rubin), one of Murakami’s most realist works and the one that first won him widespread attention. And even regular fans—like the gangly twenty-something who told me modestly, “I’ve only read half of his books, so I’m not as big into him as some people here”—recognize “When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.” It’s the first line of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-1995, 1997, Rubin).
But here’s the question: when I read The Big Sleep for the first time (or subsequently, for that matter), was there much in there that I didn’t understand? And I’m not talking about plot matters such as who killed the chauffeur, or why the cute but borderline-insane murderess isn’t prosecuted, but rather matters of fact and vocabulary.
Did I feel the need to reach for the dictionary and look up “swell” when Marlowe says to Vivian Sternwood, “I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs”? Did I wonder what a jerkin was, or a chiseller, or a bookplate? Was I puzzled by the terms “hot toddy” and “got the wind up”? Did the words parquetry, stucco, or croupier seem unfamiliar? After I’d read that General Sternwood was propped up in “a huge canopied bed like the one Henry the Eighth died in,” did I feel the urge to check the date of Henry VIII’s death?
As for Christel’s particular Walmart note, there are a number of possibilities regarding who wrote and hid it, and its contents are difficult to fact-check. A Chinese prison called Yingshan may exist, or it may not. Forced labor may be practiced there, or it may not. A prisoner in China may have written the note, or maybe a Chinese activist did, or maybe an American activist instead. The note may have been placed in the bag in a prison factory, or somewhere else along the supply chain in China, or perhaps in Arizona.
The only way to make sense of this puzzle — one with actual human stakes that can help explain how what we buy is made — is to try to trace the journey backward, from the moment a note goes viral to its potential place of origin. Which is how I find myself in rural China, outside of a local prison, 7,522 miles away from where Christel first opened her purse.
Nigel Saunders stands in the middle of a jungle. Around him grow ancient-looking trees with gnarled trunks, dense canopies, and lichen-covered branches. One rises out of a rock temple, its roots hugging the crumbling grey stones. But Saunders isn’t looking up at the trees; he’s looking down. Saunders is practising bonsai, the art of cultivating miniature trees in pots. He grabs a spray bottle and goes around his sunroom to give each bonsai a delicate mist of water.
“This is my Ficus microcarpa,” he says, kneeling down to spray one that’s sitting on a wooden table. “Check out its aerial roots.” I squat beside him. The tree, maybe a foot-and-a-half tall, has dark-green leaves the shape of spearheads. Roots dangle from its branches, poised to plant themselves in the moist soil of its oval pot. It was Saunders’s first bonsai, the one that sparked his passion twenty-six years ago. He has been caring for it ever since it was a two-inch sprout that he noticed peeking out from under a poinsettia that his office had received one Christmas. “I thought the tree deserved its own pot,” he says.
I will tell you up front (at the risk of making you close the tab, but honesty and humility are in part the subject matter here): This may be the least sexy movie-star profile you will ever read. Because you know that thing where you meet a movie star and right off you bond over taking your high-school-aged kids on college tours? No, I don’t know that thing, either.
But it’s what happened when I met Steve Carell this past summer. He had spent much of the year with his seventeen-year-old daughter, visiting prospective schools around the country. I recently went through that process with my own two children. So, as is often the case with middle-aged parents in coastal enclaves, we began lamenting the professionalization of the admissions process, the way so many families now hire test-prep tutors and essay coaches and interview consultants, and the awful stress that puts on kids who, being teenagers, already have enough to worry about without having to deal with the drudgery and anxiety of applying to twenty colleges. (No joke: That’s practically a norm in the 2010s.)
It is hard work to write a book, so there is unavoidable irony in fashioning a volume on the value of being idle. There is a paradox, too: to praise idleness is to suggest that there is some point to it, that wasting time is not a waste of time. Paradox infuses the experience of being idle. Rapturous relaxation can be difficult to distinguish from melancholy. When the academic year comes to an end, I find myself sprawled on the couch, re-watching old episodes of British comedy panel shows on a loop. I cannot tell if I am depressed or taking an indulgent break. As Samuel Johnson wrote: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.” As he also wrote: “There are … miseries in idleness, which the Idler only can conceive.”
This year brings three new books in praise of wasting time: a manifesto by MIT professor Alan Lightman; a critical history by philosopher Brian O’Connor; and a memoir by essayist Patricia Hampl. Each author finds a way to write in the spirit of idleness. Yet none of them quite resolves our double vision. Even as they bring its value into focus, they never shake a shadow image of the shame in being idle.
Depictions of the 19th century that combine a nostalgia for the old and a hankering after progress are oddly seductive to agents, publishers and readers. For every working-class woman full of vim and wit, there is typically a counterbalance of dispensable “hoors”, often given less characterisation than the comedy dog or the wily butler.
Upon learning the news that my collection of short stories, The Hidden Light of Objects, was banned in Kuwait, I did not experience the anticipated anger or bitterness. My immediate instinct wasn’t to investigate why my book was banned now, four years after its publication. I didn’t feel compelled to rush out and join the modest public demonstrations taking place against this worrying clampdown on free expression; mine is one of over 3,400 books that appear on a list of books banned by the Ministry of Information over the last five years. I wasn’t inclined to join in the admirable public defense of literature unfolding in local and social media by writers, journalists, and intellectuals. Nor did I consider, even for a moment, contesting the ban in court, as a few brave Kuwaiti authors have done, sometimes with success. What I felt instead upon learning from a Tweet that my book was now officially banned in the country of my birth was an overriding sense of exhaustion.
There are almost too many examples of the power and pervasiveness of mathematical ideas. For instance, this essay was written on a computer. The software of the computer, its mind and spirit, if you will, is a compilation of code that is based on the ideas of Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, and his article ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’ (1948). But perhaps this is both too obvious and too slight an example. The personal computer is hardly an essential part of human existence, even if most of us have structured our lives around it today. Let’s take something more basic and widespread, something most of us probably already apprehend, even if only dimly – like the idea of regression to the mean.
There was an important difference with what was happening across the Atlantic, however. Even in a country like Switzerland in 1960, which had a per-capita income higher than the United States, vehicle ownership per capita was barely a quarter as high as in the U.S. What happened? Unlike their American counterparts, European planners designed new suburbs in ways that made transit use still viable. Many new towns were built around train and metro stations.
Early U.S. suburbs like Levittown, New York, on the other hand, were built along highways and had virtually no transit service at all. They’re almost all still built on the model developed in the 1940s: single-family homes on isolated streets, with stores surrounded by parking lots a decent drive away.
