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Archive for March 2019

Sunday, March 31, 2019

In Praise Of Public Libraries, by Sue Halpern, New York Review of Books

Perhaps the most definitive rebuke to the idea of trading libraries for Amazon and coffee shops comes from a former Starbucks employee whom Klinenberg met at a branch of the New York Public Library, where he is now an “information specialist”: “At Starbucks, and at most businesses, really, the assumption is that you, the customer, are better for having this thing that you purchase. Right?” he said. “At the library, the assumption is you are better. You have it in you already…. The library assumes the best out of people.” What we learn from The Library Book, Ex Libris, and Palaces for the People is that we are all better off, too, when people assume the best out of libraries.

Bret Easton Ellis Has Calmed Down. He Thinks You Should, Too., by Lauren Christensen, New York Times

This has been the central question of Ellis’s career: Is he talented or only provocative? “He’s certainly not boring; and people like to talk about people who aren’t boring,” the novelist Ottessa Moshfegh (an admirer) said. For Ellis, fame and controversy have always gone hand in hand. Yet he swears he’s never intended to offend; he’s just focused on making art for art’s sake, and if it upsets you, so be it. “I never care about riling up anybody,” he said. “That’s a waste of time. It’s always been about purely wanting to express myself, and not really thinking about the audience at all.”

The Meaning Of Slaughterhouse-Five, 50 Years Later, by James Parker, The Atlantic

Fifty years have passed since the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s the same age as me. And the older I get, and the more lumps fall off my brain, the more I find that rereading is the thing. Build your own little cockeyed canon and then bear down on it; get to know it, forward and backward; get to know it well. So I don’t know how many times I’ve read Slaughterhouse-Five. Three? Four? It never gets old, is the point. It never wanes in energy. This book is in no way the blossom of a flower. Slaughterhouse-Five is more in the nature of a superpower that the mutant author had to teach himself to master—and then could use, at full strength, only once.

Spring By Ali Smith Review – A Beautiful Piece Of Synchronicity, by Justine Jordan, The Guardian

This is a novel that contains multitudes, and the wonder is that Smith folds so much in, from visionary nature writing to Twitter obscenities, in prose that is so deceptively relaxed. Jokes detonate throughout, from the bleak to the whimsical, as surprising and moving connections are revealed between all three novels. As well as Shakespeare and Dean she summons the spirits of “the two great homeless writers, the great outliers”, short-story writer Katherine Mansfield and poet Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as her beloved Charlie Chaplin, who becomes a wandering artistic everyman. For decades Smith has seemed a glorious one-off: her influence is being seen now in younger writers such as Eley Williams and Max Porter, similarly accessible experimentalists with an irrepressible love of language, but as her Seasonal Quartet moves towards completion her own role in British fiction looks ever more vital. The final page proclaims spring “the great connective”. It’s not a bad description of Smith herself.

'Sky Without Stars:' Vive La Revolution ... In Space!, by Caitlyn Paxson, NPR

For despite its physical heft, Sky Without Stars is a fairly brisk read. It zips along from one plot twist to the next, drawing inspiration from Les Mis without being married to its characters, story, or true depth. La Revolution Lite is on tap here, and it's frothy, perhaps quenching the thirst for social justice without actually doing any hydrating. Those seeking substance may be left unsatisfied, but readers looking for inventive entertainment will find themselves well quaffed.

Book Review (Nonfiction): In 'IM,' Fashion Designer Isaac Mizrahi Details His Childhood - And His Escape, by Karen Iris Tucker, Washington Post

Fashionistas lured to Mizrahi’s memoir hoping it reveals juicy background on the industry may be disappointed by its lack of dish. Yet “I.M.” more than makes up for that with its honest rendering of how the underdog Mizrahi, whose self-image and livelihood are alternately crushed and affirmed, moves through the many creative phases of his life.

Book Review: Mother: An Unconventional History By Sarah Knott, by Susan Flockhart, The National

Mother powerfully conveys the thrilling, bewildering, and fuzzy-headed atmosphere that surrounds pregnancy and childbirth, and offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of our mothering predecessors.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Every Living Creature, by Sarah Schweitzer, Medium

When a massive Caribbean volcano erupts, the island’s residents flee, leaving their beloved animals behind. As pets and livestock are engulfed in ash and penned in by lava, waiting to perish, three brave souls risk death and evade the law to save every last one. A modern-day Noah’s Ark.

New Emperor, New Era: How A Single Word Defines Japan, by BBC

One rumoured possibility for the new name is "Ankyu" ("peaceful and permanent") - but the word is a closely guarded secret until its official unveiling. Senior officials have vowed to withdraw any choices leaked in media reports before the day itself.

The new name is expected to embody Japanese ideals and aspirations, while also being easy to read and write. It's a lot to ask of two small characters.

Meet The Curiosity-Seekers And Die-Hards At The Last True Blockbuster, by Tiffany Hsu, New York Times

The Bend store, three hours from Portland, was already attracting tourists last summer, when it became the last Blockbuster in America. As it prepares to become the last true Blockbuster in the world on Sunday — when the only other one, in Australia, closes — even more selfie-snapping pilgrims have arrived.

One of them, Steven Mercadante, drove his 2013 Kia Soul nearly 1,000 miles from Southern California through pelting rain to get to Bend.

The Stories In 'Guestbook' Linger Like Ghosts, by Lily Meyer, NPR

"Eqalussuaq" is Shapton at her finest, as is Guestbook as a whole. Without fail, it's unexpected, subtle, and moving. Shapton excels at evoking emotion through absence, which is, perhaps, a skill borrowed from more traditional ghost stories. Guestbook never sets out to frighten, though. Some of Shapton's ghosts might be malevolent — the haunted tennis player in "Billy Byron," for example, might have been better off without his supernatural coach — but there are no jump-scares here. Instead, her ghosts are longed for, invited, or quizzically welcomed. Her protagonists tend to share the attitude of the woman in "Alcatraz" who goes to visit the former prison, then discovers that a spirit has followed her home. When it brushes her legs, she feels instant sorrow, but she understands that it seeks only "the sympathy she felt for the men who had been [in Alcatraz], sympathy it desperately wanted." She burns sage to make the spirit leave, but she never retracts her sympathy. Guestbook is a profoundly sympathetic work, and one filled with yearning. That yearning, like a ghost, lingers long after the stories are done.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Can The World Quench China’s Bottomless Thirst For Milk?, by Felicity Lawrence, The Guardian

The reinvention of milk as a staple of modern China has required a series of remarkable feats, not least of which was to overcome the people’s lactose-intolerance and create a market for milk where there had been none. It has involved privatising farming, allowing processing companies to become corporations, and even converting desert areas into giant factory farms.

Now the global impact of China’s ever-expanding dairy sector is causing concern in other countries. Dairy farming requires access to vast quantities of fresh water: it takes an estimated 1,020 litres of water to make one litre of milk. But China suffers from water scarcity, and has been buying land and water rights abroad, as well as establishing large-scale processing factories in other countries.

