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Archive for February 2019

Thursday, February 28, 2019

When Brooklyn Was Queer: Telling The Story Of The Borough's LGBT Past, by Dominic Rushe, The Guardian

For five years Hugh Ryan has been hunting queer ghosts through the streets of Brooklyn, amid the racks of New York’s public libraries, among its court records and yellow newspaper clippings to build a picture of their lost world.

The result is When Brooklyn Was Queer, a funny, tender and disturbing history of LGBTQ life that starts in an era, the 1850s, when those letters meant nothing and ends before the Stonewall riots started the modern era of gay politics.

What If I Wasn’t Meant To Be A Novelist?, by Aaron Shulman, Literary Hub

Somewhere along the way, after the last rejections were tapering off and it seemed I would have to do another revision of my novel, if in fact I had it in me, I collapsed in tears on the bed. My wife comforted me; she’d been through this once before with me back when I threw out my MFA thesis to reboot my novel. This time, though, was different. It was less about a particular project being worthy than about me being worthy. All I had ever wanted was to write my own book, and while I had found a writing career that paid the bills, it was akin to the inverse of my dreams: I was succeeding at writing other people’s books instead of my own.

The Ghost In My Hands: On Reading Digital Books, by Bryan Van Dyke, The Millions

My complaint about digital books is this: They are mere ghosts, capable of possession, but never tangible or real. I suspect that people still read great novels on the subway, but I can’t tell; it looks like everyone is just staring at their phones. No one at work asks what I’m reading. There’s no book on my desk.

The virtual bookshelf on my Kindle is a list of titles that I have read but never held. These books are just ideas, abstractions, nothing less, nothing more. And ideas are grand, to be sure. But printed books are not just ideas. The print books that line the shelves in our home are solid artifacts, and their shapes describe the shape of my life.

The Strange Things I’ve Found Inside Books, by Jane Stern, The Paris Review

In the past few years I have discovered an added benefit, besides not bankrupting myself, to acquiring books secondhand. Many of the used books I buy have something left inside of them by their former owners.

Skin In The Game: Do We Need To Take Down Nudes – Or Look At Them Harder?, by Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian

What radiates from all this is the sheer variety of reasons for portraying the human body naked, and the complexity of the visual traditions artists were drawing on. The dominance of the nude in the Renaissance, the exhibition argues, cannot entirely be ascribed to the rediscovery of the art of classical antiquity. Attitudes to the human body were just as complex, various and messy in the 15th century as they are now, and much more localised – with Germany and Italy, say, working within different moral and rhetorical traditions.

Rembrandt Died 350 Years Ago. Why He Matters Today., by Nina Siegal, New York Times

With all this renewed focus on this painter, etcher, printmaker, draughtsman, lover, fighter, genius and debtor, it’s fair to ask: Who is Rembrandt now? How do we interpret the life and work of the Dutch Golden Age master who knew great fame but also fell out of fashion in his own lifetime, and who has been resurrected again and again by different generations of art lovers who found new meaning in his work?

This Is The Loneliest Road In America, by Hannah Lott-Schwartz, National Geographic

Or so says Life magazine. In July 1986, the publication honored the Statue of Liberty’s 100th birthday and highlighted American superlatives: On one page, the “Cutest” (a toddler actor) appears alongside the “Loneliest Road” below a photo of a seemingly endless highway that reaches across the desert toward the mountains, a lone cowboy on horseback crossing from one side of nothingness to the other. An anonymous AAA counselor is quoted in the article: “We warn all motorists not to drive there, unless they're confident of their survival skills.”

Rather than keep motorists away, however, the moniker piqued curiosity—thanks in part to the Nevada Commission on Tourism. The public relations director at the time saw an opportunity in the article and released a Highway 50 survival guide the same month the Life article came out, rewarding visitors to the area with a certificate of survival signed by the governor. Highway signs touting the qualifier went up along the route at the same time, and it graduated from opinion to slogan.

Past Tense: What Do Graffiti And Fine Cuisine Have In Common? Chef Ed Lee Explains, by Edward Lee, New York Times

When the culture of graffiti I grew up with died out at end of the ’80s, I longed for something as sublime and as useless as spraying art on a wall. I found it on a porcelain plate in a French kitchen. I found a tribe of derelicts who were unhinged and passionate and nocturnal. There is an insanity to the number of hours spent over a stove to create a plate of food that will disappear in mere minutes. It’s not logical. But we do it anyway. We live for the few people out there who will truly get it. It means the world to us. To the rest of society, we are as anonymous as that fool who scrawled an illegible word on the back of a subway car.

John Williams’ First Novel ‘Nothing But The Night’ Was An Early Glimpse Of Genius, by Quinn Myers, Chicago Review of Books

What do we do with the first novels of authors who later prove themselves to be brilliant? And what if that realization doesn’t come until long after their death? Certainly one curse of posthumous success is that false starts, early experiments and practice shots run the risk of getting dredged up and packaged nicely with a new introduction, or in the case of John Williams’ inconsistent an interview with the author’s widow.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Studying An Emerging Sign Language Won't Kill It — So What Are Linguists Scared Of?, by Michael Erard, Digg

Very young languages offer an opportunity to see how languages emerge and evolve — and therefore what the origin of all languages might have been like. But some linguists have wondered how pure these circumstances really are. They worry that studying one of these sign languages — which may have only a handful of users — introduces an outside influence that could alter its development.

So De Vos was sitting on her hands — deliberately not using signs from other languages — when she was in Bengkala. If there was any chance that she had changed the course of Kata Kolok, her research would be less valid, and its relevance to learning about the natural evolution of languages diminished. The only problem is that shielding a language like Kata Kolok for scientific benefit might not actually be in the best interests of the community that uses it.

How Marie Kondo Helped Me Sort Out My Gender, by Sandy Allen, Them

I didn’t take me long to see it, what the discard pile was. It was only the skirts, only the dresses, only the flowers and lace and sparkles. It was everything I’d bought hoping that some colleague might say: Isn’t that cute?

I burst into tears, shame filling me entirely, and then I laughed about the fact that this book had made me cry, this silly, stupid cleaning book.

Are Mail-Order Meal Kits Doomed?, by Whitney Filloon, Eater

But the real problem with meal kit companies’ business models, Cohen argued, is that the kits serve as “training wheels” of sorts for newbie cooks; once subscribers grow more confident in their abilities to saute and figure out which ingredients complement one another, they inevitably cancel. Discussions in the r/BlueApron Reddit forum seem to support that theory: “I think of it more as a cooking lesson, and save the recipe cards,” one user wrote. Another former subscriber who cancelled after a few months said, “What it taught me was that I needed to spend an hour or so a week meal planning and looking for fun recipes, and I needed to set aside an hour to shop. I did really enjoy learning to cook new things.”

Book Review: Late In The Day, Tessa Hadley, by Allan Massie, The Scotsman

Hadley writes with the appearance of consummate ease, the result, I would guess, partly of an instinctive natural talent, partly of hard practice and the refinement of her method. She gives the impression of knowing her limits, knowing what she can do and what is not for her, just as surely as Jane Austen and Henry James knew theirs. She has an awareness of the shades of feeling, and she recognises how in marriage or a close relationship, one partner may come to find that he or she has surrendered to the other too much of what matters. She has another admirable quality: she knows when to let silence speak, and she has the rare gift of writing dialogue which both rings true and hints at what had been left unsaid but is keenly and sometimes painfully felt.

If Only I Could Tell You By Hannah Beckerman Review – The Clock Is Ticking On A Family Feud, by Hephzibah Anderson, The Guardian

Though romance sparks and infidelity combusts on these pages, this is a very grownup novel, its focus firmly on platonic familial bonds that, as Beckerman shows, can have infinitely more devastating effects than anything Cupid might tie.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Journey To Motherhood In The Art Of Waiting And The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ellen O'Connell Whittet, Ploughshares

These two sides of the motherhood coin leave out one-eighth of the childbearing-aged population (a group in which I currently find myself): those who long for a baby and yet cannot seem to get or stay pregnant. Not being able to have a baby naturally makes each month feel like mourning someone who has gone missing. In my reproductive endocrinologist’s office, an upscale clinic with fluorescent lighting and soft-voiced nurses, we collect numbers that tell a story about my body. We measure hormones and follicles, count days before I self-administer shots or take a pregnancy test. This journey, an increasingly common reality for so many women, can’t find its literary foothold. Where are all the books about miscarriage and assisted reproduction and about experiencing the loss of something you never had to begin with?

The Beauty Of Invisibility, by Jennifer Wilson, The Paris Review

Why do we so often believe that secrecy must necessarily mask transgression? Busch unravels that association in How to Disappear. The laborious, sometimes caustic recipes for invisibility ink and potion included in the book (some from mythology, some from military history) themselves suggest something nefarious. Take for instance the hulinhjalmur, an invisibility-granting symbol from ancient Iceland that had to be smeared on a person’s forehead with a mixture of “blood drawn from your finger and nipples, mixed with the blood and brains of a raven along with a piece of human stomach.” Busch writes that our tendency “to associate [invisibility] with wrongdoing, degeneracy, malice, even the work of the devil” is not accidental. It is inscribed into many of our oldest myths, including the Ring of Gyges, retold famously by Kristin Scott Thomas’s character in The English Patient. Gyges, a simple shepherd who discovers a ring that confers invisibility, uses his newfound power to kill the king, marry his wife, and take the throne for himself. This idea, that invisibility can lead “an otherwise ordinary and honorable person to commit transgressions and behave unjustly,” has stubbornly stayed with us.

Classic Books Are Full Of Problems. Why Can't We Put Them Down?, by Tiara Jenkins, NPR

That tension between Seuss and Seuss-free classrooms is emblematic of a bigger debate playing out across the country — should we continue to teach classic books that may be problematic, or eschew them in favor of works that more positively represent of people of color?

Setting Stonehenge, by Megan Harlan, The Smart Set

We don’t say anyone came from a primitive society anymore; we say they had primitive technologies. But these simpler technologies may have engaged all the genius, complexity, and insight human beings can muster. If the medium is the message, then Stonehenge’s built landscape — one requiring an estimated ten million work hours to construct — telegraphs at the least a major belief system capable of directing such extraordinary creative labor. What can we discern of this belief system from recent large-scale excavations at the site? Could it enrich or illuminate our lives now?

And so, as my family drives into the Stonehenge Parking Lot, I search my smartphone for the email with our ticket number to enter one of the oldest buildings still standing on the planet.

To Sit Beside Boris Fishman On An Airplane Is To Behold The Riches Of Russian Cooking, by Boris Fishman, Literary Hub

When I reached my seat, though, my attempts at passing had to come to an end. Out came the large Ziploc with the tinfoil bundles, big as bombs. The length of the flight didn’t matter. A flying day meant not knowing when the next good meal would arrive, and that meant a large pack of tinfoil bundles. I was mortified to reveal myself as the foreigner after all, but that foreigner would not allow me to pay more to eat less well at the airport concessions. Or up in the air: nine dollars for the Beef Up, or Perk Up, or Pump Up boxes, with their baffling combinations of the wholesome and processed, which reminded me of Russian people who consummated gluttonous meals with fruit because, look, they were health conscious eaters.

No, I brought my own food. I brought pieces of lightly fried whiting. Chicken schnitzels in an egg batter. Tomatoes, which I ate like apples. Fried cauliflower. Pickled garlic. Marinated peppers, though these could be leaky. Sliced lox. Salami. If plain old sandwiches, then with spiced kebabs where your turkey would be. Soft fruit bruises easily, but what better inter-meal snacks than peaches and plums? (You needed inter-meal snacks, just in case.)

'American Spy' Is A Thrilling Debut With No Simple Answers, by John Powers, NPR

About halfway through John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, its wise old hero George Smiley is discussing the inherent paradox of the cover stories that spies adopt. "The more identities a man has," Smiley says, "the more they express the person they conceal."

This fan-dance of identity — with its many concealments and revelations — is central to American Spy, an excitingly sharp debut novel by the talented newcomer Lauren Wilkinson.

A Failed Romanticism, by Bernadette Geyer, Electric Lit

The roots of silk cotton trees
draped the slumberous doorways
of Angkor Wat’s Ta Prohm temple,
and for a while the photogenic ruins
were left that way for the sake
of tourists eager to outdo each other
in the framing and commodification
of the sublime. Ruin is, after all,
in the eyes of the beholder.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Are Robots Competing For Your Job?, by Jill Lepore, New Yorker

The robots are coming. Hide the WD-40. Lock up your nine-volt batteries. Build a booby trap out of giant magnets; dig a moat as deep as a grave. “Ever since a study by the University of Oxford predicted that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of being replaced by robots and artificial intelligence over the next fifteen to twenty years, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the future of work,” Andrés Oppenheimer writes, in “The Robots Are Coming: The Future of Jobs in the Age of Automation” (Vintage). No one is safe. Chapter 4: “They’re Coming for Bankers!” Chapter 5: “They’re Coming for Lawyers!” They’re attacking hospitals: “They’re Coming for Doctors!” They’re headed to Hollywood: “They’re Coming for Entertainers!” I gather they have not yet come for the manufacturers of exclamation points.

The old robots were blue-collar workers, burly and clunky, the machines that rusted the Rust Belt. But, according to the economist Richard Baldwin, in “The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics, and the Future of Work” (Oxford), the new ones are “white-collar robots,” knowledge workers and quinoa-and-oat-milk globalists, the machines that will bankrupt Brooklyn. Mainly, they’re algorithms. Except when they’re immigrants. Baldwin calls that kind “remote intelligence,” or R.I.: they’re not exactly robots but, somehow, they fall into the same category. They’re people from other countries who can steal your job without ever really crossing the border: they just hop over, by way of the Internet and apps like Upwork, undocumented, invisible, ethereal. Between artificial intelligence and remote intelligence, Baldwin warns, “this international talent tidal wave is coming straight for the good, stable jobs that have been the foundation of middle-class prosperity in the US and Europe, and other high-wage economies.” Change your Wi-Fi password. Clear your browser history. Ask H.R. about early retirement. The globots are coming.

Muscle By Alan Trotter Review – Meta Pulp Fiction, by Anthony Cummins, The Guardian

Here’s where it gets messy: the novel’s clout comes to rest on how Box manages his emotions once he arrives in Evelyn’s life, as Trotter’s pastiche edges into more painful exploration of male violence and its aftermath. You see what he’s up to – questioning noir motifs rather than just rehearsing them – but can’t help feeling the novel gets into waters that are too deep and too murky for the abrupt resolution to be persuasive. Still, for three-quarters of the novel, Muscle is some high-wire act, channelling Samuel Beckett as well as Dashiell Hammett, with a dash of quantum mechanics to boot.

'The White Book' Finds Beauty In Loss, by Michael Schaub, NPR

The White Book is a novel that's difficult to describe, but easy to love. It's a delicate book, hard to know, impossible to pin down, but it's filled with some of Han's best writing to date. And it's also one of the smartest reflections on what it means to remember those we've lost.

Mouth Full Of Blood By Toni Morrison – Review, by Arifa Akbar, The Guardian

The risk of such wide-ranging subject matter is that it ends up skittering across the surface. Here, however, Morrison’s words possess a contemporary resonance, delivering unwavering truths with an intelligent rage that is almost equal to her hope.