When TR4 hits, the destruction is near-total. “It looks like somebody’s gone to the plantation with a herbicide,” Ploetz says. “There are big areas that no longer have any plants at all.” The fungus, which can live undetected in the soil for decades, enters banana plants through their roots and spreads to the water- and nutrient-conducting tissue within, eventually starving the plant of nourishment. Two to nine months after being infected, the plant – hollowed out from the inside – collapses in on itself. The soil it grew in, now riddled with the fungus, is useless for growing bananas.
As TR4 creeps across the globe towards Latin America, the Cavendish’s genetic uniformity is starting to look like a curse. Ploetz estimates that TR4 has already killed more Cavendish bananas than Gros Michel plants killed by TR1, and, unlike the previous epidemic, there is no TR4-resistant banana ready to replace the Cavendish. And time to find a solution is rapidly running out. “The question is, ‘when is it going to come over here?’,” Ploetz says. “Well, it may already be here.”
Sometimes we’re the first to chart an off-menu course. More often, we’re standing on the shoulders of countless prior negotiators, whose efforts have solidified into that rumored list. Secret menus foster incessant bargaining because they depend on uncertainty. We can never predict the extent of a secret menu, and there’s always some doubt about what will be available to us.
Why does the custom persist? I would argue that keeping the limits of hospitality veiled, no matter how lightly, serves the interests of restaurateurs and diners alike.
All of us have been thinking about this kind of thing for years, here at the Department of Ordinary Magic. We are very, very interested in supernatural phenomena that are entirely natural and that everyone ignores.
Take magnets. If they didn’t really exist, they would surely exist anyhow in the imagination. They are exactly the kind of thing some kid would make up. The magical force is strong, invisible, and it only works under certain circumstances. For example, you cannot use a magnet on wood. Superman can’t see through lead, and magnets don’t work on wood.
The novel ends with an image of continuity: “Kim Jong-un had called Trump a dotard, perhaps they’d all be blown to smithereens. Still, ants at least would proceed, building up their infinite cities, stealing honey from the cupboards.” It’s a somewhat precious image, but captures well the spirit of the book: breathless, despairing, convinced that despite everything we can try to be good to one another and, in a measured way, hopeful.
It’s true about “It’s”: If I have to read another article that begins with “It’s,” it’s unclear what will happen, but it’s not going to be good.
It’s time that I show you some examples of ledes (journospeak for the first paragraph of an article) that begin with “It’s,” which I have quickly cherry-picked from various publications excluding the New Yorker because I am out of free articles.
What do you think of these ledes? Here’s what I think: No. Not even two sentences into these pieces and I am ready to take to my bed for the day. This is the writing of people who have given up on writing. I have definitely written ledes like this, in my youth probably, and for that I carry with me crushing shame that prevents me from writing further.
When I was contacted by Grove Atlantic last year to design a memoir, I was thrilled—I had never worked with them before and I’ve always admired the books they publish. When a follow-up email mentioned that the author, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, had specifically asked for me—she found me through a Google search and said she loved the way I integrated illustrations and fonts—I was shocked and incredibly flattered . . . which quickly led to an overwhelming sense of dread that I would never be able to pull this off, and that all of my previous design work had been the result of divine intervention. Such is the roller coaster of creative work.
A couple weeks ago at an independent wrestling show in New York City, the promoter, Jac Sabboth, arrived with a treasure trove of old magazines. Sabboth also owns a pro wrestling memorabilia store, but even bearing that in mind the selection was startlingly eclectic, from the most popular magazines from the 1970s and ’80s to a number of obscure ones that even I had never heard of. I culled and culled from a gigantic pile during intermission and after the event, negotiated a deal with some help from one of the wrestlers on the show, and finally escaped with approximately 20 magazines for $60. It is worth wondering why someone living in a cramped apartment in a crowded city would buy old periodicals of any kind. I can explain that, sort of. It’s because wrestling magazines are awesome, and different from basically any other type of publication, and because I love them.
Julia let the chefs work, showed the steps and asked the questions any novice would — she didn’t consider herself a chef and, in fact, once put her arm over my shoulder and declared, “We make such a good team because we’re just a pair of home bakers!” She gave herself up to the satisfaction of completing a recipe and to the pleasure of eating it. She cried when she tasted Nancy Silverton’s cream-topped brioche; it reminded her of her beloved France.
Sometime later, while I was writing the book, I made a 15-Minute Magic for Julia. After all the polished sweets we’d shared, after all the complex desserts the professionals had made, I was touched that Julia still liked my easy-enough-for-fluffies cake. When I told her this, she gathered herself in what I’d come to think of as her declarative posture and announced: “All that matters is taste.” She waited a beat and said: “And this tastes very good.”
And yet there may be value in that familiarity, as in a sibling’s embrace. Remembering the fiction she scribbled down as a kid, Chung writes that she “found a measure of previously unknown power” in envisioning “places where someone like me could be happy, accepted, normal.” An author with Chung’s gifts for introspection and pathos may return to these same themes later, and do something bolder with them. For now, her book traces an arc from self-blame and self-doubt to considering oneself, as Chung puts it, “worthy of memory,” and authorized to add to the culture’s family lore.
Red Birds is an incisive, unsparing critique of war and of America’s role in the destruction of the Middle East. It combines modern and ancient farcical traditions in thrilling ways. It is the photo-negative of the many south Asian novels that appear each year, all succumbing to the well-worn trope of melancholy eastern-sounding language paired with western realism. How much more exciting to read a razor-tongued critique of US foreign policy, from a philosopher dog and a street-talking teenage refugee, both of whom sound as though they were born in New Jersey. And, after all the laughs, it ends with an appeal to the heart, made by the women of the novel to whom Hanif finally gives voice. All goes silent during the prayer of a grieving mother who “wants her son back. She wants to go to sleep watching him snore gently. She wants to pile more butter, more sugar, on his bread ... She wants to collect his shirts strewn on the floor and smell them before throwing them on the laundry pile.”
“To steal a book is not a theft,” pleads a drunk, starving scholar in the Chinese writer Lu Xun’s 1919 short story “Kong Yiji.” The sad-sack character, having failed the official state exam, has no means of making a living, so he swipes books and sells them in order to buy wine. His defense hinges on a shift between two distinct words for “steal,” one elevated, one vernacular; accordingly, the phrase is sometimes more aphoristically translated as “to steal a book is an elegant offense,” in which form it has been misapprehended by the West as ancient Confucian wisdom. The original joke is that the difference is entirely semantic: Theft is no longer theft if you use a more beautiful word. But is it a joke? Writing, after all, is about choosing one word over another. “Purloin,” “burgle,” “filch,” “steal”: Pick one and the dominoes fall, affecting every word that follows. Somewhere a butterfly flaps its wings. The story changes.