The Matrix At 20: How The Sci-fi Gamechanger Remains Influential, by Scott Tobias, The Guardian

Yet objects tend to shift during flight, and in the year 2019, The Matrix has endured as both touchstone and Rorschach blot, a way for people of vastly different ideologies to make sense of the world around them. The effects are still a marvel, but the film’s ideas have taken root in a destabilized culture where conspiracy theories flourish and individuals are defining for themselves what is and isn’t real, and what constitutes freedom in a heavily monitored, highly synthetic technological space. Neo may “follow the white rabbit” into a Wonderland of personal discovery, but we’re citizens of Wonderland now, having made a second home for ourselves where the laws of gravity don’t apply.

The Forgotten Woman Who Designed The Creature From The Black Lagoon, by Mandalit del Barco, NPR

The terrifying movie monster could both swim (in his lagoon) and walk on land. He had long claws, webbed hands and feet, scales and a dorsal fin. His round, fishy head had bulging eyes and layers of wavy gills.

First captured on film in 1954, the elusive Creature — and Milicent Patrick, the woman who designed him — are now the focus of a new book: The Lady from the Black Lagoon.

Ruth Reichl On Why Gourmet’s Website Was Doomed From The Start, by Ruth Reichl, Eater

“Excuse me?” I struggled to understand what he was saying. “Every recipe published in Gourmet belongs to Epicurious. That will not change.”

For a moment I was too stunned to speak. When I’d mastered my emotions I squeaked, “Are you telling me you want us to create a website without recipes? I’m sorry, but that’s insane!”

Si drew himself up. “Epicurious,” he said with regal deliberation, “is the oldest recipe site on the Web. It is very successful.” He rose, ponderously, from the chair. “It will continue as in the past.” He turned toward the door; the audience was over.

Ingmar Bergman, Novelist, by Daniel Mendelsohn, New York Review of Books

Toward the beginning of Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical film Fanny and Alexander, a beautiful young boy wanders into a beautiful room. The room is located in a rambling Uppsala apartment belonging to the boy’s widowed grandmother, Helena Ekdahl, once a famous actress and now the matriarch of a spirited and noisy theater family. As the camera follows the boy, Alexander, we note the elaborate fin-de-siècle decor, the draperies with their elaborate swags, the rich upholstery and carpets, the pictures crowding the walls, all imbued with the warm colors that, throughout the first part of the film, symbolize the Ekdahls’ warm (when not overheated) emotional lives. Later, after the death of Alexander’s kind-hearted father, Oscar, who is the lead actor of the family troupe, his widow rather inexplicably marries a stern bishop into whose bleak residence she and her children must move. At this point, the film’s visual palette will be leached of color and life; everything will be gray, black, coldly white.

Mother Is A Verb By Sarah Knott, by Kathleen Stone, Ploughshares

A woman hears a baby’s cry and tries to take meaning from the sound. A new mother brings her baby to her breast. Another mother straps a baby across her back and heads out to work the fields. A woman, interrupted yet again, puts aside her other work to tend to a child.

These stories play out over the centuries, with variations but also with surprising consistency. Seldom found among official records, often overlooked, they capture the reality of mothers’ lives. In Mother is a Verb, Sarah Knott collects and knits these stories together in an innovative history of motherhood.

Stories That Double As A Field Guide To Women’s Desires And Miseries, by Merritt Tierce, New York Times

The slim size of “Rag,” a disturbing, forceful story collection by Maryse Meijer, belies the profusion of terrors contained within it. No matter how ordinary or powerless the character, to each unfortunate soul yet inheres a magnificent, perhaps infinite, capacity for suffering. “If she had wanted something nice to happen to her she would have chosen someone nice” serves both as a description of one woman’s open-eyed masochism and a cautionary banner over a book that could be read as a field guide to varieties of misery, much of which is experienced by women and girls.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Conte Cruel, by Benjamin Welton, The Smart Set

The old joke has it that reading Playboy for the articles is a dodge — a way to deflect clucking tongues of disapproval for the shy reader’s appreciation of nubile females. That old joke became a cruel one in the late winter of 2016 when the magazine published its first ever non-nude issue. Copper Hefner, the 27 year old owner and editor of Playboy, initially told readers that the legendary publication would cease publishing buxom models in their birthday suits for good. That promise did not last. The sadistic joke was over.

Back when Playboy was actually groundbreaking, daring, and (dare I say it) titillating, the magazine not only featured some of the world’s most beautiful women, but also some of the world’s best writers. Much of this literary greatness came courtesy of one editor — Ray Russell. Ironically, Russell, who managed the magazine’s fiction department during the early 1950s to early 1970s, was a Victorian thorough and thorough. Or at least he wrote like a Victorian English gentleman with a deep state for the weird.

“Heathers” Blew Up The High-School Comedy, by Troy Patterson, New Yorker

It wasn’t exactly that “Heathers” contained no Hughesian influence. The types and tropes were all there—mean girls, jocks, bullying, upper-middle-class ennui, idiotic or abusive parents, delusional teachers, a bad-boy crush—but they were relentlessly amplified, turned into grotesques. The tone was arch, dripping with self-awareness (“Dear diary, my teen-angst bullshit has a body count,” Veronica scribbles in her journal); the script was full of nasty, snarky catchphrases ( “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” is, perhaps, especially memorable). The visual palette was garishly Technicolor, a teen dream made nightmare; the bodily fluids, from phlegm to vomit to blood, flowed. In short, “Heathers” seemed influenced as much by “Blue Velvet” as by “Sixteen Candles,” and it paved the way for an era of darker, edgier, more experimental teen comedies.

The Feud That Changed The New York Skyline, by Jonathan Schifman, Popular Mechanics

Far above the rooftops of Manhattan on October 23, 1929, a crew of construction workers perched themselves around one of the highest human-made peaks in the world. Rumors had swirled that they were planning to hoist a flagpole, but what they were really about to lift was far bigger. From wooden platforms 860 feet in the air, the crew was going to raise and rivet a steel needle weighing 54,000 pounds—the finishing touch of a tower called the Chrysler Building.

A few blocks away, the building’s architect, William Van Alen, looked on. He felt nauseous and dizzy as the spire ascended, last-minute worries seeping into his mind. Maybe the cables would break and drop the 54,000 pounds through the building, or perhaps the crane would fail to lift the needle high enough. If the winds grew too strong, the spire would tip over the edge of the building, fall down more than 70 stories and crash onto the streets below.

Two years of Van Alen’s life had gone into this building. The tower should have topped out months earlier, with a far different design and certainly no spire, but rivalry had intervened. Four miles south, another skyscraper was rising, and its owners had the same goal as the Chrysler developers: To erect the tallest building in the world. And the architect of that tower—a bank at 40 Wall Street—was H. Craig Severance, a man Van Alen once called a friend.

Reasons To Be Cheerful By Nina Stibbe Review – A Pitch-perfect 80s Comedy, by Sam Leith, The Guardian

But as things progress the story changes gear, giving a fuller resonance to what could otherwise be taken as a simple assemblage of whimsy and kookiness. I shan’t give away any plot twists, but there is innocence, and the loss of innocence, and the reassertion of a wider and better sort of innocence.