Sleeping With Strangers By David Thomson Review – A Wrenching Reappraisal Of The Silver Screen, by Peter Conrad, The Guardian

David Thomson has spent his life in the dark. Cocooned in the gloom of cinemas, he is licensed to dream with his eyes open. Now, in his late 70s, he is searching for enlightenment, blinking a little as he faces the glare of the reality outside.

Thomson’s criticism – for me the most ingenious and imaginative writing about film – has always been supplemented by cheeky fantasy. In his biographies of Orson Welles and Warren Beatty he overleaps known facts, treating his subjects as characters in a wishful novel of his own; in Suspects (1985) he invents prequels and afterlives for the fatal women and doomed men of film noir. Sleeping With Strangers, however, is the product of a wrenching reappraisal of this daydreaming and the art that encourages it. As the title suggests, films invite us to fall in love with their stars, whom we use as virtual prostitutes. But does this mean that male viewers like Thomson have been trained as voyeurs and potential predators? Could Harvey Weinstein, who produced so many fine films while allegedly ravaging the lives of so many young women, be the bloated, toad-like personification of the art?

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Story Of Storytelling, by Ferris Jabr, Harper's Magazine

The story of storytelling began so long ago that its opening lines have dissolved into the mists of deep time. The best we can do is loosely piece together a first chapter. We know that by 1.5 million years ago early humans were crafting remarkably symmetrical hand axes, hunting cooperatively, and possibly controlling fire. Such skills would have required careful observation and mimicry, step-by-step instruction, and an ability to hold a long series of events in one’s mind—an incipient form of plot. At least one hundred thousand years ago, and possibly much earlier, humans were drawing, painting, making jewelry, and ceremonially burying the dead. And by forty thousand years ago, humans were creating the type of complex, imaginative, and densely populated murals found on the chalky canvases of ancient caves: art that reveals creatures no longer content to simply experience the world but who felt compelled to record and re-imagine it. Over the past few hundred thousand years, the human character gradually changed. We became consummate storytellers.

Why Can You Still Not F***ing Swear On Late Night?, by Bethy Squires, Vulture

No one can agree on anything at the moment: what is or is not obscene, what is or is not a coup, what is or is not an emergency. As a person who chooses words professionally, it doesn’t feel great to see the very notion of meaning become a partisan issue.


The 1969 Academy Awards Captured A Shifting Moment In Movie History, by Todd S. Purdum, The Atlantic

For the first time in years, the Oscars ceremonies had no host. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was pressing to diversify its aging membership in the face of changing times. A divisive Republican president had taken office and civil discourse was strained. A charismatic, blue-eyed actor had made his critically praised directorial debut, but the Academy’s directing branch had denied him a nomination.

The year was 1969, not 2019. Kevin Hart was 10 years from being born; the president was Richard Nixon, not Donald Trump; and the actor-director was Paul Newman, not Bradley Cooper. But 50 years ago, just as today, the annual Oscars telecast captured a shifting moment in movie history, as the old Hollywood gave way—tentatively, haltingly, sometimes grudgingly—to the new. Then, as now, declining attendance at movie theaters was the existential threat, even if streaming-video services had yet to be dreamed of, and the future of old-line studios looked uncertain at best. And then, as now, the systems and methods of financing and making movies were changing. That very year, Warner Bros. was acquired by a parking-garage company, though no one could presumably imagine that it would one day be owned by AT&T.

A Thing Once It Has Happened, by Julia Copus, Granta

During To begin somewhere other
than at the beginning, to begin
in that last summer of the ’80s, with the tutor –
his wire-wool beard, his sotto voce slights
and compliments, the meekness he affects
to say them in – and with the student, who is beautiful,

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Novels Defeat The Law Of Diminishing Returns, by César Aira, The Paris Review

You can’t write a novel the night before dying. Not even one of the very short novels that I write. I could make them shorter, but it still wouldn’t work. The novel requires an accumulation of time, a succession of different days: without that, it isn’t a novel. What has been written one day must be affirmed the next, not by going back to correct it (which is futile) but by pressing on, supplying the sense that was lacking by advancing resolutely. This seems magical, but in fact it’s how everything works; living, for a start. In this respect, which is fundamental, the novel defeats the law of diminishing returns, reformulating it and turning it to advantage.

Rediscovering The World Of 'Blue Highways', by Rich Cohen, New York Times

Perhaps people still plot road trips in the way my friends and I did in the 1980s, but I doubt it. We used to game everything out beforehand, laying in supplies in the manner of the ancient explorers. Music, food, places to stop: Everything had to be pre-assembled via mixtape, ballpoint pen and map. Entire books were dedicated to the process, a genre made obsolete by technology. It’s a tradition that goes back to the earliest American travel journals, like “The Journals of Lewis and Clark” or Francis Parkman’s “The Oregon Trail,” reports from trappers and surveyors determined to show people what it’s like out there.

Recently, while preparing for a trip down Interstate 95, the most dreaded American road, I picked up “Blue Highways,” the autobiographical tale of a trip taken by William Least Heat-Moon in 1978. The author, having lost his job and wife, packed a van he calls Ghost Dancing and set off from Columbia, Mo., to circumnavigate the nation, “a long (equivalent to half of the circumference of the earth), circular trip over the back roads of the United States.” He called the book “Blue Highways” because that was the color, on the old maps, of the roads he followed, the secondaries made obsolete by the construction of the interstate.

Max Porter: 'I Love Slang, I Love Hip-Hop. I Love The Proper Use Of Language', by Lisa Allardice, The Guardian

“A culture of lying, the outrageous failures of our political system, Westminster being so corrupt, so chaotic ... ” Max Porter is talking about public life in the UK today, about which he finds almost everything “revolting”. Porter’s debut, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, a novella-cum-prose poem about a bereaved dad bringing up two boys, based on the death of his father when he was six, was one of the stand-out books of 2015. He was hailed as “a writer bursting with originality”, but he was reluctant to write a second novel without feeling the same sense of urgency. Now, four years later, this despair at the state of the nation, combined with his “obsessive” fears for the environment, has sent him back to his desk for Lanny, an inventive take on the “missing child” narrative and a meditation on Englishness, made strange by the otherworldliness that distinguished his earlier novel.

Porter didn’t want “just to write angry stuff about tabloid poisoning”, a straightforward anti-Brexit or eco-crisis novel. “This isn’t stuff I want to write about explicitly.” Instead, he hoped “to have a kind of philosophical reckoning” with all these issues. “The question was ‘How do I write about England?’”

Do Online Recipes Come With Too Much Backstory? It's All Part Of The Joy Of Food, by Adam Liaw, The Guardian

The food we eat is constantly evolving and our culture codified within that. You may wince when you read it in an overly sentimental blog, but at a population level Mary’s heartfelt tale of being taught a Victoria sponge at her grandmother’s apron strings (and even the story of Sam and Lucy’s tour of Thailand) is documentation of that evolution.

Strip a recipe of its context and you strip it of everything that it can teach you. And at the end of everything, all you’re left with is an empty plate.

On Tinder, by Elizabeth Wolfe, N+1

I’m not interested in the men I sleep with, my friend Meg tells me. They simply allow me to feel the largeness of what I need to feel.

The man in the picture has dark eyes and powerful hands and a slow smile and a bodybuilder’s physique that is at once gorgeous and grotesque. In two of the most candid photos he is naked, hipbones jutting just above the bottom of the picture frame, staring commandingly down at the camera.

Why Everyone On Tinder Is An 'Oxford Comman Enthusiast', by Kieran Dahl, GQ

On an internet occupied by as many finger-wagging “grammar Nazis” as slovenly texters who prefer emoji to verbal displays of emotion, the Oxford comma has become a cause célèbre. This is especially true on dating apps, where many users have deemed the punctuation mark something they “can’t live without”—a designation that’s put it in the same lofty category as cheese, the beach, and Game of Thrones.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Can There Ever Be Another Novel Like The Satanic Verses?, by Bruce Fudge, Aeon

‘Nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses, let alone publish it,’ the writer Hanif Kureishi told a journalist in 2009. Salman Rushdie’s notorious novel, like Kureishi’s figure of speech, is indeed looking like a relic of a bygone time. When it was published 31 years ago, the global furore was unprecedented. There were protests, book-burnings and riots. Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khomeini called on Muslims to kill Rushdie, a bounty was placed on his head, and there were murders, attempted and successful, of supporters, publishers and translators. The author spent years in hiding.

Three decades later, the novel remains in print, widely available, and the author walks about a largely free man. But if the skirmish over The Satanic Verses was won, a larger battle might have been lost. Who now would dare to write a provocative fiction exploring the origins of Islam? The social and political aspects of the Rushdie affair obscured one of the key ideas at stake: can someone from a Muslim background take material from the life of the prophet Muhammad to compose an innovative, irreverent and resolutely godless work of fiction?

'The Border' Is Don Winslow's Final Chapter In A Chilling, Timely And Seminal Drug War Trilogy, by Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times

A car stops on a hilltop. A man gets out. He walks a few paces and stands at the ridge. The desert valley stretches to Scissors Crossing, where tiny armies of migrants and drug mules once slipped through box canyons in summer swelter and winter frost. They don’t come so much anymore, but when the man sees them he thinks of night whispers and lost things.

He scans south toward Mexico and then to the Santa Ana Mountains. Clouds clamp the horizon; snow glints in the distant north. The meth labs are pretty much gone, the tweakers too. But drugs, like seasons, run in cycles. The land is what grabs you, though, the way it scrunches and wrinkles and spreads out ancient and flat. Full of stories and violent souls that slither through the books of Don Winslow, a parish kid from Rhode Island who never took to the stink of the fish factory and became one of the country’s best crime novelists.

My Restaurant Was The Greatest Show Of Excess You’d Ever Seen, And It Almost Killed Me, by David McMillan, Bon Appétit

In rehab they tell you: We recommend strongly that you stay away from bars and restaurants and the wine trade. We recommend strongly that you look for another job. I have no formal education. I’ve been working in kitchens since I was 16 years old. I have a wine company. I also make wine. And my whole existence in raising my family is based on the act of selling food and wine. I know nothing else. My rehab knew the reality: The fact is, I’m going back to the restaurant. I understand your recommendations. I may fail. But all I know is the restaurant business.

Communing With The Dead: On Yiyun Li’s “Where Reasons End”, by Rachel Veroff, Los Angeles Review of Books

Ultimately, Where Reasons End is a tremendous act of empathy. Despite Li’s own warning to herself that a parent should never write about a child, she has channeled something powerful and true here. Her empathy and courage are what make the book work. Anyone who has ever wished they could talk again to someone who is gone will find solace in these pages.

Gumbo: A Love Story, by The Economist

What lingers in the memory is less the food itself than the warm descriptions of the people who cook it. Gumbo is an inherently social dish; it is rarely made for fewer than a dozen diners, and even more rarely, in your correspondent’s experience, prepared without a crowd. It will include whatever ingredients the chef can defend adding.

When The Dogs Don’t Bark By Angela Gallop Review – How A Forensic Scientist Solves Crime, by PD Smith, The Guardian

As with the best fictional detectives, it is the intellectual challenge of the job that motivates her, despite the often gruesome nature of her work: “Every complicated puzzle solved is a source of immense satisfaction.” This is a fascinating scientific memoir of a life dedicated to uncovering the truth behind some of the most shocking crimes. And a book that will be essential reading for every aspiring crime writer.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

A Brief Escape, by Matt Hanson, The Smart Set

As every cinephile knows, we go to the movies for all kinds of reasons, but escapism is probably the most common. We gather in darkened rooms to see an enhanced version of life where the people onscreen are better-looking, wittier, braver, more dynamic, and generally livelier than we are in real life. Movies give us a sense of what our lives might be like if only we were different people. Love stories epitomize this idealization as no other genre does because while some people might fantasize about being a soldier, a detective, or an uncatchable criminal mastermind, I think the Blues Brothers had it right: at one time or another, everybody needs somebody to love.

This is where the typical love story tropes tend to build up our expectations only to end up letting us down. No matter how much we might wish otherwise, let’s be real — not everybody finds somebody in the end. Maybe this is why stories about love lost are a lot more relatable than those about love found. However many times you’ve seen Casablanca, you still hope against hope that this time Rick won’t let Ilsa get on that plane and fly off into the rain with her husband, Nazi resistance be damned. It might not have worked out for those two in the end, but at least they were together for a little while and besides, they’ll always have Paris.

Unwanted At Midlife: Not Old, But “Too Old”, by Margaret Morganroth Gullette, Los Angeles Review of Books

Many young people, even in the white working class from which my post-immigrant family was emerging, anticipated that we would enjoy a similar life. Black women and men entering civil service hoped for the same. Aging into adulthood held sunny promises. Aging-with-seniority would transform us eventually into “elders and betters.” That was an essential part of the American Dream.

But that was then, before 60 years of economic history revised these assumptions. Recently, I met with a surgeon, hoping to learn more about medical ageism — the under-treatment by clinicians of people they think are “too old” for surgery or chemo or radiation. But I never got the chance. As soon as I mentioned my book, Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People (2017), the physician said that he was a victim of ageism. Dr. Cushing, as I will call him, had been the head of his department, the supervisor of others, before his company took away that position, along with its salary and prestige. Only 60 in the Age of Longevity, he could have served many more years in that august role, as well as remaining an admired clinician. But, as he commented with surprising dispassion, he “cost too much.”

Actually, Ice Cream Is Better In Winter, by Erica Berry, Munchies

My primary 2019 resolution was to meditate, which may be the only concrete thing I share with Gwyneth Paltrow. I imagine that successful meditation will feel like a therapy dog taking up residence up in my cranium. But though I have tried using both an app and an accountability partner (whose concept of a “short practice” is 20 minutes, which is the Zen equivalent of asking someone who never cooks to try whipping up a “basic” apple pie) my current fidget-filled practice suggests that I have a long journey ahead. What I really want from meditation is just to spend less time anxiously dissecting the past or anticipating the future, and more time rooted firmly to the present-tense. I aspire to be able to achieve this without having to sit quietly with my eyes closed. Lifehacker thinks it can be done, and so does a PhD at PsychologyToday. Which is how I found myself, in the middle of the coldest weather that parts of America have seen in decades, achieving mindfulness by eating an ice-cream cone of freshly scooped Peanut-Butter Pandemonium from my local Stewart’s gas station.

A Critic For All Seasons, by Korsha Wilson, Eater

“Until there’s a diversity of voices in the world of restaurant criticism, chefs are going to feel that only one point of view is being represented,” Rodell wrote in 2017. I would add that readers also notice. The homogenous old guard, focusing its coverage on fine or “elevated” dining — and the select restaurants outside of those spheres that it has chosen to hold up in order to maintain the pretense of a fair shake — while often disregarding everyday Caribbean, Asian, South American, Mexican, and African restaurants, sends distinct messages to white readers (here are places you’ll like) and readers of color (your spaces don’t deserve coverage beyond a cheap eats section). Restaurant criticism is fundamentally cultural criticism and just as our society isn’t a monoculture, our restaurant critics shouldn’t reflect one.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

13 Reasons We Type In Lowercase, by Edith Zimmerman, The Cut

Sometimes I tweet in lowercase in an attempt to sound funny. A friend of mine emails exclusively in lowercase, and getting them feels like hearing her actual voice. A woman I know recently apologized to me for sending an email all in lowercase, which was touching and seemed unnecessary, but since we didn’t know each other well, it also felt like a complicated compliment (that she’d have been comfortable enough to email me in lowercase in the first place, but uncomfortable enough about it to think it was worthy of an apology).

