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Archive for November 2018

Friday, November 30, 2018

It’s Never Just About The Burger: The Ethical Pitfalls Of A Food Critic’s Viral Essay, by Helen Rosner, New Yorker

What if Alexander had learned nothing of Stanich’s conviction in the course of his reporting? Is it fair to expect a restaurant reporter to run a public-records search on the subject of a burger story? The stakes, in food journalism, have changed rapidly in recent years—a once-cushy beat that was largely divorced from hard-news concerns is now being recognized as a battleground for issues of sexual assault, immigration, labor issues, and financial fraud. With this comes a responsibility among writers to see restaurants more holistically, not only as places that put food on a plate but as complex social organisms. Even the smallest, most casual operations involve communities of employees, communities of customers, dramas both private and public, and the two can’t always in good faith be separated. A burger story is rarely about just the burger; it’s also rarely about just the critic. Alexander clearly intended for his essay on Stanich’s demise to spark a conversation about journalistic responsibility. In the end—though not quite in the way he anticipated—it has.

Balloon Meets Pin, by Jonathan Clarke, The Smart Set

Laypeople are often fascinated by the law — fascinated, and also horrified. Unsatisfactory outcomes, of which there are not a small number, are almost the least of their objections. They are frustrated by the law’s obfuscations and its inwardness, and they resent the condescension of lawyers. Lawyers, in turn, are frustrated by how much laypeople miss in their account of the culture of the courts — how much, in short, they don’t know they don’t know.

The law serves a crucial public function, but the courts often appear to operate in ignorance of that function. This is why intelligent lay commentary on the law is important. Laypeople see things that lawyers have stopped seeing and raise issues that lawyers have assumed away or given up as intractable. Their commentary aerates a closed system. Occasionally it even embarrasses the legal profession into reform.

'Come With Me' Lays Bare The Risks And Regrets Of Our Online Lives, by Maureen Corrigan, NPR

The Great Internet Novel. Like the great white whale, it's rumored to be out there somewhere beyond the horizon. So far, the novelists who've been hailed as coming closest to writing it have done so in dystopian doorstoppers even longer than Herman Melville's Moby Dick; I'm thinking of The Circle, by Dave Eggers, and Book of Numbers, by Joshua Cohen, both of which tell sweeping cautionary tales about the wired life within Facebook-type cult compounds.

But Helen Schulman is taking a different tack in capturing the Internet revolution: She's zooming in tight and close on all those computers and smart phones scattered around the rooms where we live.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Why We Stopped Trusting Elites, by William Davies, The Guardian

A trend of declining trust has been underway across the western world for many years, even decades, as copious survey evidence attests. Trust, and its absence, became a preoccupation for policymakers and business leaders during the 1990s and early 2000s. They feared that shrinking trust led to higher rates of crime and less cohesive communities, producing costs that would be picked up by the state.

What nobody foresaw was that, when trust sinks beneath a certain point, many people may come to view the entire spectacle of politics and public life as a sham. This happens not because trust in general declines, but because key public figures – notably politicians and journalists – are perceived as untrustworthy. It is those figures specifically tasked with representing society, either as elected representatives or as professional reporters, who have lost credibility.

The Search For Alien Life Begins In Earth’s Oldest Desert, by Rebecca Boyle, The Atlantic

Behind our convoy and down a hillside was the great salt flat called Salar Grande, a scorching, parched expanse about the size of San Francisco Bay. Ahead of my silver SUV, I saw a rolling Martian world of sand-colored rock spread beneath a blazing blue sky. No mosquitoes buzzed near our ears; no birds flew overhead. Wilhelm walked a few dozen feet away from the convoy, stopped, and stooped. Then everyone saw it.

A pebble field roughly the area of a two-car garage was dappled with chartreuse flakes: lichen. The first life we’d seen in days. Wilhelm crouched in the heat and squinted, flashing her hot-pink eyeshadow. She scooped some rocks into a sterile canister.

Later, Wilhelm would ship the rocks to her lab at NASA’s Ames Research Center, in Silicon Valley, where she works as an astrobiologist. She would scrape bits of lichen from the rocks, liquefy them, and sequence their DNA. She would do the same for microbes she collected from ravines, and preserved cells she scraped from salt rocks. In many places in the Atacama, such hardy creatures are the only life forms, and Wilhelm and other scientists think that they might be similar to the last surviving life on Mars—if Martian life ever existed.

Her Private Space: On Brigid Hughes, Editor, by Madelaine Lucas, Literary Hub

When Brigid Hughes began her career as a 22-year-old intern at the Paris Review, she was told by George Plimpton that there were three things she’d need to learn in order to succeed at the job: how to play pool, how to drink scotch, and, lastly, the art of reading and editing.

“Those were the defining qualities of my time there,” she recalled to me recently, over lunch in a French café in Fort Greene close to her office—the converted carriage-house on a leafy side-street that is home to A Public Space, the Brooklyn-based literary journal she founded in 2006 and continues to edit. “I did learn to drink scotch. I did learn to play pool, poorly.”

Hazards Of Time Travel By Joyce Carol Oates Review – An American Nightmare, by Kate Kellaway, The Guardian

Joyce Carol Oates is mistress of instability – quicksand her element here. She writes convincingly about the pervasive misery of living in fear, the loneliness of it. More hearteningly, she shows that superior moral sense is stubborn: staying curious and putting herself into involuntary jeopardy is Mary Ellen’s forte. Oates adds in sketchy questions about authenticity, behaviourism, art and virtual reality. Wainscotia is revealed to be a “hotbed of mediocrity” (it is fun scrutinising the also-ran rhymes of one of its lauded poets). But the novel’s biggest idea is that time itself is political: “America is founded upon amnesia – denial”, Oates writes. And the ending – without giving anything away – is wrong-footing, alarming, compromising.

The Fierce Intelligence Of John Scalzi's 'The Consuming Fire', by Antony Jones, Los Angeles Times

This is one of the things that makes Scalzi such an important figure in literature, he doesn’t go the easy route of just writing a story — instead he fills it with important messages. In all this vast space of countless planets, the fact that only one might be capable of supporting humanity really brings the crisis into focus.

An Elegant Restaurant May Not Be What It Seems In Matias Faldbakken's 'The Waiter', by Bethanne Patrick, Los Angeles Times

If you follow the author’s clues, you may feel a chill up your spine. You may see the waiter in a different light. Maybe. Just because the clues are there doesn’t mean they’ve been used to best effect. You can read this surprising book several different ways.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Is Literary Glory Worth Chasing?, by Tim Parks, New York Review of Books

Is writing worth it? Does it make any sense at all to pursue literary glory? Are the writers we praise really the best anyway?

In 1824, the Italian poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi decided to take on the subject in a thirty-page essay, of kinds. In fact, he puts his reflections somewhat playfully in the mouth of Giuseppe Parini, perhaps the finest Italian poet of the eighteenth century, a man from a poor family who spent all his life seeking financial and political protection in the homes of the aristocracy. Leopardi imagines Parini—“one of the very few Italians of our times who combined literary excellence with depth of thought”—responding to an exceptionally talented and ambitious young writer seeking advice. What follows here is nothing more than a brief summary of what he says; I take no responsibility for the ideas expressed. Readers can decide for themselves how much of this rings true today.

Young man, literary glory, or the fame that comes from learning and then writing, is one of the very few forms of glory presently available to the commoner. Admittedly, it’s not as impressive or satisfying as the glory that derives from public service, since action is much worthier and nobler than thinking or writing, and more natural. We weren’t made to spend our lives sitting at a table with pen and paper, and doing so can only be detrimental to your health and happiness. All the same, as I said, this is a glory that can be achieved without initial riches and without being part of a large organization.


Built To Last, by Alex Abramovich, Bookforum

“What’s a hundred years?” McPhee has asked, elsewhere. “Nothing. And everything, it doesn’t evanesce, it disappears. And time goes on, and the planet does what it’s going to do. It makes you think you’re living in your own time all right. It makes the idea of some kind of heritage seem touching, seem odd.” Perhaps. But in his own quiet, meticulous way, McPhee’s built a body of work that will stand.

The Making Of A Poetry Reader, by Emilia Phillips, Ploughshares

After we completed the assignment, our teacher went around the room, asking each student to read aloud a poem and identify its author, justifying the reasoning behind the answer. I was given “Air and Angels,” which I had had to read several times to be able to parse the sounds of the language. I didn’t quite understand everything in the poem, but I was excited by the sounds, especially the alliteration, and the way the poem defamiliarized language. I felt giddy “hearing” its cadence in my head, as if I were hearing music.

Band and music class were my favorite things at school, but sometimes, just sometimes, a poem made me feel the same way that hearing and playing music did. I’d had this experience with work by several poets that semester: Hughes and Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Donne, the latter of which had no less than twenty-one poems in Perrine’s. We had spent considerable time in class discussing Donne’s “Love’s Deity” and “Death, be not proud,” and had had a coded discussion about the salaciousness of “The Flea.” On my own, I had read and read again “Song: Go and catch a falling star,” which I could hear as if I had spoken it aloud in my bedroom.

The Cult Of Everyday Is Christmas, by Siobhan Adcock, Slate

The first text came in at 12:01 on Nov. 1, as I was scarfing the fun-size chocolate bars out of my daughter’s trick-or-treating bag. Outside on the streets, fake cobwebs and skeletons were still swinging limply in the trees. On the screen: a screenshot of the song “Santa’s Coming for Us” playing in a music app. Maddie Ziegler’s giant blue eyes. A deranged red and green Christmas wig, glowing brighter than any jack-o’-lantern in the city. The message: “NEVER. TOO. EARLY.” It could only mean one thing: It was past midnight, Halloween was over, and it was therefore finally, officially, Sia Christmas Album Season. This text, the first of several similar messages I would receive from friends over the next 24 hours, was just the initial shot across the giant hairbow.

Sia’s Everyday Is Christmas was released on Nov. 17, 2017 to mixed reviews, which I will do my best not to refute line for line here, but … “joylessly sane,” New Yorker, really? What an unfair characterization for this relentlessly, ridiculously enjoyable collection of howls, whistles, barks, jingles, sobs, and full-lung belts disguised as Christmas music. I am here to testify that even a whole year later, Sia’s holiday album has a cult, of which I’m a member. If loving Everyday Is Christmas is wrong, then I—along with a select group of other worshipful enthusiasts—don’t want to be right.

I'm A Great Cook. Now That I'm Divorced, I'm Never Making Dinner For A Man Again, by Lyz Lenz, Glamour

It's hard for me to understand when cooking became more repression than liberation, more act of obligation than act of creation. But I knew it then. This thing that had sustained me now felt like a prison. And whose fault was it? It certainly wasn't all my husband's. After all, hadn't I wanted to cook? Hadn't I enjoyed it? Hadn't I found purpose in the texture of the cinnamon rolls, the ache of my arm as I whisked a French silk pie over a double boiler? But who had that ever been for? I couldn't remember.

In the tangle of performance and purpose, in my quest to make a home and love, I had created elaborate offerings, which were consumed and judged, and yet afforded me no redemption, no grace, no more than four out of five stars.

In This Norwegian Novel, An Old-School Waiter Tries To Keep Up The Old Ways, by Pete Wells, New York Times

The waiter is an anachronism and he knows it. The modern world that is at the doorstep of the Hills has devalued his style of careful service work, even as it needs more of it, and makes more intense demands on the people who do that work. Those who make the lives of the comfortable even more comfortable are society’s shock absorbers. They may start to screech, but the car keeps rolling along.

Delicacies Of The Dining Car, by Corby Kummer, New York Times

Americans who love trains above all other forms of travel will sigh loudest during a chapter on the glory days of the Santa Fe Super Chief from Los Angeles to Chicago, whose décor was inspired by the Native American tribes in the areas the trains traversed. Here the abundant photographs make it particularly difficult to ignore the fact that all the customers were white, or the cultural appropriation that both glorified and exoticized the locals. But it isn’t so hard to conjure a vision of more equitable journeys where the food keeps pace with the ever-changing scenery.

‘The Governesses’ Offers Subtle Lessons In Shame, Constraint And Lust, by Parul Sehgal, New York Times

This novel’s ideas about shame, constraint, lust and abandon are as subtle as the sex is frank, conveyed through insinuation and metaphor. “The Governesses” is not a treatise but an aria, and one delivered with perfect pitch: a minor work, defiantly so, but the product of a significant talent.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Hollywood Has Long Turned To Novelists For Help. But Poets?, by Alexandra Alter, New York Times

In her new film “The Kindergarten Teacher,” Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a frustrated aspiring poet who discovers that a boy in her kindergarten class may be a budding literary genius, and begins co-opting his verses as her own.

When Gyllenhaal was preparing for the role, she thought a lot about what sort of poetry her character, a Staten Island teacher named Lisa Spinelli, would write. She figured Lisa’s poetry would be somewhat labored and clichéd — maybe verses about flowers and butterflies. So she and the film’s writer and director, Sara Colangelo, decided to ask a real poet to write some lines for the movie.

Commissioning poems wasn’t easy, it turns out.

What Silent Film And Found Photographs Can Show Us About Writing, by Maria Romasco Moore, Literary Hub

The summer I was 13, my father taught in Madrid. It was August and we were told that everyone who could afford it left the city to go somewhere cooler. We had a tiny apartment which, in my memory, did not even have a fan. I slept on a dusty couch. The cushions slid halfway off every time I moved. All the women I saw on the streets wore skirts or dresses. I wore unfashionable jean shorts, hideous blocky sunglasses. My depression was in full bloom by that age. I felt like a pale, fat monster. I quested fruitlessly after ice water in my ignorance of local custom. Nothing was ever cold. Midday, the heat knocked my brain out of my skull, my legs out from under me. I melted onto the couch, flipped around the small television. I knew very little Spanish, so I watched Korean soap operas, puzzled over redubbed American sitcoms.

One afternoon I flipped a channel and what I saw on the screen felt like cold water. What I saw needed no language. Buster Keaton. Face as still and pale as mine was. Still, but not expressionless. His dark-rimmed eyes held cool and endless depths. There were two short films shown back to back: The Paleface (1922) and The Scarecrow (1920). I was enraptured, as much in awe of these comedies as I had been of the Bosch paintings I saw at Museo del Prado (the only building in the city which seemed to have air conditioning).

This Is The Way The Paper Crumples, by Siobhan Roberts, New York Times

While working on his doctoral thesis at Harvard over the last few years, Omer Gottesman spent a lot of time at his desk crumpling sheets of paper, especially when he was stuck. He’d crumple a sheet, uncrumple it, stare into its depths, and think, “There must be something that would make all this mess look a little less messy.”

Crumple, uncrumple, crumple. Sheet after sheet landed in the recycling bin, each one blank but for its chaotically creased geography. In time, a semblance of order emerged.

Crumpled wads of paper are no doubt as old and commonplace as paper itself — “graves for failed theories,” Mr. Gottesman, a physicist, has called them. But for him, the crumpled paper itself was the research.

Lunch, Explained, by Alison Leiby, Eater

There’s early lunch — before noon — and late lunch — after 2 p.m. There are catered lunches, which on a good day means you are gifted with a midday chicken parm but are more often characterized by flaccid sandwiches, perhaps of dubious Tuscan origin, arranged on a black circular tray of despair. On the weekends, there’s brunch — a fiercely debated meal which frequently combines pancakes and alcohol. Surely brunch is not not lunch.

Still bewildered? Of course you are. Here’s everything you need to know about the most confusing, and confused, of all the meals: Lunch.

A Message From Your Laptop, Which Hasn’t Been Backed Up For Three Hundred And Eleven Days, by Olivia de Recat, New Yorker

Greetings. It’s me, “Olivia’s Mac.” I write to you today with many updates, the majority of which are uninstalled. Mostly, I write to tell you that I have not been backed up for three hundred and eleven days. Chances are you know this, because I have reminded you every afternoon, politely and without fail, for the last three hundred and ten days.

'Why We Dream' Is A Spirited, Cogent Defense Of Dreams And Dream-Telling, by Lily Meyer, NPR

We may not know why dreams "traffic in garbled metaphor and disjointed imagery," but by learning to decode them, we can learn to decode ourselves. We can comfort, encourage, and support ourselves, even if we have to dress up as Madonna or Zadie Smith to do it. And by abandoning the Chabon-Koenig belief that dreams are dull, we can better support our loved ones. All we need to do, Robb wants us to know, is pay attention.

Monday, November 26, 2018

What War Of The Worlds Did, by Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey, Aeon

To understand the 1938 broadcast from the perspective of our new fake-news moment, we have to understand the play’s true meaning. The journey of those murderous Martians in the US began well before that Halloween eve, with the popular pseudoscientific understanding of radio itself. Reproduced sounds have always had an uncanny presence in US life. The reaction of Scientific American to the invention of the phonograph was to exclaim that it would allow the living to hear the voices of the dead. Sure enough, some people began to record their voices before they died so that they could speak at their own funerals, and a Washington Post column wondered if radio itself could pick up vibrations from the dead, according to the sound historian Jonathan Sterne’s book The Audible Past (2003). One of the earliest understandings of radio, writes the cultural historian Jeffrey Sconce in Haunted Media (2000), was that aliens might already be using it to attempt contact with humans.

The moment that print ceded position to radio might be 1936, when US incumbent President Franklin Delano Roosevelt secured reelection despite a fierce shellacking in print: 80 percent of the press rejected the President only to watch him win in an almost vindictive landslide. ‘Election day 1936 was judgment day for America’s daily press,’ wrote the Christian Century after his victory in a letter to newspaper publishers. ‘When people voted, they voted against you.’

As Deadly Flames Approached, A Mother Called Her Daughters To Say Goodbye, by Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times

There is much to say when death encroaches. But when you only have a moment, you just say the truth.

‘Jeopardy’ Is The Only Thing On Netflix Worth Watching, by Drew Millard, The Outline

On Jeopardy!, everyone — from host Alex Trebek to the studio audience to the show’s fans — understands that a lifetime of vacuuming up arcana into your head has a tendency to create an arch strangeness in a person, and so the show never judges or mocks its contestants for their eccentricities, instead offering them the opportunity to show the world why they’re worth celebrating. In fact, the only contestant I can ever recall not rooting for is Brad Rutter, the smarmily handsome Jeopardy! champion who, after winning over a million dollars on the show, moved to Los Angeles to become an actor in what feels like a complete betrayal of the show’s ideals.