Two Distinct Short-story Collections Showcase The Power Of The Form, by Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly

Stories hardly have any rules, except one: The telling needs to end somewhere short of whatever qualifies as a novella. Otherwise they’re free to do almost anything, which can sometimes leave the reader feeling like a kind of literary Goldilocks — this one too hot or too cold, too random, too rambling, or too fleeting to mean anything at all.

But oh, when they get it just right!

The Rise And Fall Of America's Original Food Magazine, by Kate Krader, Bloomberg

Although her megaphone is smaller, her voice remains one of the most trusted in our disparate food universe. Reichl’s book reminds us of the time when you could pick up a ­magazine and feel simultaneously starved and sustained.

What Dementia Teaches Us About Love By Nicci Gerrard Review – Savage Realities, by PD Smith, The Guardian

“Life without memory is no life at all,” wrote Luis Buñuel on the plight of his mother, who by the end of her life had no memory left. Woven together over time, memories shape who we are, forming the unique narrative that is our identity.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Notability Blues, by Stephen Harrison, Slate

Wikipedia is committed to the notion of an encyclopedia, a written compendium of important human information—not a directory, a soapbox, a vanity press, or anything else the site has pledged not to be. As such, only those topics that rise to a certain level of “notability” or importance can have a Wikipedia entry. It’s a policy that makes sense but is difficult to apply in practice. Back in 2007, then Slate writer Timothy Noah chronicled the demise and eventual rescue of his own Wikipedia page; it appeared that the mere act of writing about it in the press had helped him meet the notability standard.

Now, as we approach the end of Women’s History Month, it’s worth considering whether rigid application of Wikipedia’s notability guideline contributes to the online encyclopedia’s notorious gender gap.

A Philosophical Approach To Routines Can Illuminate Who We Really Are, by Elias Anttila, Aeon

There are hundreds of things we do – repeatedly, routinely – every day. We wake up, check our phones, eat our meals, brush our teeth, do our jobs, satisfy our addictions. In recent years, such habitual actions have become an arena for self-improvement: bookshelves are saturated with bestsellers about ‘life hacks’, ‘life design’ and how to ‘gamify’ our long-term projects, promising everything from enhanced productivity to a healthier diet and huge fortunes. These guides vary in scientific accuracy, but they tend to depict habits as routines that follow a repeated sequence of behaviours, into which we can intervene to set ourselves on a more desirable track.

The problem is that this account has been bleached of much of its historical richness. Today’s self-help books have in fact inherited a highly contingent version of habit – specifically, one that arises in the work of early 20th-century psychologists such as B F Skinner, Clark Hull, John B Watson and Ivan Pavlov. These thinkers are associated with behaviourism, an approach to psychology that prioritises observable, stimulus-response reactions over the role of inner feelings or thoughts. The behaviourists defined habits in a narrow, individualistic sense; they believed that people were conditioned to respond automatically to certain cues, which produced repeated cycles of action and reward.

Spacesuits Were Never Designed To Fit Everyone, by Marina Koren, The Atlantic

At first glance, this seems like a massive oversight. Shouldn’t NASA have figured out which size spacesuit their astronauts needed before they launched, and had appropriate gear waiting for them on the ISS? And how is it that the world’s premier space agency can dress two men for spacewalks without issue, as it did several times last year, but not two women?

To answer these questions, it helps to start at the beginning. Not the Big Bang—we’ll save that for another day—but the 1960s, when NASA first started launching astronauts to space.

Can Food Tours Stray From The Beaten Path Without Ruining The Experience?, by Ligaya Mishan, New York Times

Once, Americans abroad were suspicious of foreign delicacies, scurrying back to the safety of their hotels and ships for a bland simulacrum of dishes they could get back home. But for a growing number of leisure travelers — those privileged enough to cross borders not out of necessity, but for pleasure — food has become essential to an encounter with another culture, from olive oil in Slovenia to poi (pounded taro root) in Hawaii to kokoretsi (lamb-intestine sandwiches) in Turkey.

Today’s wanderers have been called to the gospel of Anthony Bourdain, the irreverent chef and writer whose ecumenical pursuit of food in all its incarnations (blood and guts included) was chronicled in the TV series “A Cook’s Tour,” “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown” until his death last June.

In This Novel, Bringing A 700-Page Script To The Screen Is A Writer’s White Whale, by Sarah Lyall, New York Times

You are French. You are the author of several successful novels. You have written an impractical 700-page screenplay about “the mystical honeycombed interior” of Herman Melville’s mind. You are 50 years old, have a net worth of 20 euros and are about to be evicted from your apartment.

What now? If you are the narrator of the French novelist Yannick Haenel’s “Hold Fast Your Crown,” a story of madness, art, alcohol and creativity, you repair to your bedroom with a six-pack to watch one of your favorite movies, “Apocalypse Now,” while musing on its significance to you and perhaps to life itself.

‘Immediate Song’ Is A Lush, Sparkling Book Of Poetry, by Sarah Huener, Chicago Review of Books

Spare, thoughtful, direct, musical — when asked to describe the kinds of poems I like, these are some of the first adjectives I come up with. Reading this book, I kept finding the same words to describe Don Bogen’s writing. Immediate Song, his recent fifth poetry collection, is so far up my alley it sometimes felt a little strange to be reading it — am I still an impartial reader if I’m part of the target audience for the book? Regardless, I found this to be an undeniably masterful collection of smart and beautiful poems.

Poem Written With An Arrowhead In My Mouth, by Timothy Donnelly, New England Review

Again the sound of quartz pounding quartz

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Keeping Up With Amy Hempel, by James Wood, New Yorker

Yet the text is also constructed and compacted like a poem, delicate and precise. A person wants to “sing” to the impending danger, but also to abide by the other’s injunction to avoid figurative language. Instead of using a metaphor, she becomes a metaphor: “My arms the trees.” Now Hempel’s valedictory text, titled “Sing to It,” itself saturated in these lovely figures of speech, becomes the song that she would have sung, looping back on itself like one. And a further subtlety: when the man asked for no more metaphors, he said that nothing is like anything else, but when the narrator echoes those words the reason given is that “no one is like anyone else.” This is not a story about death, that distinguished thing; it is an elegy for an irreducible person. All of this in little more than a hundred words.

The Biggest Mystery On TV Is How Every Show Became A Puzzle Box, by Kellie Herson, The Outline

The questions raised by human interdependence are irresolvable. Trying to understand them requires embracing a kind of emotional and intellectual lawlessness, and getting to practice that lawlessness by observing a contained fictional environment — in collaboration with other observers of that environment — gives us a low-stakes but satisfying opportunity to examine the weirdest, most vulnerable parts of our lived reality. There are mysteries you can solve, and those that keep you wondering forever.

How Running Saved My Life, by Matt Fitzgerald, Outside Magazine

If not for running, I might not be alive today. I mean this quite literally. On more than one occasion, I have successfully escaped from someone who was chasing me on foot with a knife. But running has saved me in a different way, too, giving me the strength I needed to support the person I love through a long ordeal that challenged us both to the point of breaking.

You see, the person who chased me with a knife, more than once, was my wife.