Is it cool to type in lowercase? Is it lame? Does it all depend? While typing in lowercase seems simple — it’s casual, it’s easy — it signals an array of sophisticated/nuanced approaches. You can wear lowercase like a costume. It can be evil, it can be gentle. It can be light, it can be dark. And so, here’s a sort-of-comprehensive list of all the reasons we type in lowercase, specifically in email and DMs.

On The Iconic First Line Of One Hundred Years Of Solitude, by Claire Adam, Literary Hub

However, when I was in my twenties and happened to be browsing in the English-language section of a bookshop in Amsterdam, I picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude and read the first sentence. I read the rest of the paragraph, and then down to the end of the page, and then I went back and read the first sentence again. I put the book down and moved on, but as I wandered around the bookshop, I occasionally glanced back towards the table where the book lay. I left the bookshop empty-handed and went on with my life, but, over the next twenty or so years, the sentence kept returning to me, and, every time, I listened to the sequence of words, trying to put my finger on what was so intriguing about them. It was something to do with time, I felt—something that connected the “many years later” to the “distant afternoon,” and something about the surprising way in which the main verb had been rendered. The full sentence, in one English translation, is this:

The Return Of The Airship, by Ryan Cooper, The Week

Transportation is now the biggest single source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, having recently passed electricity generation. Worse, zero-carbon transportation technology is only in its early stages — especially for air travel and shipping, which accounts for large and growing share of emissions.

Steampunk fans and climate hawks alike want to know: what about airships? After investigating the subject for a time, I've come to a tentative conclusion that airships could indeed play an important role in a zero-carbon transportation infrastructure — but probably not in the form of romantic luxury travel. Big and weird cargo shipping might just be where the airship does best.

The Carrying By Ada Limón Review – From The Heart, Unvarnished, by Kate Kellaway, The Guardian

Part of the pleasure of reading Limón is the way she transports you to a Kentucky punctuated by the noise of trains, the presence of horses, the planting of seeds. She does not ignore the world’s cruelties but tries not to be held hostage by them. This is as-the-crow flies poetry – it goes straight to the heart.

The Wych Elm By Tana French Review – A Forensic Examination Of Privilege, by Stephanie Merritt, The Guardian

Leaving the murder squad behind, she flips the perspective of a police procedural to regard the process from the other side, through a narrator who is, at various points, potential victim, suspect and witness. In the process, she carries out a forensic, and timely, examination of the nature of privilege and empathy.

Stories Converge In A Flooded 'Bangkok', by Michael Schaub, NPR

The novel's structure is a tricky one, but Sudbanthad pulls it off pretty well — he wisely lets the reader make the connections between the stories, which makes for a rewarding read.

Sex And The Cinema: How Hollywood Shaped Desire, by Daphne Merkin, New York Times

Thomson is set on linking our frenetic carnality on screen to our vexed carnality in real life, and in doing so he elucidates the cultural impact of film on the shadowy areas of our collective psyche — whether it be gender, racial politics or the male pursuit of power — with an unflinching, sardonic eye. He invokes everyone from Tarzan to Trump and everything from “Last Tango in Paris” to #MeToo. If it is true that he sometimes substitutes free association for deep thinking and throws out aperçus just to see if they’ll stick, it is also true that “Sleeping With Strangers” is dazzling in the effrontery of its opinions, even when they don’t quite hold up. Thomson, a stylist extraordinaire, has written an unaccountable and irresistible book. He reminds us that in a world of increasing sham, movies have the virtue of being instructive, occasionally enlightening shams — to embrace or ignore, as the case may be, but always full of bright dreams, dark visions and glittering possibilities.

Desert View Overlook, by Rose Hunter, World Literature Today

the chipmunk’s prayer hands & hunched tremble munch
& swipe at whiskers bat-like in front of bikers
their cupped hands rising smoke & fingers
pointing, faces open doors & baby-like smiles

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

A Different Kind Of Theory Of Everything, by Natalie Wolchover, New Yorker

Traditionally, physicists have been reductionists. They’ve searched for a “theory of everything” that describes reality in terms of its most fundamental components. In this way of thinking, the known laws of physics are provisional, approximating an as-yet-unknown, more detailed description. A table is really a collection of atoms; atoms, upon closer inspection, reveal themselves to be clusters of protons and neutrons; each of these is, more microscopically, a trio of quarks; and quarks, in turn, are presumed to consist of something yet more fundamental. Reductionists think that they are playing a game of telephone: as the message of reality travels upward, from the microscopic to the macroscopic scale, it becomes garbled, and they must work their way downward to recover the truth. Physicists now know that gravity wrecks this naïve scheme, by shaping the universe on both large and small scales. And the Rashomon effect also suggests that reality isn’t structured in such a reductive, bottom-up way.

If anything, Feynman’s example understated the mystery of the Rashomon effect, which is actually twofold. It’s strange that, as Feynman says, there are multiple valid ways of describing so many physical phenomena. But an even stranger fact is that, when there are competing descriptions, one often turns out to be more true than the others, because it extends to a deeper or more general description of reality. Of the three ways of describing objects’ motion, for instance, the approach that turns out to be more true is the underdog: the principle of least action. In everyday reality, it’s strange to imagine that objects move by “choosing” the easiest path. (How does a falling rock know which trajectory to take before it gets going?) But, a century ago, when physicists began to make experimental observations about the strange behavior of elementary particles, only the least-action interpretation of motion proved conceptually compatible. A whole new mathematical language—quantum mechanics—had to be developed to describe particles’ probabilistic ability to play out all possibilities and take the easiest path most frequently. Of the various classical laws of motion—all workable, all useful—only the principle of least action also extends to the quantum world.

Do We Write Differently On A Screen?, by Tim Parks, New Yorker

While you sit at your computer now, the world seethes behind the letters as they appear on the screen. You can toggle to a football match, a parliamentary debate, a tsunami. A beep tells you that an e-mail has arrived. WhatsApp flashes on the screen. Interruption is constant but also desired. Or at least you’re conflicted about it. You realize that the people reading what you have written will also be interrupted. They are also sitting at screens, with smartphones in their pockets. They won’t be able to deal with long sentences, extended metaphors. They won’t be drawn into the enchantment of the text. So should you change the way you write accordingly? Have you already changed, unwittingly?

In This New Caper Novel, A Yearbook Reveals Family Secrets, by Mary Pols, New York Times

“Good Riddance” is a caper novel, light as a feather and effortlessly charming. It will not save lives or enrich them in an enduring way (as Marie Kondo can do; two years in, my sock drawer can attest to that). But the book inspires a very specific kind of modern joy. I read it fast, in a weekend, during which I did not find my social media accounts or tidying my house nearly as diverting as what was on these pages. Being more attractive than Twitter may sound like a low bar, but in these distractible times, it feels like a genuine achievement.

‘Mouthful Of Birds’ Is A Surreal Stunner, by Aram Mrjoian, Chicago Review of Books

Mouthful of Birds presents a medley of fantastic and absurd situations, but with a heaping spoonful of self-awareness, so that the curtain is partially pulled back on its own wonder, making the sleight of hand known, but no less understood, and all the more thrilling.

The Border By Diarmaid Ferriter Review – The Bloody Road To The Backstop, by Andrew Anthony, The Guardian

Numbering 208, there are more border crossings between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland than there are between the European Union and the countries to its east, which amount to a mere 137. That troubled border in the north-east of the island of Ireland runs for 310 miles along the middle of 11 roads, meets in the middle of at least three bridges and dissects two ferry crossings.

These facts come from a joint report between the Republic’s Department of Transport and the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure and are to be found in the Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter’s richly detailed The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics.

The Tumultuous Path From Emancipation To Segregation, by James Goodman, New York Times

Tourgée attended and lectured a roomful of liberal reformers, educators and clergymen for over an hour. He celebrated the progress freedmen had made since emancipation, wondered if the churches had forgotten who Christ was and what he stood for, and criticized the presumption of the guest list: “We have sought testimony about the Negro from his avowed friends and confessed enemies, and think we shall obtain the truth by ‘splitting the difference’ between them. The testimony of the Negro in regard to his past and present conditions and aspirations for the future is worth more than that of all the white observers that can be packed upon the planet.”

This incident, which comes toward the end of Luxenberg’s absorbing book, is a valuable reminder of something easy to forget. Not that the North also had a race problem; no sentient American should be able to forget that. Rather, that in the century after Reconstruction, segregation was not the worst possible outcome for black people. There was also exclusion (not separate schools but no schools) and elimination. Thousands of African-Americans were murdered by lynching alone.

An American Family Road Trip Unfolds Brilliantly In Lost Children Archive, by Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly

By its feverish climax — the last 20 pages spill out in one single, streaming sentence — Luiselli isn’t just giving us a story, she’s showing us new ways to see.

As You Set Out …, by Elsa Fisch, The Guardian

Within a week your sons emptied
your apartment, removed the Giacometti.

A daughter-in-law cancelled
your Tuesdays at the hairdresser’s.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Singer Building: A Lost Monument To Industry — And Traditional Urbanism, by Theo Mackey Pollack, The American Conservative

The first decade of the 20th century was a sparkling time in American construction. Nowhere was its spirit more intense than in downtown New York, an aging colonial seaport that was fast becoming a center of industrial capitalism. Here, among winding narrow blocks, a Whitmanesque neighborhood of brick row houses and Protestant steeples was rapidly evolving into a concrete labyrinth of elegant white towers and steam-damp canyons. New York, with each new spire, signaled that America would no longer defer to Europe. Now, the future was being charted on this side of the Atlantic.

The Singer Building was an icon of this moment. Rising 612 feet above Broadway (at the corner of Liberty Street) its sheer ambition was proved by a fleeting reign as the world’s tallest building. Its artfulness was established by use of neoclassical and Renaissance design elements at a novel scale. And its authenticity was grounded in local industry: Manhattan then was a maze of textiles. Its industrial fabric comprised cloth workshops and showrooms, its tenements housed armies of piece workers and seamstresses, and its labor unions were dominated by needle-trades employees. For the city’s skyline to be topped off by a maker of industrial sewing machines was a perfect fit.

A Whale’s Afterlife, by Jeffrey Marlow, New Yorker

Whale falls may occur as frequently as every ten miles on the seafloor; at any given time, there are likely hundreds of thousands of them around the world. A 2015 review paper by the deep-sea ecologist Craig Smith, at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and a number of collaborators proposed that decaying whale carcasses may serve “as a sort of biodiversity generator,” allowing organisms from different energy-rich seafloor oases, such as thermal vents or methane seeps, to mingle. The importance of these deep-sea ecosystems makes whale falls especially fascinating. Seafloor microbes consume methane, which is a greenhouse gas, and provide biomass that ultimately sustains fish populations. Rouse’s team is monitoring a number of habitats around Rosebud to understand how they’re connected, and how deep-sea oases like whale falls and seeps might drive evolution.

There are creatures that have been observed at whale falls and nowhere else. Osedax are among them. Shana Goffredi, a biologist at Occidental College, was part of the team that first analyzed the Osedax worm in detail, at a whale fall in Monterey Canyon, around four hundred miles northwest of San Diego. Since then, she has led several research projects to piece together the worm’s genetic heritage and bizarre way of life. The first scavengers at a whale fall feast on the flesh. “Anything could take advantage of that,” Goffredi told me, dismissively. Osedax—Latin for “bone-eater”—“are specifically relying on bone, which is a weird, weird thing to eat.”

How To Fix Food, by Michael Behar, Outside Magazine

Haberman runs a successful marketing agency that bears his name, which has worked with foodie clients like Annie’s Homegrown, Earthbound Farm, and Organic Valley, along with Prana, Volvo, and LeafLine Labs, a medical-cannabis outfit that manufacturers pharmaceutical-grade THC and CBD extracts. He launched Urban Organics in 2011 with three friends and a plan, among other things, to create the world’s largest organic aquaponics farm. Aquaponics combines hydroponics—growing plants without soil in a water-based mineral solution—with aquaculture, otherwise known as fish farming. Poop-laden wastewater from the fish is pumped into the plant beds, where roots suck up the nutrients and help purify the sullied water before it’s recirculated back to the aquaculture tanks.

An early form of aquaponics was developed by the Toltecs, who created artificial islands (called chinampas) to grow crops on lakes. More recently, maker types have been getting into it, cobbling together smallish home setups. But the Urban Organics operation is massive. This became obvious when Haberman stopped talking about his SUV and prodded me through the front door of the Schmidt building and into the warehouse.

Menu Matters: On Alison Pearlman’s “May We Suggest”, by India Mandelkern, Los Angeles Review of Books

When i left academia for the so-called “real world,” the first job I landed was at a restaurant consulting agency. Naïvely, I thought I knew a thing or two about food. Hadn’t all those years studying orgiastic turtle feasting rituals meant anything? Working at the agency changed all of that. I learned to think of burgers in terms of “carriers” and “proteins” and fries in terms of their “craveability.” Restaurants were never mere restaurants; they were “fast casuals” or “fine casuals” or yet-to-be-named service models devoted to customizing bowls of poke. I made PowerPoint presentations exhorting clients to “leverage equity in sauces and dips” and “showcase fork and knife credibility.”

But nothing riles up a restaurant consultant quite like menus. Whether they’re printed on laminated cards, scrawled on vintage chalkboards, broadcast on LED screens, or recited by earnest waiters, menus instruct us how to use a restaurant. Little is left to chance. Stack your menu with too many options, and you’ll rattle your guests with order anxiety. Refuse to indulge their fickle appetites, and your user frequency will take a hit.

Nonfiction: The Case For Covering Your Ears In Noisy Times, by Gal Beckerman, New York Times

Two new books on the value of invisibility and silence seem like a clever bit of counterprogramming. Coming upon them was like finding the Advil bottle in the medicine cabinet after stumbling about with a headache for a long time. They are both, perhaps purposefully, slow reads. They demand patience from addled minds primed to see such subject matter as a result of subtraction, the blank pages between chapters.

'Tram Car 015' Is A Delightful Ride, by Amal El-Mohtar, NPR

For all that the main characters are men, the gaze that encounters several different, vivacious female characters is an awed and loving one, and conversations about gender feel grounded in character and richly effective. The work women are doing together to obtain suffrage is deeply felt and wonderful, and I was frequently overwhelmed by how much joy the reading was bringing me.

Who Killed My Father By ÉDouard Louis Review – A Short, Sharp Shock, by Tim Adams, The Guardian

Louis sacrifices some of the nuance of his first novel for a more bludgeoning polemical directness. The result, even so, speaks with an emotional authenticity and a stylistic confidence that is hard to ignore.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Remembering Dan Fante, by Douglas Mallon, 3AM Magazine

I met Dan Fante at one of the darkest times in my life. I didn’t know who he was, what he’d done, or who his father was either. I’d never read Ask The Dust — the seminal American novel I now hold to be one of the two most beautiful novels ever written. (All Quiet On The Western Front being the other). It’s just so amazing as I sit here in a Starbucks in Santa Monica all these years later — just killing time — waiting for the noon 26th & Broadway meeting to start — how masterfully this “thing” some of us call God orchestrates the countless subtle miracles that continually escort me on my journey across the plains of this existence.