Future Fiction, by Sarah Labrie, Los Angeles Review of Books

Some critics and readers perceived the narrator’s decision to turn away from the world as a critique of the cheap self-care platitudes that have long dominated our media and, in the last decade, social media. But the mystery at the heart of this novel is more basic than that — is, in fact, Camus’s eternal question, why not suicide? as filtered through the lens of an artist reflecting on her practice. “The project,” the narrator explains about her decision to sleep, “was beyond issues of ‘identity’ and ‘society’ and ‘institutions.’” What she wants, she tells us later during a visit to see still life paintings at the Met, is “to see what other people had done with their lives, people who had made art alone, who had stared long and hard at bowls of fruit […] Did they know that glory was mundane? Did they wish they’d crushed those withered grapes between their fingers?” My Year is not so much a transgressive modern parable as it is a mordant cry of creative despair.

Above all, reading Moshfegh’s novel made me wonder what a literature that focused on our place in the world, rather than on our desire to flee from it, might look like. What would it mean for a writer of literary fiction in 2018 to venture beyond the self and existentialism, to find out what lies on the other side?

Life In The Present Tense: “Like” By A. E. Stallings, by Rowland Bagnall, Los Angeles Review of Books

In the September 2012 issue of Poetry magazine, the Canadian poet and classicist A. E. Stallings reflected on living in Athens, where she moved with her husband in 1999. “The one thing people will ask you here,” she writes, “if you are, as I am, clearly a foreigner, is: Are you here permanently? Are you planning to go back?” Nearly 20 years after her move, Stallings continues to live and work in Greece, where the immediacy of contemporary Athens collides with ongoing meditations on motherhood, mythology, politics, and poetry. In Like, her latest collection from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Stallings presents a diverse quiver of poems — arranged in alphabetical order — polished and sharpened by her typically innovative use of traditional verse forms, poised vocabulary, and a playful dexterous teasing-out of simile and metaphor.

While the alphabetical arrangement of the collection creates a kind of echoing, it also reveals Stallings’s distinct threads and themes. Prominent among them is her interest in writing about all-encompassing, everyday parenting. Recalling what the inside-cover calls Stallings’s “archaeology of the domestic,” which grows and changes with her children, as in “Ultrasound,” from Hapax (2006), these poems continue in the spirit of her previous collection Olives (2012), written “smack in the middle of life, marriage and kids,” as she says to one interviewer, “and [which] I hope is full in the way that my life is currently very full.”

The Morning After: One Man’s Quest For A Hangover Cure, by Molly Young, New York Times

The Canadian writer and actor Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall is a fine person to write a book about hangovers, not only because he’s a tenacious researcher but also because he’s willing to get thoroughly torn up on a consistent basis in colorful circumstances. He gorges on single-malt Scotch in Las Vegas, swallows a dozen pints of ale in a series of English pubs, binges on tequila and collapses beside a cactus near the Mexican border, wears lederhosen to a German beer festival and so forth. Reading his chronicle, “Hungover: The Morning After and One Man’s Quest for the Cure,” has an effect not unlike recovering from food poisoning or slipping into a warm house on a frigid night. You turn the pages thinking, “Thank God I don’t feel like that right now.” Or maybe, “Thank God I’m not this guy.”

The Universally Particular: An Essay Review Of Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel, by Marcos Gonsalez., 3am Magazine

And maybe that’s what all of this is about. Writing as the imagining of those people we do and do not know, of what was and what can never be. People we care about even though time and distance and death leave its mark. People in their houses writing and on the streets protesting and in their swimming pools swimming, alive and living in our fictions. This is the work of literature as Chee gives it to us: rendering people, the world, and ourselves as reflected in our particular ideas and experiences.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Facing The “Horror Of Time”, by Peter Adamson, Los Angeles Review of Books

One of the most common prejudices we historians of philosophy encounter is the notion that philosophy is somehow incompatible with religious belief. Religion is based on faith, philosophy on reason; religion is rigorously imposed doctrine, philosophy is open-ended inquiry; religion is about believing what you’re told, philosophy about figuring things out for yourself. A moment’s reflection will show you that it must be a little more complicated than that. After all, nearly all philosophers in history — famous and obscure, ancient and modern, Western and non-Western, male and female — have been religious believers. No surprise there, given that nearly all humans in recorded history have been religious believers. So to believe in a fundamental opposition between religion and philosophy, or faith and reason, is to assume that nearly the entire history of philosophy has consisted of people rising above or setting aside their own deeply held spiritual convictions.

A Vegetarian Reporter Explores A Hunting Dilemma, by Ian Urbina, New York Times

When you’re lying face down for 20 minutes in a steaming pile of elk droppings, having to remain breathlessly still because the herd may have just spotted your hunting party, you find odd ways to distract yourself. I pondered a simple but vexing question: How can hunters claim to care deeply about the animals they kill?

At that point in our weeklong trek in eastern Oregon across the 33,000-acre Zumwalt Prairie Preserve, the six of us in the group had been belly-crawling, tightly single file, for a quarter-mile. Wearing heavy backpacks, we looked like overgrown turtles as we awkwardly tried to sneak up on our prey. But elk spook easily and for two long days they evaded us, always managing to see, smell or hear us from what seemed to be impossible distances, well before Chelsea Cassens, our group’s permitted hunter, could get within the 200 yards she needed to make an “ethical” kill shot.

How ‘Ralph Breaks The Internet’ Spoofs The Disney Princess Industrial Complex, by Michael Cavna, Washington Post

As a storyteller, Ribon knows her way around a modern Disney princess, having worked for about two years on the hit “Moana.” And she says her gift for crafting the dialogue of strong, funny female characters had helped her become a writer on Disney’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet” (opening Wednesday), the sequel to Rich Moore’s Oscar-nominated 2012 smash “Wreck-It Ralph.”

So it was with a taste for the satiric that Ribon began to muse: What if, at one point in the film, I surrounded Vanellope Von Schweetz, the “Ralph” franchise’s endearingly daring video-game racer (voiced by Sarah Silverman), with enough Disney princesses that it resembled a sorority reunion — and then teasingly lampooned their tropes?

Just How Tight Are Family Ties When Your Sister's A 'Serial Killer'?, by Annalisa Quinn, NPR

"I am not angry. If anything, I am tired," Korede says, faced with yet another bloody crime scene to scour, yet another body to dump. The first few times, her beautiful sister Ayoola's self-defense claims seemed plausible, but the bodies have added up. And Korede Googled it: Three murders makes you a serial killer.

My Sister, the Serial Killer, the wry debut novel by Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite, tests the bonds of family, when family comes armed. The title says it all: Ayoola likes to kill her boyfriends. Korede can't quite bear to see her get caught: "Ayoola needs me; she needs me more than I need untainted hands." So, the gloves come on and the bleach comes out.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

On Reading Jonathan Gold, by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Perhaps you would like to read a restaurant review this morning,” Jonathan Gold often wrote, broadcasting his Los Angeles Times reviews on Twitter. I want to read an uncountable number of additional reviews by Gold, who died July 21 at the age of 57, just a few weeks after receiving a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. To read one Gold review after another, which you can do in the collection Counter Intelligence (2000), is to enter a world in which flavors are vivid and the virtues and flaws of each eatery are picked out in fine detail. He covered food trucks, white tablecloth restaurants, and 2:00-a.m.-hangover-recovery-noodle counters in Koreatown, and he described them all with a voice that was playful, literary, and just. July 28 would have been his 58th birthday, and several buildings in Los Angeles were illuminated with gold light in commemoration. He was, and remains, beloved, irreplaceable. Now Gold’s trademark silhouette — a tongue-in-cheek imitation of Alfred Hitchcock — is drawn on the wall of a taqueria in the Arts District. One of his familiar mottos, “The taco honors the truck,” is written next to it.

Gold offered weekly reviews of restaurants in the Los Angeles area, but he also represented Los Angeles both to the city’s residents and to the world. His reviews and notes on food may bear the time-stamp of workaday journalism, but they also transcend their time and geography. They constitute a full-fledged chapter of Los Angeles’s literary history, and of the history of food writing. Encomia aside, I owe Gold a personal debt as a reader. His reviews taught me to love Los Angeles, shaking off cinematic and literary visions of the city that had taught me to mistrust the place.

The Mystery Font That Took Over New York, by Rumsey Taylor, New York Times

It’s a typeface that draws the eye with its inherent contradictions. It seems to have been drawn improvisationally with a brush, and yet it’s so hefty it looks like it could slip off a wall. It’s both delicate and emphatic, a casual paradox, like a Nerf weapon.

Choc is far from the most popular typeface on the storefronts of New York, but it can still be found everywhere and in every borough. It’s strewn on fabric awnings and etched in frosted glass. It gleams in bright magenta or platinum lighting. It’s used for beauty salons, Mexican restaurants, laundromats, bagel shops, numerous sushi bars. It may be distorted, stacked vertically, or shoehorned into a cluster of other typefaces. But even here Choc remains clear and articulate, its voice deep and friendly, its accent foreign, perhaps, yet endearing.

Poetry After Poetry, by Sam Huber, n+1

Among poets, the lauded and the unrecognized share the suspicion that their peers are against them. For years now or maybe forever, it’s seemed that the only responsible attitude toward poetry is one of skepticism, pointed fatigue, even hatred. Hating poetry, especially hating it in scare quotes, became a fashionable route back to loving poetry with the publication of Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry in 2016, but postures of engaged dissent both preceded and survived the conversations occasioned by his book. I’ve texted Marianne Moore’s timeworn disclaimer, “I, too, dislike it” with a self-abasing *blah blah blah* to more than one friend who does not read poetry or resents its obscurity, as I believe them to have this in common with some poets.

This resentment of poetry is evident on both sides of a murky divide that’s perpetually redrawn in new terms. On one side, writers of coherent lyrics anchored by a stable “I”—some of whom have weathered decades of vanguardist rupture—defend intelligibility against what they fear poetry has become. In the title essay of American Originality (2017), Louise Glück, hardly a partisan of traditional forms, shows how a sincere investment in poetic voice can be a form of protest against the genre’s drift toward the impenetrable. Glück argues that the frantic and self-doubting pursuit of a more original style is defining of contemporary poetry, and of Americanness, and damns both for it.

At 60, Joe Ide Proves It’s Never Too Late To Establish Yourself As A Novelist, by Patrick Anderson, Washington Post

The wonder of love, the cruelty of war, the black world he knows well, the music he loves (Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, George Shearing) — all the beauty and cruelty and craziness he filed away in his mind before he began writing these novels. With “Wrecked,” Ide confirms that he’s among the most original new voices in today’s crime fiction.

In A New Biography, A Fresh Glimpse Into The World Of Macabre Illustrator And Real-life Character Edward Gorey, by Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times

Some enigmas aren’t meant to be solved — but they can be usefully illuminated. That’s just what Dery does in this excellent book.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Cavernous World Under The Woods, by Bruce Grierson, Hakai Magazine

In the twilight hush of the fanciest restaurant in town, Paul Griffiths pulls out a tiny device that looks like a primitive cellphone and sinks it in his water glass. He’s trying to figure out where the water came from—here, Campbell River, a small coastal community in British Columbia, or somewhere else?

The instrument, an electrical conductivity meter, reveals the path the water took from its source to Griffiths’s glass by measuring the charged minerals picked up along the way.

“Twenty-two, 23, 24 …,” says Carol Ramsey, reading the display.

A server orbiting past the table stops midstride and stares.

“We’re just testing the conductivity of your water,” Ramsey says cheerfully.

Seashaken Houses By Tom Nancollas Review – A Hymn To The Lighthouse Keepers, by Tessa Hadley, The Guardian

Tom Nancollas trained as a building conservationist and fell in love with lighthouses, their heroic form and history – particularly the lonely rock lighthouses that aren’t built on coasts or islands but “appear to rise, mirage-like, straight out of the sea, their circular foundations often unseen”. His book isn’t a compendious overview but a selective and more personal account of eight particular rock lighthouses, in nine chapters. Each separate chapter, as well as addressing the particularity of one place and one history, tells a different part of the overall story – early efforts and failures, the changing design of the lights themselves, the life of the keepers. It’s a well made and well ordered book, in keeping with its subject.

The World Of Ice And A History Of Mirages, by The Economist

Mortals cling to the hope that they will leave some permanent trace of themselves behind. They prefer to think that houses will not crumble and that works, on canvas or paper, will endure. The grandiose or tyrannical put up monuments; writers make sure their books are deposited in libraries; the multitude order gravestones and label photographs, though all this floats in impermanence too.

Two new books grapple with this paradox by considering phenomena that symbolise instability itself. In “The Library of Ice” Nancy Campbell, a young poet, embarks on a quest to understand the relationship between ice, which is now melting faster than ever, and the fleeting written and spoken word. In “The Waterless Sea” Christopher Pinney, an anthropologist at University College London, considers the history and meaning of mirages.

Slip Of A Fish By Amy Arnold Review – Immersive Debut Makes A Splash, by Stevie Davies, The Guardian

Take a deep breath before you plunge into this story; you’ll need a certain amount of patience, if you wish to keep afloat. With this, her debut novel, Arnold has won the inaugural Northern book prize, and I can see why: the work is original, ambitious and challenging, submerging the reader in the strangeness of an anomalous mind, an aqueous medium where language is refracted into mazes of shifting meanings.

Mapping The Making Of America, by Susan Schulten, The Economist

Still, at a time when the country’s tectonic plates grind ever more fiercely against one another, this book is a reminder that little in its destiny is truly fixed. Like the mighty Mississippi, the American experiment continually overflows and reshapes its banks.

China Dream By Ma Jian Review – Stinging Satire From A Novelist In Exile, by Madeleine Thien, The Guardian

Ma has a marksman’s eye for the contradictions of his country and his generation, and the responsibilities and buried dreams they carry. His perceptiveness, combined with a genius for capturing people who come from all classes, occupations, backgrounds and beliefs; for identifying the fallibility, comedy and despair of living in absurd times, has allowed him to compassionately detail China’s complex inner lives. Censoring his novels and banning his name have been Beijing’s cynical response to Ma’s artistry, and to the human lives that the novelist cannot forget, even as the Chinese Dream envelops them.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The World According To Garp Was Never Meant To Be This Timeless, by John Irving, Esquire

Twenty years ago, which was twenty years after The World According to Garp was published, I wrote an afterword to the novel. Rewriting is the unglamorous part of creating, but revision is essential for clarity. In rewriting this new introduction to Garp, of course I found things to cut or change in that 1998 afterword, and I found a lot of necessary things to add.

In retrospect, it’s unnecessary to say that Garp is a worst-case scenario or that I am a doomsayer novelist, but in 1972–75—when I was teaching at the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City, where I began writing Garp—I was worried that the subject of sexual hatred (of intolerance of sexual minorities, and sexual differences) would be outdated before I finished the novel. In 1976–77, when I was living in Massachusetts and Vermont, where I finished Garp, it was inconceivable to me that the sexual violence I was writing about would long endure. In short, I thought sexual discrimination was too backward and too stupid to last.

No One Has A Monopoly On Death, by Inger Christensen, The Paris Review

It’s snowing. I’m thinking back to January 1979, when I received a letter whose writer told of his sudden fear of snow; for an instant the snow floating down to earth had been a poison that smothered all life.

It’s snowing. I’m remembering the farmer on TV who told of walking out into his fields in early November, and the snow, the first very sparse and fine snow, burned like fire. But now, so much later, nobody would believe it. Even though practically every child knows that snow and fire are no longer opposites. Not in a radioactive world.

So. It’s snowing. The snow is no longer snow, but it’s still snowing.

We’re now so fearful that we’re not even fearful anymore, but the fear is spreading anyway, and the closest word for it is sorrow.

Is There Anybody Out There … Keeping Track Of The Weird Stuff We Send Into Space?, by Sarah Laskow, Atlas Obscura

There are two main ways to send information out into space—as a transmission or by blasting up a physical object. Through both methods, humans have sent off all sorts of intriguing data about life on Earth. In 1995, for instance, the National Science Development Agency of Japan transmitted, among other images, one of an alien and an earthling holding hands, in the direction of the Libra constellation. We’ve sent a copy of War of the Worlds to Mars, and models of Lego figures (of the Greek gods Juno and Jupiter, as well as Galileo Galilei) to orbit the planet Jupiter. The sculptor Forrest Myers reported that he sent, without permission, a tiny ceramic tile with miniature artworks by Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, and three other artists to the Moon with Apollo 12. This month, a golden urn honoring astronaut Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. will be sent into orbit.

Until recently, no one had really put together a full picture of what humans have sent off-Earth with intent of communicating something about life on this planet. So Paul Quast, director of the Beyond the Earth Foundation, set out to catalogue every cultural artifact and intentional message humans have launched or beamed into space. Published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, his accounting is (as far as he knows) the first attempt at simply documenting what we’re sending out there—a first step toward piecing together a complete sense of what we’re signaling about our world.

I Am Dynamite! By Sue Prideaux Review – Nietzsche As We Haven't Known Him Before, by The Guardian

There are unofficial rules about how a modern biography should begin. To start with the birth or even the death feels increasingly generic and stale. Instead, you are expected to find an incident from the middle years, something dramatic and specific like a lost manuscript, a duel, an accident that leaves your protagonist radically reconfigured. It’s got to be snappy and tense, the sort of thing that makes readers feel that they have landed in the middle of a particularly thrilling heist movie in which it’s unclear whether anyone will get out alive.