Why Close A World-Famous Restaurant?, by Rafael Tonon, Eater

More than 400 miles away, his staff and customers celebrated the news with a party at the restaurant. The event was broadcast from a television placed in the middle of the room. But 22 days after the celebration, García, a 42-year-old chef recognized by Michelin for the way he “[reformulates] the Andalusian cuisine in a contemporary key,” met with his team to break some news: he had decided to shut down his restaurant in 10 months. The 2019 season would be Dani García’s last, in what will be the shortest triple-Michelin-star period for a restaurant in the world.

“Once you have reached this point, it’s time to think carefully, what’s there to come?” García told his team in the meeting room, where they usually gathered to discuss recipes and other matters related to the restaurant’s daily routine. The idea had been lurking in his mind for the last three years, and although he says that he feels great respect for Michelin (he calls getting three stars “the best thing that has ever happened to my career”), he didn’t think he could continue to devote the focus required to maintain a three-Michelin-starred restaurant.

Was That Really Me? A Novelist Discovers Her Younger Self, by Judith Shulevitz, New York Times

This time-defying preservation of selves, this dream of plenitude without loss, is like a snow globe from heaven, a vision of Eden before the expulsion. Mathematically demonstrable but emotionally impossible, it’s dangled just in front of us like a bauble we can’t have but can’t stop reaching for. Except that Hustvedt finds a way to give it to us. I won’t tell you how, but I will say that the ending manages to be quite moving and unconvincing at the same time, a recapitulation of the tonal contradiction that pervades this sometimes incisive, sometimes sentimental novel, or memoir, or whatever we decide to call it.

‘The Old Drift’ Is A Dazzling Debut Spanning Four Generations, by Dwight Garner, New York Times

Yet she’s such a generous writer. The people and the ideas in “The Old Drift,” like dervishes, are set whirling. When that whirling stops, you can hear the mosquitoes again. They’re still out there.

They sound like tiny drones. They sound like dread.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Illicit, Bittersweet Pleasure Of Empty Bookshelves, by Julie Langsdorf, Literary Hub

I had to get rid of a lot of things when I downsized from a house in suburban Maryland to an apartment in Washington, DC. Rooms’ worth. Years’ worth. Over the 20-plus years we had lived there a lot more had gone in than had gone out. But what to do with it all? Go from room to room, one book advised. Decide what to keep, what to sell, what to give away and what to throw away, then start over again. Keep going until you’ve let go of everything you can live without.

I did this for weeks, spiraling from bedroom to living room to kitchen. In the “save” box went the dolls my mother-in-law had sewn for the children, in the “ditch” box the cracking plastic ones; in the “save” box the Cuisinart, in the “ditch” box the bread maker. And the ice cream maker. And all the other makers. I arranged for trucks to come to take things for charity, sold tables and chairs on Craigslist and set up a giveaway room, where friends were invited to take what ever they wanted. Sometimes I snuck into the giveaway room and took stuff back, thinking I might want a certain bowl or tablecloth after all.

Buc-ee’s: The Path To World Domination, by Paula Forbes, Texas Monthly

“I think you’ll see it’s the nicest, prettiest store around. It’s very sharp looking,” Aplin told the Brazosport Facts on the store’s opening day. “I believe everyone who comes in will be in awe over the way it looks.” He made clear his ambitions were bigger than that one location. “If this one goes like we hope it will, you never can tell, we might have a chain of Buc-ee’s.”

If he dreamed that one day his creation might become a Texas icon, a temple of roadside convenience and everything’s-bigger abundance, and that it would even reach a point, in 2019, when it would outgrow Texas, he certainly didn’t share the thought at the time. He was just a kid from Lake Jackson following in his family’s footsteps.

Motorway Meals: How 60 Years Of The Service Station Has Shaped How Britain Eats, by Sam Wollaston, The Guardian

On a drizzly day, Britain isn’t looking – or tasting – its best. I’m at Watford Gap services on the M1, the country’s first service station on the country’s first motorway, both 60 this year (although the restaurant opened in 1960). “If you want to see Britain, go to Watford Gap,” David Lawrence had told me. “If you want to taste Britain, go to Watford Gap.” I want to do both of those things.

Lawrence is an associate professor at Kingston University whose PhD was Motorway Service Areas, Their History and Culture. He has written two books about them as well. I think you could safely describe him as Mr Service Station. “Dr Service Station,” he corrects me, before I head to Watford Gap.

The Other Americans By Laila Lalami – Review, by Anthony Cummins, The Guardian

Unflashy almost to the point of comedy, happy to include humdrum dialogue about, say, weather or food seasoning, the novel’s round-robin mode nonetheless accumulates a kind of revelatory power, setting aside top-down commentary in favour of side-by-side juxtaposition – a narrative style that ultimately functions as a plea for more listening, as well as highlighting the quiet irony of the title, which ends up being hard to read as anything more than just “Americans”.

Asking For Directions, by Linda Gregg, Literary Hub

We could have been mistaken for a married couple
riding on the train from Manhattan to Chicago
that last time we were together. I remember
looking out the window and praising the beauty
of the ordinary: the in-between places, the world

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Cottage Cheese Is The New Greek Yogurt, by Robin Tricoles, The Atlantic

Cottage cheese faced a problem: After World War II, batches of the soft, lumpy dairy concoction developed a propensity to take on a rancid odor and a bitter taste. That changed in 1951, when dairy researchers identified the culprits, three bacterial miscreants that produced this “slimy curd defect.” To prevent the condition, researchers advised cheesemakers to keep these bacteria from entering their manufacturing facilities in the first place. Thus ended the scourge.

Despite this and other advances in cottage-cheese production, like texture analyzers, high-powered microscopes, and trained human tasters, cottage cheese has never enjoyed the same popularity as yogurt. That’s because cottage cheese, once revered for its flavor and versatility, has taken a series of gut-punches in the dairy sector: enduring associations with weight loss, inconvenient packaging, and near-total displacement by its cousin, Greek yogurt, to name a few. But stalwart food scientists and artisanal dairy farmers have high hopes for the future of cottage cheese. With yogurt sales on the decline, a golden age of curds might be right around the corner.

Turning 40 And Looking Death In The Eye, by Michael David Lukas, New York Times

For me, turning 40 isn’t about going bald or tallying up my professional accomplishments. It’s a process of coming to terms with the unknown — with the space between “going to” and “hope.” It’s a shift in perspective, moving from my youthful optimism that everything would work out in the end to a tenuous but ultimately richer embrace of uncertainty.

Book Review: The Parade By Dave Eggers, by Hamish Hamilton, The Herald

It is refreshing to read a writer who varies his writing approach with each new book. It shows that he’s a storyteller who thinks deeply about the best way to tell a story, not just the story itself. It’s a formal restlessness that has paid dividends in the past, and it’s done so again.

London Made Us By Robert Elms – A Love Letter To The Capital, by Fiona Sturges, The Guardian

Elms’s book is perhaps best read less as a history of a city than as a nostalgia-soaked account of a middle-aged man pining for his youth. It’s significant that he opens with his mother’s final days in a hospital on Euston Road, during which she waved a frail hand towards the window and said: “This is no longer my London.” She had worked as a parlour maid in Belgravia and as a clippie on double-decker buses, but in her dotage the city had become a stranger. In London Made Us, Elms grieves both for his mother, who died a few days later, and for the city that forges forward irrespective of the wishes of those who live in it.