You can tell based on that last sentence that I didn’t major in English at Columbia — though I did score some weed near the campus a time or two throughout my wayward youth. But now, here I am, on the outskirts of twunny-five years clean and sober, a published author, free of the obsession that was driving me further and further into new realms of darkness that it appeared I’d never return from — and it was Fante that “God” sent to pull me back from them. All those years ago the obsession that I was trapped in came in the form of a five-foot-two, one-hundred-twunny pound raging beauty — fifteen years my junior who I’ve come to call Jacqueline in all the fiction I’ve written relating to her.

Singapore -- History Haunts The Ultra-Modern State, by Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, Nikkei Asian Review

From Cape Town to San Francisco, cities have been toppling monuments to historical figures with troubling legacies. In Singapore, authorities have opted for a more genteel way of dealing with the statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British colonialist who in 1819 chose the tiny island as the East India Co.'s new regional base.

They are diluting the imperialist's prominence by erecting for the year four new statues of Asian pioneers near Raffles.

The government is commemorating the bicentennial of Raffles's landing with a yearlong pageantry of exhibitions, essays and events (there may even be a national election).

It is a means to interrogate Singapore's rich but oft-overlooked pre-independence history. Yet the process involves risks -- it exposes some inherent contradictions about a global city's identity, as interpreted by a heavy-handed state.

What Is Death?, by Sandeep Jauhar, New York Times

In the spectrum between alive and dead, we set the threshold, and we can do so in response to biological, ethical and even practical considerations. Death is not a binary state or a simple biological fact but a complex social choice.

Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant By Joel Golby – Review, by Adam Kay, The Guardian

While Brilliant, Brilliant has no narrative thread, making it a book to dip in and out of rather than devour in one sitting, Golby is great at switching between the poignant and the absurd, observing life both with the wonder of a toddler who has just discovered where you hid the crayons and the confidence of the friend who tells you “I got this” before attempting to fix your vacuum cleaner.

In 'The City In The Middle Of The Night,' Big Ideas Lead To Big Upheavals, by Jason Sheehan, NPR

It is an intimate portrait of people as much as it is a piece of culturally aware social scifi — a look at our moment in history through a distorting lens of aliens and spaceships. And it is those people who break everything that lies broken by the end of things; who are the living, breathing foci of the "valid theor[ies] of human nature" being discussed, and the eyes through which we will see the beginnings, the fiery middles and the cold, dark ends of things before we are through.

The Strange Beach Novel That Would Make Mallarmé Proud, by Lily Meyer, The Atlantic

The novel’s strength lies in its ability to turn to the next magic trick, the next detail, the next sight. Those sights are all the more impressive when conjured solely from language. By opting out of fiction’s conventional prioritization of plot or character development, Aridjis foregrounds her ability to develop images and metaphors. The result is seductive in its multiplicity.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

In Praise Of Urinal Lit, by Alex Tzelnic, The Millions

What qualifies as urinal lit? Well, technically it’s anything that someone is brave enough to scribble on a bathroom wall. I’ll admit, most of these scribbles are nonsense, as alcohol fuels a tremendous amount of urinal lit (though the same could be said, I suppose, for lit lit). Urinal lit often has a sense of urgency, as well as a clarity typically reserved for a form like haiku. The best urinal lit uses an economy of language that makes Raymond Carver seem positively prolix. The urgency of urinal lit comes from the necessary brevity of scrawling a message in a public place without being seen. Given the amount of graffiti in bar bathrooms, I’m amazed I’ve never actually caught anyone in the act. But after careful study and covert iPhone documentation (taking pictures in the bathroom being frowned upon for obvious reasons), I have unearthed several styles worthy of celebration

Is The Universe Pro-Life?, by Bobby Azarian, Quartz

An old and profound existential question is receiving new interest from the scientific community: Was the emergence of life in the universe an improbable event, or the opposite, an inevitable one? In other words, did life occur as a result of chance and contingency, or was it an inescapable and predictable consequence of natural law?

The answer to this question would tell us whether biological life is a fluke or a regularity. The former answer would suggest that we are alone in the universe, a statistical anomaly. The latter suggests that the phenomenon is not uncommon in the cosmos, likely occurring on other planets with sufficiently Earth-like conditions.

While this question might first appear impossible to answer due to a severely limited sample size—Earth is the only life-harboring planet we know of—a new understanding of the mechanisms underlying the origin of life is reinvigorating the notion of a bio-friendly universe

Death Is Hard Work, by Khaled Khalifa, translated by Leri Price, Literary Hub

Resolved to be silent in his last hours, he closed his eyes, ignoring the people around him, and sank into solitude with a smile. He thought of Nevine: her smile, her scent, her naked body wrapped in a black abaya as she tried to float like the butterflies they were collecting. He remembered how his eyes shone at chat moment, how his heart had thudded, how his knees trembled, how he carried her to the bed and kissed her greedily, but before he could recall every moment of chat “night of im­mortal secrets,” as they’d secretly dubbed that particular evening, he died.

Bolbol, in a rare moment of courage, under the influence of his father’s parting words and sad, misted eyes, acted firmly and with­ out fear. He promised his father he would carry out his instructions, which—despite their clarity and simplicity—would hardly be easy work. It’s only natural for a man, full of regrets and know­ ing he’ll die within hours, to be weak and make impossible requests. And then it’s equally natural for the person tending to that man to put on a cheerful front, as Bolbol was doing, so as not to let the dying man feel chat he has been abandoned.

Our final moments in this life aren’t generally an appropriate time for clear-eyed reflection; indeed, they always find us at our most sentimental. There’s no room left in them for rational thought, because time itself has solidified and expanded inside them like water becoming ice. Peace and deliberation are required for reviewing the past and settling our accounts—and these are practices chat chose approaching death rarely cake the time to do. The dying can’t wait to fling aside their burdens, the better to cross the barzakh—to the other side, where time has no value.

The Communal Mind, by Patricia Lockwood, London Review of Books

A few years ago, when it suddenly occurred to us that the internet was a place we could never leave, I began to keep a diary of what it felt like to be there in the days of its snowy white disintegration, which felt also like the disintegration of my own mind. My interest was not academic. I did not care about the Singularity, or the rise of the machines, or the afterlife of being uploaded into the cloud. I cared about the feeling that my thoughts were being dictated. I cared about the collective head, which seemed to be running a fever. But if we managed to escape, to break out of the great skull and into the fresh air, if Twitter was shut down for crimes against humanity, what would we be losing? The bloodstream of the news, the thrilled consensus, the dance to the tune of the time. The portal that told us, each time we opened it, exactly what was happening now. It seemed fitting to write it in the third person because I no longer felt like myself. Here’s how it began.

Why I Travelled The World To See Every Vermeer Painting, by Tracy Chevalier, The Guardian

I always prefer to be in the room with a painting. For one thing, screens are backlit and display a souped-up version of the work that is not true to life. Screens are also in places surrounded by lots of distractions – in offices, on trains, in cafes. It’s hard to focus on a painting with so much going on around it. Looking at an artwork in a gallery is rather like watching a film in a cinema: you are experiencing it in a space designed for this purpose. It gives you the physical and mental freedom to concentrate on the work. You can also move back and forth, in and out of a physical space, taking in the painting from different angles in a way that the “zooming” button on a screen doesn’t allow.

Muscle By Alan Trotter Review - A New Take On Noir, by Toby Litt, The Guardian

As with the best pulp fiction, there’s serious existential heft here. The force of the melancholy can catch you off guard. “This is always the thing, this is the tide we cannot swim against – that we always have to find somewhere to be. You chew down the tiredness until it chokes you, you keep finding somewhere to be until you’re excused, finally.” Trotter is a very fine writer, and Muscle is an unadulterated ultraviolent delight.

The Library Book By Susan Orlean - What LA Lost When Its Library Burned Down, by Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian

Susan Orlean has a knack for finding compelling stories in unlikely places. In 1998 she turned the niche-sounding topic of banditry among the orchid- growing community of Florida into the gripping true crime narrative The Orchid Thief, subsequently filmed by Spike Jonze as the arthouse hit Adaptation. Twenty years on, Orlean again pokes about in an area that most writers would have put in their “interesting but not quite interesting enough” file of possible book ideas. For while the 1986 LA library fire was spectacular for the seven hours it lasted, it was also oddly indeterminate. No one died, the library got back on its feet, the man suspected of arson was never charged, quite possibly because he didn’t actually do it.

These are hardly the building blocks of a tense forensic procedural. Instead, Orlean uses the fire to ask a broader question about just what public libraries are for and what happens when they are lost.

In 'The Next To Die,' A Serial Killer Targets Pairs Of Best Friends, by Sarah Lyall, New York Times

Hannah’s plots are like intricate jigsaw puzzles whose pieces you cannot believe will fit together, until you see the completed picture. Her denouements tend to make more sense in retrospect than at the time. The fun in reading “The Next to Die” — even when the scaffolding fails to fully support the structure — isn’t in learning whodunit, but in following the labyrinthine byways of its author’s peculiar worldview and the twisted motives of her characters.

Real Life Provides The Origin Story In 'Comics Will Break Your Heart', by Alethea Kontis, NPR

Ultimately, Comics Will Break Your Heart is a sweet book about two young people falling for each other. It's about how love and loneliness don't care how much money you have, and how actions have consequences. It will leave you with a smile and warm fuzzies in your chest. And, I promise, it will not break your heart.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Enthusiast: In Praise Of Maurice Sendak, by Maria Russo, New York Times

A private boat, appearing just when you feel unjustly confined, outrageously misunderstood …. The serene grin Sendak put on the boy’s face as he sits in that private boat is, to me, what contentment looks like. The ocean has deepening shades of blue and little whitecaps suggesting the ideal, exhilarating amount of wind. A single tree leans into the left side of the frame — this bit of sea is not too far from land, from home. Like Max, I occasionally wished as a child to escape from my family, and truth be told the urge still pops up. But Max sitting happily in his private boat, land in sight, reminds me that my true desire has always been to be close to the people I love, yet find respite from their demands and intrusions.

The Story Behind The Shortest Movie Review Of All Time, by Jeffrey Bloomer, Slate

“This was in the early days of the guide, when we were, in one fell swoop, practicing reviews of hundreds, indeed, thousands of movies,” he added. “We were trying to find interesting, colorful, precise ways to describe a lot of formulaic movies, and there was an existing book before mine, and we were keenly aware of not even accidentally copying the way they had described those movies. If the plot of the ’40s murder mystery was ‘Man strangles his wife and tries to get away with it,’ how many ways can you say that? And our reviews were much, much shorter in the early guides. Much, much shorter.”

The Bizarre Planets That Could Be Humanity’s New Homes, by Charlie Jane Anders, The Atlantic

Astronomers believe that most of the planets in our galaxy that have Earth-like temperatures are likely to be tidally locked. Because their orbital period is the same as their period of rotation, these planets will always present the same face to their sun—just as we always see the same side of the moon, as it orbits Earth.

And the reason for this glut of tidally locked worlds is pretty simple. Up to three-quarters of suns in our galaxy are red dwarfs, or “M-dwarfs,” smaller and cooler than our sun. Any planet orbiting one of these M-dwarfs would need to be much closer to its star to support human life—as close as Mercury is to our sun. And at that distance, the star’s gravity would pull it into a tidally locked orbit.

How So-Called ‘Ugly Food’ Is Challenging Notions Of What We Crave, by Ligaya Mishan, New York Times

Such is the surreal glory of stargazy pie — also known as starry-gazy-pie — so called because the fish’s eyes appear to be “studying the stars,” according to the English antiquarian James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words (1846). Originally an English recipe from the cobblestone coastal village of Mousehole, Cornwall, the dish is believed to date to a season of famine in the 16th century, when (the story goes) one gutsy fisherman took to the stormy seas and hauled in enough marine life to feed the town. Its residents were so hungry that the bounty was baked all at once, in a single pie. Every year, on Dec. 23, locals celebrate the survival of their ancestors with a festival dedicated to the dish.

Beyond Cornwall, stargazy pie is largely unknown, even to many Brits. In China, however, this obscure regional specialty has become a subject of fascination, an exemplar of all that the Chinese find baffling about Western cooking. In 2012, an account on Douban — a social network focused on lifestyle and culture and whose reach as of September exceeds 300 million active monthly users — started sharing photographs from the British supper-club chef Kerstin Rodgers’s blog, including her version of stargazy pie. Commenters found the dish bizarre and suggested that the fish’s dignity had been compromised, although whether this was intended as criticism or comedy isn’t entirely clear. (Fish heads are featured without controversy in Chinese cooking, so perhaps the outrage was the dough.)

An Improbably Compelling Novel Of The EU, by The Economist

From such material he created what might seem impossible: a readable novel of Brussels. “The Capital” is a mischievous yet profound story about storytelling; about the art of shaping a narrative by finding resonances in the messy stuff of life.

This Gorgeous Book On NASA’s Glory Days Will Inspire The Astronaut In All Of Us, by Drew Tewksbury, Los Angeles Times

From NASA’s early days slinging monkeys through the stratosphere to the Mars rover’s recent red planet selfie, the book catalogs with beautiful detail the rapid pace of scientific and engineering advances during the 20th-century space race. “It’s hard to imagine that a period shorter than a single human lifespan bridges the gulf between the first powered airplane, hand-built out of wood and fabric by a pair of Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop owners, and the first Moon-bound spaceships, jointly constructed by some 400,000 people working across an entire nation,” writes essayist Roger D. Launius.

The Politics Of Feeling, by Nick Laird, Granta

I’m going to level with you now about the despicable phoniness of those
who declare they’re going to level with you now: also, let me make it
abundantly clear that those who say let me make it abundantly clear

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Why Book Covers Still Use The Phrase "A Novel", by Eliza Brooke, Vox

For designers and marketers alike, “A Novel” is a tool that can be used in any number of ways and for any number of conflicting reasons, as wide-ranging and diverse as the genre it describes. People may not have much to say about it, but it does say a lot.

Poetry Of The Silver Screen, by Colleen Abel, Ploughshares

So when a poem wants to respond to a film, how does it resolve the tensions between these two forms? Or, perhaps more accurately: how does it make use of those tensions, and alchemize them into art?

Shopping In Pyongyang, And Other Adventures In North Korean Capitalism, by Travis Jeppesen, New York Times

Usually translated as “market grounds,” jangmadang is the word for the unofficial markets that emerged during the Arduous March, which is the regime’s official name for the famine that blighted the country throughout the middle and late 1990s. These were illegal markets, to begin with, that sprang up as a result of the collapse of the public food-distribution system that all North Koreans had previously relied on for their monthly rations. During the later years of Kim Jong-il’s reign, the government began to grudgingly accept their existence and took steps toward regulating them: charging rent for stalls, controlling prices and monitoring what goods were for sale. Under Kim Jong-un, the restrictions against this form of private enterprise have been all but lifted, and jangmadang has transcended the cramped market stalls of its birth to refer to the vast array of legal, illegal and semi-legal markets that exist for all sorts of goods in North Korea. Among recent defectors and expat residents, it is said that now, as long as you have money, you can buy anything you want in North Korea. But since the government still hasn’t figured out a way of publicly reconciling with this nascent form of capitalism, it was considered taboo to discuss the jangmadang with foreigners.