The first thing I did when I learned that I was going to appear, as a fictional character, in a novel by someone that I barely knew, was to ask my best friend what to do about it. Actually, the first thing I did was to wander around my kitchen in a mild state of shock, trying to get my head around all the possible consequences, rationales, and meta-fictional implications of what was arguably the most fiction-like event of my non-fictional life. I made zero headway with that, so I called Matt at work. He’s a writer himself, and compulsively candid, and the most level-headed person that I know. Nothing fazes or surprises him. He began with the basics.
You might have inferred by now that I am a bit of a travel nerd, someone who knows that Dulles Airport is abbreviated IAD, that one should never use the ladies’ room closest to the gate of your just-arrived plane and that TSA personnel at New Orleans’s Louis Armstrong International Airport excel at finding forgotten corkscrews in carry-ons. During my daughter’s toddler years, I could break down her stroller faster than most travelers can remove their shoes. I sincerely loved the 2004-05 reality show “Airline,” which showcased Southwest staff.
I’m also a grade-grubber and the very name of Southwest’s loyalty program, A List, brings out the worst in me. Obviously.
Volumes of collected stories are often difficult documents. The career of any writer who has been successful enough to warrant one is likely to be long enough that there are a number of duds. They also often come after a writer’s legacy is set, making the publication more of a coronation than anything else. But neither is the case with Diane Williams, whose collected stories were recently published by Soho Press. Williams, the godmother of flash fiction, is widely unrecognized for her talent and influence; the Collected Stories, which features all of her nearly three hundred pieces of fiction, is a call to arms.
In her fifth collection of short stories, “Your Duck Is My Duck,” Deborah Eisenberg speaks in the voice of a despairing god: wry, cool, resonant, capable of three dimensions of irony at once, besotted with the beauty and tragedy of this darkening planet of ours. Every story in the new collection — oh, who am I kidding? every story Deborah Eisenberg has ever written — holds at least one image that can knock you to your knees. The voice of a driver is, to a sleepy passenger, “a harsh silver ribbon glinting in the fleecy dark”; a black and twisting tornado crossing a field is “like a dancer filled with God.” Eisenberg has an attentiveness so radical that her stories often feel to the reader the way that sung lieder in her story “Recalculating” seem to be “of a loveliness so distilled and potent” that a character feels as though he is being poisoned.
But more often, these deftly-rendered stories have careful grace notes amid the everyday energy of a world in which anything can happen, and probably will. They balance chaos and kindness, the natural and the supernatural, the unsettling and the inspiring; Once and Forever is a fascinating collection from a compelling writer, and will be right at home in any library of short stories or modern folklore.
A new book explores the nightcap’s many possibilities and asserts only a single rule: Keep it to one drink.
Yan is routinely referred to as China’s most controversial novelist, thanks to his scandalous satires about the brutalities of its Communist past and the moral nullity of its market-driven transformation. In “Serve the People!” (2005), set during the Cultural Revolution, a commander’s wife and her young lover become aroused smashing statuettes of Mao and urinating on his books. Since 2016, almost all of Yan’s work—to date, seventeen novels, as well as short stories, novellas, and volumes of essays—has been subject to an unofficial ban. But his international reputation has grown. He won the Franz Kafka Prize in 2014, has twice been short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize, and is often mentioned as a likely recipient of the Nobel. Yan’s style is experimental and surreal, and he is credited with developing a strain of absurdism that he terms “mythorealism.” As he puts it, “The reality of China is so outrageous that it defies belief and renders realism inert.”
Henan is ground zero for Yan’s mordant imagination, and in his fiction it becomes a world of remorseless venality—of corrupt local officials, amoral entrepreneurs, and peasants with get-rich-quick schemes that prey on desperation and run on an engine of betrayal. “Some of the most memorable events in history happened here, but, during my lifetime, it’s become one of the poorest places in the country,” he told me. “There is no dignity left, and because of that the people of Henan have felt a deep sense of loss and bitterness.”
But we seem to have reached the point where even the calls to arms are starting to sound like dirges. In the same chapter in which Wadhams argues for better energy policies, he observes that such policies probably can’t—and almost certainly won’t—be put in place fast enough to save the Arctic. Therefore, he says, technologies to block sunlight or change the reflectivity of clouds will have to be deployed. These so-called geoengineering technologies have yet to be tested—if truth be told, they’ve really yet to be invented—but without them, according to Wadhams, the “temperature rise, and the associated further feedbacks, will be too great to allow our civilization to continue.” Apparently, this is supposed to count as inspirational.
It’s hard to say what purpose would be served by a message of straight-up despair; despondency, as it’s often noted, produces its own feedback loop. And yet, scientifically speaking, what alternative is there, as we move into the future, beyond the baiji, and the golden toad, and the reefs, and the sea ice, on toward reëngineering the atmosphere? Lalalalalala, can’t hear you!
While I was a juror in the month-long criminal trial People v. Cohen, I thought the cafeteria at the Airport Courthouse on La Cienega was the most erotic place in Los Angeles. Those nougat-colored floor tiles with flecks of tinny glitter; those fast-food-joint two-tops and metal chairs with red vinyl seats; that steel serving counter. At least once per hour the same speed-freak Flamenco version of The Godfather’s theme song jangled from the playlist, a deranged choice for a courthouse. The object of my desire? High-profile criminal defense attorney Andrew Reed Flier: magnetic, trim, mid-50s, almost as tan as a Manzanita branch. Several of Flier’s past clients have included the former Mets outfielder Lenny Dykstra, who posted Craigslist ads for personal assistants and exposed his genitals to applicants; Swedish former video game executive Bo Stefan Eriksson, who crashed a stolen Ferrari Enzo on the Pacific Coast Highway at 160 miles per hour; and convicted murderer Victor Paleologus, who lured aspiring actresses to isolated locations by offering them roles in James Bond films.
In two different true crime books, Meet Me for Murder and Date with the Devil, author Don Lasseter likens Flier’s “dark, wavy hair and handsomely chiseled features” to JFK Jr.’s, although my best friend, inspecting the image-search results, describes Flier’s vibe differently: “Mercedes salesman.” I followed Flier’s rhythmic hand gestures in court like a mesmerized Romanov. I recited his favorite cross-examination phrases for my husband David, never the jealous type. “With respect to,” I’d say, moving my loosely cupped hands back and forth on different planes near my naval. “Is that a fair statement?” I’d ask, mimicking Flier’s brisk, nasal “a.” “Do you have an independent recollection,” I’d say, tapping imaginary, folded glasses midair as if smacking the accented syllables like whack-a-moles.
At 11:53 a.m. on March 31, 2015, I received a text from Dad. “I just dropped off the keys to the house…and said a prayer one last time on behalf of the family,” it read. The house in question was the first concrete thing he’d bought in America way back in 1979, a modest, nondescript one-story suburban starter home we’d moved out of some 26 years and three months earlier, in the winter of 1989. He’d hung onto it, tending to it, landlording it, in hopes of one day gifting it to either me, my sister, or brother. This would not come to pass.