'Giraffes On Horseback Salad' Tells The Lost Story Of Harpo Marx And Salvador Dalí, by Etelka Lehoczky, NPR

It may not be a good story, but Giraffes on Horseback Salad makes a good book. Frank's tale of how he found Dalí's script and organized the project — enlisting the help of Heidecker and the Pixies' Black Francis, whom Frank worked with previously — is entertaining cultural history. His descriptions of Dalí striving to make his mark in Hollywood are funny, too. The great artist may not have "gotten" humor like he thought he did, but in this book he's comical in spite of himself.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Liking Books Is Not A Personality, by Hannah McGregor, Electric Literature

Do you remember, back in 2017, when reversing your books for aesthetic appeal was briefly a thing? Apartment Therapy posted a photo to Instagram of a bookshelf with the spines facing inward, and the dramatic response — dozens of users denouncing the trend as anti-intellectual, even comparing it to book-burning — felt, at the time, like the ultimate example of the bookish Internet’s capacity for outrage. Then Marie Kondo came for our books, and the bookish Internet proved me wrong.

Some Music Theorists Are Furious About The Bach Google Doodle, by Alyssa Barna, Slate

Thursday’s Google Doodle celebrated the 334th birthday of famed composer Johann Sebastian Bach, with a twist: It was the first Doodle to incorporate machine learning. Users could create a melody, then the Doodle would automatically generate custom harmonies to produce a full composition in Bach’s style. It was delightful for many Google users, but it also stepped into a controversy that has been brewing in musical circles for years.

Last Ones Left Alive By Sarah Davis-Goff Review – Post-apocalyptic Road Trip, by Sarah Ditum, The Guardian

Last Ones Left Alive doesn’t bring much new to its genre. Instead, it puts old elements to its own purpose; and, like the skrake, it runs compellingly enough to an irresistible internal logic of violence.

Why Do We Love Seeing Our World Rendered Tiny? Simon Garfield’s ‘In Miniature’ Investigates, by Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times

The world of miniatures is a gargantuan subject. There seems no end to our impulse to translate reality into something we can hold in our hands and see at a single glance. British niche historian Simon Garfield — who has written about typography (“Just My Type: A Book About Fonts”) and cartography (“On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks”) — trains an eccentric focus on all things tiny in his new book, “In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World.”

Friday, March 22, 2019

El Espace: How Will Netflix Do Justice To ‘One Hundred Years Of Solitude’?, by Isabella Grullón Paz, New York Times

The Netflix deal means the narrative can be serialized. But there are bigger storytelling challenges inherent to the project. One of the those is that the book doesn’t actually have much dialogue, said Álvaro Santana-Acuña, an assistant professor of sociology at Whitman College and scholar of García Márquez’s work. The dialogue, as well as the plot and the characters’ development, are funneled through the book’s omnipresent narrator. Santana-Acuña added that the beauty of the story is also García Márquez’s use of magical realism, as well as how sensorial the novel is.

“The story contains a lot of smells, sounds and even touch. How do you capture something as simplistic but important to Mr. García Márquez’s work like heat? How do you capture emotions like solitude?” Santana-Acuña said.

A Journey To The Disappointment Islands, by Andrew Evans, BBC

“They would kill us… if we ventured to go on shore,” wrote Byron, who attempted one more landing in a longboat before giving up. “[They] set up one of the most hideous yells I had ever heard, pointing at the same time to their spears, and poising in their hands large stones which they took up from the beach.” The British made a go at frantic diplomacy by throwing old bread at the islanders, who refused to touch the stale food but instead waded into the water and tried to swamp the longboat.

Byron backed off and instead set sail towards the larger neighbouring island, but he again failed to anchor along the ringed coral atoll. Meanwhile, natives armed with spears and clubs followed the longboat in the surf, using “threatening gestures to prevent their landing”. Byron only convinced the islanders to back off when he shot a 9lb cannonball over their heads. Less than 20 hours after arriving, Byron sailed away, marking his frustration onto a new map of the world by naming these atolls the ‘Islands of Disappointment’. The map was published following his round-the-world journey, and the moniker has stuck ever since.

Singapore And The Reality Of Growing A Contemporary Art Scene From Scratch, by TJ Sidhu, Ashleigh Kane, Dazed

For every article celebrating Singapore’s “blossoming art scene”, there is one cutting it down at its root. The latter often points to the fact that, while there are some great art-focused initiatives, such as Arts in Your Neighbourhood, Art Reach, and Silver Art, which focus on bringing the arts to Singaporeans of all ages in different forms, it’s an approach which is oppositional to that of the world’s most artistically renowned cities. In creative hubs such as London and New York, contemporary art has been born in the underground and, eventually, syphoned from the top. “Singapore’s art scene is not organic,” criticised Lorenzo Rudolf, founder and president of Art Stage Singapore in an interview with Southeast Asia Globe. “A successfully sustainable, functioning art scene can only grow from the bottom up. Never in history have you seen an art scene which has been built from the top down functioning.”

Make-Believe Is For Diners, by Osayi Endolyn, Oxford American

We dine out to feel connected, to be cared for, to be heard, or seen. Many of us still want what we used to look forward to on a Friday night, tugging on our parents’ hands while the family snakes through a dining room. Dining out is like navigating a maze of humanity. When we successfully find our way through it, it’s one of the best feelings, and it’s no wonder a wide-eyed girl with a big appetite would aspire to spend her days there.

In 'The Chief,' An Enigmatic, Conservative John Roberts Walks A Political Tightrope, by Nina Totenberg, NPR

Seeking to pierce that practiced facade, reporter Joan Biskupic has written a biography called The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts. It is the fourth biography she has written about a sitting justice, and in some ways, the most enlightening. But she says Roberts was her "toughest subject, start to finish."

Thursday, March 21, 2019

How The Very Hungry Caterpillar Became A Classic, by Ashley Fetters, The Atlantics

It happens pretty much the same way every time. The day after I’ve partaken in some sort of weekend or holiday eating-and-drinking binge—i.e., the Monday after the Super Bowl, the fifth of July, the first week of January after the entire Thanksgiving-through-New Year’s season officially comes to a close—I engage in the same detoxifying, repenting ritual: the consumption of a fresh, nutrient-rich salad. Somehow, in my mind, the more vividly green the leaves in the salad, the more purifying the ritual will feel, and with that first crunch on a crisp piece of greenery, I hear a tiny voice in my head, murmuring, “The next day was Sunday again. The caterpillar ate through one nice green leaf, and after that he felt much better.” A pivotal line from a formative piece of literature that I, like many thousands of other now-adults, first encountered in childhood: The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

The Myths We Wear, by Summer Brennan, The Paris Review

Shoes are humankind’s oldest invention to aid mobility. Thousands of years before a clever Mesopotamian first tilted a potter’s wheel up onto its side to make a chariot, or a nomad tamed the first wild horse on the grasslands of the Eurasian steppe, people began fashioning shoes from leather or plant fiber to make it easier and less painful to get from one place to another. For the earliest humans especially, our survival depended on movement, toward prey and away from predators, for we have long been both. It is not surprising, then, that many of our earliest stories are concerned with flight and pursuit.