Which is a shame, because the rise of the jangmadang is arguably the most significant milestone in North Korea’s recent history. It lies at the root of all the country’s economic development over the past few years. They might not be permitted to speak about it with outsiders, but North Koreans are no longer shy about flaunting their consumption habits, as anyone who has witnessed the displays on the streets of Pyongyang in recent years can attest. Montblanc watches, Ray-Ban sunglasses and Burberry couture hardly fit the stereotype of a half-starved populace completely cut off from the outside world. And while extreme poverty continues to afflict large swaths of the population, North Korean society no longer conforms to a simplistic picture of haves and have-nots, but is home to an increasingly diverse and complex array of socioeconomic classes. While the presence of a rising upper middle class is most apparent in Pyongyang, a nouveau riche strata has been observed in other parts of the country, such as the port city of Chongjin and in many places along the border with China, where licit and illicit trade continues to flourish.

‘This Land Is Meant Only For Saffron. Without It, It Means Nothing.’, by Sharanya Deepak, Eater

There are many local legends about how saffron came to Kashmir. One goes back to the 12th century, and says that Sufi saints Khawaja Masood Wali and Sheikh Sharif-u-din Wali presented a local chieftain with a saffron bulb after he cured them of an illness while they were traveling. Another claims that the Persians brought it in 500 B.C., as a means to further trade and market. A third dates the spice back to the Hindu Tantric kings, when it was mixed into hot water to create potions that incited feelings of romantic love.

While the myths arouse discord, there’s one item of consensus: Kashmiri saffron is the sweetest, most precious spice in the world. Its strands are thicker and more fragrant than its counterpart from Iran, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the world’s saffron production. For Kashmiri farmers, crop sells for as much as 250,000 INR or $3,400 USD a kilogram, or $1,550 a pound, in what was once a booming industry. Most of Kashmir’s saffron is grown in Pampore, south of the state’s summer capital, Srinagar. Thirty years ago, it would take Fehmida Mir’s family six to seven months to pick and then package their crop; she recounts memories of winters filled with the spice’s fragrance and palms golden from working with it. As recently as a decade ago, Mir would be able to harvest 200 kilograms of saffron, half of the 400 kilos her parents would get in the 1990s. Three years ago, her crop dropped to 20 kilograms; in 2016, it dropped to 15. Last year, the crop weighed less than 7 kilograms; this year’s produce has been the same. In all of Pampore, farmers have suffered similar fates, unable to account for their production for the last two years, as it was so little.

Notes On An Italian Getaway In Australia, by Beepe Severgnini, Literary Hub

Tourist offices, travel agencies, and young ladies on the phone had assured me that there was no room on the train as far as Perth; at Adelaide, I was going to have to catch a plane. But Italian travelers don’t argue; they simply remain skeptical. They don’t complain; they investigate. At Sydney Central Station I ask: “Is there room?” Answer: “We’ve just had a cancellation. There’s a place available in Red Kangaroo.” Unaware of the chromatic implications of the marsupials in question, I reply, “I’ll take it.”

I discover that Red Kangaroo means second class. No problem: the Indian Pacific is one of the great railway journeys on the planet. The line was built to persuade the colonies of Western Australia to join the federation. Inaugurated in 1917, it had been constructed in five years using picks, shovels, carts, and camels. There remained the problem of the different gauges: to go from Sydney to Perth, you had to change trains six times. I only have to change my sleeping compartment in Adelaide. That seems doable.

'American Spy' Is A Unique Spin On The Cold War Thriller, by Michael Schaub, NPR

American Spy works on so many levels — it's an expertly written spy thriller as well as a deeply intelligent literary novel that tackles issues of politics, race and gender in a way that's never even close to being heavy-handed or didactic. Above all, it's just so much fun to read — like the best of John le Carré, it's extremely tough to put down. It marks the debut of an immensely talented writer who's refreshingly unafraid to take risks, and has the skills to make those risks pay off.

‘How To Hide An Empire’ Shines Light On America’s Expansionist Side, by Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

To call this standout book a corrective would make it sound earnest and dutiful, when in fact it is wry, readable and often astonishing. Immerwahr knows that the material he presents is serious, laden with exploitation and violence, but he also knows how to tell a story, highlighting the often absurd space that opened up between expansionist ambitions and ingenuous self-regard.

Chloe Aridjis’s “Sea Monsters” Is A Hypnotic Narrative Of Disenchantment, by Katy Waldman, New Yorker

“Most voyages end in failure,” Luisa concludes. She adds that “to imagine travel is probably better than actually traveling since no journey can ever satisfy human desire.” The figure of the shipwreck looms large for Aridjis. It becomes a useful lens through which to see this book, which is self-contained, inscrutable, and weirdly captivating, like a salvaged object that wants to return to the sea.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

An Earthquake Lasted 50 Days, But No One Felt It. Here's Why, by Robin George Andrews, National Geographic

Back in the summer of 2016, a big earthquake struck northwestern Turkey. That’s not so unusual, considering that the region sits atop a highly active branching fault network that has a history of producing some seriously powerful tremblors.

The strange thing about this particular quake is that it lasted for 50 days, and not a single soul felt it.

Beneath The Streets Of Paris, In Search Of The Cataphiles, by Will Hunt, Literary Hub

A century and a half after Nadar, I arrived in Paris, along with Steve Duncan and a small crew of urban explorers, with an aim to investigate the city’s relationship to its underground in a way no one had before. We planned a traverse—a walk from one edge of the city to the other, traveling exclusively by subterranean infrastructure. It was a trip Steve had dreamed up back in New York: we’d spent months planning, studying old maps of the city, consulting Parisian explorers, and tracing potential routes.

The expedition, in theory, was tidy. We would descend into the catacombs just outside the southern frontier of the city, near Porte d’Orléans; if all went according to plan, we’d emerge from the sewers near Place de Clichy, beyond the northern border. As the crow flies, the route was about six miles, a stroll you could make between breakfast and lunch. But the subterranean route—as the worm inches, let’s say— would be winding and messy and roundabout, with lots of zigzagging and backtracking. We had prepared for a two- or three-day trek, with nights camping underground.

Did Capital Punishment Create Morality?, by George Scialabba, New Yorker

Humans seem to have a capacity for violent aggression as strong as that of chimpanzees and a capacity for gentleness and docility as strong as that of bonobos. “Compared with other primates, we practice exceptionally low levels of violence in our day-to-day-lives, yet we achieve exceptionally high rates of death from violence in our wars,” Wrangham writes. “That discrepancy is the goodness paradox.” Wrangham has been pondering this paradox in the twenty years since the publication of “Demonic Males,” and he has the first draft of an explanation. It is, literally, far-fetched, relying on observations from Siberia, the South Pacific, the Amazon, Tierra del Fuego, and other remote corners of the earth, as well as on the work of archaeologists, paleontologists, psychologists, biochemists, neurophysiologists, geneticists, and others. The clichés about science being a vast coöperative endeavor may actually be true.

Marlon James’ Fantasy Trilogy Is A Delirious Smoothie Of Influences And Tributes, by Laura Miller, Slate

Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings—a panoramic, multivocal portrait of his hometown, Kingston, Jamaica, around the time of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley—was a literary reputation-maker, winner of the 2015 Booker Prize, and one the great city novels of the past five decades. Black Leopard, Red Wolf—James’ first major work since then—will strike many as a radical departure: It is the first in an epic fantasy trilogy set on a fictional continent loosely based on Iron Age Africa. The novel is a delirious smoothie of cultural influences and tributes, from Kurosawa films to superhero comics to the seminal work of the 1930s Nigerian writer D.O. Fagunwa, whose Forest of a Thousand Daemons was the first novel published in the Yoruba language. (I’m pretty sure I even caught a whiff of Robert Browning at one point.)

Books Of The Times: ‘Leading Men,’ A Novel About Tennessee Williams And His Lover, Casts A Spell From The Start, by Dwight Garner, New York Times

This is an alert, serious, sweeping novel. To hold it in your hands is like holding, to crib a line from Castellani, a front-row opera ticket.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Sense Or Sensibility… What If Jane Austen Had To Choose?, by Devoney Looser, Literary Hub

How do you know if you will love Sense and Sensibility? What if it doesn’t happen to you? First-time readers of Austen’s fiction, knowing its reputation for literary greatness, may approach this novel with Marianne-like expectations. You want to be bowled over, to find charms in every sentence, or to discover that all the novel’s beauties are entirely shared on a first reading. It could happen to you. There are certainly those who love the book in ways that might seem imprudent or excessive.

Readers who love Sense and Sensibility in its original form are rarely describing their first encounters with the book. Instead, they’re describing what it means to read and reread it or to revisit it through film, television, and stage. These devoted readers have developed, rather than discovered, a Marianne-like inability to love the novel by halves while internalizing Elinor’s more measured approach to its prose. To love Sense and Sensibility—if you seek to—it’s crucial to enter its pages with gusto, as well as with deliberative care.

White Words, by Aaron Bady, Popula

You probably “know” that Eskimos have over fifty words for snow. And you probably also know that this is somehow wrong.

You might not know why you know this, or remember when you first heard it, or if it’s exactly fifty, or a hundred, a dozen, or just “a lot.” I bet you aren’t very confident in this knowledge; what do you know about “Eskimo” languages? Probably nothing! You probably also know that you know nothing. But if you’ve heard that “Eskimo” is an offensive term—and it’s the kind of old colloquialism that’s so common and American that it must be racist, right?—you might struggle to explain why.

Scientists Are Totally Rethinking Animal Cognition, by Ross Andersen, The Atlantic

This notion that consciousness was of recent vintage began to change in the decades following the Second World War, when more scientists were systematically studying the behaviors and brain states of Earth’s creatures. Now each year brings a raft of new research papers, which, taken together, suggest that a great many animals are conscious.

It was likely more than half a billion years ago that some sea-floor arms race between predator and prey roused Earth’s first conscious animal. That moment, when the first mind winked into being, was a cosmic event, opening up possibilities not previously contained in nature.

There now appears to exist, alongside the human world, a whole universe of vivid animal experience. Scientists deserve credit for illuminating, if only partially, this new dimension of our reality. But they can’t tell us how to do right by the trillions of minds with which we share the Earth’s surface. That’s a philosophical problem, and like most philosophical problems, it will be with us for a long time to come.

There And Back Again, by T. K. Mills, The Smart Set

“The guidebook says there’re two road trips we could do, The Golden Circle or The Ring Road. The Golden Circle covers most of the big tourist spots like the Blue Lagoon, but that route only covers the south-west. I want to drive the Ring Road, which circles the whole country. I want to see all of Iceland.”

I paused.

“Obviously it’s a bit of a trek, but I don’t mind driving. We’ll have to keep a tight pace since we’ve only got a week, but we can do it. I was thinking to save time and money, we’ll just sleep in the car and pull over if we see anything cool. There’re a few spots I marked in the Lonely Planet that I want to check out, but we can improvise as we go. Oh, also, the book says we should go clockwise but I want to do it counter-clockwise. Just because.”

Are Intros And Outros The Bland Bread Of A Book Sandwich? Michael Chabon's 'Bookends' Makes Them The Main Course, by stephen Phillips, Los Angeles Times

Still, in an age of algorithmic “based on your viewing history” recommendation engines, it offers — with all the serendipity, and redundancy, this entails — the gleanings of an idiosyncratic, omnivorous human mind: a destination unto itself but also a gateway to the work of others.

The Freedom Artist By Ben Okri Review – Wake-up Call Of A World Without Books, by Stephanie Merritt, The Guardian

It is possible to read particular instances of current affairs or recent history into The Freedom Artist, but this is not a book that is so easily pinned down. It’s savagely political, disturbing and fiercely optimistic, the deeply felt work of a writer who refuses to stop asking the hardest questions.

And You Thought Your Last Breakup Was Bad, by Matt Leibel, Electric Lit

When the power couple broke up, they squabbled over who would get to keep which powers. He wanted invisibility; his lawyer made a good case that he’d been invisible for much of the marriage. She wanted superhuman strength, since it’s what she’d been using to endure the last five years. They negotiated a split of time travel: he got the past, and she got the future. They’d never have to be present for each other again.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Reading Winter, by Ariel Katz, Ploughshares

Winter, with its brutal cold and barren landscapes, often intensifies our experience of emotions and our awareness of needs. As a result, writing about it can feel needlessly blustery and sentimental. The overt symbolism of winter landscapes can become an easy stand-in for common fears or struggles. Poems by Margaret Atwood, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Robert Frost, however, represent the cold with specific, emotionally evocative language that for the most part avoids these pitfalls. The claustrophobia of winter inflects the mood of these poems without overpowering them.

Tools For Thinking: Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts Of Freedom, by Maria Kasmirli, Aeon

‘Freedom’ is a powerful word. We all respond positively to it, and under its banner revolutions have been started, wars have been fought, and political campaigns are continually being waged. But what exactly do we mean by ‘freedom’? The fact that politicians of all parties claim to believe in freedom suggests that people don’t always have the same thing in mind when they talk about it. Might there be different kinds of freedom and, if so, could the different kinds conflict with each other? Could the promotion of one kind of freedom limit another kind? Could people even be coerced in the name of freedom?

Atlantic City Is Really Going Down This Time, by Rebecca McCarthy, Longreads

“The problem with barrier islands is that, sort of by definition, they move,” said Dan Heneghan. Heneghan covered the casino beat for the Press of Atlantic City for 20 years before moving to the Casino Control Commission in 1996. He retired this past May. He’s a big, friendly guy with a mustache like a push broom and a habit of lowering his voice and pausing near the end of his sentences, as if he’s telling you a ghost story. (“Atlantic City was, in mob parlance … a wide open city. No one family … controlled it.”) We were standing at the base of the lighthouse, which he clearly adores. He’s climbed it 71 times this year. “I don’t volunteer here, I just climb the steps,” he said. “It’s a lot more interesting than spending time on a Stairmaster.” The lighthouse was designed by George Meade, a Civil War general most famous for defeating Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. It opened in 1857 but within 20 years the beach had eroded to such an extent that the water was only 75 feet away from the base. Jetties were added until the beach was built back out, but a large iron anchor sits at the old waterline, either as a reminder or a threat.

In Search Of The Northern Lights, by Ingrid K. Williams, New York Times

In an era when the digital world has winnowed our attention spans, the aurora borealis still demands presence and patience, a long journey to far northern latitudes, and the fortitude to weather arctic conditions. Despite these challenges, color-saturated images of the otherworldly aurora in social and traditional media continue to inspire travelers in growing numbers. And while over-the-top experiences abound — you can charter a bush plane to a remote mountain lodge in Canada, rent a helicopter to fly above the clouds in Iceland, or camp on a glacier in Greenland — the greatest consequence of this tourism boom is the expanding range of aurora-chasing experiences for every type of traveler.