When I saw his text, relief washed over me. After a tortured year of preparing to put it on the market he’d actually gone and finally put it on the damn market. Of course, it wasn’t just that one year of re-carpeting, repairing faucets, replacing bathroom tiles, fighting with the homeowners’ association over loose gutters and paint colors. It was years of Saturday afternoons spent fixing leaky pipes, broken tiles, fritzing-out air conditioners, or trying, failing, and calling in a contractor, who often seemed to be a brown guy named Jim Patel.
French’s intense interest in identity and self-deception might make this a slow-building book for some. But if you read her as carefully as you should, it’s a seductively detailed start in which every bit of dailiness is made to matter.
Familiar Things is a cautionary tale, both a mirror and a portent for our own world. Yet, though it is a tragic tale, it is also a defiantly optimistic one. At every turn, the characters manifest remarkable adaptability and spiritual fortitude. Despite the filth and grime to which they have been relegated, they build a life and a culture that, though by no means utopic, nevertheless serves as a testament to human perseverance and the undeterrable growth of new cultural shoots. Though they subsist in a dirty, rotten world, swaddled in clouds of flies and a “vile combination of every bad odour in the world,” the inhabitants of Flower Island live one day at a time, adapting, helping one another, and finding those familiar things that make life worth living — in short: building a new world out of the rotten husks of the old.
But False Calm remains beautiful. It's worth reading as a collection of impressions, an act of witness, and a tribute to the lives Cristoff encounters. Where it falters as a book, it still succeeds as a record. Its message is that of graffiti, or gravestones, or monuments. I was here, it says. We are here. These towns are still here. After a writer admits her lack of control, there's not much else for her to say.
“Strangely, it can take enormous confidence to trust your own palate, follow your own instincts.” When I first read these words in How to Eat by Nigella Lawson 20 years ago, it felt like angel trumpets going off in my head. I was in my mid-20s, pregnant and surfacing from nearly a decade of dieting and disordered eating. This idea that I could trust myself to decide what to eat appeared both strange and liberating. Since I was a child, I had been an obsessive reader of cookbooks but had never encountered a voice like Nigella’s before. Unlike Raymond Blanc or Richard Olney (author of The French Menu Cookbook), she wasn’t making me feel I ought to pay homage to authentic French food traditions. Nor was she implying – as plenty of earlier recipe writers had done – that it was my duty as a woman to master a certain number of dishes, and serve them on a certain kind of crockery. “Never worry about what your guests will think of you,” she wrote, reassuringly. All she asked of her readers was to discover what we loved to eat, and then learn how to cook it, assuming it wasn’t too “fiddly”. In contrast to dozens of male chefs, she felt no urge to awe us with her genius or her knife skills. As she announced: “I have nothing to declare but my greed.”
For those of us who love How to Eat above all other food books, what it offered was that original voice, which worked its way into your head and made you feel braver in the kitchen. It was the voice of a woman who did not feel the need to hide or disguise her own appetites, as so many of us are taught to do. Americans had already known some of that boldness about food from the late MFK Fisher, author of Serve It Forth (1937) and Consider the Oyster (1941), who paraded her joy in eating to please only herself, but in Britain, the freedom of Nigella’s voice felt very new. She did not tell us – as Elizabeth David did – the correct way to do something, but the way that happened to give her the most pleasure for the least amount of hassle. In her recipe for ratatouille, she departs from “Mrs David’s” firmness about pre-salting and draining the aubergines, noting pointedly that “missing out this stage hasn’t resulted in a hopelessly soggy mess”.
Bookselling has been relentlessly romanticised, most often by Hollywood: in truth, it is further away from You’ve Got Mail (Tom Hanks’s snazzy shop Fox Books would have been toppled by the internet) and much closer to that moment in Notting Hill when Hugh Grant catches Dylan Moran ferreting away a book in his pants. This actually happened at a bookshop I worked in: a man was caught packing his trousers with true crime and was asked (amazingly politely) to hand them over to a long-suffering colleague (they went promptly back on the shelf).
It’s going to be tough to replace 83 years’ worth of grime.
As the fishmongers of Tokyo’s famed wholesale seafood market, Tsukiji, opened for their final day at their familiar site on Saturday, they and their customers lamented the end of an era of grunge.
“Dirty is best,” said Yoshitaka Moria, 38, an owner of a fish shop in the Ota ward of Tokyo, who regularly shops for seafood at Tsukiji and was buying an assortment of tuna, sea bream, oysters and amberjack on Saturday morning. “It makes this place so vibrant. I know that the fishmongers are working too hard to clean up.”
The Incendiaries is a book of careful feints – the emphases in the story never fall where you expect, but Kwon is always in total control. She writes with aphoristic concision and a disciplined sense of what to leave out. Wisely, many of the details of Jejah and Phoebe’s radicalisation are left to the reader’s imagination, though what glimpses we are afforded are grimly amusing, such as when Leal enjoins his followers to dig a giant hole in the backyard and then fill it back in again, because “nothing energises like humiliation”. By anchoring the narrative to Will, the disillusioned ex-believer, Kwon can write with a forensic but sceptical eye about the consolations of devotional ferocity – about the unburdened happiness Roger Janney believes he sees in the assembled faces of The Moonies gathered in Yankee Stadium in Mao II – without ever losing the secular reader. The Incendiaries is a startlingly assured book by an important new writer.
No philosophy, he argues in conclusion, can escape the peculiarities of its own place; even global philosophy must come from somewhere. The question is not where you’re from, but where you’re heading. In our embattled age, Baggini’s self-awareness, acuity and willingness to listen and learn point valuably away from parochial myopia and towards productive dialogue.
The overall aim of the firm should be couched in modest terms. Too many businesses talk about “changing the world” and becoming a “disrupter”. Such aims are far too grandiose and put everyone under too much pressure. As a manager, if you set out to do a good job for your customers, and to treat your employees fairly, things will probably turn out fine.
In short, the book aims to persuade managers to take their “mission” less seriously and to take their employees more so. Furthermore, executives should stop equating the work ethic with the practice of working long hours. Work should not be frantic. A calm company can be good for employees and very profitable as well.
I grew up in libraries, or at least it feels that way. My family lived in the suburbs of Cleveland, about a mile from the brick-faced Bertram Woods Branch of the Shaker Heights Public Library system. Throughout my childhood, starting when I was very young, my mother drove me there a couple of times a week. We walked in together, but, as soon as we passed through the door, we split up, each heading to our favorite section. The library might have been the first place that I was ever given independence. Even when I was maybe four or five years old, I was allowed to go off on my own. Then, after a while, my mother and I reunited at the checkout counter with our finds. Together, we waited as the librarian pulled out each date card and, with a loud chunk-chunk, stamped a crooked due date on it, below a score of previous crooked due dates that belonged to other people, other times.