So when Sue Prideaux decides to open this life of Nietzsche with something else entirely, you know you are in the hands of a biographer who is either incompetent (unlikely, given that her earlier books on Strindberg and Munch have scooped prizes) or very sure of herself. For instead of showing us middle-aged Nietzsche making horrible animal noises while his prim mother receives visitors in the sitting room, or peak Nietzsche striding over the Alps imagining himself as an Übermensch (usually translated as “Superman”, even though it sounds silly), she gives us indeterminate Nietzsche, Nietzsche before he – or anyone else – has much idea who he really is.### The World According to Garp Was Never Meant to Be This Timeless, by John Irving, Esquire

Twenty years ago, which was twenty years after The World According to Garp was published, I wrote an afterword to the novel. Rewriting is the unglamorous part of creating, but revision is essential for clarity. In rewriting this new introduction to Garp, of course I found things to cut or change in that 1998 afterword, and I found a lot of necessary things to add.

In retrospect, it’s unnecessary to say that Garp is a worst-case scenario or that I am a doomsayer novelist, but in 1972–75—when I was teaching at the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City, where I began writing Garp—I was worried that the subject of sexual hatred (of intolerance of sexual minorities, and sexual differences) would be outdated before I finished the novel. In 1976–77, when I was living in Massachusetts and Vermont, where I finished Garp, it was inconceivable to me that the sexual violence I was writing about would long endure. In short, I thought sexual discrimination was too backward and too stupid to last.

No One Has A Monopoly On Death, by Inger Christensen, The Paris Review

It’s snowing. I’m thinking back to January 1979, when I received a letter whose writer told of his sudden fear of snow; for an instant the snow floating down to earth had been a poison that smothered all life.

It’s snowing. I’m remembering the farmer on TV who told of walking out into his fields in early November, and the snow, the first very sparse and fine snow, burned like fire. But now, so much later, nobody would believe it. Even though practically every child knows that snow and fire are no longer opposites. Not in a radioactive world.

So. It’s snowing. The snow is no longer snow, but it’s still snowing.

We’re now so fearful that we’re not even fearful anymore, but the fear is spreading anyway, and the closest word for it is sorrow.

Is There Anybody Out There … Keeping Track Of The Weird Stuff We Send Into Space?, by Sarah Laskow, Atlas Obscura

There are two main ways to send information out into space—as a transmission or by blasting up a physical object. Through both methods, humans have sent off all sorts of intriguing data about life on Earth. In 1995, for instance, the National Science Development Agency of Japan transmitted, among other images, one of an alien and an earthling holding hands, in the direction of the Libra constellation. We’ve sent a copy of War of the Worlds to Mars, and models of Lego figures (of the Greek gods Juno and Jupiter, as well as Galileo Galilei) to orbit the planet Jupiter. The sculptor Forrest Myers reported that he sent, without permission, a tiny ceramic tile with miniature artworks by Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, and three other artists to the Moon with Apollo 12. This month, a golden urn honoring astronaut Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. will be sent into orbit.

Until recently, no one had really put together a full picture of what humans have sent off-Earth with intent of communicating something about life on this planet. So Paul Quast, director of the Beyond the Earth Foundation, set out to catalogue every cultural artifact and intentional message humans have launched or beamed into space. Published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, his accounting is (as far as he knows) the first attempt at simply documenting what we’re sending out there—a first step toward piecing together a complete sense of what we’re signaling about our world.

I Am Dynamite! By Sue Prideaux Review – Nietzsche As We Haven't Known Him Before, by The Guardian

There are unofficial rules about how a modern biography should begin. To start with the birth or even the death feels increasingly generic and stale. Instead, you are expected to find an incident from the middle years, something dramatic and specific like a lost manuscript, a duel, an accident that leaves your protagonist radically reconfigured. It’s got to be snappy and tense, the sort of thing that makes readers feel that they have landed in the middle of a particularly thrilling heist movie in which it’s unclear whether anyone will get out alive.

So when Sue Prideaux decides to open this life of Nietzsche with something else entirely, you know you are in the hands of a biographer who is either incompetent (unlikely, given that her earlier books on Strindberg and Munch have scooped prizes) or very sure of herself. For instead of showing us middle-aged Nietzsche making horrible animal noises while his prim mother receives visitors in the sitting room, or peak Nietzsche striding over the Alps imagining himself as an Übermensch (usually translated as “Superman”, even though it sounds silly), she gives us indeterminate Nietzsche, Nietzsche before he – or anyone else – has much idea who he really is.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Revisiting The Genius Of Middlemarch, by John Mullan, Literary Hub

Admirers of Middlemarch often cite Virginia Woolf ’s description of George Eliot’s novel as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” But what did she mean? She cannot have been referring only to the novel’s subject matter, even if Eliot’s attention to the travails of married life, in particular, seems to envisage readers versed in life’s disappointments as well as its hopes. Nor can she have had in mind the novel’s ambitious length and complexity, though Eliot’s work lives up to her subtitle—”A Study of Provincial Life”—by braiding beautifully together the stories of a cluster of characters and families. Surely Woolf was thinking of the way that the novel is narrated: the subtlety and insight with which the novelist discovers her characters’ motivations. “Discovers” because Eliot, perhaps more than any other English novelist, seems to approach those characters as beings who already exist. She watches them and listens to them, and draws us into her ruminations about why they behave as they do.

That subtitle might suggest that the novel was undertaken in a spirit of sociological enquiry, and Eliot herself sometimes plays with the idea that her characters, ranging across the classes of an unremarkable Midlands town, are the objects of scientific scrutiny. She uses a series of analogies from Victorian experimental science—batteries, microscopes, optical effects—to help us to understand human interactions. Yet the humorous incongruity of these is part of their point. When she is wondering why the plain-speaking, unsentimental vicar’s wife Mrs. Cadwallader is so keen on engineering a match between Sir James Chettam, recently jilted by Dorothea Brooke, and Celia, Dorothea’s sister, Eliot asks us to imagine what might be revealed by “a microscope directed on a water-drop.” A weak lens might show small creatures actively swimming into the jaws of a larger one; a stronger lens shows “certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims.” Eliot duly applies a strong lens to Mrs. Cadwallader’s apparently unmotivated matchmaking. We are asked to see the power of a kind of vicarious snobbery in her, awakening her desire to bring the socially appropriate partners together. To the closest observer of human nature, there is always an explanation.

If Only We’d Fucking Listen To Helen DeWitt, by Kris Bartkus, The Millions

It’s not surprising, then, that she might try out unusual methods of financing. I can imagine her calculating out Spinoza time wasted from extraneous emails vs. Spinoza time gained from projected extra income (naturally I’d like to message her and ask what the scheme is all about, except then I remember my own income and have to admit that I’d be tipping the scales toward time wasted). But even a positive net expected value wouldn’t account for the note. To put such an entreaty out in the world requires something rarer than strict rationality; it requires, in large amounts and in equal measure, optimism and desperation. If DeWitt were merely desperate, she wouldn’t be the sort of person who burned bridges over type-setting; she’d write The Last Samurai derivatives and own a brownstone in Brooklyn. If she were merely an optimist, she would have accepted her lot and put her faith in posterity. Put the two together and you get one of our best writers leveraging her stature and her inbox for what is in all likelihood a moonshot of a fundraising scheme.

You also get what defines her fiction, even more so than the two themes most often used to describe it, genius and making ends meet. True, The Last Samurai begins with Sibylla, a single mother, earning scraps as a freelancer while teaching her son Ludo to speak a dozen languages and do advanced math, but what gives the novel its wheels is Ludo growing up to have the same need and daring as his creator. At 11 years old, he disobeys his mother and sets out to identify and meet his biological father, a travel writer named Val Peters. When he figures out that Peters is a mediocrity, Ludo is disappointed, but he doesn’t despair. He simply reasons that he should let Peters down easy and find someone better, and begins showing up at the doors of various impressive men, armed with a con man’s set of ruses and an appraising eye.

The Complicated Radicalism Of Emily Wilson’s The Odyssey, by Janey Tracey, Ploughshares

If you’ve heard Emily Wilson’s name in the last year, it probably had the almost-Homerian epithet “first woman translator of The Odyssey” attached to it. But Wilson’s version represents several other “firsts” as well: the first English translation with the exact same number of lines as the original, the first in a regular meter, the first to describe the protagonist as “complicated,” and the list goes on. While a woman translating Homer’s epic is certainly a huge milestone, Wilson’s interpretation is a radical, fascinating achievement regardless of her gender.

Take that controversial first line, translated by Wilson as: “Tell me about a complicated man.” The ancient Greek word polytropos, which literally translates to something like “many-turned” or “many-turning,” has given translators plenty of grief. The word is ambiguous enough in context that even classicists have trouble discerning whether the word is meant to describe Odysseus as passive or active: is he tossed around by fate, or is he actively manipulating the lives of others with the “twists and turns” of his character? Some, like George Musgrave’s “tost to and fro by fate,” went the passive route, while others like George Palmer’s “adventurous” have almost the opposite connotation. According to many translation theorists, including Wilson, all translation is an act of interpretation, and, fittingly, the wildly varying translations of this tricky word seem to depend on which character trait the translator chooses to highlight.

Plausible Disavowal, by Rob Horning, Real Life

Of course, human intention is still driving these projects, but it is abstracted a step away from the output. Barrat suggests that AI can “augment artists’ creativity” by producing “surreal” combinations that the artist can then sift through or refine. “A big part of my role in this collaboration with the machine is really that of a curator, because I’m curating the input data that it gets, and then I’m curating the output data that the network gives me and choosing which results to keep, and which to discard.” He can adjust the data sets and parameters until the output is suitably familiar or surprising or some surreal blend of both. Sicardi suggests that the machine can overcome pockets of resistance in the artist’s mind: “When you actually put an algorithm in your hands, it forces you to create versions and derivatives. It draws conclusions you wouldn’t have considered, because it lacks the context that may inhibit you.” AI programmers are then in the paradoxical position of producing intentional accidents — works that reflect their sensibility or their sense of rightness without their having to directly create them. Moreover, they feel right because they surprise the artist/researcher with their fittingness even as they continue to seem like they just happened. The works thereby embody a sense of plausible disavowal: It was what I was going for but not really, the machines took it somewhere no one could expect.

Algorithms generally are deployed for disavowal: as if they could eliminate bias or at least distract from it. They obfuscate the human input into a particular decision-making process to make it appear more objective. This typically means that the source of bias is displaced into the data — what was chosen to be collected and fed to the algorithms, and what assumptions have governed the programmer’s coding. Algorithmic processing and machine learning can make it appear as though the systems decide for their own reasons, reproducing the biases of the past as if no one is responsible for them, as if they are inherent. This, in the view of AI researcher Ali Rahimi, makes machine learning into a kind of alchemy.

Eating To America, by Katie Kosma, Longreads

“Dinner’s ready,” Shee Shee called. I walked out of the room to join everyone I’d been avoiding for fear that I would cry in front of them, or worse, that they would cry in front of me.

Shee Shee carried the rice, already flipped over on the platter, out to meet the stew on the dining room table. Cooking the perfect Iranian rice takes practice, but making the perfect tadig is a combination of luck and instincts — one never knows if the crust will hold, if it will be thick and crispy or if it will burn or fall apart.

After dinner my uncle drove us to the airport. Our suitcases smelled of pistachios, salted and soaked in lime juice, and saffron — the best saffron in the world is Iranian — which we’d taken as gifts and to stock our new kitchen. As the airplane took off, I looked down at the lights of Tehran, wondering if my house was somewhere down below looking up at the sky for us.

Students Want To Write Well; We Don’t Let Them, by Ryan Boyd, Los Angeles Review of Books

Here is the bad news: since the 1980s, American elites have engineered environments that produce the opposite of these feelings and motivations. Indeed, there is a good chance, especially if you are under 40, that the sentiments described above are thin on the ground. They might even be nonexistent, wiped out or never there in the first place.

This reality is central to John Warner’s urgent new book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. There is a crisis in how we teach young people, and for Warner this is especially salient in American writing classes. But it’s not the crisis you hear policymakers in Washington or your statehouse talk about, nor is it the sort of narrative that attracts New York Times columnists. The problem is not smartphone addiction, or oversensitive campus activists, or a lack of rigor on the part of professors who only care about their research, or unscrupulous teachers unions protecting bad apples, or millennials getting too many participation trophies, or helicopter parents, or whatever else bothers pundits at The Atlantic this week. It has, instead, a lot more to do with how we have tried to industrialize and centralize education since the Reagan era while simultaneously withdrawing the resources that allow teachers to create environments where students can thrive. A bad thing happened when the standardized test met the austerity budget coming down the road.

The Disaster That Was The Vietnam War, by Mark Atwood Lawrence, New York Times

Deep inside Max Hastings’s monumental "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy” sits a minute story that captures the essence of the book. As combat heated up in 1964, Hastings relates, Communist operatives strong-armed growing numbers of South Vietnamese peasants into the guerrilla force fighting to overthrow the United States-backed government in Saigon. For many young draftees, it was a soul-crushing experience, just as repugnant as conscription into the government’s army would have been if its recruiters had gotten there first. “You always criticize the imperialists,” the father of one conscript lashed out at the Communists, “but you are even worse. I want my son back.”

Hastings sees the Vietnam War in much the same way as that anguished villager. In his telling, it was a conflict without good guys, an appalling conflagration in which the brutality, cynicism and incompetence of the United States and its South Vietnamese ally were equaled only by the wickedness of their enemies, leaving the hapless bulk of the Vietnamese population to suffer the consequences. “If America’s war leadership often flaunted its inhumanity, that of North Vietnam matched it cruelty for cruelty,” Hastings contends.

Her Mother Disappeared 16 Years Ago. In This Novel, The Hunt Continues., by Tobias Grey, New York Times

In a 1962 article for the British magazine The Spectator, Iris Murdoch wrote that “the mythical is not something ‘extra.’ We live in myth and symbol all the time.” In “Everything Under,” Johnson carries on this grand tradition by making something very old uncannily new.

Two New Books Confront Nietzsche And His Ideas, by Steven B. Smith, New York Times

Ask college students majoring in philosophy how they got interested in their subject and more than likely the answer will be “Nietzsche.”

Nietzsche has probably been more things to more people than any other philosopher. In the years after World War II, he seemed irreparably stained by his association with National Socialism. His open contempt for equality as a form of slave morality, his language of superior and inferior peoples and races, and his advocacy of a new elite that might reshape the future of Europe seemed more than enough to banish him from the canons of serious philosophical thought, if not simple decency.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Welcome To The Witch Capital Of Norway, by Chelsea G. Summers, The Outline

“Happy Halloween,” said the young Norwegian museum attendant in crisp, British-accented English. She sounded solemn, like she was welcoming me to a funeral. I was an American in the Pomor Museum in Vardø, Norway, and, judging from the emptiness of the museum, the streets, and my hotel, I was the town’s sole tourist.

Any wicca wannabe with an Urban Outfitters smudge stick and a Hot Topic “Resting Witch Face” t-shirt can find their way to Salem for Halloween. Salem is just one of the four Massachusetts townships that held witch trials during America’s 17th century witch panic, but it’s the best known and more or less synonymous with the 19 people hanged for witchcraft between 1692 and 1693. Three centuries later, Salem has turned persecution into profit; the greater Salem area sports almost 20 witch-related shops, from wiccan apothecaries to witch-infused glass-blowing, t-shirts, and ice cream. Witchery is a business, and money is a charm. Welcome to the dark side, will that be debit or credit?

Harassment And Linguistic Inquiry In Milkman, by Sue Rainsford, Ploughshares

There is little help available to girls and women, after all, within a community that prizes not drawing attention to oneself and so by its very nature upholds sexually threatening vendettas. This twisting and turning of language, is also, then, for middle sister, a way of inuring herself against a reality wherein communal inaction and abuses of power recurrently intersect. It is an impulsive, learned reconsideration of the world around her, so that while her daily life might be matter-of-factly measured by her proximity to peril, upon sighting girls dancing in the street she can observe them as “beribboned, besilked, [and] bevelveted.”

Poetry Need Not Be A Call To Action, But ‘The Long Take’ Is, by Sibbie O'Sullivan, Washington Post

Moving between poetry and prose, dialogue and history, Robin Robertson’s “The Long Take” is a propulsive verbal tour de force. The book, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, is also a hymn to destruction that exposes our country’s betrayal of the American Dream in the years following World War II. If you think T.S. Eliot’s “unreal city” was full of the misbegotten and woe, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The Life Of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Imagined Through His Collisions With Others, by Andrea Barrett, New York Times

Still, Oppenheimer’s deepest secrets would remain as hidden as anyone else’s, if Hall relied only on biographical data. What shocks us into a new understanding of this complex and secretive soul are his psychological ties to the invented main characters. Hall uses them to perform seven thought experiments, as if Oppenheimer, like a subatomic particle, could be revealed only indirectly, through his collisions with others. As if, as one character reports him saying, “any given entity can only be defined as a function of its observer.” The resulting quantum portrait feels both true and dazzlingly unfamiliar.

Cynical Satire And Civic Optimism Across The American Heartland, by Danielle Charette, Los Angeles Review of Books

The only time I’ve ridden on a Greyhound bus was in 2012, en route to New Hampshire to watch the primaries unfold. The trip itself was uneventful, and in electoral time it feels as if it happened eons ago. I may believe you if you tell me that the Republicans’ choice of Mitt Romney as their presidential nominee occurred in an age before air travel. I may even agree to take buses exclusively from now on if it means there will be a saner politics waiting at the end of the road.

Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success is a novel centered on Americans’ nostalgia for the Greyhound bus. But it’s also a novel that skewers us for that nostalgia. Long-haul bus rides may seem the perfect vehicle for post-partisan populism. The Greyhound, we may imagine, combines beatnik fantasies with Middle America geography as it transports those too poor to buy a plane ticket and too down on their luck to be politically correct. But anyone who gets aboard the Greyhound to live out a sociological experiment rather than to simply secure an affordable ride from point A to point B is probably carrying some baggage of his own. This is certainly the case with Barry Cohen in Lake Success.

Evening In Paradise: More Stories By Lucia Berlin – Review, by Johanna Thomas-Corr, The Guardian

There are no cosy places to settle in the short stories of Lucia Berlin. The long-overlooked American writer walks us coolly into the unthinkable. “There are things people just don’t talk about,” says the teenage narrator in Dust to Dust, having witnessed the bloody death of her friend in a motorcycle race. “I don’t mean the hard things, like love, but the awkward ones, like how funerals are fun sometimes or how it’s exciting to watch buildings burning.”