Tl;dr: On “Reading And The Making Of Time In The Eighteenth Century”, by Gill Partington, Los Angeles Review of Books

If reading novels against the clock feels strange, it’s perhaps because — as Christina Lupton puts it in her new book — reading about life isn’t normally in competition with living it. We read in the “interstices of time,” not only around and between other things, but also in time that slips through the gaps. Reading doesn’t quite map onto the everyday. It’s incommensurate but parallel: books unspool their own chronology of plot, intersecting our own lives, but in complicated ways. They fit into our days but they also stretch out alongside, cutting across everyday time, work time, social time, and lifetimes. Lupton’s title — Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century — pulls two ways, therefore. We make time for books, but they in turn make time for us, generating rhythms that punctuate lives. The focus is on the 18th century, weaving together literary, archival, and biographical sources, but, like Lupton herself, this study has a foot in the contemporary, moving back and forth as it traces reading’s role in the shaping of time.

An Encyclopedic Novel Intent On Reliving The Baby Boomers’ Touchstone Moments. All Of Them., by John Williams, New York Times

This novel, like Bowman’s other work but even more strenuously, tries to capture what Philip Roth famously called the “indigenous American berserk.” (It’s hardly Bowman’s fault that the book is appearing at a time when berserk sounds relatively placid.) The title “Big Bang,” in addition to referencing the Baby Boom (“this decade’s relentless fecundity”), might also nod to the Kennedy assassination, and to the midcentury release of cultural energies that created what we now know as the postmodern American cosmos.

Late In The Day By Tessa Hadley – Review, by Johanna Thomas-Corr, The Guardian

There’s a lovely stillness to Hadley’s writing, like an old house with many rooms. You might read this novel as a Hampstead version of The Cherry Orchard: an elegy for a more intimate, less frenzied London, where people had time to pay attention to their feelings. As Lydia reflects: “Our bourgeois sensibility. All our sadness and our subtlety, our complicated arrangements. Our privilege of subtlety and irony is at an end. What’s in that Polish poem Alex quotes? Something about how the barbarians don’t object to irony. They just grind it up and use it as their salt.”

'Tonic And Balm' Builds A World In A Bottle, by Martha Anne Toll, NPR

The year is 1919. Doc Bell's Miracle and Mirth Medicine Show — part circus, part sideshow, all charlatanism — travels rural America, trying to gin up enough audience to support the enterprise. The characters in Tonic and Balm, Stephanie Allen's debut novel, are the performers, roustabouts, fixers, and seamstresses who inhabit Doc Bell's self-contained world.

The Colour Of Stones, by Syl Cheney-Coker, The Guardian

When you arrive in this misnamed country,
come to the crooked hills; the fierce, verdant eyes
of Sierra Leone, mythic songs, its crazy history!

Sunday, February 10, 2019

My Life At 47 Is Back To What It Was Like At 27, by Meghan Daum, Medium

Friday evening, 8 p.m., early summer, New York City. I sit at my desk, face aglow in Macintosh luminescence. On the desk sits the detritus of the hour, of the day, the week, the season. There is dinner of sushi in the little takeout tray from the supermarket. There is leftover coffee in a mug from the afternoon. There are books and notebooks and checkbooks. There are pens and lip balms and hair ties and postage stamps and unmatched earrings and a MetroCard. There are a gazillion paper napkins for some reason. There is a computer modem whose lights flash with the irregular, listing cadence of a heart murmur. There are several Word documents up on that glowing screen, each competing for attention, not so much with one another, but with the email interface to which all roads lead back.

It is 1997. It is 2017. It doesn’t matter. It is both. In 20 years, my life has come full circle, 360 degrees for real. People often say 360 degrees when they mean 180. They say full circle when they’re really talking about a semicircle. It’s an oddly human error, as though they can’t quite grasp the concept of a human being turning on an axis as readily as the earth itself. But in my case, it’s true. At 47, my life looks uncannily the same way it did at 27.

Inside And Outside The Bubble, by Sally McGrane, Los Angeles Review of Books

Juxtaposed with the drawing of the Plaza’s turrets and flags is a picture of “the bubble,” the squat, inflatable emergency shelter for incoming refugees, where Amira lives — and where Fitzgerald, a Berlin-based American comic artist, volunteered to teach comic drawing classes. “I couldn’t imagine two more different places to spend your youth.”

Beautiful, sensitive, illuminating, and at times quite funny, Fitzgerald’s book tells the story of this drawing class, and the intimate, fragmentary glimpses into her students’ lives that the drawings offer. If she begins by stressing the difference between the Plaza and the bubble, she also finds humor in their unexpected similarities: “Like the Plaza,” she notes, “the bubble had rotating doormen,” in this case, caustic guards who can never find her weekly class on the schedule.

Mouthful Of Birds By Samanta Schweblin Review - The Stuff Of Nightmares, by Daniel Hahn, The Guardian

Nobody who has read the Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin’s brilliant, profoundly unsettling novel Fever Dream, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize in 2017, will be surprised to learn how well suited her talents are to the short-story form. Her disciplined economy in creating atmosphere and effect is allied to a refusal to overexplain. That stubborn, unapologetic resistance to revelation is one of the things that makes Mouthful of Birds, her debut collection in English, such a success.

Love Factually By Laura Mucha Review - The 'Science' Of Who And How We Love, by Sam Leith, The Guardian

“Ten years of speaking to strangers, burying myself deep in journals, and speaking to yet more strangers, has changed that.” Love, she concludes unexceptionably, is “one of the greatest joys we can experience as humans” but it takes work. And the work is, as the psychologist Erich Fromm has put it, not “falling in love” but making a conscious decision to “stand in love”. There’s no app for that.

As Noir As It Gets, by Patrick Millikin, Los Angeles Review of Books

Like Charles Reznikoff’s incomparable Testimony, the only real antecedent that comes to mind, this is a book that is meant to be read quickly and reread slowly. An incredible work of poetic imagination, historical scholarship, and an insightful look at how we got to where we are now … Oh, and it’s about as noir it gets.

Lies Are Illegal In The 'Golden State' Of Ben Winters, by Lynn Neary, NPR

In creating the Golden State, Winters says he wanted to build a world just different enough that readers would have to look at our own reality in a new way.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Reading In The Age Of Constant Distraction, by Mairead Small Staid, The Paris Review

Writing in 1994, Birkerts worried that distractedness and surficiality would win out. The “duration state” we enter through a turned page would be lost in a world of increasing speed and relentless connectivity, and with it our ability to make meaning out of narratives, both fictional and lived. The diminishment of literature—of sustained reading, of writing as the product of a single focused mind—would diminish the self in turn, rendering us less and less able to grasp both the breadth of our world and the depth of our own consciousness. For Birkerts, as for many a reader, the thought of such a loss devastates. So while he could imagine this bleak near-future, he (mostly) resisted the masochistic urge to envision it too concretely, focusing instead on the present, in which—for a little while longer, at least—he reads, and he writes. His collection, despite its title, resembles less an elegy for literature than an attempt to stave off its death: by writing eloquently about his own reading life and electronic resistance, Birkerts reminds us that such a life is worthwhile, desirable, and, most importantly, still possible. In the face of what we stand to lose, he privileges what we might yet gain.

A quarter of a century later, did he—did we—manage to salvage the wreck? Or have Birkerts’s worst fears come to pass? It’s hard to tell from the numbers. More independent bookstores are opening than closing, and sales of print books are up—but authors’ earnings are down. Fewer Americans read for pleasure than they once did. A major house’s editor-driven imprint was shuttered recently, while the serialized storytelling app Wattpad announced its intention to publish books chosen by algorithms, foregoing the need for editors altogether. Some of the changes Birkerts saw on the horizon—the invention of e-books, for one, and the possibilities of hypertext—have turned out to be less consequential than anticipated, but others have proven dire; the easy, addictive distractions of the screen swallow our hours whole.

Words As Feelings, by David Robson, Aeon

Yet many world languages contain a separate set of words that defies this principle. Known as ideophones, they are considered to be especially vivid and evocative of sensual experiences. Crucially, you do not need to know the language to grasp a hint of their meaning. Studies show that participants lacking any prior knowledge of Japanese, for example, often guess the meanings of the above words better than chance alone would allow. For many people, nurunuru really does feel ‘slimy’; wakuwaku evokes excitement, and kurukuru conjures visions of circular rather than vertical motion. That should simply not be possible, if the sound-meaning relationship was indeed arbitrary. (The experiment is best performed using real audio clips of native speakers.)

How and why do ideophones do this? Despite their prevalence in many languages, ideophones were once considered linguistic oddities of marginal interest. As a consequence, linguists, psychologists and neuroscientists have only recently started to unlock their secrets.

Why I Read Aloud To My Teenagers, by Giulia Rhodes, The Guardian

The idea that the experience of being read to should be limited to toddlers is, she says, a terrible waste. “Yes, those times with very young children are heavenly, but telling stories is a source of pleasure that has been available to human beings of all ages since before the printed word. The fact it has dwindled into something for children does not mean it needs to stay there.”

If San Francisco Is So Great, Why Is Everyone I Love Leaving?, by Diana Helmuth, Curbed

Moving, especially moving across the country, is an enormous, yet hardly uncommon, life shift. Leaving one’s hometown to forge a better future in a new city is one of the most traditional adult rites of passage that we as Americans have. Eleanor and I had a few friends who left the Bay around 2012 and 2013 for career opportunities, to be with a spouse, or to take a rare internship. We wished them well. It was hard, but normal. We were in our early 20s.

There’s something not normal, however, about the number of people who have taken flight out of California in the past year or so.

Where Reasons End Review: Delicate And Disquieting, by John Self, Irish Times

Throughout this disquieting, delicate, affecting book the reader wonders, shamefully, “How true is this?” It’s shameful because the power of the story stands alone. When interviewed recently, Li said, “I always used to say strongly that I was not an autobiographical writer, so strongly it was clearly suspicious.” Late in the book, Nikolai tells her, “I am in fiction. I am fiction now.” So no, the book must not take its force from factors outside the text, but there is no denying either that the reader is shaken up, broken, by these terrible words of dedication, before the story even begins: In memory of Vincent Kean Li (2001-2017).

Books Of The Times: Janet Malcolm, A Withering Critic, In A Nostalgic Key, by Parul Sehgal, New York Times

Malcolm has been called a vampire, “the most dangerous interviewer in journalism,” famously “not-nice” — and all this by her fans. Lucian Freud said that a good painting always contains “a little bit of poison.” Malcolm lets it pour. “I have never found anything any artist has said about his work interesting,” she remarked in a piece on the artist David Salle.

Her new collection of reviews, profiles and essays, “Nobody’s Looking at You,” is a reminder, however, that she is also a great champion. Her lodestar is Chekhov and “the values by which Chekhov’s good characters are ruled: patient, habitual work and sensible, calm behavior.”

Friday, February 8, 2019

Capitalism’s New Clothes, by Evgeny Morozov, The Baffler

Google and Facebook were restructuring the world, not just solving its problems. The general public, seduced by the tech world’s youthful, hoodie-wearing ambassadors and lobotomized by TED Talks, was clueless. Zuboff saw a logic to this digital mess; tech firms were following rational—and terrifying—imperatives. To attack them for privacy violations was to miss the scale of the transformation—a tragic miscalculation that has plagued much of the current activism against Big Tech.

This analytical error has also led many clever, well-intentioned people to insist that Silicon Valley should—and could—repent. To insist, as these critics do, that Google should start protecting our privacy is, for Zuboff, “like asking Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand or asking a giraffe to shorten its neck.” The imperatives of surveillance capitalism are almost of the evolutionary kind: no clever policy, not even in Congress, has ever succeeded in shortening the giraffe’s neck (it has, however, done wonders for Mitch McConnell’s).

Two Worlds, One Dress: On The Chinese-American Qipao, by Sally Wen Mao, NylonFor many Chinese-Americans, or people belonging to a Chinese diaspora, China can be a paradox: at once close, and at once far away. To some Chinese-Americans, it is hard to know whether visiting China is an arrival or a return. And in 1936, a time when the Chinese Exclusion Acts were still written into the laws of the United States, it was even more complicated for Anna May Wong. To be caught between two worlds, one of which rejected the other, how could one negotiate identity? In Wong's account of her visit to China, she declared, "I am going to a strange country, and yet, in a way, I am going home. I have never seen China, but somehow I have always known it...Chinese in the United States suffer from a lifelong homesickness, and this somehow is communicated to their children, even though the children know nothing about their ancestral homeland."

Watching the footage of her trip, I sensed a fretfulness that was familiar to me. Even if she described a "lifelong homesickness" for China, Anna May Wong stood out on those streets—and she looked at times bewildered, at times full of wonder. That disorientation—her eyes darting everywhere, her brisk stroll, her glances—mirrored the distinct feeling I had living in Shanghai, walking everywhere in a daze. It's true that in 80-plus years, this city has experienced one of the most dramatic transformations in history, but Shanghai still represents the same thing in our time and in Anna May's time: a city whose rapid change, cosmopolitanism, and development epitomizes Chinese modernity. According to historian Karen J. Leong, "Wong's bewilderment at the modernity manifested by 'the East'—the factories and pollution of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Shanghai, the cosmopolitanism of the cities and sophistication of their inhabitants—demonstrates how American orientalism could not imagine China's confronting the same issues of urbanization and industrialization as the United States."

What The 'Meat Paradox' Reveals About Moral Decision Making, by Julia Shaw, BBC

This moral conflict doesn’t just threaten our enjoyment of eating meat, it threatens our identity. In order to protect our identities we establish habits and social structures that make us feel better. Meat-eating is tied to social customs, so that holidays are defined as a time to feast on flesh with friends and family. Some people may also use it as a signal of masculinity, claiming that it helps define someone as a real man, or that we humans evolved as super-predators who were meant to eat meat. And despite animal products being linked to all kinds of poor health outcomes, some people tsk when we say that we want to go vegan (“How will you get enough protein?”), and friends start ‘forgetting’ to invite us to dinner parties.

With many decisions, including the choice to eat meat, the excuses we make are largely post hoc – after we have chosen to indulge we need to justify why the behaviour was OK, and why it is OK to do it again. And we need the excuses, or else we feel like bad people.

The Battle For The Future Of Stonehenge, by Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian

And so today’s Stonehenge is not William Blake’s terrifying “building of eternal death”; nor is it Thomas Hardy’s “monstrous place”, where Tess of the D’Urbervilles sleeps her last night before being taken to be hanged. Nor is it even the Stonehenge of the counterculture, where peace-freaks revelled until they were brutally routed in “the Battle of the Beanfield” in 1985, one of the most notorious episodes in the history of British policing.

Our Stonehenge has none of this grandeur or pathos. Instead, it is at the centre of a peculiarly modern British circus – one that involves an agonisingly long planning dispute, allegations of government incompetence, two deeply entrenched opposing sides, and a preoccupation with traffic and tourism. This absurdist drama, entirely worthy of our times, is a long and bitter battle over whether to sink the highway that runs beside it into a tunnel.