Our visits were never long enough for me—the library was so bountiful. I loved wandering around the shelves, scanning the spines of the books until something happened to catch my eye. Those trips were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived. It wasn’t like going to a store with my mom, which guaranteed a tug-of-war between what I desired and what she was willing to buy me; in the library, I could have anything I wanted. On the way home, I loved having the books stacked on my lap, pressing me under their solid, warm weight, their Mylar covers sticking to my thighs. It was such a thrill leaving a place with things you hadn’t paid for; such a thrill anticipating the new books we would read. We talked about the order in which we were going to read them, a solemn conversation in which we planned how we would pace ourselves through this charmed, evanescent period of grace until the books were due. We both thought that all the librarians at the Bertram Woods branch were beautiful. For a few minutes, we discussed their beauty. My mother then always mentioned that, if she could have chosen any profession, she would have chosen to be a librarian, and the car would grow silent for a moment as we both considered what an amazing thing that would have been.
On a cloudy summer afternoon in Istanbul, my ferry was slowly approaching the port of Eminonu. The view from the deck is something I can never get used to, no matter how many times I do the same trip over the Bosporus. As the sun started to set, the old city was showered in a golden-red colour and the silhouettes of the grand mosques took me back to the Ottoman era.
Among the many remnants of the Ottoman times scattered around this huge city, maybe the smallest – but for sure the tastiest – sits just a short walk from the port, on a small street behind the Yeni Cami (New Mosque) in Istanbul’s Bahçekapı district. It is the Haci Bekir shop, which has sold Turkish delights to sweet-toothed residents and visitors for more than two centuries.
Myers’ protégé, a psychologist named Mary Hawley McCaulley—who helped transform the rather arcane legacy of Katherine Cook Briggs’ infatuation with Jungian psychology into a mass-culture phenomenon—explained it best when she told Emre that a common response to learning one’s type is “Oh, there it is in black and white! My kind of person is okay? All my life people have been telling me to be different.” Oh, the bossy intolerant friends and relatives conjured up by this lament! That human beings are not all alike, that they vary in their preferences for socializing or in their learning styles and the activities they find fun or tedious—all this seems like the most elementary form of social intelligence. We all ought to behave as if this is the case, but plenty of us don’t. It isn’t that introverts (to pick a recently much-discussed type) don’t know that they dislike parties, it’s that they often don’t feel entitled to accept, voice, and act on their preference without a doctor, an author, or a hugely popular but scientifically dubious test to back them up. Their own stories aren’t deemed enough, and whenever someone finds themselves in that position, what they really need is not more self-knowledge, but more power.
In “Reader, Come Home,” Wolf spells out what needs protecting: the knowledge, analytical thinking, capacity for sustained attention and empathy for others inspired by immersion in books. She’s right that digital media doesn’t automatically doom deep reading and can even enhance it. She’s also correct that we have a lot to lose — all of us — if we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing with technology and what it’s doing to us.
In a world beset with populist demagoguery and misinformation, memory is a responsibility for writers everywhere. We cannot forget what has happened in the past when tribalism, nationalism, isolationism, fanaticism and jingoism managed to get the better of humanity.
The novel matters because stories continue to connect us across borders, and help us to see beyond the artificial categories of race, gender, class. The world is frighteningly messy today, but a world that has lost its empathy, cognitive flexibility and imagination will surely be a darker place.
On a Fourth of July trip to my friend’s house in Nantucket, I fell in love with a bookshelf. It took up one entire wall of the cavernous living room and was stuffed with books whose well-worn covers coordinated with the faded blue and white decor. The beach and gently swaying seagrass outside the window receded into the distance as I ran my fingertips over the faded spines, my mind humming with possibilities. I only had a few days; I would need to choose wisely.
This is how it goes whenever I go on vacation: one moment I’m dropping my luggage at the front door, the next I’m examining the contents of a stranger’s book collection as if pulled by an invisible thread. Vacation home bookshelves appeal to me the same way used bookstores do. I love my own well-curated stacks at home, but I always know what I’m going to find among them. An unfamiliar shelf, on the other hand, brings an element of surprise: There’s a thrill that comes from scanning the titles not knowing what my eyes will land on next. Relying on chance adds serendipitous magic to the vacation reading experience. Nothing beats the sudden rush of blood to the head that comes from spotting a book I’ve been meaning to read forever on the shelf, like the feeling of spotting an old friend among the waiting crowd on a subway platform.
But the show is also, by network standards, quite radical. It attempts a clever gambit. The American sitcom, since its inception, has struggled with a fundamental tension at its core. Let’s call it “jester vs. guru.” We expect half-hour comedies to pull off an impossible double duty: to both inject jokes into the national bloodstream and to enlighten us with high-minded moral instruction. We want not only zany catchphrases but wise life lessons. The history of the form has been a constant tug of war between these two contradictory demands. Early sitcoms tended toward Very Special Episodes — morality plays in which we learned to honor our parents, say no to drugs and rat out even our most charming friends. The sitcoms that followed rebelled against such ham-fisted piety, replacing it with ironic cynicism. “Seinfeld” famously rejected the moral duties of the sitcom altogether; “30 Rock” was a pure fire hose of laughs. The control knob turned, further and further, from wisdom toward jokes.
“The Good Place” tries, improbably, to fulfill both functions at once. It wants to sit at both ends of the control knob simultaneously. Like any good modern comedy, the show is a direct IV of laughs, but the trick is that all of those laughs are explicitly about morality.
Astronomical images have a way of putting terrestrial concerns in perspective. Headlines may portend the collapse of Western civilization, but the black hole doesn’t care. It has been there for most of cosmic history; it will witness the death of the universe. In a time of lies, a picture of our own private black hole would be something true. The effort to get that picture speaks well of our species: a bunch of people around the world defying international discord and general ascendant stupidity in unified pursuit of a gloriously esoteric goal. And in these dark days, it’s only fitting that the object of this pursuit is the darkest thing imaginable.
Avery Broderick, a theoretical astrophysicist who works with the Event Horizon Telescope, said in 2014 that the first picture of a black hole could be just as important as “Pale Blue Dot,” the 1990 photo of Earth that the space probe Voyager took from the rings of Saturn, in which our planet is an insignificant speck in a vast vacuum. A new picture, Avery thought, of one of nature’s purest embodiments of chaos and existential unease would have a different message: It would say, There are monsters out there.