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Fleeting Magic Of Scholastic Book Fairs, by Marina Koren, The Atlantic

The sight of beloved Clifford taking off his head would not traumatize me, because I am not a child and therefore I am not Scholastic’s target audience. I had embarked on the school visit thinking that the magic of the book fairs was timeless, that I would feel the same rush I did as a kid, but I had forgotten to account for the passage of time and what it does to adults.

As I drove away from Woodfield Elementary, a part of me wished I hadn’t come. I missed the dreamy soft lighting of my elementary-school memories. For those of you still chasing the high of a Scholastic book fair, take my advice: Keep chasing. Don’t go back. But if you do—this time, with your own kids—relish the knowledge that their memories will stick with them for years to come.

Bookstore's Tweet On The Sale Of A Children's Book After 27 Years, Goes Viral, by Shannon Van Sant, NPR

A bookstore in England sold a children's biography of William the Conqueror that had been sitting in its shop since 1991.

"I have just sold a book that we have had in stock since May 1991," the Broadhurst's Bookshop tweeted. "We always knew its day would come."

The store's tweet about the children's book's sale has since gone viral, and received thousands of replies. Author Sarah Todd Taylor tweeted in response, "The book held its breath. It had hoped so often, only to have that hope crushed. Hands lifted it from the shelf, wrapped it warmly in paper. As the door closed on its past life, the book heard the soft cheers of its shelfmates."

Reviving The Dinner Party, by Laura Leavitt, The Smart Set

There is a lot more that goes into a dinner invitation in my home than comes out in a casual, “you should come over for dinner!” Many see dinner at a friend’s house as no big deal, but the political history behind historical and even modern dinner parties cuts to the core of what it means to be social animals, to leave ourselves vulnerable to critique and open to friendship. Or at least it does for me, a Millennial plagued with at least a few stereotypical conditions: a healthy dollop of social anxiety, a preference for technological communication, and concerns about what makes me really an adult.

I spent most of my 20s meeting people on “neutral” ground – cafés, bars, restaurants, school – places that provided the ambiance and food options for me rather than making me do all the work. While I rarely saw those locations as fancy, and we didn’t always love dining hall food in college, those locations didn’t intimately reflect on me the way a dinner in my home does. The restaurant was a middle ground, a space where we could appreciate it or dislike it without claiming it as our own, as part of ourselves. More importantly, I had only had my own bodies to reckon with for potential judgment; people judging other people’s bodies is no new thing, but many people have the luxury of putting on a clean outfit, brushing their hair, and pretending like everything is fine, whether it is or it isn’t. I had a lot of rough days during my 20s, but when I met someone for coffee, I got to choose how much they saw of my stress, while my home was often an untidy wreck behind closed doors.

Science’s Freedom Fighters, by W. Patrick McCray, Los Angeles Review of Books

Wolfe’s new book, Freedom’s Laboratory, frontally addresses questions of what science is, how it is best done, and how it (and scientists themselves) might be strategically deployed to advance national interests. As suggested by its subtitle — “The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science” — after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a global free-for-all to win hearts, minds, and markets. This extended to “science.” Americans exerted their minds and money to distinguish a “good” American science from its communist — and, therefore, by definition compromised — counterpart.

As Wolfe convincingly argues, these efforts were based from the outset in a questionable assumption: that American science, perhaps like America itself, was exceptional in being inherently apolitical. Or, put slightly differently: It was neutral, unlike its Soviet counterpart. And from this fallacy, as she demonstrates, much trouble has ensued.

A Brilliant Frédéric Chopin, by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, New York Times

A secret congregation of politicians, religious officials and scientists gathered near midnight on April 14, 2014, in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw to exhume the heart of Chopin. No press was invited and word of the event did not filter out until five months later. The visitors did not open the crystal jar contained in a coffin inscribed with the composer’s name. But they examined and photographed the enlarged organ inside, which had been pickled, probably in cognac. Later, experts would say a whitish film coating the heart pointed to a death from tuberculosis with complications from pericarditis. The archbishop of Warsaw blessed the organ before it was reinterred in a stone pillar bearing a verse from Matthew: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The posthumous reputation of Frédéric Chopin (1810-49) stands in stark contrast to his music. A lifelong agnostic, he — or at least his heart — is venerated like a relic in Poland. He never wrote an opera, but in his afterlife he continues to throw up scenes of high drama. In his works — almost all for piano — he dispensed with the programmatic titles that many 19th-century composers used to evoke fairy-tale landscapes and picaresque quests. Yet almost from the moment Chopin died, in Paris, legends attached themselves to his name like ivy.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Matt Haig: 'I Wanted To End It All, But Surviving And Thriving Is The Lesson I Pass On', by Anna Moore, The Guardian

At the heart of Reasons to Stay Alive is the message that the storms pass. In the grip of his breakdown, Haig saw no hope and no future. The illness “lied”, he says in the book. Not only was there a future, what lay ahead was better than the life he’d had before. He’d married the woman he loved, watched his children being born, become a writer. Haig now thanks the illness for “waking him up” and helping him cherish the good times. “The person I became as a result is someone I wouldn’t have become without it.”

Haig’s newest book delivers the same message, only this time to children. A “truth pixie” tells a worried child that some of her worst fears will be realised – but there’s also joy ahead. “You don’t need to tell children that everything is going to be perfect because if they’re dependent on ‘perfect’, it will be very stressful,” says Haig. “Life will have some terrible things in it – but those terrible things will make the good things shine brighter. It’s a hard lesson at any age. But if you’re going to have that lesson, be told it by a pixie!”

Every Time A Word Disappears, We Lose A Little Of Our Spirit And Wit, by Rachel Cooke, The Guardian

But when I read last week of Edward Allhusen, a writer who has gathered together in a book called Betrumped (v to cheat or deceive) some 600 English words he fears are shortly to become extinct, something about it spoke to me – and not only because “lickspittle” is a term I use quite often. (Alas, there are just so many creeps and suck-ups out there, and lickspittle is not only, being plosive, a very satisfying word to shout when someone’s obsequiousness really gets your goat; it also – think about it – conjures a thoroughly effective picture of whichever worm you happen to be after.)

Perhaps it was the politicians with their reliance on such emptinesses as “going forward” and “a deal that delivers”. Perhaps it was the highly intelligent people I heard last week fall back on the dreaded “journey” to describe something that was not even close to being one (they were talking about having, as judges of a literary prize, read a few books). Either way, I found myself longing to hear such words as pettifogging (the placing of undue importance on petty details) and crapulent (relating to drunkenness). In the matter of vocabulary, I experienced a sudden and powerful yearning for the novel and the lively, the particular and the pungent.

The Fall Of The Gingko, by Henry Grabar, Slate

A gingko tree stands outside my bedroom window in Brooklyn. For seven months a year, I see nothing but leaves and sky; at night, the fan-shaped leaves cast flickering shadows on my walls. In October, the leaves turn the brilliant, luminous yellow of a stoplight. And then, one night—this year it was on Thursday—all the leaves fall, blanketing the sidewalk and cars below in gold. The houses across the street rush into view, where they’ll stay until new leaves bud.

Oliver Sachs called this phenomenon the Night of the Gingko. Compared to the slow decline of its deciduous neighbors, the gingko’s rapid defoliation appears to be unnatural. Fall becomes winter overnight. The same night my gingko lost its leaves, a record-breaking fall snowstorm caught the rest of New York’s trees by surprise, loading their leafy boughs up with snow. All night, branches came crashing down in the street, overwhelmed by the combined weight of two substances that rarely touch.

A Cover Story: The Art Of The Pointless Subtitle, by Gene Weingarten, Washington Post

Publishers believe that in this era of Search Engine Optimization, books must have subtitles, whether superfluous or not, and the more wordy the better.

This 'Ladder To The Sky' Is Grounded In The Dirty Depths, by Bethanne Patrick, NPR

The book's title derives from the proverb "Ambition is putting a ladder to the sky," meaning not simply that it's impossible, but that the fall is a long one. John Boyne's ambition in writing a comic novel about a nasty writer — that's nothing new. But John Boyne's ambition in writing a comic novel about a nasty writer with no scruples who never repents that will make you chuckle morbidly until the last line? That's ambition fulfilled.

Book Review: The Mystery Of Three Quarters, by P S Nissim, Deccan Herald

If you’re expecting a Poirot mystery, you’re getting your expectations fulfilled. Hannah draws you into the plot and keeps you turning the pages, unveiling the solution with the required assemblage of characters in the drawing room. She also matches the typically old-style British tone from Christie. For all the millions of fans of the ‘little grey cells’, this book is a welcome offering.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Human Brain Is A Time Traveler, by Steven Johnson, New York Times

Andreasen’s background outside neuroscience might have helped her perceive the value lurking in the rest state, where her peers saw only trouble. As a professor of Renaissance literature, she published a scholarly appraisal of John Donne’s “conservative revolutionary” poetics. After switching fields in her 30s, she eventually began exploring the mystery of creativity through the lens of brain imaging. “Although neither a Freudian nor a psychoanalyst, I knew enough about human mental activity to quickly perceive what a foolish ‘control task’ rest was,” she would later write. “Most investigators made the convenient assumption that the brain would be blank or neutral during ‘rest.’ From introspection I knew that my own brain is often at its most active when I stretch out on a bed or sofa and close my eyes.”

Andreasen’s study, the results of which were eventually published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in 1995, included a subtle dig at the way the existing community had demoted this state to a baseline control: She called this mode the REST state, for Random Episodic Silent Thought. The surge of activity that the PET scans revealed was not a confound, Andreasen argued. It was a clue. In our resting states, we do not rest. Left to its own devices, the human brain resorts to one of its most emblematic tricks, maybe one that helped make us human in the first place.

It time-travels.

I Found The Best Burger Place In America. And Then I Killed It., by Kevin Alexander, Thrillist

In my office, I have a coffee mug from Stanich’s in Portland, Oregon. Under the restaurant name, it says “Great hamburgers since 1949.” The mug was given to me by Steve Stanich on the day I told him that, after eating 330 burgers during a 30-city search, I was naming Stanich’s cheeseburger the best burger in America. That same day, we filmed a short video to announce my pick. On camera, Stanich cried as he talked about how proud his parents would be. After the shoot, he handed me the mug, visibly moved. “My parents are thanking you from the grave,” he said, shaking my hand vigorously. When I left, I felt light and happy. I’d done a good thing.

Five months later, in a story in The Oregonian, restaurant critic Michael Russell detailed how Stanich’s had been forced to shut down. In the article, Steve Stanich called my burger award a curse, “the worst thing that’s ever happened to us.” He told a story about the country music singer Tim McGraw showing up one day, and not being able to serve him because there was a five hour wait for a burger. On January 2, 2018, Stanich shut down the restaurant for what he called a “two week deep cleaning.” Ten months later, Stanich’s is still closed. Now when I look at the Stanich’s mug in my office, I no longer feel light and happy. I feel like I’ve done a bad thing.

Why 536 Was ‘The Worst Year To Be Alive’, by Ann Gibbons, Science

Ask medieval historian Michael McCormick what year was the worst to be alive, and he's got an answer: "536." Not 1349, when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe. Not 1918, when the flu killed 50 million to 100 million people, mostly young adults. But 536. In Europe, "It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year," says McCormick, a historian and archaeologist who chairs the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past.

A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months. "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year," wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles record "a failure of bread from the years 536–539." Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse, McCormick says.

'Death And Other Holidays' Is A Perfect Literary Break, by Lily Meyer, NPR

Death and Other Holidays brilliantly balances humor and anger, sorrow and beauty. Vogel's subjects may be grief and death, but her writing reflects life as we live it, life with its many intricate, unnoticed balances. When the novella ends, it's spring again. A year has passed. It's time for April and Victor to follow Wilson's instructions. They're ready to START, GO.

How Different Really Are Atheists And Believers?, by Costica Bradatan, Washington Post

Gray has emerged as a unique thinker precisely because he has no time for the pious lies and empty niceties of the academic establishment. He seems to have a sixth sense that helps him detect whatever is shallow, self-flattering and self-deceptive in our notions of ourselves. He is erudite, witty and persuasive. A lover of paradox, Gray is himself paradoxical: at once passionate and detached, bold and skeptical, visionary and humble. Indeed, a sense of cosmic humility permeates his thinking. There is nothing special about us in this world, he conveys, and that’s an important part of our humanity. Yet that’s no reason for panic or despair. The final line of Gray’s book is strangely comforting: “A godless world is as mysterious as one suffused with divinity, and the difference between the two may be less than you think.”

A Portrait Of Love And Struggle In Post-Industrial, Small-City America, by Adrian Nicole Leblanc, New Yorker

Shaming people who live in poverty is an old reflex in America. Kenneally reminds us that the fault lines of capitalism are everywhere within our nation, running through the very foundation we keep building upon. Her excavations blast through any attempt to deny it. In her book’s opening essay, she refers to her photographs as “new fossils.” With taking pictures, Kenneally writes, “comes the power to manufacture a record that future generations will consider fact.” Whether we choose to look or not, these images are facts.

The Limits Of Language In A Surrealist Age: Sabrina Orah Mark’s “Wild Milk”, by Michael Valinsky, Los Angeles Review of Books

he text shines when it hangs on to something tangible but gets lost in the fog of connotation when a linguistically amorphous story line dominates. As a poet (The Babies [2004], Tsim Tsum [2009]), Mark understands how far words can go to produce meaning, and it’s exciting to see this poetic kineticism applied to the short story form.

What Constitutes A Foreigner? Two Story Collections Explore, by Romaaan Alam, New York Times

“Love Songs for a Lost Continent” gathers work that doesn’t quite cohere as a book; the effect is more mixtape than album. In “Useful Phrases for Immigrants,” Chai has a more defined authorial interest, but however diverting her best stories are, ultimately the book feels insubstantial. There’s no one way of writing or collecting short stories; the form’s elasticity is precisely why writers keep trying their hands at them, and why we continue to read them.

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Best Way To Save People From Suicide, by Jason Cherkis, Huffington Post

Whiteside was becoming so anxious about her work that she had days when she could hardly sleep or eat. One night after her internship was over, she uncorked a bottle of wine. She drank until she didn’t care if she ever woke up. This scared her. For just a few moments, she realized how it felt to be suicidal.

Months later, Whiteside met with her therapist to discuss how she could handle these feelings of powerlessness. Whiteside brought up the work of a long-retired psychiatrist and suicide researcher named Jerome Motto. He wasn’t well-known. But Whiteside’s mentor Marsha Linehan was enamored of him because he was the only American to devise an experiment that dramatically reduced suicide deaths. His technique didn’t involve a complicated thousand-page manual to follow or $1 billion in pharmaceutical research and development. All he did was send occasional letters to those at risk.

Right there in therapy, Whiteside found herself spouting out everything she knew about Motto’s approach and career. She began to cry. “Oh my God,” she said. “What if this is what we should be doing? What if it’s that simple?”

In Defense Of Puns, by James Geary, The Paris Review

Puns straddle that happy fault where sound and sense collide, where surface similarities of spelling or pronunciation meet above conflicting seams of meaning. By grafting the idea of evil onto the word for apple, Saint Jerome ensured that every time we recall Adam and Eve’s fateful disobedience in the garden we are reminded of the fruit of a deciduous tree of the rose family.

From the beginning, punning has been considered the lowest form of wit, a painful fall from conversational grace. What other form of speech is so widely reviled that we must immediately apologize for using it? “Sorry, no pun intended.”

But puns do not deserve such a bitter appellation. Despite its bad reputation, punning is, in fact, among the highest displays of wit. Indeed, puns point to the essence of all true wit—the ability to hold in the mind two different ideas about the same thing at the same time. And the pun’s primacy is demonstrated by its strategic use in the oldest sacred stories, texts, and myths.

The End Of Endings, by Amanda Hess, New York Times

Didn’t endings used to mean something? They imbued everything that came before them with significance, and then they gave us the space to reflect on it all. More than that: They made us feel alive. The story ended, but we did not. This had been true at least since the novel supplanted the oral tradition. In his essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin wrote that the novelist “invites the reader to a divinatory realization of the meaning of life by writing ‘Finis.’” He continued, “What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.” We needed stories to end so we could make sense of them. We needed characters to die so we could make sense of ourselves.

Today the tradition of the novel has been supplanted by that of the comic book: Stories extend indefinitely, their plot holes patched through superpower, magic and dreams. Or maybe every story is a soap opera now: Nobody dead is dead forever, not Dan Conner of “Roseanne” and definitely not all of the superhero genocide victims of “Infinity War.” Of course, to Hollywood’s bean counters, sequels are mere brand extensions of intellectual property. But something bigger is happening, too: The logic of the internet is colonizing everything.

Becoming Anne Frank, by Dara Horn, Smithsonian

There is an exculpatory ease to embracing this “young girl,” whose murder is almost as convenient for her many enthusiastic readers as it was for her persecutors, who found unarmed Jewish children easier to kill off than the Allied infantry. After all, an Anne Frank who lived might have been a bit upset at the Dutch people who, according to the leading theory, turned in her household and received a reward of approximately $1.40 per Jew. An Anne Frank who lived might not have wanted to represent “the children of the world,” particularly since so much of her diary is preoccupied with a desperate plea to be taken seriously—to not be perceived as a child. Most of all, an Anne Frank who lived might have told people about what she saw at Westerbork, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and people might not have liked what she had to say.

And here is the most devastating fact of Frank’s posthumous success, which leaves her real experience forever hidden: We know what she would have said, because other people have said it, and we don’t want to hear it.

Longer Than The Song Of A Whip-poor-will, by Michael Graff, Oxford American

Strokes are evil and come from troubled hearts. Dad smoked his first cigarette at fourteen and kept the chain going for nearly fifty years, until a round of congestive heart failure sent him to the emergency room in 2006. “Do you smoke?” a doctor asked him that evening. “Used to,” my dad said. “When’d you quit?” “This morning,” my dad said, “when I couldn’t breathe anymore.” The doctor appreciated the humor, but Dad’s arteries were less forgiving, and the ministrokes began a few years later.

