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.