People have been disappearing on glaciers for as long as people have been walking on glaciers. And for most of human history, they were simply gone, vanished, entombed in a hopelessly deep, dense river of ice, carried away by a slow, grinding current. How many, no one knows, because that number is lost to time. For a benchmark, though: Since 1925 (when records first began to be kept), almost 300 people have disappeared in Valais alone, though not all, of course, on a glacier.
And maybe none of them would have ever been seen again. Except then the world got hotter, and the glaciers got smaller, thinning and retreating, and now, after decades, centuries, millennia, they're slowly surrendering the dead. This is not peculiar to Les Diablerets, obviously. Glaciers all over the planet are receding at alarming rates, some more than others. The thaw is catastrophic, and global.
In many ways, silence is intricately linked to pacing in this work, as the speed with which we transition does not afford time or space for exposition. It is the breathlessness of each poem, their restless movements and their dense, complex music, that allows silence to inhabit them so fully.
What, Patrick Ness asked himself, if Moby-Dick was told by the whale? In Ness’s version, the cetaceans go a lot further than Captain Ahab’s nemesis in Melville’s epic. They fight back on a major scale, with ships and harpoons of their own. Their view of the world is the opposite of ours, hence the title – the ocean depths are their sky, and “below” them is the “Abyss” of air and land.
Okada’s style is hyperrealistic, punctuated with “likes” and “whatevers,” and structured, like everyday speech, around rambling sentences that often go nowhere. He has spoken of the difficulties of translating his work into other languages, because of its “super-real” style.. But this translation by Sam Malissa has a strange rhythm all its own. That “End of the Moment” was once a play comes through in its shifting perspective, which moves swiftly, drone-like, among characters. It’s the more successful of the two narratives — compact, ruthless, governed by a persuasive sense of dread. In that sense, Okada captures the ennui that has paralyzed a generation.
For those who didn’t do their summer reading, A Farewell to Arms is the story of Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver in the Italian Red Cross, who is wounded and then falls in love with Catherine Barkley, his British nurse. During a chaotic retreat, in which the Italian soldiers turn on their own officers, Frederic deserts and escapes to Switzerland with Catherine, who is pregnant with his baby. Catherine suffers through a difficult birth. Both she and the baby die at the novel’s end. I remember lying prone on the floor as I read, weeping as Frederic walked away from her corpse and into the rain.
I have reread the book many times since, though the affective experience changes with time. Anyone who has read the book can understand my teenage self’s response. But what if I told you that when I read it now I laugh as much as I cry?
Why care so much about one bad story from thirty-some years ago? There has to be some way to differentiate between the past and the present. I was born into a time in which we face imminent ecological and environmental collapse, and the generation holding power continues to thwart any attempt at saving ourselves. The Turnpike is not a love story and it never was one. The populism of the 1980s too often elevated that which was killing us to a state of art. Where luminaries such as John Brinkerhoff Jackson used genuine landscape writing to encourage us to be passionate observers of the world, postmodernist pop landscape writing is all projection, a fusion of nostalgia and the Freudian death drive. (Isn’t it great to be an American? Isn’t it great to be slowly killing yourself for the experience?)
The lasting benefits for cities can be found in their fabric. The profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851 provided London with Albertopolis, with its still-flourishing museums like the V&A. Paris was left with a host of buildings from successive expositions including the Eiffel Tower, once intended as temporary. Whether the traces left behind are sublime or ridiculous is subjective—Brussels has the Atomium; Seattle, the Space Needle; Melbourne, its Royal Exhibition Building; Montreal, Habitat 67 and the bones of the Biosphere; Nashville, a life-size replica of the Parthenon. In a deeper sense, World’s Fairs changed the way citizens moved around and engaged with their cities from the initiation of the Paris Métro to the Vancouver Skytrain. Land was reclaimed in Chicago and Liege. Ghent, Vienna, and Suita were redeveloped. Melbourne and Barcelona were illuminated with electric lights. New roads, railways and flight paths emanated like nervous systems across countries, to bring spectators from the countryside and abroad.
Then, the Western-centric story goes, World’s Fairs fell from grace. Part of this was down to audiences simply aging. Who could blame nostalgia towards witnessing the Crystal Palace, the head of the Statue of Liberty in a Parisian park, the extra-terrestrial Trylon and Perisphere, or the Tower of the Sun? This was bolstered by the fact that many of the greatest buildings, like Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan’s Transportation Building of 1893 with its famed Golden Door, had been demolished and so attained a lost perfection in memory. World’s Fairs seemed to suit children, who would be swept up in the spectacle of monorails, geodesic domes, and Ferris wheels. They’d also fail to notice the temporary, occasionally-shoddy nature of the structures, or the fact that many Expos ran at a financial loss. When the Louisiana World Exposition capsized into bankruptcy in 1984, it seemed to confirm that the promise offered by World’s Fairs had already passed into the realm of Kodachrome photographs and Super 8 film.
“Belonging,” Krug’s new visual memoir, is a mazy and ingenious reckoning with the past. Born three decades after the Holocaust, she traces the stubborn silences in German life and investigates her own family’s role in the war. The book takes the form of an overstuffed scrapbook, jammed with letters, photographs, official documents and fragments from her uncle’s childhood journals — doodles of flowers, flags and swastikas.
At its heart, “Crudo” is aspirational in the best and most moving sense of the word. It’s a novel about middle age, about that moment when we start to recognize the boundaries and limitations of the people we have become. It’s about the longing to escape our ossified selves — to become, if only for a moment or within the pages of a novel, someone wilder and more radically free. And in staging that longing so directly and so honestly, Olivia Laing makes “Crudo” her own.
Cookbook covers can be like optical illusions. Take “Microwave Cooking for One,” which features the author, Marie T. Smith, alone with some platters of color-saturated food. Some readers may see desolation and gloom behind her smile. Some, a dusty meme. But others see a triumphant model of practicality and self-care.
The chef Anita Lo was aware of these polarities when she wrote “Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One,” a book celebrating the simple act of cooking for yourself, and only yourself, that will be published by Knopf later this month. Her recipes are tailored to feed one and, in most cases, the steps are minimal and require few pots and pans. In other words, it’s a cookbook that speaks directly to a growing proportion of single Americans, with strategic, small-portion recipes, and tips for shopping, stocking the pantry and storing food in a single-person household.
For many years, orchids were considered a luxury—the exclusive domain of obsessed collectors who could coddle them in expensive hothouses. But today anyone can walk into Trader Joe’s or Home Depot and buy one for $12.99 or less. Orchids now populate the counters of cheap nail salons, the tables of tasteful living rooms, and tony hotel lobbies around the world. They might make a classy-ish and inexpensive housewarming present or hostess gift. All the way back in 1850, an orchid columnist for a gardening magazine imagined that one day the price of the flowers would be “within the reach of all.” That promise came true. It just took a little longer than the orchid lovers of the 19th century expected.