A boy becomes a lot of what his father was; I avoided the Winston Lights but inherited the desire to drive.

Jonathan Franzen’s Creature Feature: In A New Essay Collection, The Novelist Dissects His Love Of Birds, by Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times

It may be these contradictions of character that let him write the big, restless, morally-wrangling novels that he does. As he swings from disdain for others to cringing at his own shortcomings, he makes a gift of his foibles — at least on the page. “The End of the End of the Earth” makes the most of them.

Jonathan Franzen Finds Hope In Nature In 'The End Of The End Of The Earth', by Annalisa Quinn, NPR

This vulnerability makes it suddenly easy to read him less like a prestigious author being arbitrarily cruel about strangers — and more like he sees himself, someone disappointed and hopeful and heartbroken about all of the ways that we treat the earth and each other.

"I suspect that sympathy, or its absence, is involved in almost every reader's literary judgments," he writes in his essay about Edith Wharton. This collection becomes beautiful when he finally gives us permission to care about him.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Building Houses That Grow With Us, by Paige Vickers, Curbed

Houses are a particular paradox. We expect them to serve as long-term, if not permanent, shelter—the word “mortgage” even has the prefix mort, death, implying that the house will live longer than we will—but we also expect them to shift in response to our needs and desires. As Christopher Alexander writes in his treatise The Timeless Way of Building, “You want to be able to mess around with it and progressively change it to bring it into an adapted state with yourself, your family, the climate … to reflect the variety of human situations.”

That is exactly what we want—and we’ve gone about it in exactly the wrong way. We’ve ended up with overstuffed houses that attempt to anticipate every direction our lives could go, when what we need are flexible houses that can adapt to the lives we’re actually living.

But flexibility rarely comes up, as Brand points out in his book, in the fevered brouhaha of building and architectural consumption. And if we’re going to rethink how flexible our houses are, we need to do so at the level of our structures and the way they are built.

M.F.K. Fisher And The Art Of The Culinary Selfie, by Ruby Tandoh, Munchies

“Life is hard, we say. An oyster’s life is worse. She lives motionless, soundless, her own cold ugly shape her only dissipation.” If the oyster survives, the author darkly concludes, “it is for man to eat, because of man's own hunger.”

When food writer M.F.K. Fisher wrote these sombre reflections, her husband had lived with the anguish of Buerger’s disease for several years. He had suffered clots and gangrene in a leg which would eventually be amputated, and the debilitating pain he endured would seep, as suffering tends to do, radially outwards to touch each person he encountered. Pushed westward by the onset of war and fear for Dillwyn’s—or Tim, as he was commonly known—health, in 1938 the couple relocated from their Swiss home to Fisher’s native California, purchasing a small plot of land where he might be able to rest.

By the time those reflections on the oyster were published in 1941, Dillwyn Parrish was dead. Overwhelmed by his pain, he slipped out into the “90 acres of rocks and rattlesnakes”—this haven in the desert with warm, dry air, away from the ravages of war—and took his life. Fisher awoke to the sound of a single gunshot that morning. Just weeks later, Consider The Oyster was published: a series of funny, often unsettling, declarative essays on the oyster, and Fisher’s second book. This month, some 77 years after its original release, it will be republished with a foreword by food writer Felicity Cloake. In an age of Huel, home delivery meal kits, and Joe Wicks, what could the old-fashioned oyster possibly teach us?

How Silicon Valley’s Favorite Chinese-American Restaurant Was Born, by Melissa Hung, Eater

On his third day in the United States, Lawrence Chu went looking for a job. It was 1964, and the 21-year-old had just emigrated from Hong Kong to San Francisco. He spoke little English, but he had one advantage: His father, a well-respected interior designer who had already been in the States for two years, knew one of the bosses of a popular restaurant.

Chu walked to the Trader Vic’s in San Francisco to speak with the company’s Chinese-American vice president, who pointed him toward a manager. And that’s how, on his third day in a new country, Chu got hired as a busboy.

“I’m not ashamed about being a busboy,” Chu, now 75, says of the start of his restaurant career. “Anything you start at the bottom.”

An Axe For The Frozen Sea, by Megan Stielstra, The Believer

I throw two-handed, fists stacked at the base of the axe handle. My right foot is at the line, my left just behind, and I rock, my weight shifting forward, back, forward, back. This strength is mine. This body, mine. The target: concentric rings painted on 2X10 pine boards and drilled into the wall. It’s fifteen feet in front of me. Fifteen feet is the full rotation of an axe. When I started throwing axes I read articles by physicists about velocity and angle and centrifugal force. I read governing rules from the National Axe Throwing Federation and the World Axe Throwing League including etiquette, scoring, and foot faults. I watched countless instructional videos, the majority featuring dudes in fields, and one where the actor Jason Momoa nails a bullseye while drinking a very large beer.

I watched that last one many times.

Feet still staggered, I bring both hands back over my head. The blade is straight. I’m leaning back. My elbows are at my ears and I’m gripping the handle and everything in me—I don’t know how else to say this—sighs. The knots in my neck untie, brambles in my back untangle. This is what child’s pose used to feel like—the relaxation, the release—but yoga isn’t working for me right now. Neither is bourbon—I’ve been drinking too much—or sleeping—not much at all—or deep breaths or petting dogs or social media breaks or any of a thousand things we do to stay calm, don’t tell me to be calm. I am not fucking calm. I could explode this city with my rage.

I let go of the axe.

Once Upon A Time In Los Angeles: Kathryn Harrison’s “On Sunset”, by Dinah Lenney, Los Angeles Review of Books

There's some debate about what Joan Didion meant when she wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Did she leave out two words? Did she mean to say, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live with ourselves”? Maybe she did. And maybe the statement is true — of course it is. But also we tell ourselves stories in order to connect; to carry on with some faith that it matters if we do. And in order to insist that “the past isn’t over,” in the words of Faulkner, who also wrote, “I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world.”

This would seem to be the case with Kathryn Harrison, who has mined the events of her life across genre. But say you haven’t read her before. Say her new memoir, On Sunset, is your introduction to the author. Too bad about these parents, you might think to yourself; too bad about the father gone entirely missing; and that mother — so vain and selfish and mean. And even so. Even so, you might also suppose, once you’ve finished the book, what a wonderful childhood: to grow up in that rambling old mansion on that famous Boulevard with those dear, funny old people (her mother’s parents), eccentric, doting, storytellers, both, and willing to tell the same astonishing stories over and over.

Becoming By Michelle Obama Review – Race, Marriage And The Ugly Side Of Politics, by Afua Hirsch, The Guardian

During Barack Obama’s tenure, it was Michelle Obama’s roots in the African American experience, in the history of the south that she understood innately as “knit into me”, that lent him crucial legitimacy among black voters. It resurfaces here, adding the profound warnings of past suffering to the observation that, as she sees the Trumps take over the White House, “the vibrant diversity … was gone, replaced by what felt like a dispiriting uniformity, the kind of overwhelmingly white and male tableau I’d encountered so many times”.

Becoming reads as Obama’s first intervention into this distressing new reality. It definitely does not read like it will be the last.

Michelle Obama's 'Becoming' Is A Clear, Frank Telling Of Her Life As A Black Woman In America, by Rebecca Carroll, Los Angeles Times

James Baldwin wrote, “No one can possibly know what is about to happen: it is happening, each time, for the first time, for the only time.” This went doubly for Michelle Obama, who decided against reading books by other first ladies when her husband was president. “I almost didn't want to know what was the same and what was different about any of us,” she writes in “Becoming,” her ardently anticipated, Oprah Book Club-selected, 400-page memoir. But of course something was different for Michelle and Barack Obama. Real different.

Jenny Hval’s Queer Eden, by Ann-Derrick Gaillot, The Nation

In Paradise Rot, a young university student named Jo has her first queer sexual experience in an apartment slowly filling up with creeping moss and fungi. At its simplest, this debut novel by the Oslo-based musician Jenny Hval is about a libidinal awakening. But the book, drawing elements from pulpy romance novels, the Book of Genesis, and magical realism, is also the origin story of a world born of queer desire. As Jo and her roommate Carral grow closer and closer, their damp apartment becomes ever more fertile, slowly transforming into an ecosystem unto itself. Their home is a warm bubble inside the cold fictional English town of Aybourne, and within that bubble, Jo slowly loses all sense of distance and separation from the object of her desire.

Helping Out Family Is Taken To Extremes In ‘My Sister, The Serial Killer’, by Parul Sehgal, New York Times

It’s not that Ayoola meant to kill quite so many men. She’s not a monster, she’d insist. Things just have a way of getting out of hand. Frankly, it would be cruel to blame her. Maybe you’re the monster?

Ayoola — lovely, dopey, incorrigibly murderous — is the chaos at the heart of “My Sister, the Serial Killer,” a much-anticipated first novel from the Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite. It’s Lagos noir — pulpy, peppery and sinister, served up in a comic deadpan courtesy of the narrator, Ayoola’s horrified sister Korede.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A Mission For Journalism In A Time Of Crisis, by Michelle Thompson, The Guardian

‘No former period, in the history of our Country, has been marked by the agitation of questions of a more important character than those which are now claiming the attention of the public.” So began the announcement, nearly 200 years ago, of a brand-new newspaper to be published in Manchester, England, which proclaimed that “the spirited discussion of political questions” and “the accurate detail of facts” were “particularly important at this juncture”.

Now we are living through another extraordinary period in history: one defined by dazzling political shocks and the disruptive impact of new technologies in every part of our lives. The public sphere has changed more radically in the past two decades than in the previous two centuries – and news organisations, including this one, have worked hard to adjust.

But the turbulence of our time may demand that we do more than adapt. The circumstances in which we report, produce, distribute and obtain the news have changed so dramatically that this moment requires nothing less than a serious consideration of what we do and why we do it.

The Resurgence Of The Witch’s Tale, by A.K. Afferez, Ploughshares

The figure of the witch is everywhere these days, showing up as the materialization of a feminist fantasy where women are able to reclaim and wield power over their own bodies. This resurgence of the witch’s tale feels inevitable given its history: Silvia Federici, both in her groundbreaking Caliban and the Witch and in her more recent books, has written at length about how witch-hunting developed in a world where communal relations were crumbling under the emergence of capitalism. From that moment on, the witch was the woman who escaped and defied patriarchal authority—and for this, she has always had to be punished.

The Kilogram Is Dead; Long Live The Kilogram, by James Vincent, The Verge

Nearly every measurement of weight you’ve ever made, from peeking at your bathroom scale to measuring out flour for a recipe, can be traced back to just a single object: a metal kilogram made of platinum and iridium that resides under lock and key in an underground vault in Paris. It’s called the International Prototype Kilogram, or IPK, and since its creation in 1889 it has been the standard by which the world’s weights are defined. But not for much longer.

Copies of the IPK are distributed around the world, with countries then creating their own reference weights, as close to the original as possible. These, in turn, are used to calibrate scales and weights throughout every section of society, from labs and factories to supermarkets and bakeries. And, yes, this includes America. The United States uses pounds and ounces instead of kilograms, but these too are calibrated using the International Prototype Kilogram, just like the metric system.

But later this week, on Friday, November 16th, a coup is planned in this international ministry of weights. After having served for 129 years as the world’s standard, the International Prototype Kilogram (or Le Grand K, as it’s known locally) will be stood down. Grandees of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, which regulates the metric system, will gather in Versailles and vote to replace this physical artifact with a definition of the kilogram based on a fundamental constant of nature.

Could You Have This Memory Disorder?, by Claudia Hammond, BBC

Susie McKinnon doesn’t remember being a child or remember being any age other than she is now: in her 60s. She can’t remember special events, either. She knows she went to her nephew’s wedding. She knows her husband went with her. But she can’t actually remember being there.

In fact, she has very few memories from her life – but she doesn’t have amnesia.

Is This The Best One-Volume Biography Of Churchill Yet Written?, by Richard Aldous, New York Times

Some may find Roberts’s emphasis on politics and war old-fashioned, indistinguishable, say, from the approach taken almost half a century ago by Henry Pelling. He is out of step with much of the best British history being written today, where the likes of Dominic Sandbrook, Or Rosenboim and John Bew have successfully blended cultural and intellectual history with the study of high politics. But it would be foolish to say Roberts made the wrong choice. He is Thucydidean in viewing decisions about war and politics, politics and war as the crux of the matter. A life defined by politics here rightly gets a political life. All told, it must surely be the best single-volume biography of Churchill yet written.

Natasha Trethewey’s Poems Take Wing On Intimate Details, by Dwight Garner, New York Times

The human details in Trethewey’s work — those crabs, that music, those cracked palms — are like the small feathers that give contour to a bird’s wing. “Monument” is a major book, and in her best poems this poet soars.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Haunting Mystery Of ‘Edwin Drood’ That Charles Dickens Left Behind, by Allison McNearney, The Daily Beast

In a letter to Forster, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “The terrible news from England fills us all with inexpressible sadness. Dickens was so full of life that it did not seem possible he could die, and yet he has gone before us, and we are sorrowing for him.”

Even Queen Victoria weighed in, sending “her deepest regret at the sad news of Charles Dickens’s death” via telegraph from Balmoral Castle.

But beyond the initial shock of sadness, what avid Dickens fans were really wondering—were really praying for—was the answer to one question: did Dickens finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood before he kicked it?

My Father's SOS—From The Middle Of The Sea, by Petra Zeiler, Outside

My father’s e-mail didn’t make much sense, but he seemed to be saying that pirates had boarded his boat. “Being kidnappedby filmcompany Deep south blackcult took over steering,” it read. “Ship disabled.”

He sent this to my mother, Martha Carr, at 4:30 a.m. Pacific time on May 28, 2017, a Sunday. She was at home in Los Angeles, asleep, and she wouldn’t see the message—and a couple more like it—until 8:30 a.m. For several hours, my dad, 71-year-old Richard Carr, must have thought they weren’t getting through.

‘Tampopo’: Celebration Of Food, Friendship, Sex And Hope Still Satisfies, by Dorothy Woodend, The Tyee

Equating sex and food is a logical connection (we are all creatures of appetite), but at the time it seemed a revelation. Upon watching the film again, different things revealed themselves, namely that food is the vehicle through which we tend to each other. We feed the ones we love — tenderness, care, and compassion — all carried in a bowl of warm broth. This idea, marinated in humour and shot through with slivers of bittersweet pain, feels new all over again. The other thing I’d forgotten about the film was the plain old notion of human goodness. It ain’t fancy; it’s basic, humble and unassuming, but also resplendent in unexpected ways.

It is tempting to draw an immediate analogy between the film and ramen — the noodles, the broth, three slices of pork, and scallions for added piquancy. Tampopo is constructed in a similar fashion, with fatty chunks of story and a tangle of narrative noodles, all enlivened by bright spots of spice. One especially spicy bit concerns that sexy gangster and his girl. This is where Tampopo begins, with a posse of criminal types sauntering into a movie theatre in their white finery, ready to enjoy a champagne picnic. The man in the white suit and snappy fedora eyeballs us, the audience, and says, “You’re at the movies too, huh? Whatcha eating?” Before the fourth wall falls, you’re knee deep into the story, one scene folded inside another, like layers of mille-feuille pastry.

The Stories War Tells Me, by Rory Fanning, Common Dreams

I’m here in Chicago, 7,000 miles and 15 years away from Jalalabad, a desolate town in southwestern Afghanistan. Yet sometimes it seems to me as if it were yesterday, or even tomorrow, and anything but thousands of miles distant.

There are moments when it feels like I never left -- or maybe I mean, when it feels like it left with me, like Afghanistan and my once-upon-a-time life as a U.S. Army Ranger are all right here, right now, in my unheated garage workshop. Right here, right now, in fact, the sawdust is swirling as I run a two-inch slab of walnut through my lousy Ryobi table saw. The dust and the noise from that saw instantly bring to mind an image of an American helicopter landing in the Afghan countryside, not too far from Jalalabad. It all seems suddenly to flash before my eyes—only the dust in Afghanistan was chalkier and finer than the dust from this walnut slab, which is old, but not Afghanistan old.

Stolen Stories: A Literary Con Man Climbs To Success In 'Ladder To The Sky', by Maureen Corrigan, NPR

What a tonic this book is for anyone who feels the world is too much with us these days! Maliciously witty, erudite and ingeniously constructed A Ladder to the Sky explores the cold outer limits of ambition.

It also raises a question about intellectual property rights: Namely, who do stories belong to? The people who live them and sometimes write them, or the people who need them the most? The answer here isn't as straightforward as you'd think.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Pretentious, Impenetrable, Hard Work ... Better? Why We Need Difficult Books, by Sam Leith, The Guardian

“The fascination of what’s difficult,” wrote WB Yeats, “has dried the sap out of my veins ... ” In the press coverage of this year’s Man Booker prize winner, Anna Burns’s Milkman, we’ve read a good many commentators presenting with sapless veins – but a dismaying lack of any sense that what’s difficult might be fascinating.

“Odd”, “impenetrable”, “hard work”, “challenging” and “brain-kneading” have been some of the epithets chosen. They have not been meant, I think, as compliments. The chair of the judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, perhaps unhelpfully, humblebragged that: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy, so by my standards this is not too hard.” But he added that Milkman is “challenging […] the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging. It is definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top.”

End Intellectual Property, by Samir Chopra, Aeon

The grand term ‘intellectual property’ covers a lot of ground: the software that runs our lives, the movies we watch, the songs we listen to. But also the credit-scoring algorithms that determine the contours of our futures, the chemical structure and manufacturing processes for life-saving pharmaceutical drugs, even the golden arches of McDonald’s and terms such as ‘Google’. All are supposedly ‘intellectual property’. We are urged, whether by stern warnings on the packaging of our Blu-ray discs or by sonorous pronouncements from media company CEOs, to cease and desist from making unwanted, illegal or improper uses of such ‘property’, not to be ‘pirates’, to show the proper respect for the rights of those who own these things. But what kind of property is this? And why do we refer to such a menagerie with one inclusive term?