We’re Always Connected Online, And We’ve Never Been So Lonely, by Hilal Isler, Electric Lit

Maybe because we’re so distracted and confused by the internet, we’ve failed the country in our role as citizens. Maybe because we’re overly enchanted with our screens, we don’t realize what our feeds provide is just simulation: not living, but the feeling of living. Maybe we fight for each other’s attention, try to type ourselves into being, preoccupied with the artifice of impression management, in order to avoid the reality that we’re all secretly very sad: lonely, and drowning in a sea of strange penises.

Let Me Not Be Mad By AK Benjamin Review – A Physician’s Descent Into Mania, by Colin Grant, The Guardian

Insanity has often been depicted in literature as a descent – a one-way ticket to a mental underground. But in considering the subject while he is himself in the midst of madness, honestly portraying and displaying it with great humour and skill, Benjamin achieves a miraculous feat of psychiatric mountaineering. Among his achievements is to write a book that itself performs the encroachment of mental ill-health, as it skips between transparency and a rising mania-fuelled obfuscation. The author still manages to be a reliable witness – just.

Yesterday’s Commonplace, by Thea Brown, Literary Hub

All the evil I see sparks
just so and stays
lighted. So frequently corrected,

Thursday, February 7, 2019

How We Think Of Our Lives: Boredom In Contemporary Literature, by Ralph Clare, iai

True as that may be, the boring can often be a starting place for discovery. In fact, I managed to win over several skeptics by sifting through the seeming narrative nonsense and helping students to discover what mattered in the story and how we might engage with its strangeness. It’s basically what we literature professors do on a daily basis, point to how the patterns, forms, and structures in language and storytelling create meanings of which we’re not always aware. Teaching formally and stylistically complex works is especially challenging in this respect, but it’s pretty fun to turn the boring into the interesting.

The larger lesson here is that boredom can be counteracted, though never completely avoided, because attention can be directed as well as distracted, cultivated as well as captured. This is an essential theme of the undisputed “king” of contemporary American novels about boredom, David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published and unfinished The Pale King (2011). The initial reviews of the book, which follows the personal lives and political intrigue surrounding a number of IRS workers in the 1980s, revelled in calling it a novel “about” boredom. An Internal Revenue Service (IRS) novel, seriously? Yet the “boring” parts of the novel—a description of IRS employees turning pages while auditing, for instance—are actually no more boring than other dense and difficult passages in Wallace’s oeuvre.

Hating Jonathan Franzen, by Kevin Power, Dublin Review of Books

The problem, of course, is that all the male novelists who actually did terrible things, and then wrote about them, are now dead (or, as with James Frey, have subsided into irrelevance). You can’t be angry at these guys on Twitter – what would be the point? Jonathan Franzen, on the other hand, is neither dead nor irrelevant – his books are bestsellers, his essays are widely disseminated. That he doesn’t happen to fit the mould of “toxic male writer” is, for many of his critics, beside the point. Certain intellectuals and other literati (and we might remember, at this point, that the original literati, in ancient Rome, were slaves who copied out official documents, often without understanding what they wrote) are conducting a campaign against an extinct generation of white male novelists, with Jonathan Franzen as their proxy target. The sense of cognitive dissonance produced when a reader familiar with Franzen’s work encounters the online commentary about him derives, in large part, from the gap between what Franzen actually is and what people want (or need) him to be. If he were, in fact, a Norman Mailerish self-promoter, he might very well make some interesting art out of this crux. But Franzen is Franzen: an altogether more inward, and inwardly riven, figure.

What If All Writing Is Just Drafts, Forever?, by Joseph Scapellato, Literary Hub

Is “draft” simply the word that we use when we want to signal that some form of notable progress has been made?

Or is “draft” just what we call whatever it is we have when it’s time for us to send it to a reader?

Childless Voices By Lorna Gibb Review – Unflinching On Loss, Longing And Choice, by Aida Edemariam, The Guardian

Not long after she was told that she would never be able to have children, Lorna Gibb travelled to Doha, to begin teaching at Qatar University. She had spent time in the Middle East, researching a biography of Lady Hester Stanhope (she has also written a novel, and a biography of Rebecca West). Gibb had some idea, she thought, of what to expect. But she was not prepared for the degree to which a woman only made sense in that culture if she could give birth. Gibb describes the strategies she developed to explain, to deflect; finally she meets Halima, seemingly the mother of one of her students, but, in fact, only a first wife: when she was unable to conceive, her husband married again, and all four family members lived together. Halima points at the dusty ground. “I am like that,” she says with breath-stopping bluntness, “the barren place where nothing grows. Ayesha is like the palm trees … See how the green parakeets congregate and sing and nest in her branches.”

David Treuer’s Rebellious New History Of Native American Life, by Emily Witt, New Yorker

“I think it’s possible to draw a line between Standing Rock and Sharice Davids, and Deb Haaland,” Treuer said. “The kind of energy that they exhibited around what life is like in flyover states, and how to fight against interests, many of them corporate, that don’t care about us, natives and non-natives, in places like Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, and Nebraska, and stuff like that, I think empowered and affected those elections.” Even at this moment, and even as contrarian as he is, Treuer said, “I’m more hopeful than I’ve been, I’m more hopeful than I probably should be.”

You'll Find 12 Fresh And Unforgettable Essays In 'Black Is The Body', by Maureen Corrigan, NPR

In Black Is the Body, Bernard proves herself to be a revelatory storyteller of race in America who can hold her own with some of those great writers she teaches.

'The Collected Schizophrenias' Conveys What It's Like To Live With A 'Hidden' Illness, by Ilana Masad, NPR

The Collected Schizophrenias is riveting, honest, and courageously allows for complexities in the reality of what living with illness is like — and we are lucky to have it in the world.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

What Happened To Sylvia Plath's Lost Novels?, by Kristopher Jansma, Electric Lit

On the 22nd of that month, Plath wrote to Olive Prouty again, mentioning that she’d been prescribed “sleeping pills & tonics to help me eat.” She had, finally, found someone to watch the children six mornings and one evening a week. Still, she wrote, there was the novel, which she had “not dared to touch […] until I saw ahead I could sit to it every morning and fear no interruption.”

She repeated her plan to write a novel that would help her buy a house so she could earn income from renting out the rooms.

“I must just resolutely write mornings for the next years, through cyclones, water freezeups, children’s illnesses & the aloneness. Having been so deeply and spiritually and physically happy with my dear, beautiful husband makes this harder than if I had never known love at all.”

Three weeks later, on February 11th, Sylvia Plath killed herself at the age of 30.

Welcome To The Bold And Blocky Instragram Era Of Book Covers, by Margot Boyer-Dry, Vulture

If books have design eras, we’re in an age of statement wallpaper and fatty text. We have the internet to thank — and not just the interface but the economy that’s evolved around it. From the leather-bound volumes of old to lurid mass-market paperbacks, book covers were never designed in a vacuum. Their presentation had everything to do with the way books were made, where and how and to whom they were sold. And when you look at book covers right now, what you’ll see blaring back at you, bold and dazzling, is a highly competitive marketing landscape dominated by online retail, social media, and their curiously symbiotic rival, the resurgent independent bookstore.

The Decline Of Historical Thinking, by Eric Alterman, New Yorker

Having ignored questions of economic inequality for decades, economists and other scholars have recently discovered a panoply of effects that go well beyond the fact that some people have too much money and many don’t have enough. Inequality affects our physical and mental health, our ability to get along with one another and to make our voices heard and our political system accountable, and, of course, the futures that we can offer our children. Lately, I’ve noticed a feature of economic inequality that has not received the attention it deserves. I call it “intellectual inequality.”

I do not refer to the obvious and ineluctable fact that some people are smarter than others but, rather, to the fact that some people have the resources to try to understand our society while most do not. Late last year, Benjamin M. Schmidt, a professor of history at Northeastern University, published a study demonstrating that, for the past decade, history has been declining more rapidly than any other major, even as more and more students attend college. With slightly more than twenty-four thousand current history majors, it accounts for between one and two per cent of bachelor’s degrees, a drop of about a third since 2011. The decline can be found in almost all ethnic and racial groups, and among both men and women. Geographically, it is most pronounced in the Midwest, but it is present virtually everywhere.

Review: Ann Hui's Chop Suey Nation Is An Astonishing Cultural And Personal History, by Lindsay Wong, The Globe And Mail

Chop Suey Nation is an astonishing cultural and important personal history. It is a complex melange of invigorating stories, sympathetic real-life characters and nuanced reportage. Hui intricately weaves the real-life sacrifices of many Chinese immigrants into a deeply felt and resonating anthropological tapestry.

Fiction: A First Novel Expoese The Hollow Core Of The Global Big Ideas Industry, by Andrew Ervin, New York Times

In using nonsensical jargon to expose the hollow core of the global Big Ideas industry, Mendelsund has produced — or perhaps reproduced — something entirely satisfying. “Same Same” is a substantial book about emptiness. It reminds us that there’s no here here unless we create it ourselves.

Grief Conquerw Language -- Almost - In 'Where Reasons End', by Michael Schaub, NPR

Where Reasons End is the rarest of things: a perfect book, a masterpiece of American fiction, and it proves beyond a doubt that Li is one of this country's greatest writers. It's a beautiful look at what happens when language disappears, betrays us, lets us down: "Words provided to me — loss, grief, sorrow, bereavement, trauma — never seemed to be able to speak precisely of what was plaguing me," the narrator thinks. "One can and must live with loss and grief and sorrow and bereavement. Together they frame this life, as solid as the ceiling and the floor and the walls and the doors."

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

What Happens When Autism Becomes A Literary Device?, by Marie Myung-Ok Lee, New York Times

As a writer, I understand the absurdity of trying to place restrictions on what can and can’t be written about. Keats defined negative capability as an artist’s ability to transmute an experience or idea into art even if she hasn’t experienced it herself; without it, we’d have no historical fiction, no “Madame Bovary,” no “Martian Chronicles.”

The crux of the issue is that with autism there is often, not metaphorically but literally, a lack of voice, which renders the person a tabula rasa on which a writer can inscribe and project almost anything: Autism is a gift, a curse, super intelligence, mental retardation, mystical, repellent, morally edifying, a parent’s worst nightmare. As a writer, I say go ahead and write what you want. As a parent, I find this terrifying, given the way neurotypical people project false motives and feelings onto the actions of others every day.

A Writer Describes Palestinian Cuisine, And The World Around It, by Mayukh Sen, New York Times

“Zaitoun: Recipes From the Palestinian Kitchen,” which is being published in the United States this week by W.W. Norton & Company, documents Ms. Khan’s travels, illuminating the beauty of Palestinian cuisine and the political realities that envelop it.

She described her work as “culinary anthropology,” using food as a medium to foster cultural understanding. “I am very interested in portraying the sum of life’s experience through food,” she said. “That means conveying the challenging bits as well as the joyous sections.”

Ten Thoughts On Having Your Novel Translated Into Your Native Tongue, by Johannes Lichtman

The relationship between author and translator is, in theory, symbiotic. And when the relationship remains theoretical, because the author can’t read the translator’s translation, it usually stays symbiotic. Problems often arise when the author can read the translation.

How Energy Bars Became America's Favorite Snack, by Marc Peruzzi, Outside Magazine

Depending on how you categorize snacks in bar form, the market hovers around $5 billion globally. Next time you find yourself in your favorite natural grocers on the hunt for Peruvian chia seeds and California oat milk, take a detour down the bar aisle and stop to take it all in. Carefully laid out in front of you are upwards of 35 brands and 150 individual products: Clif, Epic, Kind, Larabar, Luna, Picky, ProBar, RX, Tanka, Skout, Soyjoy, Taos Mountain, Zing—perhaps dozens more. Although these bars are sometimes barely distinguishable from one another if you remove the wrappers and serve them on a platter, they’re each carefully positioned to target a specific desire among consumers: breakfast, protein, vitality, paleo diet, women’s nutrition, gluten-free diet, and meat (yes, meat), to name a few.

You’ll notice I didn’t include “performance.” Today the myriad iterations that those original sports energy bars birthed are no longer just supplements for the endurance crowd—they’re meals in themselves. “The category started with outdoor athletes, but it expanded,” says Clif Bar’s former senior vice president of brand marketing Keith Neumann. “In terms of growth, bars are unparalleled. It’s the fastest-growing segment in the grocery store.”

Toward A Unified Theory Of The Doughnut, by Elizabeth McCracken, Literary Hub

I grew up down the street from a doughnut shop, by which I mean: I’m an American. Muffins don’t move me, nor scones, nor sweet rolls, nor any of the breakfast pastries of the world (croissant, cornetto, brioche, kolache). My life has been encircled by doughnuts.

Reading Michelle Obama's "Becoming" As A Motherhood Memoir, by Emily Lordi, New Yorker

What Obama brings to this genre is, first, a powerful sense of self, which precedes and exceeds her domestic relationships—the book’s three sections are titled “Becoming Me,” “Becoming Us,” “Becoming More”—and, second, a conviction that the roles of wife and mother are themselves undefined. She makes and remakes her relationship to both throughout her adult life.

Where Reasons End By Yiyun Li, by Anthony Cummins, The Guardian

Li’s narrative experiment proves admirably fit for purpose. A novel in which nothing happens is liable to be dismissed as the result of a writer playing for time. Here, for all his mother’s insistence that Nikolai has nothing to say sorry for, the single defining event is the one thing we wish hadn’t happened; playing for time is the point.

Dream Sequence By Adam Foulds - Review, by Johanna Thomas-Corr, The Guardian

Slice him where you like, Foulds is a very fine writer. Dream Sequence might be a minor entertainment but it fizzes with wit – a book you can read in one enjoyable gulp.

'Dear Los Angeles' Collects 5 Centuries Of Opinions About The City, by Susan Stamberg, NPR

Editor David Kipen has dug up centuries' worth of excerpts about California's largest city. The book, he says, is "a collective self-portrait of Los Angeles when it thought nobody was looking." The excerpts he's picked roughly divide up between Los Angeles as heaven and Los Angeles as hell.

'Bowlaway' Scores A Strike, by Heller McAlpin, NPR

Life is strange and people are odd. That's one of the takeaways from Elizabeth McCracken's wildly entertaining third novel, a wonderfully unpredictable multi-generational saga which revolves around a Massachusetts bowling alley.

Elizabeth McCracken's First Novel In 18 Years Has Himsy To Spare, by Dwight Garner, New York Times

With this novel McCracken has, to borrow a term from cricket, bowled a googly. “Bowlaway” is a large and caterwauling sort of opera buffa, packed with outsize characters — some with recherché talents — and wild, often dreamlike events. If this novel were a bar, it would be the kind of joint where the Christmas lights are left on all year long.

Sono, by Suji Kwock Kim, The Guardian

Out of albumen and blood, out of amniotic brine,
placental sea-swell, trough, salt-spume and foam,

Monday, February 4, 2019

On The Destabilizing Brilliance Of Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter”, by Emily Temple, Literary Hub

The magic is this: you don’t know what happens in the story. It is told by a third person narrator, but close behind the consciousness of multiple characters: the babysitter, Mr. Tucker, Mrs. Tucker, Jack, the children, even the television. Fine, we’re used to this. But the story as presented doesn’t make sense. Things move forward quasi-chronologically—we are given periodic time stamps, which do not double back; this is a thrown bone—though sometimes simultaneously (reading it again this week, I couldn’t help but think of “Jeremy Bearimy”). But Coover keeps revising the turn of events, presenting multiple possibilities for every character and every moment, without weighting one over another. Everything that could happen with these scattered characters over these few hours does happen. Which also means it does not happen—because of course not everything can. (Are we sure about that?)