Twenty-four years ago, more or less to the month, I got stuck in an elevator. I was ten years old. We were on the north side of Tel Aviv, in the apartment building I’d grown up in. I was trapped with my parents and ten or so loud Israelis and a neon pink tennis ball that I kept dropping and squirming down between the thickets of sweaty legs to pick back up again. My dad said we should all jump up and down to click the elevator back on its tracks and I thought that was a great idea. There was a pregnant woman who disagreed, however, and she, understandably, had veto power. I could hear Shlomi, my buddy from down the hall, running around yelping for help. Eventually the maintenance guy showed up and unlocked the doors and popped us free. I walked out on jellified legs, grateful for a world I’d at least partially believed I’d never see again. It had been 90 minutes. Enough time to leave me with a phobia for life.
I’ve lived in New York now for 12 years. There are, as you might imagine, lots of elevators in New York. Over 60,000, actually. More than in L.A., Miami, D.C., and Chicago combined.
It comes in waves. Some days, some months, some years even are blissfully peaceful. Then some little incident will happen and it’ll trigger me all over again. And there are lots and lots of would-be triggers.
To call a writer a stylist can be a backhanded compliment. One is acknowledging their skill, while at the same time implying there may be something masturbatory in that skill. Over time, “stylist” has increasingly come to signify an author who’s a little too fond of the sound of their own voice, the kind of person who cares more about how their house is decorated than whether or not the roof’s intact. But for Diane Williams, one of perhaps only a few living authors with so unique a voice that you could recognize her grocery lists, the manner in which she goes about what she goes about is inextricable from her whole enterprise. For Williams, style doesn’t trump substance; style is substance.
When he reaches the end of his book, Moran goes back to Flaubert, quoting his mother’s comment as he painstakingly worked on Madame Bovary. “Your mania for sentences … has dried up your heart.” In fact, he argues, a delight in good sentences is a kind of restorative, a way of finding pattern and purpose in the world.
Revelation? Yes, I think the word is appropriate; the essay is a form that requires us to write and read out of our vulnerability, after all. “It’s that vulnerability,” Dillon insists, in a line that also applies, I think, to his own book, “that I value in ‘Camera Lucida’ now … and in most or even all of the essayists I admire — no, love.”
It’s this movement between past and present that makes the novel work: As Candace’s future becomes increasingly uncertain, and her path more dangerous, we come to realize what she’s already lost—long before the pandemic hit. This feat of pacing and plot is also what makes Severance stand out among recent works of millennial fiction: The whole novel is, in a way, about how we are but an accretion of everything that’s ever happened to us—our habits, our choices, the choices of our lovers and parents, all come back refigured as memory, knit irreversibly into our character. The disease itself forces people to return to the past, even those who are not afflicted by it—like Candace, who, as she faces her own mortality, recalls how she came to be the person that she is today.11
The reader, who is repeatedly addressed over the course of the novel, is left with the feeling that, more than anything, Melmoth is a good book, one that, for all its uncanny shudders, comes from a place of decency and good faith, a beacon against the darkest times. Perry’s masterly piece of postmodern gothic is one of the great literary achievements of our young century and deserves all the prizes and praise that will be heaped upon it.
Of course, all art is an attempt to come to terms with and explain the human condition. However, the way the novel has evolved makes it supremely successful in investigating our lives – or, more significantly, revealing other lives to us. You can write a long and complicated novel about a single day in an individual’s existence (Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway) or you can write a novel about war and conquest and the decline and fall of empires (War and Peace and the Fortunes of War and I, Claudius novels), but the novel’s unique power lies in its scrutiny of the human factor. No other art form – though theatre runs it close – can deal so effortlessly with the minutiae of our everyday lives. Crucially, no other art form can penetrate the subconscious mind so easily, can expose and elucidate the tiny shifts in nuance of a person’s behaviour and thinking. Other people are opaque, mysterious – even those closest to you. If you want to know what makes human beings tick, in every sense, good and bad, banal and sinister, read a novel.
And yet, looking at the 400-year history of the form there is, it seems to me, something of a lacuna. Novels have covered every possible aspect of human experience but very few have attempted to do full justice to the entirety of that “brief crack of light” that Nabokov describes. By this I mean the whole-life or cradle-to-grave novel. The genre is small and its exemplars rare. Even long novel sequences such as Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu or Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time end long before their protagonist’s demise. The life described is not complete.
The way that New York publishing kept itself pure back then was to recruit entry-level workers exclusively from liberal arts colleges in the area. That is how I, a middle-class dipshit from Oregon who knew nothing about anything but somehow landed at Vassar (whereupon I learned primarily about smoking cigarettes), ended up in a cubicle in the iconic Flatiron building, answering phones and parking my tuches in a chair that was the rightful property of some debutante. I knew, though, that even a hayseed like me could make it in publishing with financial discipline, prodigious talent, and sheer, unadulterated hunger.
But it was the ’90s and I had none of those things. I had a brand-new credit card that I used to outfit myself in the era-appropriate vestments of shiny over-pocketed gunmetal, and I had a weight-management plan that consisted of vending-machine Chuckles, and that was about it. My opinion on ambition — any sort, by anyone, toward anything — was unadulterated scorn. That is precisely why webzines were so appealing. Not only did most of them deal in exactly the sort of weaponized sarcasm I already deployed against my well-bred betters, but their writers were randos like me from wherever (Wisconsin! Seattle! Canada!), and seemed just as unambitious as I was.
It’s no wonder then that different interpretations of the double-slit experiment offer alternative perspectives on reality. For example, in the late 1920s and early ’30s, some physicists made the startling claim that a particle going through two slits has no clear path or indeed no objective reality until one observes it on a screen on the other side. At a gathering of physicists and philosophers at the Carlsberg mansion near Copenhagen in 1936, the Dutch physicist Hendrik Casimir recalled someone protesting: ‘But the electron must be somewhere on its road from source to observation screen.’ To which Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, replied that the answer depends on the meaning of the phrase ‘to be’. In other words, what does it mean to say that something exists? One philosopher in the group that day, the Danish logical positivist Jørgen Jørgensen, retorted in exasperation: ‘One can, damn it, not reduce the whole of philosophy to a screen with two holes.’
Yet it is extraordinary just how much of quantum physics and philosophy can be understood using a screen with two holes – or variations thereof. The history of the double-slit experiment goes back to the early 1800s, when physicists were debating the nature of light. Does light behave like a wave or is it made of particles? The latter view had been advocated in the 17th century by no less a physicist than Isaac Newton. Light, Newton said, is corpuscular, or constituted of particles. The Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens argued otherwise. Light, he said, is a wave – the name given to the vibrations of the medium in which the wave is travelling. For example, a wave in water is essentially the way water moves up and down as the wave propagates. Huygens argued that light is vibrations in an all-pervading ether.