The phrase ‘intellectual property’ was first used in a legal decision in 1845 and acquired formal heft in 1967 with the establishment of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a specialised agency of the United Nations that represents and protects the commercial interests of holders of copyrights, patents, trademarks and trade secrets. The ubiquitous use of ‘intellectual property’ began in the digital era of production, reproduction and distribution of cultural and technical artifacts. As a new political economy appeared, so did a new commercial and legal rhetoric. ‘Intellectual property’, a central term in that new discourse, is a culturally damaging and easily weaponised notion. Its use should be resisted.

Where Will Science Take Us? To The Stars, by Peter Kujawinski, New York Times

After 30 hours of bumping along on planes and buses, at long last I stood in the darkness and gazed upon an immense night sky. My long journey seemingly had brought me to the shoreline of interstellar space rather than the high-altitude plateau that is Chile’s Atacama Desert.

It was the first night of a monthlong journey to visit astronomy observatories in Chile, Los Angeles and Hawaii. Whether designed for professional use or for the general public, observatories nurture humanity’s explorations of the cosmos. They spark wonder and discovery, but even before I set foot inside the first one, I was seeing outer space in a spellbinding new way.

We Wish To Plead Our Own Cause, by ALexandria Neason, Columbia Journalism Review

Craig Flournoy, a white reporter working at The Dallas Morning News, was among the reporters arriving from elsewhere to cover the story. He noticed that the articles published by his colleagues at mainstream, predominately white, news outlets lacked historical context about race relations in Clarksville and in the rest of the South. The stories delved little into the discrimination suit, which at that point was three years old; the swap had been, after all, a last resort. As Flournoy read, what stood out most was the characterization of the two housing projects as separate but equal—an assertion he doubted. “The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post—everyone who covered it said the two projects appeared similar,” Flournoy recalls. “They weren’t, by any sense of the imagination.” When he went to visit the buildings, he says. “It didn’t take a friggin’ rocket scientist to figure this out.”

By this time, newsrooms were no longer formally segregated and the nation was decades deep in legislation intended to improve racial politics. But even as legislative advances had begun to usher in, for black and other people of color, a new type of agency backed by the law, advances within news outlets were less than impressive. The beginnings of newsroom integration had little reckoning with the absence of black journalists; instead, there was tokenization, while displays of unconscious racial bias remained evident.

How History Forgot The Woman Who Defined Autism, by Lina Zeldovich, Scientific American

“Basically, she described the criteria in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5),” says Irina Manouilenko, a psychiatrist who runs a clinic in Stockholm, Sweden. Manouilenko translated Sukhareva’s original descriptions from Russian to English in 2013 and then compared them with the diagnostic criteria described in the DSM-5. The similarities between the two left Manouilenko in awe. “When you start looking at it all systematically, it’s very impressive,” she says.

For example, what the DSM-5 describes as social deficits, Sukhareva wrote about as a “flattened affective life,” “lack of facial expressiveness and expressive movements” and “keeping apart from their peers.” What the diagnostic manual portrays as stereotyped or repetitive behaviors, restricted interests and sensory sensitivities, Sukhareva explained as “talking in stereotypic ways,” with “strong interests pursued exclusively” and sensitivities to specific noises or smells. In her analysis, Manouilenko was able to match each of the manual’s criteria to one or more of Sukhareva’s observations.

Historians are beginning to ponder why it took nearly a century for the DSM-5—published in 2013 after years of debate—to arrive back at something so close to Sukhareva’s list. They have found that Sukhareva isn’t the only clinician whose research was overlooked or lost before autism was described in the DSM-III. As more archival material is digitized, it’s becoming clear that Kanner and Asperger may need to share credit for the ‘discovery’ of autism—and that the condition’s history could be as complex as its biology.

What Made This Father/daughter Hike In Yosemite Work? Respect, Reliance On Each Other And Appreciating What It Means To Be Young, by Larry Habegger, Los Angeles Times

“I don’t want to go backpacking with Daddy. He’s too slow. I always have to wait for him!”

Alanna, 19, was explaining to my wife why she intended to venture into Yosemite’s back country with a friend rather than me.

But a few days later her friend canceled.

“I’ll go with you,” I said.

She looked at me sideways. “You will?”

“Sure. You figure out where we’re going, get the permits, and I’ll go with you.”

The Most Powerful Person In Hollywood Without A Studio, by Chris Yogerst, Los Angeles Review of Books

Hollywood Godfather provides sensational detail about the secret dealings and vengeful agenda of Billy Wilkerson. With decades worth of interviews, Hollywood Godfather is an honest biography that draws information from a wide range of personalities and debunks regurgitated legends. Wilkerson became the most powerful person in Hollywood without a studio, making his moves from behind a typewriter or in back rooms at his restaurants.

Those who truly hold power are not always living in the open for all to see. Behind the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, Wilkerson was the invisible force behind some of the industry’s greatest successes and controversies.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Why The French Don't Show Excitement, by Emily Monaco, BBC

I knew before moving that the French word ‘excité’ was verboten. It is one of the first ‘false friends’ that a student of the language becomes aware of. Most French learners can recall the day that a classmate first uttered the phrase ‘Je suis excité’ (which literally translates as ‘I am excited’) only to have their teacher hem and haw uncomfortably before explaining that the word excité doesn’t signal emotional but rather physical excitement. A better translation of the phrase Je suis excité into English would be ‘I am aroused’.

French doesn’t have the excited/aroused lexical pair that English does, so one word does both jobs. Excité technically denotes excitement both “objective (a state of stimulation) and subjective (feelings),” according to Olivier Frayssé, professor of American Civilization at Paris-Sorbonne University, but the physical sensation is the one most often implied. “If ‘aroused’ existed, it would be unnecessary to interpret ‘excité’ this way,” he explained.

Why Do You Keep Dreaming You Forgot Your Pants? It’s Science, by Alice Robb, New York Times

For the past two years, a group of my friends has been gathering every month to talk about dreams; we do it for fun. Even if we resist, dreams have a way of sneaking into conscious territory and influencing our daytime mood. In three years of reporting on the science behind dreams, I’ve heard strangers describe flying, tooth loss, reunions with the dead — all the classics. I’ve seen that a dream can be a fascinating window into another person’s private life, and I’ve learned that paying attention to dreams can help us understand ourselves.

Because dreams rarely make literal sense, it can be easier to dismiss them than to try to interpret them. But a growing body of scientific work indicates that it’s likely to be worth the effort. Dreams might help us consolidate new memories and prune extraneous pieces of information. They might be a breeding ground for ideas — a time for the brain to experiment in a wider network of associations. Some argue they’re an accident of biology and mean nothing at all.

Finding The Tune, by Mark Wallace, Los Angeles Review of Books

In three lines at the upper right corner of the first page of my copy of the study score of Anton Webern’s Concerto, Opus 24, the words Mark Wallace / July 12, 1983 / San Francisco are written in the kind of rough blue ballpoint pen that has gone seriously out of fashion in the ensuing 35 years. When I made that inscription, at 16 — done with high school a year early and soon off to college — I did not yet understand the Webern Concerto as a masterpiece of both artistic expression and musical design. Nor did I understand it as the piece of music that would determine the course of my life, though that, for a time, is exactly what it did.

Slow-Cooking History, by Ayesha Harruna Attah, New York Times

Not much has been written about the history of West African cuisine, and a lot of what is considered historically West African is quite new. My Akan ancestors left Sudan around the 10th century — possibly fleeing forced conversion to Islam — and moved into the forest. Their original diet would have been considerably different from what they would come to find and create there. Their cattle would have suffered in the humidity and constricted spaces of the forest, and many succumbed to death by tsetse fly. My ancestors’ groundnuts and millet and rice seeds would have sprouted mold. To stay alive, I imagine a matriarch — Akan women have always been indomitable — whipping up the young to forage for edibles, which she would throw into a clay pot: snails crawling and mushrooms sprouting from the forest floor.

The Vogue By Eoin McNamee Review – A Northern Irish Mystery, by Mark Lawson, The Guardian

The dominant theme, though, is the easy falsity of history, a note that will resonate in Northern Ireland, and far beyond. The closest the novel comes to recent headline Irish events is that the recovered remains under the airfield recall the revelation that up to 800 children and babies were found to have died at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home, run by nuns, in Tuam, County Galway. A mass grave was found next to the site of the former home. This scandal seems to underpin one of the Morne stories in The Vogue, but McNamee is more widely interested in hidden history, impressively addressing from a fresh perspective a country for which, in various ways, the question of where the bodies are buried is fundamental.

Americans Wrote To Obama About Their Hardships — And The President Wrote Back, by Anjali Enjeti, Washington Post

Who writes letters to the president of the United States, and what happens to these letters after they are sent? In her latest book, “To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope,” Jeanne Marie Laskas, the author of eight books, including “Concussion,” follows the path of constituent letters to the White House — and what happens then.

Little By Edward Carey Review – Vivid Tale Of Madame Tussaud, by Aida Edemariam, The Guardian

Occasionally, Carey loses faith in the extraordinary potency of his material, making insights that arise of their own accord (the equalising nature of waxworks, for instance) too explicit and neat. Some characters are less complex than they could be. But at its best this is a visceral, vivid and moving novel about finding and honouring one’s talent; about searching out where one belongs and who one loves, however strange and politically fraught the result might be.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Before Envelopes, People Protected Messages With Letterlocking, by Abigail Cain, Atlas Obscura

Around 2 a.m. on February 8, 1587, Mary Queen of Scots penned a letter to her brother-in-law, King Henri III of France. It would be her last. Six hours later, she was beheaded for treason by order of her cousin, Elizabeth I of England. The letter has since become one of Scotland’s most beloved artifacts, the handwritten pages offering a poignant glimpse of a monarch grappling with her impending execution.

But it’s not the words that fascinate Jana Dambrogio, the Thomas F. Peterson conservator at MIT Libraries. For more than a decade, Dambrogio has been studying “letterlocking,” the various systems of folds, slits, and wax seals that protected written communication before the invention of the mass-produced envelope. To guard her final missive from prying eyes, the queen used a “butterfly lock”—one of hundreds of techniques catalogued by Dambrogio, collaborator Daniel Starza Smith, and their research team in a fast-growing dictionary of letterlocking.

Ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter Takes On The World's Most Sadistic Endurance Race, by Sarah Barker, Deadspin

Gary Cantrell clanged a bell at 6:40 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 20, signaling 70 runners to jog off into the woods on his farm in Tennessee. They had an hour to complete a 4.1667-mile loop trail. Easy. Most of the group finished with 15 minutes to spare. The bell clanged again at 7:40 a.m., and they ran it again. And at 8:40 a.m., and 9:40 a.m., and every hour after that until, one by one, they quit. There was no known finish line. The race went on, day and night, until the bell clanged and only one runner answered.

“I compare it to being punched in the face—light punches,” Cantrell said. “After awhile you just don’t want to get up for it any more.”

The Pre-Internet Phenomenon Of Boys Hiding Their Porn In The Woods, by Chris O'Connell, Mel Magazine

For years afterward, I thought our experience was unique. We were smart; we had access to pornography (mostly pilfered from the Brentano’s at the Bridgewater Mall), but we didn’t want to keep the radioactive material in our houses, so we improvised, without any influence from other kids. As I later learned, everyone — woods nearby or not — did this. It turns out that the woman who spent half a million on a mid-century colonial in Basking Ridge would have run into this situation anywhere in America.

Woods porn is ubiquitous. The concealment of spank mags isn’t limited to the Northeast, straight men, or as I came to learn over the course of my reporting, the U.S. For men of a certain age, generally those who grew up before modems were fast enough to show pubescent kids the pornography that they so craved, hiding porn mags in the woods shaped their early sexuality. Woods porn was a pre-internet, worldwide practice, like singing “The Diarrhea Song” and believing that Marilyn Manson removed a rib so he could suck his own dick. It was a magical outlet for horny teens with crustaches and body odor around the world before DVDs and Pornhub made paper porno irrelevant. What we thought was ingenious had been practiced for decades, by nerds and jocks and burnouts and whatever Rob and I were, and now it’s gone.

But should we lament its death? Or is having a full buffet of internet pornography at your fingertips a better way to embrace a young man’s blossoming sexuality?

Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism By Kristen Ghodsee – Review, by Emily Witt, The Guardian

This book has a simple premise: “Unregulated capitalism is bad for women,” Kristen Ghodsee argues, “and if we adopt some ideas from socialism, women will have better lives.” Ghodsee is an ethnographer who has researched the transition from communism to capitalism in eastern Europe, with a particular focus on gender-specific consequences. “The collapse of state socialism in 1989 created a perfect laboratory to investigate the effects of capitalism on women’s lives,” she writes.

In Richard K. Morgan's 'Thin Air', Mars Feels Almost Familar, by Antony Jones, Los Angeles Times

“Thin Air” highlights how depictions of Mars have evolved over time: the planet had indigenous life in the turn-of-the-last-century writings of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs; Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles,” published in 1950, told of escape from Earth to the Red Planet; and the “hard-science” depiction of colonization in “Red Mars,” “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars” (1992-1996) by Kim Stanley Robinson.

“Thin Air” is the natural extension of this journey, blending the hard science of Robinson with the dreams of Dick — we have not only colonized Mars but have reached the point where it’s just another place where people live. It’s closer than ever to our own lives, and perhaps a glimpse into a possible future. It’s also an exploration on the march of technology and just how far we may go to change our ourselves in the pursuit of progress.

Friday, November 9, 2018

When Atheists Lack The Courage Of Their Convictions, by The Economist

Ever since the Enlightenment, Christianity has been exposed to rigorous examination that has contributed to the decline of organised faith. Though Christian teaching is at the heart of the Western academic tradition, atheism has long been the new gospel for many intellectuals. Some authors have tried to subject it to the same scrutiny that religion has received. But, as polytheistic Romans found in the fourth century, challenging rampant orthodoxies can be tough.

Alister McGrath’s “The Twilight of Atheism” and Nick Spencer’s “Atheists: The Origin of the Species” are excellent critiques; but both writers are Christians, so they have been relatively easy for unbelievers to dismiss. It has taken a prophet seated firmly in an atheist pew to publicise the creed’s contradictions more widely. That prophet is John Gray, a retired professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics. In several books published over 15 years, Mr Gray has reasserted his belief that there is no God, while also attacking the liberal humanism that has emerged in God’s stead—which, he thinks, is as flaky as the religion it has replaced.

Writing As Fast As Reality, by Yasmine El Rashidi, New York Review of Books

Smith’s quartet, so far, is not only an inventive articulation of the forces that have collided to make the present, but also a meditation on—and experiment with—time. By structuring her books around the changing seasons in an epoch when the seasons themselves are unpredictable, even in question (“November again. It’s more winter than autumn”; “It will be a bit uncanny still to be thinking about winter in April”), she urges us to ask whether we can still save our planet, as well as future generations’ lives. It’s hard to imagine what Spring and Summer* might bring—perhaps a complete halt, or inversion, of time awaits us—but the first two novels of the quartet are so free with form, as well as so morally conscious, that they come close to being an antidote to these times.

The End Of The End Of The Earth By Jonathan Franzen Review – Hope In An Age Of Crisis, by Sarah Crown, The Guardian

But by refusing to hope for the impossible, Franzen, improbably, manages to produce a volume that feels, if not hopeful, then at least not hopeless. There’s nothing he can do – there’s probably nothing any of us can do – to avert or even alleviate the coming catastrophe. But for now, he’s here and he’s alive, and over the course of these essays he offers us a series of partial, tentative answers to the question he poses himself at the beginning: “How do we find meaning in our actions when the world seems to be coming to an end?”

When Home Is ‘Always Another Country’, by Lovia Gyarkye, New York Times

In coming-of-age stories, the journey to self-discovery almost always involves leaving home. But for children for whom “home” means the family unit rather than a particular location, leaving is not necessarily marked by physical movement. Like most daughters of African parents (this reviewer included), Msimang was taught to be brave but never defiant, particularly when it comes to family. She eventually moves to South Africa — the object of her parents’ dreams and life’s work. She marries, becomes a mother and, eventually, a journalist. She, too, is invested in her country’s future, but on her own terms. “South Africa doesn’t need heroes,” she writes. “She needs the best type of friends — those who bear witness.”

Fire, Books, And Memories: On Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book”, by Richard M. Cho, Los Angeles Review of Books

The story of the Alexandrian fire still speaks loudly to the power of written words and their effect on the fate of humanity. Fast-forward nearly two millennia to April 29, 1986, the date of the destruction by fire of the Los Angeles Public Library (henceforth LAPL) main branch in the heart of downtown. The fire, the cause of which is still inconclusive, destroyed half a million books and damaged another 700,000 more.

Susan Orlean’s The Library Book is ostensibly an investigative report on this catastrophic event and its cultural context. In its essence, however, the book is a treatise on the value of our public libraries, the most democratic spaces in our country. It is a call to protect these sacred places of collective memory.

The Hard-earned Optimism Of Barbara Kingsolver’s New Novel, by The Economist

What 1871 and 2016 have in common is a mood of revolutionary change. Willa becomes fascinated by Treat, her era and how frightening Darwin’s work seemed to many: “A great shift was dawning, with the human masters’ place in the kingdom much reduced from its former glory.” In the present, Willa and her family must learn to make new lives in a world of warming seas and melting ice. “We can’t afford to stop doing the shit that’s screwing up the weather, and can’t afford to pick up the pieces after we do our shit,” she reflects.

If that sounds gloomy, “Unsheltered” never is. We got through this once before, Ms Kingsolver’s echoes seem to say; we’ll get through it again, somehow.

Body Hopping For A Better View Of America, by Andrew Martin, New York Times

At times, especially in the depths of these nightmarish sequences, I admired Riker’s audacity more than I enjoyed following his logic to its gruesome endpoints. The book is ingenious, but unsparing in its vision of a country populated almost entirely by selfish people in thrall to their vices and, more often than not, well on their way to being killed in automobile accidents. Maybe what I’m saying is that the truth hurts.