Furthering the overall confusion is the fact that some of what we read is clearly marked as fantasy, and some isn’t. Mr. Tucker fantasizes about the babysitter while he’s at the party, and then he goes back to his house to act on his fantasies. Or not, because there’s no real indication in the text that the fantasy has ended.

Small World, by Vauhini Vara, The Beliver

“Modest homes have existed for as long as people have sought shelter, but the tiny house—typically defined as a dwelling of 399 square feet or less, often built on a trailer, that functions as a miniature version of a regular house—is supposed to represent a deliberate design choice. The version of tiny living that is glamorized on TV and that appears in curated Instagram accounts features images of young, yogic, flannel-wearing couples lazing about in delicious little spaces. The lifestyle encompasses camper vans, tree houses, sailboats, RVs, and yurts, but the tiny house is its original, and most appealing, form. If you live in a trailer or a cramped apartment, you’re assumed to be indigent; if you choose a tiny house, which costs about the same amount for less space, you’re making an aesthetic, even moral, statement about living well in an age of excess.

And yet the most surprising aspect of the tiny-house phenomenon might be that, while the lifestyle has never been more visible, real-life tiny-house dwellers are hard to find. Fewer than ten thousand of the homes are estimated to exist nationwide. The impracticalities of tiny living—shoebox-sized sinks, closetless rooms—can be daunting, but it’s not only that. There are also legal obstacles. In most states, houses built on a foundation must be at least 400 square feet. To get around that, builders have taken to putting tiny houses on wheels and building them to the less restrictive codes that apply to RVs. But many states and cities bar RVs from being parked in one place year-round. Also, when you buy a tiny house, the house is all you get; you have to either buy the land to put it on, use someone else’s for free, or find a landlord willing to lease land to you.”

Model Metropolis, by Kevin T. Baker, Logic

Almost as soon as SimCity came out, journalists, academics, and other critics began to speculate on the effects that the game might have on real-world planning and politics. Within a few years of its release, instructors at universities across the country began to integrate SimCity into their urban planning and political science curriculums. Commentators like the sociologist Paul Starr worried that the game’s underlying code was an “unreachable black box” which could “seduce” players into accepting its assumptions, like the fact that low taxes promoted growth in this virtual world. “I became a total Republican playing this game,” one SimCity fan told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “All I wanted was for my city to grow, grow, grow.”

Despite all this attention, few writers looked closely at the work which sparked Wright’s interest in urban simulation in the first place. Largely forgotten now, Jay Forrester’s Urban Dynamics put forth the controversial claim that the overwhelming majority of American urban policy was not only misguided but that these policies aggravated the very problems that they were intended to solve. In place of Great Society-style welfare programs, Forrester argued that cities should take a less interventionist approach to the problems of urban poverty and blight, and instead encourage revitalization indirectly through incentives for businesses and for the professional class. Forrester’s message proved popular among conservative and libertarian writers, Nixon Administration officials, and other critics of the Great Society for its hands-off approach to urban policy. This outlook, supposedly backed up by computer models, remains highly influential among establishment pundits and policymakers today.

Let Children Get Bored Again, by Pamela Paul, New York Times

“But boredom is something to experience rather than hastily swipe away. And not as some kind of cruel Victorian conditioning, recommended because it’s awful and toughens you up. Despite the lesson most adults learned growing up — boredom is for boring people — boredom is useful. It’s good for you.”

What Was Andy Warhol Doing In That Burger King Ad?, by Matthew Dessem, Slate

“The Super Bowl’s best ad this year was also its simplest. While other brands sunk fortunes into elaborate CGI robots and audio-animatronic Charlie Sheens, Burger King casually introduced a new corporate spokesperson who’s been dead for more than three decades.”

The Letter Of TS Eliot Volume 8: 1936-1938, Edited By Valerie Eliot And John Haffenden - Review, by Tim Adams, The Guardian

“So what is the experience of combing through the business memos and notes of encouragement to literary hopefuls that the poet wrote as he approached the age of 50? In some ways it is like eavesdropping on the most maddening of confessionals: just as the poet seems about to mine some inner anxiety, he digresses into bland thank you notes and exhaustive letters to the Church Times on the proceedings of the Anglican synod.”

American Dreams, by Julia Alvarez, Literary Hub

All day I dreamed of candy from the store
on Hillside Avenue: barrels filled with
caramels, tins of pastel mints and tiers
of chocolates beckoning in the window, and

Sunday, February 3, 2019

When Gales Brew Up, There’s Nowhere To Hide, by Lucy Wood, The Guardian

I circle back to these things like I’ve circled back to the place itself. My imagination is stubbornly lodged. It’s those lights in the half-empty houses. It’s those mists. Maybe it’s the chips. It’s about never knowing what might wash in.

Travelling Light Is The Closest Thing To Feeling Free, by Hannah Jane Parkinson, The Guardian

Smugness is not a quality to cultivate, but I can’t tell you that it isn’t immensely satisfying not to have to worry about all of the above when travelling light. It isn’t always possible, of course – work trips, longer holidays – but when it is, it’s perhaps the closest thing to feeling free. It’s a twist on that hole-in-a-sack riddle: what can you pack that will make your bag light? Nothing.

The Built Moment By Lavinia Greenaw Review – Coming To Terms With Grief, by Sarah Crown, The Guardian

Time – what it is, how it shifts, what happens when we lose our grip on it – is at the heart of Lavinia Greenlaw’s new collection. The first section describes, in snatched, harrowing glimpses, her father’s descent into dementia, a state in which the present is the only available tense; in the second, her grief, which is a function of memory, plunges her into the fourth dimension. In both halves, there’s a subtlety and an intellectual curiosity to Greenlaw’s interrogation of this most fundamental subject that belies the wrench and rawness of the material: through her use of form, micro and macro, she manages to exemplify both her father’s experience of time and her own.

Nostalgia As Resistive Strategy: Dana Czapnik’s “The Falconer”, by Rosa Boshier, Los Angeles Review of Books

It is no small feat to capture the texture of youth, at once universal and unique, without sliding into the sentimental. To render it in the well-worn streets of the United States’s most lionized city is another task entirely. Part coming-of-age novel, part social critique, Dana Czapnik’s The Falconer uses New York City in the ’90s as a point of comparison to remind us that not much has changed in the ways in which women are allowed to grow up.

Another Planet: A Teenager In Suburbia By Tracey Thorn – Review, by Joe Moran, The Guardian

Michael Frayn once said that we would see the suburbs as “a gigantic piece of folk art” if we could only learn to look at them obliquely “through the imagination they were designed to appeal to”. Half of Thorn wants to do this oblique looking – the half of her that still has what she calls “suburban bones”. The other half remains that jaded teenager at a bus stop, daydreaming of escape.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Welcome To The New Apocalypse, by Megan Garber, The Atlantic

This is, in its way, precisely what Kermode was getting at, when he spoke and then wrote of apocalypse: Here is the sense of an ending, absorbed, through our entertainments, into the dull mundanities of everyday life. Death as a metaphor for marriage. Death as another chance. Death as a chronic condition.

Biography Of A Man Who Wrote The Perfect Novel, by Michael T. Fournier, The Millions

In retrospect, it’s easy to look at the life and career of John Williams and see a disconnect. Here’s a writer who was in charge of the Association of Writers and Poets, who networked his way into the lit scene through small presses, and who won the National Book Award for his 1973 novel Augustus. He edited Denver Quarterly for years, and his sophomore novel, Stoner—and his career as a whole— has enjoyed a recent word-of-mouth resurgence of interest. How, then, could such a writer view himself as an outsider?

A Grieving Mother Converses With Her Dead Son In Yiyun Li’s New Novel, by Lauren Oyler, New York Times

Like Li’s previous book, a memoir called “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” in which she discusses her own suicide attempts, “Where Reasons End” is an interrogation of form — an exploration of what fiction can do and what it can’t — as well as an attempt to understand how both to live through suffering and to write about it. The hopeful/guilty mother/writer knows the novel is not actually a conversation with her son, but with herself.

Optic Nerve By María Gainza Review – Art Critic’s Profound Debut, by Amy Sackville, The Guardian

“Writing doesn’t happen in gaps,” says her aspirational “loudmouth” friend (they were united in “snobbishness” as adolescents and now enjoy the occasional fraught reunion: shades of Elena Ferrante here). But it is through the gaps, through juxtaposition and elision, that our own encounter with the book takes place; they invite us to make connections, to shift our focus and attention and pick out details. As John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing: “We are never looking at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually moving.” In this book, as in Berger’s, the history of art becomes a continuum, an ongoing dialogue. We are left with a profound inquiry into the place and function of art: in culture, in the gallery, in private homes, and most of all, in the narrator’s life – as remembrance, as joy and consolation, as meaning, as refuge.

The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism By Shoshana Zuboff Review – We Are The Pawns, by James Bridle, The Guardian

As experience has shown, the world – life itself – is cloudy, contingent and defined by change. As horrifying as the surveillance capitalists’ view of a totally controlled, perfectly articulated and error-free future might be, the inevitable failure of its vision, and the resultant violence – already evident in our fractured worldviews, competing fundamentalisms, weakening of social bonds, and distrust of one another – is perhaps more so. The work begins in demolishing the framework of this world order, but it continues in the establishment and enactment of new and better futures.

Meet The Guardian Of Grammar Who Wants To Help You Be A Better Writer, by Sarah Lyall, New York Times

His new book, “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style,” is the climax (so far) of his nearly three decades in the copy-editing business, and it shows his playful sense of humor as well as his deep appreciation for clear writing and good language.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Learning To Cook For One, by Gina Mei, Electric Lit

Because of this, I’ve always treated self-care as more of a casual hobby than an absolute necessity. It’s something I’ve dabbled in, like knitting, or ceramics, then ultimately abandoned. After the person I love ended up in the ER, however, people began to ask me — often — what I was doing to take care of myself. This question baffled me: From my point of view, it was obvious that I wasn’t the one who needed care (at least, any more than usual). But people kept asking anyway, until eventually, someone pointed out that what I was doing was unsustainable, that I was killing myself without reason, and that I couldn’t possibly give anything to someone else if I never did anything to replenish myself.

So I decided to make myself dinner.

Jill Abramson And The Church Of Facts, by Laura Miller, Slate

Although the accuracy of Abramson’s reporting in this extensively footnoted book has been contested by some of her subjects, she clearly cares about the facts. But it’s ludicrous for her to pretend that she can tell this story in large part without bias. It’s also a missed opportunity. Abramson’s subjective experience as a major player in the story, her beliefs and values facing ceaseless challenges as the business model for daily newspaper journalism collapsed, is fascinating. However, the “newsman” in her dictates that she push that perspective to the margins. The result is a not-quite-convincing piece of feature journalism haunted by the ghost of the memoir it should have been.

On Finding My Way Back To Writing After Years Away, by Sibylla Nash, Literary Hub

As a mom, you can never have it all. Sometimes you have to be satisfied with just having enough. For me, enough meant providing a stable environment and being able to have flexible jobs where I could be a part of the PTA, pick my daughter up from school and be home with her after she got out of school. You could play a game of checkers on my work history with all of its gaps, part-time jobs, and underemployment. I’ve always encouraged my daughter to go off and conquer the world, but in building her up, I’d let myself go as a writer.

Years later, the world had changed, and I worried if anyone would want to hear what I have to say. I wondered, where did my voice fit in?

Mistakes Are The Engine Of Language’s Evolution, by The Economist

Take the child collecting different kinds of animals in a video game: “I got a new specie!”, he cries. The source of the mistake is obvious. The child has heard the slightly rarefied word “species” and assumed it was the plural of something called a specie. Children do this kind of thing all the time as they learn language; generalising from things previously heard and rules previously mastered is the only way they can progress with such speed. In most cases, errors disappear on their own.

Yet tempting, specie-type mistakes happen not just among children, but their parents too. Some survive, and even thrive, until they displace an old form and become the new standard. Few English-speakers today know it, but there was once no such thing as a pea. People ate a mass of boiled pulses called pease. But just as with specie, at some point English people misanalysed pease as a plural, and the new singular pea was born. The same thing happened with cherry, from the Norman cherise, and caper (the edible kind), from the Latin capparis, both singular.

The Large Hadron Collider Project Didn’t “Fail.” Science Is More Than Continuous Discovery., by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Slate

Some people have labeled the LHC a failure because even though it confirmed the Standard Model’s vision for how particles get their masses, it did not offer any concrete hint of any further new particles besides the Higgs. We understand the disappointment. Given the exciting new possibilities opened up by exploring energy levels we’ve never been privy to here on earth, this feeling is easy to relate to. But it is also selling the accomplishments short and fails to appreciate how research works. Theorists come up with fantastical ideas about what could be. Most of them are wrong, because the laws of physics are unchanging and universal. Experimentalists are taking on the task of actually popping open the hood and looking at what’s underneath it all. Sometimes, they may not find anything new.

A curious species, we are left to ask more questions. Why did we find this and not that? What should we look for next? What a strange and fascinating universe we live in, and how wonderful to have the opportunity to learn about it.

Bagels Are Not Meant To Be Sandwiches, by Drew Magary, GQ

When you eat a sandwich, you want equal portions of bread and filling in most every bite, yeah? A bagel sandwich denies you this pleasure. You usually end up getting a bite full of wet bagel, a few strands of red onion, and some messy wax paper, with cream cheese all over your fingers. It’s a pain in the ass. I still eat the whole thing, but it's still a pain in the ass.

Review: 'The Collected Schizophrenias' By Esmé Weijun Wang Redefines How We Think About The Illness, by Scott Cheshire, Los Angeles Times

As a whole, “The Collected Schizophrenias” provides a new and welcome map for the severe landscapes of schizoaffective disorder, of cerebral disease, diagnosis, recovery, and relapse, of the many human mysteries of the schizophrenias. The essays are resoundingly intelligent, often unexpectedly funny, questioning, fearless and peerless, as Wang makes for brilliant company on 13 difficult walks through largely uncharted territory. I’m reminded of Susan Sontag’s famous take on illness: “Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” She’s half right. Sontag speaks here of physical illness and does not speak for those who’ve traveled in the lands of psychosis, in the unreal realms of the mad, of the mentally ill. Wang does. She speaks for me too, and I thank her for that.

A Novel Set At The Dakota Imagines John Lennon As A Neighbor, by Susan Rieger, New York Times

Tom Barbash’s arresting new novel takes place over a year and a half, from August 1979 to December 1980, in the roiling life of its eponymous New York family. The narrator of “The Dakota Winters,” the 23-year-old middle child, Anton Winter, is so decent and self-denying that we know from the beginning he won’t be the hero of his own life. In fact, he has ceded that role to a powerful, secular trinity: his father, Buddy; his home in the famed Upper West Side apartment building, the Dakota; and, most affectingly, his Dakota neighbor John Lennon.

The Call, by Miyó Vestrini, Translated from the Spanish by Cassandra Gillig & Anne Boyer, Granta

When I asked him why he had not called
he explained to me that he had been buried alive
and that he did not have a phone.