I Spent My Life In Newsrooms—But In My Novels, Reporters Aren’t The Heroes, by Tom Rosenstiel, The Atlantic

Journalists, to me, are heroes. But when I started writing novels a few years ago—and had to imagine how all the players in a story might think—I realized that, in political fiction at least, journalists don’t make great protagonists. Their grasp of the story, in the end, is too fragmentary. They are rarely let inside the rooms where the secret intrigue plays out. And given the particular requirements of political thrillers, they are even less likely than others to save the day.

Welcome To Noraville, The Small Maryland Town Rebuilt By Nora Roberts, by Esther Wang, Jezebel

On a recent winter day, Turn the Page bookstore in Boonsboro (population: 3,553) was filled with fans of Nora Roberts, who had descended upon the small town nestled in the foothills of rural western Maryland to get their hands on her latest book and have them signed by Roberts herself.

The crowd—overwhelmingly white, mostly middle-aged women in sensible shoes—kept the cash registers ringing. Turn the Page, owned by Roberts’s husband Bruce Wilder, has been a fixture in the town for more than two decades. It’s a shrine to the almost-70-year-old, still-reigning queen of the romance industry (though these days, she prefers to drop the r-word and describe herself as a “fiction writer,” and she’s no longer a member of the Romance Writers of America). “America’s most popular novelist,” as she was called by the New Yorker in 2009, has half a billion of her books in print around the world; 27 copies of her books are sold every minute. During her decades-long career, Roberts’s books—and there are more than 200 at this point, with five new ones every year—have spent a total of 1,121 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

My Secret To Conducting An Orchestra: Flail My Arms And Close My Eyes Till It's Over, by Chris Erskine, Los Angeles Times

I do that “dad thing” where I insist my son let me finish out the Dave Brubeck song during carpool, instead of immediately tuning the radio to the drivel and crud he prefers. Nothing against drivel and crud, of course, or the breathless idiocy of the very talented Ariana Grande.

It’s just that Brubeck — like Miles Davis, like the Beatles, like Bach — will endure. There is a sophisticated bounce to his music, an aural crossover dribble. For hundreds of years, dads and sons will share the jaunty lyricism of the great Dave Brubeck.

A Summer Of Second Chances In 'Small Town Hearts', by Alethea Kontis, NPR

Kudos to Lillie Vale, for not only successfully manipulating the emotions of her characters, but those of the reader as well. Small Town Hearts has just the right amount of drama, at just the right pace. Vale manages to honor small town life, while deftly navigating the often rough relationship waters experienced by older teens. She tells an emotionally compelling story, stays true to her complicated characters, and somehow manages to tie it all up in sweet-yet-realistic bow. A charming and satisfying read.

The Surprising Comfort Of A New Book About Death, by Michael Dirda, Washington Post

Butler isn’t a doctor, but she is a professional science writer and author of the widely admired “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” a critique of our broken medical system told through case histories and an account of her father’s traumatic last years. Not surprisingly, then, this “practical guide to a good end of life” delivers on its subtitle, offering detailed advice on dealing with — in poet Philip Larkin’s phrase — “age, and then the only end of age.” Butler’s factual, no-nonsense tone is surprisingly comforting, as are her stories of how ordinary folks confronted difficult medical decisions. In short, if you’re coming up on three score and 10 or have already passed that biblical term limit for earthly existence, you will want to read “The Art of Dying Well” and keep it handy, if only for its lists of what to do as one’s physical condition changes.

Book Review: Typewriters - Iconic Machines From The Golden Age Of Mechanical Writing, by Joan Baum, WSHU

For those of an [ahem] certain age the computer was not the main writing machine for school or business. At least not until the 1980s when it displaced the typewriter, beloved instrument of blessed memory. Now the typewriter is celebrated in a fascinating new book by Long Island collector and researcher, and typewriter restorer Anthony Carillo. In Typewriters: Iconic Machines from the Golden Age of Mechanical Writing, Carillo, with the aid of photographer Bruce Curtis, tells and shows why this incredible machine, first patented in the U.S. 190 years ago, is worth knowing about.

Book Review: What If Mickey Mouse Had A Life Outside The Movies?, by Richard Whittaker, Austin Chronicle

Are cartoon stars any less real than the flesh-and-blood kind? That's the question posed by Savannah College of Art and Design professor of animation history David McGowan in this adaptation of his doctoral thesis. The academic roots are apparent in this sometimes dry but never less than fascinating analysis of the lives of animated actors, separate from their performances.

Book Review: Death Is Hard Work, By Khaled Khalifa, by Roger Cox, The Scotsman

That said, for all its bleakness, the novel offers glimpses of hope – an elderly couple living alone in an abandoned village, for example, who give Bolbol, Hussein and Fatima a warm welcome; and somehow the siblings’ whole enterprise, in spite of its pointlessness, comes to feel emblematic of the way people try to carry on with reassuring the rituals of ordinary life, even in the most impossible of circumstances.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

In Times Of Crisis, We Need Classical Music, by Kent Nagano, The Walrus

What does the outrage of this militant Frenchman of German Jewish origin have to do with classical music and, ultimately, with me, music director of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal? A lot. I, too, am outraged by the direction of Western industrial societies, with their materialism, consumerism, and utilitarianism. I want to show that, because of its powerful impact, classical music can play a significant role right now. Composers address topics that are relevant to everyone. Their music highlights our worries and fears, our pain and joy. It can help us think more clearly, feel more profoundly, and live fuller lives than we could without it. It can alter the way we treat our fellow humans and maybe even our perceptions of ourselves. These beliefs guide me whenever I devise a concert program. I want the music my orchestra performs to become a permanent, indispensable dimension of an audience’s life. Society’s crisis of meaning could be a great opportunity for serious music: more than just a recentring, it could be a form of revitalization.

Memoir: Despair, Hangover And Ecstasy During Lab Life In Singapore, by Kevin Jiang, The Ubyssey

I don’t know what I was thinking when I applied to Bill’s lab. Most likely I wasn’t thinking at all. Where I was that Sunday was either in bed or at the kitchen table, stoned off my gourd and full of Doritos, watching Hearthstone videos on YouTube. I know because that’s what I did every day.

I’d gotten into science co-op a semester and a half earlier and applied for a total of 20 jobs in that time. Most of this was in four days. I’d slouched my way through applications and interviews, hungover and unapologetic. My mentality was that people like me weren’t meant for success — we’re meant to burn out and drop out.

Imagine my face when I got the job. Last May, I moved to Singapore.

Squirting Sriracha Onto Everything: A Review Of Michael Earl Craig’s “Woods And Clouds Interchangeable”, by Kevin O'Rourke, Michigan Quarterly Review

Perhaps more accurately, the absurdity in Woods and Clouds Interchangeable is life-affirming. It is life-affirming insofar as even its oddest scenes smack of believability (such as the greased hog floating down a river covered in what a speaking baby calls “opportunistic leeches,” as in “Town”; one could imagine seeing that) but also reinforces lived experience. One might not enjoy “Colosseum” as fully, for example, if one isn’t familiar with cafes (where the speaker is sitting), muffins, despots, or sriracha. It is work that, while sometimes exaggerated, also feels intimate.