'An Unexplained Death' Tells The Tale Of An Unsolved Mystery — And Being Remembered, by Ilana Masad, NPR

The extremely human anxiety Brottman seems to be grappling with is one many of us may consider at one time or another: If we went missing, would anyone look for us? Rey Rivera, she believes, was a good man, a loving husband, smart and hardworking. But, mostly, he was noticeable — and even long after death, he remains so.

Is The Greenest Building One That’s Already Built? A UW Professor Investigates, by Michael Upchurch, SeattleTimes

In “Building Reuse,” Merlino makes a diligent case for preserving older buildings rather than tearing them down, one that encompasses more than the buildings’ historical character or architectural merit. Merlino contends that “the greenest building is the one already built” — and cites some startling facts and figures to prove it.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Gillian Flynn Peers Into The Dark Side Of Femininity, by Lauren Oyler, New York Times

Flynn is best known for her hugely successful third novel, “Gone Girl,” in which a wealthy, beautiful woman, Amy Elliott Dunne, elaborately frames her husband for her own murder in order to avenge his infidelity and typical masculine neglect. In the process, she fakes a rape, murders an ex-boyfriend and impregnates herself by stealing her husband’s frozen sperm before eventually returning home, and to the marriage, which is now significantly more troubled than it was at the outset. If Flynn were going to carry out a nonfictional crime, Nolan can take small comfort in knowing she would never stop at such an obvious place as “wife murders husband.”

To experience Flynn’s work is to submit yourself to a series of increasingly incredulous what?s: a deliberate first act of unsettling exposition and character development sets up a chain of wild twists in the second. The stories are propelled by female narrators who lay bare their nastiest impulses to the audience — but not, crucially, to the people in their lives — adding psychological depth and the sense of illicit confession to the cheap thrills of her high-wire plots. Her debut novel, “Sharp Objects,” follows Camille Preaker, an alcoholic journalist with a baroque self-harm regimen (she carves vulgar words into her skin), as she reports on a string of murders of young girls in her Missouri hometown; Camille stays with her mother, who we eventually learn has Munchausen syndrome by proxy and has been poisoning her daughters (but that discovery is hardly where the story ends). Flynn’s second novel, “Dark Places,” centers on Libby Day, who witnessed — or believed she witnessed — her brother murder her mother and sisters when she was 7; but when she meets a group of true-crime enthusiasts debating the old case, she begins to question her memory.

These books sold well, but neither Flynn nor her publishers anticipated the omnipresent best seller — or object of scorn — that “Gone Girl” would become. Since then, she has also benefited from a trend in feminist cultural criticism: These days representations of the “messy” lives of “flawed” women are celebrated as indications of a multifaceted (and maybe even “radical”) portrayal of the gender. Though “Sharp Objects” didn’t garner much critical attention in 2006 — when, as she says, the biggest conflict female protagonists faced was “can she get the boy and can she get the shoes and, oh, she’s had a cosmo again!” — over the summer it became a relentlessly dissected limited series on HBO starring Amy Adams, with Flynn as an executive producer. Next year, Amazon will host the series “Utopia,” about a group of online friends investigating government conspiracies, with Flynn adapting it from the British series as creator, executive producer and showrunner. And this month “Widows,” a film she adapted from the 1980s British TV series of the same name with the director Steve McQueen, will be released. Viola Davis stars — in a cast that includes Liam Neeson, Daniel Kaluuya and Colin Farrell — as the ringleader of a group of women who plan a robbery after their husbands are killed trying to pull off a different heist.

What Pokémon Can Teach Us About Fiction, by Jeremy Klemin, New York Times

Video games are supposed to be, to borrow Jorge Luis Borges’s favorite motif, labyrinthine. Regardless of how trapped players may feel when confronting a particular obstacle, they can generally assume that there is a puzzle to crack and a way to crack it — a way to reach the center of the labyrinth. This is why I found video games so fulfilling, and no doubt why my introduction to “serious” literature as a teenager was primarily through 20th-century modernists like Virginia Woolf and Hermann Hesse. In their novels, personal improvement seemed to be a matter of process; their characters fight indecision or internal conflict by scaling their own psychological summits or, to draw a comparison to video games, by taking a crack at solving their own inner puzzles. The idea of a challenging yet well-ordered world so prevalent in modernist literature may seem dated now, but as a young reader and video game player I found it tremendously appealing.

How Much Editing Was Done To Emily Dickinson’s Poems After She Died?, by Julie Dobrow, Literary Hub

Today these debates continue. Looking at Dickinson’s original manuscripts and Todd’s original transcriptions of them, we can clearly see ways in which Todd and Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson (the well-known abolitionist, Civil War hero and 19th-century literary advocate whom she convinced to join her in the editing project for the first two volumes of poetry published in 1890 and 1891) altered words, changed capitalization and punctuation and perhaps most controversially, gave titles to poems that originally bore none. And yet it is clear that without the work of Mabel Loomis Todd and later, Millicent Todd Bingham, the world might never have known the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

New Morals For Aesop’s Fables, by Anthony Madrid, The Paris Review

Aesop’s fables. How many do you know? Probably between five and ten. The tortoise and the hare, the grasshopper and the ants. Good. Squeeze for a minute, you’ll come up with more. The lion who spares the mouse and then helps him later. The goose who lays the golden omelets. Go ahead and recite a couple, right now. Do your heart some good.

But wait. Go back a second. When you recited ’em, did you forget to add the morals? I bet you did. It’s not as easy to remember to put the moral in there.

Nothing Sounds Worse Than Dating When You’re Grieving, by Marjorie Brimley, The Cut

I did not fall in love with that man at the pool. He went home to his life in another city, and I to mine. For weeks afterward, when I thought about our interaction, I still felt a pang of guilt alongside the longing. It wasn’t as though I wanted him, specifically, but rather that I wanted to be able to feel a spark like that again. It was such a hallmark of my relationship with Shawn that I missed deeply. It felt wrong to want that with someone other than my husband, but it also felt good to have those emotions again. I didn’t know how to reconcile both sets of feelings.

I didn’t tell anyone right away. What would my friends think? Maybe they would tell me that it was great, but I was convinced not everyone would approve. I didn’t know the “right” amount of time that was supposed to pass until I was allowed to start dating. “Are you sure that you’re ready?” I could hear people asking. That question, of course, has all sorts of judgment within it.

A Long-Haired Mule And A Porkepine, by Eric Gudas, Los Angeles Review of Books

Sanders’s blow-by-blow reconstruction of the sessions embodies his book’s greatest strength and weakness. Dylan’s playfulness certainly comes through, as when he gives “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” the working title of “A Long-Haired Mule and a Porkepine.” An amateur Dylanologist, I found the book gripping, but for the uninitiated, there’s not necessarily much narrative tension in the musicians’ retrospective discussion of the songs’ keys and tempos and in transcriptions of Dylan in the studio, stammering, for instance, “I think the drums should be there. I can’t sense it without the drums.”

How ‘America First’ And ‘American Dream’ Went From Hazy Sentiments To Loaded Clichés, by Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

In “Behold, America: The Entangled History of ‘America First’ and ‘the American Dream,’” Churchwell explores how the two phrases wended their way through American politics in the first half of the 20th century, journeying from hazy sentiments to loaded clichés.

This is a timely book. It’s also a provocative one. In addition to offering some historical perspective, Churchwell has a point to make. “America first” might never shed the stain of virulent racism and anti-Semitism, but the American dream, she suggests, has a real and discernible meaning located in its origins, one that gives “voice to principled appeals for a more generous way of life.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

What Happens When You “Accidentally” Destroy A Library Book?, by Kristen Arnett, Literary Hub

You’re not the first person to ruin or lose a book and you definitely won’t be the last. What I’m saying is accidents happen and none of us are immune from the pitfalls of treating books worse than we should. We’re all guilty!

But what happens next when the book isn’t yours? What happens when it comes to making library restitution?

Having No Time Is The Best Time To Get Writing Done, by Jessie Greengrass, Literary Hub

Sometimes, stood down the garden with the washing waiting to be pegged, knowing where I will be at each hour of the day, I feel myself rise. The church bell rings across the road. The baby cries. Twenty miles south of here, and thirteen centuries ago, Eadfrith of Lindsfarne illuminated a text of the gospels. I imagine, sometimes, the labor involved, and how it must have been fitted to a routine of prayer and daylight. I think of each pigment made from scratch, each page prepared, pricked out, and how slowly the letters must have grown across the 516 sheets of vellum. For the ten years or so it took to make, he would have risen each morning the same and set about his day, his work a consecrated act and its product given value by the time it took, his routine and his productivity entwined.

A Debaculous Fiasco, by Jennifer Noonan, Damn Interesting

With graduation less than a week away, the President Emeritus of Lake Forest College was trying not to panic. He’d had an especially difficult time organizing the ceremony that year, and he’d just received word that the scheduled commencement speaker for the class of 1977 was refusing to give a speech.

“I talk with people, not to people,” insisted Theodor Geisel, better known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss. The renowned author and illustrator had misunderstood Lake Forest’s invitation, believing the college intended to award him an honorary doctorate—which it did, but with the polite understanding that honorary degrees are the usual currency for graduation speeches. Seuss told President Hotchkiss that he was completely unwilling to address the eager students with anything more than a few words of thanks. He did not, he felt, have any useful advice to offer them.

What If The Placebo Effect Isn’t A Trick?, by Gary Greenberg, New York Times

But as ubiquitous as the phenomenon is, and as plentiful the studies that demonstrate it, the placebo effect has yet to become part of the doctor’s standard armamentarium — and not only because it has a reputation as “fake medicine” doled out by the unscrupulous to the credulous. It also has, so far, resisted a full understanding, its mechanisms shrouded in mystery. Without a clear knowledge of how it works, doctors can’t know when to deploy it, or how.

Not that the researchers are without explanations. But most of these have traditionally been psychological in nature, focusing on mechanisms like expectancy — the set of beliefs that a person brings into treatment — and the kind of conditioning that Ivan Pavlov first described more than a century ago. These theories, which posit that the mind acts upon the body to bring about physical responses, tend to strike doctors and researchers steeped in the scientific tradition as insufficiently scientific to lend credibility to the placebo effect. “What makes our research believable to doctors?” asks Ted Kaptchuk, head of Harvard Medical School’s Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter. “It’s the molecules. They love that stuff.” As of now, there are no molecules for conditioning or expectancy — or, indeed, for Kaptchuk’s own pet theory, which holds that the placebo effect is a result of the complex conscious and nonconscious processes embedded in the practitioner-patient relationship — and without them, placebo researchers are hard-pressed to gain purchase in mainstream medicine.

Letter Of Recommendation: Women’s Clothing, by Kalle Oskari Mattila, New York Times

Last year, I walked into an upscale independent clothing store in Berlin and greeted the conservatively dressed, bespectacled woman hovering in the back. I’d seen a stylish male mannequin in the window, but it wasn’t clear that they sold men’s clothing, so I asked. “It’s all for everyone,” she said. “I mean, technically that rack and this rack are men’s, but I believe it’s outdated to think like that.”

“You know what?” I replied. “You’re right. Most people don’t get that.” She seemed pleased — until I pulled out a long women’s white underwear top and asked to try it on. Clearly, there were limits, and she tried to talk me out of it. The top was revealing, and normally would have been worn with a bra. This was Berlin, though, and I needed something daring.

'We Begin In Gladness' Brings A Message Of Poetry's Importance In Today's World, by Martha Anne Toll, NPR

We Begin in Gladness is well worth reading for its celebration of the art, and for placing poetry as a necessity in today's frenzied society — where dystopian fiction sells well, and too few people take time to read. Teicher's examination of poets' artistic maturation is an engaging topic. If his conclusions are informed by his own taste, we can appreciate him as a generous guide through his chosen profession. Similarly, Zapruder and Wiman offer up valuable lessons from their poetic journeys.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A Politician Turned Novelist Learns What Real Rejection Is, by Steve Israel, New York Times

The maxim in politics is that “it’s not personal, it’s just business.” Maybe that’s the psychological armor every politician wears against insults and indignities. Someone’s going to run against you, lie about you, spend millions of dollars vilifying you — but it’s not personal. If angry voters spew, it’s not about you, it’s about that unpopular vote that you cast, or the tough political environment for your party or because they’re uninformed. Writing a book, on the other hand, is deeply personal. Politicians put on protective gear, fiction writers take it off — fully exposing their creativity, emotions, fantasies. It’s like unburdening oneself on a therapist’s couch, only every reader on earth is your therapist.

Jack Reacher Still Won’t Quit, 23 Books Later, by James Parker, The Atlantic

You’re on a plane. You’re on a train. You’re wheeling through American space, and you’re feeling it: the hum of the void, the up-for-grabs-ness of it all. Out here there’s no protection. Good customer service, if you’re lucky, but no protection. Out here there is only the crackling feral mind: dominance, appetite, predation, pitiless allegiance to the pack. Who are you going to read, in this condition? Henry James? No. You’re going to read Lee Child.

Inside The Booming Business Of Background Music, by Jake Hulyer, The Guardian

Music, even when you are barely aware of it, can be surprisingly powerful. Over recent decades, researchers have found that it can affect how much time we think has passed while waiting in a queue, how co-operative shoppers are with sales staff, and even how sweet or bitter food tastes. One study found that shoppers’ preference for French or German wine shifted according to which of the respective countries’ traditional music was playing from a nearby set of speakers.

The background music industry – also known as music design, music consultancy or something offered as part of a broader package of “experiential design” or “sensory marketing” – is constantly deciding what we hear as we go about our everyday business. The biggest player in the industry, Mood Media, was founded in 2004 and now supplies music to 560,000 locations across the world, from Sainsbury’s to KFC.

There’s No Escaping The Gentrification Of Chai, by Saba Imtiaz, Eater

On warm evenings in the affluent Karachi neighborhood of Defence, there’s often a steady stream of SUVs pulling off the main drag, Khayaban-e-Bukhari, onto tucked-away side streets. Arriving at a wall painted in the style of either South Asian truck art or kitschy Pakistani film, the occupants get out and hand their keys to a valet. There’s no nightclub or luxurious restaurant on the other side of a velvet rope, though, just a handful of plastic tables and chairs planted on sandy, open-air plots of land. By nightfall, the tables are packed with people ordering chai — the local term for tea, usually prepared with milk — and parathas, and documenting it all on Instagram.

Over the last few years, upscale roadside cafes serving tea mixed with elaborate ingredients like coffee or Cadbury chocolate, along with novelties like pizza parathas, have proliferated throughout Karachi’s wealthier districts. The spaces often resemble beer gardens, lit up by the bright signage of neighboring businesses and imbued with the mood of late nights, caffeine-fueled conversations, and board games. The crowds range from 20-somethings in skinny jeans and T-shirts to families in chauffeured cars. One Friday in January, Humaida Sabir, a 22-year-old student at Baqai Medical University, was having a girls’ night out. “If you just want to have a cup of tea in the open air,” she told me, there’s no place quite like one of these new roadside cafes.

Roadside cafes are hardly unusual in Pakistan; they have long sustained the country’s working class. What’s innovative about this new wave is the packaging: High-end cafes are taking the tea culture of the proletariat, wrapping it in a glossy coating, and using rhetoric about families, modernity, and cleanliness to sell it to the city’s elites and upwardly mobile for sizable profits. Saad Afridi, an airline pilot, ran the upscale, now-closed Season of Smiles, which was known by customers as SOS Tea Bar. “People don’t want to go to restaurants all the time,” he said. “They want to sit outside in the open air.”

We Mainlined McDonald’s Huge New Breakfast Sandwich, And Our Arteries Will Never Forgive Us, by Josh Schollmeyer, Mel

But obviously, in my pursuit of a better body, McMuffins are now completely off-the-menu. And while I could cheat and make the case that the McMuffin contains more than enough fat to easily qualify as “dirty keto,” I don’t get down with that kind of dirt as my keto is as pure as an apple is filled with carbs. That doesn’t mean the longing stops, though — especially in the first few hours of the morning after my two designated drinking nights. On such mornings, I’m aching for that Mickey D’s grease. Its healing powers greater than Advil, Gatorade and sleep combined. But alas, I’m forced to seek out protein that might actually be a better cureall — i.e., not a hockey-puck like egg and shriveled slice of ham. Yet it never feels as though it’s doing the lord’s work of sopping up the copious amount of rum roiling amongst my innards, and certainly not even remotely with the same kind of efficacy as a McMuffin.

All of which is to say, when I heard that McDonald’s was releasing its latest version of the McMuffin, the Triple Breakfast Stacks, on Thursday, I couldn’t deprive myself of it — ketosis and my physical well-being be damned. It is, without a doubt, remarkably decadent, with not one, but two sausage patties as well as two slices of cheese and two slices of bacon. (Strangely, they stop at just a single egg, though; personally, for symmetrical purposes alone, I would have continued the doubles motif throughout.) Further decadence includes an option where you can forego the English muffin for a McGriddle. Essentially then, if you so choose, you can wrap all that sausage, cheese, bacon and egg within a pancake.

Monday, November 5, 2018

An Underground Sensation Arrives, by Tom Bartlett, Chronicle Of Higher Education

The manuscript was almost published a couple of times. One editor expressed enthusiasm, then abruptly passed. Oxford University Press offered the author — Julius S. Scott, a young historian who had just completed his doctorate at Duke — a contract, along with suggestions for significant revisions. Scott could have made the changes, argued with Oxford, or taken his chances with another press. Instead he set it aside.

And there it stayed for three decades. The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution, which traces networks of communication among slaves and sailors in the Caribbean and beyond, was completed in 1987, and it will be published for the first time this month by Verso.

To be clear, this is not the story of a publisher’s dusting off an obscure gem: The Common Wind has long been revered by historians. Over the years, it’s been passed around, first in photocopies and later as a PDF. In 2008 the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor held a conference inspired by The Common Wind. It’s made its way onto required-reading lists and been cited hundreds of times. Not bad for an unpublished book in need of revision.

How To Capture Alternating Plot Lines On A Book Cover, by Donna Cheng, Literary Hub

When I was first approached to design this cover, I was excited to tackle it because of the subject—a modern, toxic love story set in a dating culture that often mistakes lust for love. As I started reading I was immediately drawn to the alternating narratives of the “he said, she said” structure. Add those elements to a compelling title, and I knew there were lots of creative opportunities I could explore.