“If we believe that murder is wrong and not admissable in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone,” Prejean writes, “not just individuals but governments as well.” In the quarter-century since the publication of “Dead Man Walking,” the evidence remains unchanged: executions do not prevent crime, and taking another person’s life is a poor cure for inconsolable grief. Killing is always a moral crime, if not always a legal one. Near the end of her memoir, Sister Helen states her conviction that if executions were made public—if more people knew the truth of the act—“the torture and violence would be unmasked, and we would be shamed into abolishing executions.” “Dead Man Walking” pulled back that mask. We cannot close our eyes. We must not look away.
After reading “Farsighted,” am I more aware of all the difficulties of making long-term decisions? Definitely. Do I feel better equipped to make those decisions? I’m not sure. This is an idea book. You won’t find the easy formulas that dominate the self-help genre or the 2x2 matrices common to business books. Johnson left me more convinced than ever of the psychologist Ellen Langer’s advice for making tough choices: “Don’t make the right decision. Make the decision right.” Since you’ll never have enough information to make the best choice, all you can do is make the best of the choice you’ve made.
Yet maybe that’s the point. As a species, we’re wired to be nearsighted. Flipping to farsighted requires peering into a crystal ball. Your vision will always be blurry. But there’s no better corrective lens than a clear diagnosis of just how myopic you are. If you want to improve at predicting the future, start by recognizing how unpredictable it is.
Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), the regal American literary and social critic, was an ardent letter writer — he composed as many as 600 a year — but a slow-moving one. Corresponding with him was like playing squash with an opponent who pockets your serve, walks off the court and returns four months later to fire it back.
Nearly all the letters in “Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling,” edited by Adam Kirsch, begin with apologies and small arias of explanation for delay. Most of these explanations have to do with course- and committee-work at Columbia University, where Trilling taught for most of his career. Sometimes the excuses were existential. My favorite appears in a 1951 letter, in which Trilling tells Norman Podhoretz that “nothing less than the totality of The Modern Situation, the whole of Democratic Culture, has kept me from writing to you.” Kids, do not try this excuse at home.
People with dementia often ask to go home. Some ask even if they’re still in the house they’ve lived in for years; but people in institutions can ask many times a day. Telling a person in an institution that they live here now, that this is their permanent home, is usually neither comforting nor convincing, so, to address this problem, many nursing homes and hospitals have installed fake bus stops. When a person asks to go home, an aide takes them to the bus stop, where they sit and wait for a bus that never comes. At some point, when they are tired, and have forgotten what they are doing there, they are persuaded to go back.
Some years ago, a company in Boston began marketing Simulated Presence Therapy, which involved making a prerecorded audiotape to simulate one side of a phone conversation. A relative or someone close to the patient would put together an “asset inventory” of the patient’s cherished memories, anecdotes, and subjects of special interest; a chatty script was developed from the inventory, and a tape was recorded according to the script, with pauses every now and then to allow time for replies. When the tape was ready, the patient was given headphones to listen to it and told that they were talking to the person over the phone. Because patients’ memories were short, they could listen to the same tape over and over, even daily, and find it newly comforting each time. There was a séance-like quality to these sessions: they were designed to simulate the presence of someone who was merely not there, but they could, in principle, continue even after that person was dead.
In recent years, many more of these kinds of props and simulations have been devised: not just fake bus stops but fake buses, with screens for windows, on which footage of a passing scene gives the impression of movement; one home has made a simulated beach, with heat lamps, sand on the floor, and the sound of waves. There are versions of the Chagrin Valley streetscape in many countries around the world—in the Netherlands, Italy, Canada, Australia. Many homes have rooms that re-create, with period details and vintage artifacts, a past world that their residents remember from childhood: the Dutch countryside of the nineteen-forties; small-town California in the nineteen-fifties; East Germany under Communism. All these fantasies are conceived of as a means of soothing the misery, panic, and rage that sometimes accompany dementia: to convey to people in later stages of the disease the impression that life is still as it was once, with children to take care of, and holidays at the seashore, and familiar homes to return to.
There’s a picture of me from the early ’90s: I’m 13, leaning against the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge, peering down into the water below. I look somber, possibly because my father had shared on approach to the landmark that it was, at least then, the most popular bridge in the world to jump off. Or maybe it was some other reason.
I was definitely freezing, my long legs in jean shorts exposed to the summer San Francisco air, which manages to look cold even in the photo. I would remember the unrelenting windy unpleasantness of that first trip to the city often after I moved to it more than a decade later, walking from work past tourists by the hundreds who were similarly underdressed, unable to fathom that there could be inclement weather in California.
That was the final stop on that family vacation, which was the first time I encountered the state, but it wasn’t the first discomfort during our trip. We’d gotten to the Bay Area via State Route 1, the epic and winding coastal road also known as Highway 1, my sister and I nauseated in the back seat and my mother panicking in the front as we took turns along cliff edges too fast. We had started in Los Angeles, where we had flown from Cleveland and stayed a night, we kids left at the motel while my parents went out. In the faraway unfamiliar city, noises through a door that opened directly to the outside, we were terrified.
“Pajamas are more of a fashion statement now,” says Patrick Hughes, a fashion and design historian at The New School. He adds that they’re still part of what’s considered to be “a gentleman’s wardrobe,” explaining that you’re more likely to find them in the closets of the upper-class citizenry, while the middle-class Average Joes just opt for boxers and a shirt.
Strangely enough, this is exactly how PJs started out. Originally, pajamas — or pyjamas, as they’re spelled outside the U.S. — “came from the fashion of India,” explains Hughes. During the days of the British empire, colonists observed these lightweight drawstring pants and thought they looked pretty cool, so they brought them back to England with them. Soon, among the upper class, pajamas would be paired with a matching jacket to replace the nightshirt.
In the Anthropocentric world, perhaps we will all be looking for survival in these spaces as the world we knew (both in letters and ecologies) floods and swells. Perhaps books that do something wildly new will serve as our guidebooks in more ways than one.
It is impossible not to be struck by the tenderness in Loskutoff’s writing: the sublime setting; the vivid characters, so precise and unique it seems like he dreamed them up whole and fully fledged; the intricacies of love, fear, and fatigue that resonate so strongly they left me actually breathless. But I kept coming back to a difficult question: Does Loskutoff love these people? Just when I thought he would defend them, he brought to light the ugliest part of their collective psyche. And just as I settled into this critical eye, he uncovered an aspect of their worldview that touched my heart.