A Cosmic Being Dies In Yoga Class. Then Things Get Really Weird., by Nadja Spiegelman, New York Times

“The Silk Road” is more like music in its harmonies: Davis pulls from folk songs, French ballads, nursery rhymes; from Hindu gods and Greek ones; from Chinese and Western astronomy. Every source is blended into the ur-source, the life source, the blinding white of every color seen at once.

“The Silk Road” is unlikely to make its way onto any best-seller lists. And yet, for those willing to get lost in its spiritual haze, there is a uniquely un-2019 pleasure to be found: a meditative bewilderment that just might cede to enlightenment.

A Writer Gets Candid About Marriage And Humiliation In ‘The Trouble With Men’, by Parul Sehgal, New York Times

Shields writes from a place of genuine curiosity and confusion. He is ridiculous and brave, he never conflates sincerity with genuine candor, and he poses the kinds of questions that only ever bring trouble (and are the only kind worth reading about) — about sex, self-knowledge and the “theater” of our wounds. Can we recover from who we are? Would we want to?

In 'Horizon,' Considering All That Is Connected, by Genevieve Valentine, NPR

Horizon is a biography and a portrait of some of the world's most delicate places, but at heart it's a contemplation of Lopez's belief that the only way forward is compassionately, and together. Whether that's possible he doesn't examine; then again, he describes so many things that don't seem possible — what's one more horizon to aim for?

Rain Travel, by W.S. Merwin, Literary Hub

I wake in the dark and remember
it is the morning when I must start

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Natural’s Not In It, by Danya Glabau, Real Life

The work of Le Guin and other science fiction writers whose work chips away at the presumed links between nature and culture demand that we regard biological facts (like sex) as accidents of history and social facts (like gender, family organization, and capitalism) as open to reconfiguration. Science fiction socializes technology, creating a sandbox in which its role in mediating biology and society can be reimagined as well. In the process the genre creates space to propose alternative social fictions that take the place of the social arrangements that act as social facts in the “real” world. Embedded in worlds that don’t (yet) exist, liberated from tech bros on scooters, and freed from the baggage of biology and predestination, technology can be made to uphold different social orders. Science fiction gives us hope, then, because it shows us how human nature might be remade — but safely, at a speculative distance.

The Art Of Leaving Things Out, by Ruth Franklin, The Atlantic

Hempel’s method of transmuting life into fiction is nothing if not exacting. “I leave a lot out when I tell the truth. The same when I write a story,” she once wrote. Choosing what to let in, and how to deploy it, is even more important. “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” doesn’t gain anything from the knowledge that it is based on Hempel’s secret shame. That knowledge might even detract: It’s when fiction doesn’t quite stand by itself that the reader, distracted, wanders in search of biographical clues. “I live in so many sentences,” Hempel has said. The best of those—riveting in their precision—also take on new lives of their own.

What Was The Foodie?, by Josephine Livingstone, New Republic

I am not a foodie. I don’t even know the difference between a meuniere and a mirepoix. But from the outside looking in, it’s clear that foodie culture is roiling with a new awareness of social politics, undermining some of that culture’s unspoken tenets: that taste and pleasure are neutral, universal concepts; that the kitchen is an apolitical zone. Being a foodie now, in 2019, requires thinking with more than your tongue.

Spring By Ali Smith Review – Luminous And Generous, by Alex Preston, The Guardian

It feels like two things are happening here. First, Smith is increasingly recognising the narrative possibilities of this new type of storytelling, finding deeper and more compelling ways of getting under the skin of her times. There’s something else, though. While reading Spring, I became suddenly aware of the extraordinary meta-novel – the year – that the quartet will form once it’s complete, and how thrilling and important that book will be. This is writing that acts by accretion, subliminally, weaving you into its webs of stories. Now that we are past the halfway mark it’s possible to perceive the shape of the whole, to recognise quite how dazzling the interplay of ideas and images between the four books will be.

A Road-Paving Job Takes On A Sinister Allure In Dave Eggers’s New Novel, by Idra Novey, New York Times

Place, Eudora Welty wrote, is where an author’s quest for truth starts. A novel doesn’t “begin to glow,” Welty claimed, until its setting comes to be “accepted as true.” For authors inclined to rebel against this kind of dictum, withholding the particulars of a place can be a way to pursue a different kind of truth, less about conjuring place than about conjuring patterns in human failure found all over.

Dave Eggers embarks on that alternative quest in his eighth novel, “The Parade.” In an unnamed country, two unnamed employees of a foreign road-building corporation arrive for a 12-day assignment. In time for a planned national parade, they must pave a road extending from the rural south to the urban north of a nation “awake and alive after a civil war its residents assumed would have no end.” To avoid the men being ransomed or killed, the company advises them to withhold their names and nationalities not only from civilians but from each other.

‘Lot’ Offers A Fictional Look At A Vibrant, Polyglot American City, by Dwight Garner, New York Times

Washington cracks open a vibrant, polyglot side of Houston about which few outsiders are aware. On one level, this landscape is bleak. These stories take place amid dismal laundromats and broken-down pharmacies. There are turf wars and shootouts. Things happen near Dollar Tree stores or in Whataburger parking lots. The men and women here are extended hope only in minuscule, homeopathic amounts. Perversely, their neighborhoods are gentrifying at the same time, pricing many long-timers out.

But there is a fair amount of joy in Washington’s stories, too. (Some have previously appeared in magazines like Tin House and The New Yorker.) An underthrob of emotion beats inside them. He’s confident enough not to force the action. The stories feel loose, their cellular juices free to flow.

Book Review: The Spirit Of Science Fiction By Roberto Bolaño, by Erich Mayer, ArtsHub

It seems likely that Bolaño never intended The Spirit of Science Fiction to be published. It is also likely that parts of this book inspired some of his later work. Although The Spirit of Science Fiction has the feel of a work in progress, there is much to enjoy in it – the dialogue, in particular, is nothing short of brilliant. Further, interspersed with the action, are episodes when someone tells a story. These brief tales are typically mystical or dream-like and are shining gems in a beautiful setting. Bolaño is a superb story-teller, and while this novel has much more to offer than these mini-masterpieces, The Spirit of Science Fiction is worth reading for them alone.

The Hum, by Maggie Smith, New England Review

It’s not a question
without the mark: How do we live
with trust in a world that will continue

Monday, March 18, 2019

My Father’s Stack Of Books, by Kathryn Schulz, New Yorker

I keep two pictures of my father on my desk now. One is a photograph, taken a year or so before his death, of the two of us walking down the street where I grew up. My dad has his hand on my shoulder, and although in reality I am steadying him—he was already beginning to have trouble walking—it looks as if he is guiding me. It is the posture of a father with his daughter, as close to timeless as any photograph could be. The other is the picture of the Stack. Strictly speaking, of course, that one isn’t a photograph of my father at all, and yet I can’t imagine a better image of the kinds of things that normally defy a camera. My father’s exuberant, expansive mind; the comic, necessary, generous-hearted compromises of my parents’ marriage; the origins of my own vocation—they are all there in the Stack, aslant among the books, those other bindings.