Tell Me Lies is about an addictive and dysfunctional relationship between Stephen and Lucy. Alternating between the two voices, the novel provides a window into the mindset of Stephen, who strings Lucy along as their tumultuous relationship unfolds. I found myself rooting for Lucy as she gets tangled in Stephen’s manipulative mind games, hoping to see her free herself from this unhealthy romance.

How Did The World's Smallest Flightless Bird Get To Inaccessible Island?, by Sarah Laskow, Atlas Obscura

Arriving on Inaccessible Island—after the inevitable odyssey of getting there—you hear the sound of the Inaccessible Island rail everywhere. The smallest flightless birds in the world, the rails scurry around the vegetation, feasting on worms, berries, seeds, and invertebrates, including a flightless species of moths. During a fieldwork trip in 2011, it took days for Martin Stervander, then a doctoral student at Sweden’s Lund University, to spot one. Even then, “you see something little and dark, running for a second, and that’s about it,” he says.

Catching one, though, proved easy. Usually, when trapping birds, scientists rig a net high off the ground, but for these flightless birds, the net went low. When they played a recording of the bird’s call, it took only a few minutes before a male and female ran straight into the net.

“We Are Looking In A Mirror”: Ramsey Campbell Curates The History Of Horror, by Rob Latham, Los Angeles Review of Books

One of the chief pleasures of The Folio Book of Horror Stories is its relative concision, the fact that it can be hair-raisingly devoured on a single lonely night, as well as the opportunity it presents to witness one of the preeminent talents in the field curate a “greatest hits” volume. Campbell has edited more than a dozen anthologies, including award-winning installments of the “Best New Horror” series (1990–’94), but none of his previous stints as editor has afforded him the historical or thematic scope this one does.

The Vogue Review – Bigotry And Other Crimes, by Alex Clark, The Guardian

Underscored by McNamee’s fragmentary, elliptical style, the result is fiction at its bleakest, but carrying with it significant force and fury.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

A Gilded Age At Architectural Digest, by Martin Filler, New York Review of Books

In the early 1980s, when I was an editor at Condé Nast’s House & Garden magazine, my colleagues and I were perturbed by an idée fixe of the company’s legendary editorial director, Alexander Liberman. He kept pressing us to make House & Garden more like Architectural Digest, the Los Angeles-based upstart that, under the editorship of Paige Rense, was fast approaching our once-impregnable circulation figures. He must be going gaga, we thought, as we contemplated the flashy, vulgar interiors in that veritable bible of bad taste, which we called Architectural Disgust.

Alex parried our prissy objections with a Machiavellian riposte. “Architectural Digest,” he assured us, “has the hideousness that will attract.” In retrospect, I have never heard a better definition of nouveau riche American aspirations. But nothing we tried could stem our declining newsstand sales and subscription renewal rates, and in 1983 House & Garden was relaunched to take on AD, as it was familiarly known, and we took on the challenge of producing what we believed to be a better version of that Beast of Beverly Hills.

Small World: Why We Love Tiny Things, by Simon Garfield, The Guardian

What can possibly be the appeal? The answer lies in our desire for mastery and elucidation. The ability to enhance a life by bringing scaled-down order and illumination to an otherwise chaotic world – a world over which we may otherwise feel we have little control – cannot be overvalued. The fascination of holding in our hands something completely realised at an impossibly reduced scale is a wholly fulfilling one, and the satisfactions of inquisitive observation will never tire. At its simplest, the miniature shows us how to see, learn and appreciate more with less.

Finding The Heart, by Elaine Pagels, New Yorker

How do we heal the heart? As a historian of religion, I often return to the Gnostic Gospels, an astonishing cache of more than fifty sacred texts, discovered in Egypt, in 1945. Many of them speak to this question: How do we gain the courage to overcome grief and despair? In one story, Jesus’ disciples, after his death, meet a doctor who calls himself a “physician of souls”—the literal translation of “psychiatrist”—who turns out to be Jesus himself. After revealing his identity, Jesus offers his followers a box of ointments and a medicine pouch, telling them to “first heal [people’s] bodies,” and then “heal the heart.”

Since antiquity, people have spent enormous time and energy trying to do just that, whether through faith, medication, therapy, meditation, or physical activity. And though I’ve often grappled with such questions while poring over ancient sources, it was only when I faced an anguish beyond my imagining that they acquired a new, startling intensity.

Setting Sail: One Woman's Year Alone At Sea, by Susan Smillie, The Guardian

It is black in the Bay of Biscay, just stars above, and below, the canyons. We’re but a crumb out here, floating beyond the continental shelf where it drops from 300m to near 5,000m. Deeper than I can imagine, this wine-dark sea, no one in sight, or radio range. And silent, but for the waves rushing against my little boat, Isean. Stars shoot overhead, but they’ll have to try harder for my attention. I’m staring down, where dolphins are magically lit by phosphorescence. One wonderful creature spins beside me, a trail of stars in its wake. I’m in a trance, my arm trailing the water. The sails luff, I’ve gone off course and look skywards for the Plough – I’m using stars, rather than compass for my bearings. Later, I will somehow fall asleep while dolphins breach by my window.

I can hardly believe I’m here, headed for Spain on my own boat. I wasn’t even expecting to cross the Channel. I’d quit my job to sail around Britain, an idea that took hold the previous summer, sailing in Devon and Cornwall. It wasn’t just the beauty of the coastline, the gentle pace – collecting mussels, swimming with seals – it was the unique perspective. Sailing alone into harbours seeking shelter, I was invited in, not local nor tourist, but part of an ancient seafaring tradition. I found myself at home chatting with Brixham trawlermen, watching old people in Fowey swing dancing to Erasure.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

How A Grandmother’s Diary Led To A Long-Lost Literary Gem, by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, New York Times

I first came across the name “Gilgi” on a page of my grandmother Käthe’s diary from 1932, tucked between mentions of “Shanghai Express” with Marlene Dietrich and a performance by the Jewish cabaret star Dela Lipinskaja. “Such courage!” Käthe wrote, of the character Gilgi. I was curious for any glimpse into my grandmother’s mind during this chapter of her life when she was an expressionist dancer in Hamburg and sported boyish haircuts and berets. She had recently fallen in love with my grandfather Hermann and was summoning the courage to divorce her husband. From Wikipedia I learned that “Gilgi” was the first novel by a writer named Irmgard Keun (1905-82), who had been the It Girl of the German literary scene in the final years of the Weimar Republic. Intrigued, I ordered a copy.

When I read “Gilgi” I was struck by how contemporary the novel feels, with its portrait of a woman fighting to maintain control over her life and her body in a politically polarized society. Gilgi’s experiences of workplace harassment, her scruples about privilege and her unease with the narcotic effects of romantic love are all colored by Keun’s left-leaning politics. But they’re sketched with a light hand: This is a beach-worthy read with a social conscience.

Th*nks For Asterisks: The Maligned Punctuation Enjoying Twitter Revival, by Terena Bell, The Guardian

Is “n*gger” the same as the N-word? It’s a question we chose to avoid earlier this year. When writing a piece about the differences between book titles in the UK and the US, we decided to describe Agatha Christie’s 1939 mystery as a “novel that included the N-word in its title”, judging that spelling out the word didn’t meet the test our style guide advises of being “essential” to the story. But we didn’t use the asterisk.

Before we get too far into a discussion of that word, note that this is not an essay on race – instead, it’s an apologia for the asterisk. Over the past 120 years, our poor little has morphed into the linguistic equivalent of black Xs plastered on nipples to disguise what’s underneath. The problem is: the Xs make you look; there’s a reason why the 2011 NewSouth edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn replaced “nigger” with “slave” and did not invoke asterisks: no matter what word they’re used in, we all know d\mn well what letter is being covered. The asterisk hides nothing.

The Man Who Turns Back New York City’s Clocks, Hand By Hand, by Corey Kilgannon and Chang W. Lee, New York Times

Marvin Schneider, 79, flashed his New York City employee identification badge — “clock repairer” — and walked into City Hall in Lower Manhattan on Friday morning.

The end of daylight saving time was approaching — clocks are supposed to be turned back Sunday at 2 a.m. — and Mr. Schneider had gone to City Hall to turn back time.

Mr. Schneider’s actual title is a bit more grandiose than his badge description. He is the city’s official clock master and he has been tending some of the city’s grandest public clocks since the late 1970s.

Alan Greenspan’s Ode To Creative Destruction, by James B. Stewart, New York Times

Now, 10 years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers provoked a global financial panic and led to what Greenspan refers to as “the great stagnation,” the self-congratulation seems to have been premature. Both parties have largely repudiated Greenspan’s precepts, with Republicans lurching toward protectionism and a nativist hostility for globalization and Democrats lurching toward something he would surely find equally repugnant: income redistribution, ever-expanding government entitlements and identity politics.

Less a conventional history than an extended polemic, “Capitalism in America: A History,” by Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge, a columnist and editor for The Economist, explores and ultimately celebrates the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction,” which the authors describe as a “perennial gale” that “uproots businesses — and lives — but that, in the process, creates a more productive economy.” While this approach risks oversimplifying centuries of American economic history, it provides a useful lens for analyzing America’s current polarization and for understanding the centrifugal forces that have given rise to a President Trump, on the right, or a Bernie Sanders on the left.

The Library Of Ice By Nancy Campbell Review – An Arctic Obsession, by Gavin Francis, The Guardian

As a child, Nancy Campbell had a snow globe; in it was a diorama of a pine forest, a cottage and a figurine of an old lady picking up sticks. Campbell would shake it and watch spellbound as the plastic flakes fell through the viscous liquid. “My father was often away during those years,” she writes. “Once, having returned from a particularly long trip, he told me a bedtime story in countless instalments about how my toys were lost and trying to find their way back home.” As the tale evolved, the toys became lost in a winter forest; it seemed to her that her snow globe would offer the ideal refuge. The Library of Ice explores cultural perspectives on ice and snow, and traces Campbell’s ice-obsession to that memory of adventure, return and comfort.

A Poor Girl’s Progress Through The Gilded Age, by Amy Bloom, New York Times

“The Lake on Fire” is about the making of America, the bones on which it has always been built, and the way the wheels turn (even now) and the way they turned then, moving forward, crushing some, advancing others, and within this epic story, the making of a person, Chaya Shaderowsky, rising and falling, failing and flailing and making her painful, blazingly aware way, in our America.

In 'Trust,' A Selfish, Unlikeable Family Makes For A Compelling Read, by Mariya Karimjee, NPR

But Family Trust is at its best when it's telling us a truth about Silicon Valley: that racism and greed operate here as well — no measure of assimilation or success can change that.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Literary Magazines Are Born To Die, by Nick Ripatrazone, Literary Hub

Literary magazines are born to die. Radical passion often meets practical reality. Sometimes the fire behind great literary magazines is the exact thing that causes them to burn out. Other magazines lose institutional funding, fold because of scandal, or vanish along with their masthead. Whatever the reason, the literary world is full of defunct magazines you shouldn’t forget about. Here are five that are worth remembering.

The Dangers Of Misleading Metaphors, by The Economist

The phrase “to have your cake and eat it”, much used in relation to Brexit, is a bit odd. In its current form it is not the paradox it purports to be, since having and then eating a cake is the usual sequence; in its original form (“eat your cake and have it too”), it has more force. As a metaphor for Brexit, it was always a bit of a joke.

What’s Wrong With Bananas, by Norman C. Ellstrand, Nautilus

Of the important global crops, the banana is the most genetically uniform. A single cluster of nearly identical genotypes, the Cavendish subgroup, nearly monopolizes the world’s banana groves and banana trade. In contrast to the riotous rainbow of genetic diversity that lends sustainability to natural plant and animal populations, the world’s banana industry has the stability of an upside-down Egyptian pyramid balanced on its tip.

That fact leads to another superlative: The commercial banana is the world’s most endangered major crop. The future of the intercontinentally traded banana was once, and is again, precarious. Given that their wild progenitors are as variable as most species, how has it come to pass that most of the banana plants growing in the world have become so uniform? And what does that uniformity mean for their future as the “world’s most perfect food”?

The Liminal Act Of Writing, by Yasmin Adele Majeed, Ploughshares

Writing is a liminal act, one that comes from a place between the writer and the world, the writer and the page. In this way it is mediated by death, desire, and dreams, those other “in between” spaces we move in and out of in this life. These are the spaces that Jenny Boully delicately traces in her collection of lyric essays on the writing life, Betwixt-and-Between—the title itself taken from JM Barrie, whose forever boy-child Peter Pan was torn between fantasy and the real world. It is Peter’s “hesitations, refusals, yearnings, oscillating and uncertain desires” that Boully finds compelling, and to which she compares her craft and career. As a lyric essayist whose work engages with the fluid movement between genre, desire, and the act of writing, she, too, is caught between worlds.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Horror Of Geologic Time, by Aaron Worth, The Paris Review

This obscure episode in late-Victorian publishing history is intriguing for a number of reasons. It would be interesting to know, for instance, just how Raven-Hill and Girdlestone phrased their offer; perhaps they requested “more stuff in the ‘Pan’ line.” Writing in the 1920s, Machen speaks of “horror stories” and “tales of horror,” but it’s unlikely that these were the expressions used at the time (unlikely, too, that the editors asked the young Wells for more “scientific romances,” let alone the entirely anachronistic designation “science fiction”). This was, after all, precisely the period during which the still fluid conceptual boundaries of emergent genre categories like science fiction, fantasy, and horror were beginning to be negotiated, shaped, and defined. But a more tantalizing question is this: If The Unicorn, and its editors’ scheme, had been a success, would the trajectory of Machen’s reputation have more closely resembled that of Wells’s—triumph after triumph, as well as worldwide celebrity, in the years to come? Machen’s star, by contrast, sank slowly back toward the horizon line of relative obscurity, then followed an irregularly wavelike course throughout his later life (and afterlife), ascending and again declining at periodic intervals. For Wells, 1895 marked the beginning of fame; for Machen it meant something like the end of it, until the next century at any rate. But what if Machen had become, as it were, the H. G. Wells of horror?

How Chefs With Food Allergies Make It Work, by Tove Danovich, Eater

Jessica Largey, now chef and co-owner of Los Angeles restaurant Simone, didn’t know she was allergic to seafood. She was rarely exposed to it at home and it wasn’t until culinary school that she began eating it in earnest for the first time. Largey recalls her mouth getting itchy and thought it was strange. “But I figured that’s just what eating seafood was like,” she says. It wasn’t until she took a job at Providence, the seafood-focused LA restaurant, that she realized seafood didn’t give everyone an itchy mouth or make them break out in a rash — it was an allergy. And Largey had just been put on the seafood line.

Largey worried that if she told anyone about her allergy, they’d likely keep her from working with the ingredient. “I didn’t want this to be a hindrance for my whole career,” she says. “I wanted to learn from the best.” In conversations with her coworkers, she alluded to the fact that she “didn’t like fish” and would joke about how funny it was that she — the lead seafood cook at Providence from 2005 to 2008 — hated eating the ingredient she cooked with all day. “I made that the story everyone knew,” she says.

When Providence chef and co-owner Michael Cimarusti brought her dishes to taste she’d either eat a small bite and take a Benadryl or spit it out without him seeing. She feared that if she told the truth, he would never have put her on the seafood line, much less let her be in charge of it. She didn’t admit her allergy to Cimarusti until years after she’d stopped working in his kitchen. Largey says she feels good about her decision to hide the truth for so many years because she was able to learn so much in the process.

Death Grip: How Holding Hands With A Corpse Got Me A Little Closer To Enlightenment, by Robert Moor, GQ

Fear is one of Buddhism's oldest tools. In the early days, while wandering the wilderness of northern India, monks would often encounter elephants, snakes, and tigers, as well as ghosts and malevolent nature spirits, and then (somewhat paradoxically) use their fear to find a state of deep calm. This tradition continued through to the mid–twentieth century, when Thai forest monks were still prowling the mountainsides and sleeping under trees. As an old forest monk once told his nephew, "When we have mindfulness, the mind is at peace. It's not afraid of danger. Even if we're devoured by a tiger, we will not suffer."

The temple of Wat Pai Civilsai, located outside the town of Bang Mun Nak, has carried on these traditions, albeit in a slightly altered form. The temple was founded by a charismatic and mysterious monk called Phra Ajahn Jai Saifon. He is a tall man with a slight stoop and softened muscles, like an NBA player turned coach. His bright smile is stained black in the gaps. (Upon first meeting him, I thought that, if he were ever to decide to switch careers, he would make an excellent dictator.) He wears yellow-brown robes, with a special pocket sewed on the chest to hold his cell phone. When he is outdoors, he wears a conical hat like the ones farmers wear, and flip-flops. His feet have the gray, swollen, dusty appearance of unwashed yams.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Makes Sharp Observations About The Hell Of Retail And The Broader World, by Niko Maragos, The Millions

The dystopian futures he brilliantly imagines here somehow seem more believable than the ones he writes about the hellish now, not because they are, but because we don’t want to believe that this is the reality of our burning little world. Friday Black is written with force, Ajdei-Brenyah’s language sharpened into tiny blades that cut deep and fast, down to the soft insides that, he urges us to remember, are still there.

The Monsters We Deserve By Marcus Sedgwick Review – Dark Fable Of Artistic Creation, by Suzi Feay, The Guardian

This slender, beautifully written novel is probably best read in one atmospheric sitting. Mary Shelley – for she is one of the visitants – complains that her book has been continually misread. Like Frankenstein, The Monsters We Deserve is a dark fable about the responsibilities of creation. In the end, if a monster is to have any life at all, it must be set loose.

Night Train By Thom Jones Review – Intensity, Weirdness And A Great Ear For Idiom, by Jane Smiley, The Guardian

Jones believably explores what it feels like to be afflicted with strange or terminal conditions, as well as with anger and rage. These stories put you off, draw you in, show you states of mind that you may never have experienced. They are intensely lively and down to earth; adventurous, often harsh but subtly self-effacing; both a generational portrait and a self-portrait of one of the strangest writers of our times.