Growing Up In A John Updike Novel, by Thomas E. Ricks, Literary Hub

When I was about two years old, I was with my parents and three siblings in an eatery in Essex, Massachusetts. It was named “The Village Restaurant,” but by my mother still called it “Wimpy’s,” its previous name. I once was told that the restaurant was started by a woman who had sometimes cooked for my politician grandfather’s dinner parties, and partly with money he lent her. I still remember her mashed potatoes, which in retrospect must have had a very large quotient of butter and cream.

At the restaurant I looked out the big window at the Essex River boatyard across the road and down a slope. It is now a museum of shipbuilding. I pointed and, for the first time in my life, spoke. It was sometime in 1957, about the time that John Updike was moving into a small house a few miles to the north of Essex. “Boat,” I announced. It was my first word.

Arts And Letters: Three Bedrooms, One Bathroom And An Art Gallery, by John Chiaverina, New York Times

Today, a sometimes absurdly commercial art scene and skyrocketing rents have meant that galleries, which have historically clustered together, have become decentered, which in turn means that they’re collectively less able to take as many creative risks. This makes the apartment gallery as important as ever — their low barrier to entry makes them one of the few relatively democratic endeavors in an art world almost unrecognizable from that of Castelli’s time.

From Hardship To Hope, Singapore's Migrant Poets Find Their Voices, by Beh Lih Yi, Reuters

The growing focus on writing by migrant workers began about five years ago with poetry contests organised by advocates that aimed to use literature to break down barriers between foreign workers and Singaporean society.

These competitions have now branched out to other parts of Asia which also rely heavily on migrant workers, including Malaysia and Taiwan.

In Singapore, their poems are found in bookshops and public libraries, with Bangladeshi construction worker Md Sharif Uddin’s “Stranger to Myself” winning best non-fiction title at the prestigious Singapore Books Awards last year.

I Lost My Life To Airbnb, Rebecca Holland, Narrative

It was a little after 2. a.m. one Friday morning two Novembers ago when I found myself on the Red Line train, on the North Side of Chicago, though I had been all the way north and south a few times already that night. I was tired, a little cold, and things were getting sketchy. I’d never been on the “L” that late before, and my plan to ride all night was seeming less and less safe the more stops we made. My car was empty, finally — the only other passengers had been two drunk men who kept asking where I was going and if they could come — and at each stop I tensed up, hoping no one else would get on.

It was a far cry from the private bungalow in Bora Bora where I had been just 24 hours earlier, but extreme contrasts were becoming the story of my life. I’m a freelance travel writer, which means I get to visit amazing places and stay in some of the world’s most beautiful hotels. It also means I don’t make very much money, thanks to rapidly decreasing magazine rates; so to afford my apartment in Chicago, I used to rent it on Airbnb while I was gone, which was often. This worked well. Too well, actually. So well that I found it hard to turn down guests even when I was in town.

When I got back from Bora Bora, I realized I had messed up my calendar, and my apartment was occupied for one more night. A friend who I stayed with often was out of town, and I felt bad imposing on someone I was less close with at the last minute. Hotels were weirdly expensive in Chicago that night, and the hostel I sometimes stayed at was completely booked. For some reason, probably because of 24 hours of travel and sleep deprivation, I thought the train made sense.

Guestbook By Leanne Shapton Review – Persistently Uncanny, by Hephzibah Anderson, The Guardian

In the lexicon of reviewer-speak, entries don’t come more hackneyed than “haunting”. The urge to reach for it should be a critic’s cue to do more thinking, and yet in the case of Leanne Shapton’s new volume, Guestbook, this diaphanous adjective feels oddly precise. It’s a book that is, after all, subtitled Ghost Stories; more particularly, its pages summon up a persistently uncanny atmosphere that is impossible to pin down, remaining purposefully, lingeringly opaque.

An Intimate Portrait Of Sandra Day O’Connor, First Woman On The Supreme Court, by Jeffrey Toobin, New York Times

For some time now, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been having a moment. Books, documentaries, a major feature film, even a best-selling comic-book-cum-biography have celebrated the feminist litigator and second woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. Still, all this attention to No. 2 implicitly raises the question of whatever happened to No. 1.

Evan Thomas answers that question in his fascinating and revelatory biography, “First: Sandra Day O’Connor.” There are many parallels between the lives of R.B.G. and S.D.O. — early confrontations with discrimination, fierce work ethics, supportive and enlightened husbands — but there is one major distinction: power. As a lawyer, Ginsburg won important cases, and as a liberal justice in a conservative time, she has written stirring dissents. But O’Connor was the swing justice on a closely divided Supreme Court, so she — and she alone — determined the outcome of case after case. It was her vote that saved abortion rights, her vote that preserved affirmative action and her vote that delivered the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000. She is the most consequential woman in American history. Now that’s notorious.

The Peculiar Objecthood Of The “Yellow Woman”, by Sunny Xiang, Los Angeles Review of Books

As might be expected, the “fight song” that belongs to the critic responds to the status of the “yellow woman” not only within society but also within criticism: “Unlike the shattered ‘fact of blackness,’ which has been recomposed for the mournful black subject […], the ‘fact of yellowness’ remains an active myth that enjoys no critical stature.” The yellow woman’s lack of critical stature explains the magnificent effort to craft a theory in her name. This redemptive move exemplifies one of Cheng’s enduring preoccupations: to worry the distinction between “politics” and “theory.” Hence, included in her argument about ornamentalism — that it cannot countenance political agency in the conventional sense — is a reluctance to overstate “the political efficacy of critical analysis.” Ornamentalism, in the end, is a theory but not a politics of racialized femininity. In this capacity, it allows Cheng to identify injury without recovering a subject. This object that lives but appears lifeless cannot be a political solution — but it can be a critical diagnosis that forces us to confront the assumptions underlying our political desires.

Ambition, by Tess Gallagher, New Yorker

We had our heads downbaiting hooks—three wild salmonalready turned back
that morningfor the in-season hatchery silversnow out there somewherecounting
their luck—when

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Inside Hollywood’s Disney-Fox Freakout, by Nicole Sperling, Vanity Fair

Rising from the ashes of the 1929 stock-market crash, Twentieth Century-Fox was forged in a master stroke by ruthless producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who merged Twentieth Century Pictures with William Fox’s ailing studio—and booted out Fox in the process—to create a formidable Hollywood player. It was the studio that turned Marilyn Monroe into a star, awarded Elizabeth Taylor her first $1 million payday (for the costly Cleopatra, which at $44 million nearly capsized the company), and helped solidify the modern-day blockbuster with George Lucas’s space fantasy, Star Wars. Along the way, Fox experienced all the highs and lows of the burgeoning Hollywood system, from breaking box- office records with the 1965 hit The Sound of Music to earning 14 Oscar nominations for All About Eve, to Zanuck’s 1970 installation of his son, Richard, as the president of production, only to fire him in a move that would lead to his own ousting by a seething board of directors. And this was all before Rupert Murdoch bought the studio in 1985, launched the Fox Broadcasting Network along with Barry Diller, and doubled down on the Jim Cameron business, green-lighting and supporting the mercurial director through all his production-budget overages on the way to a $2.2 billion worldwide gross for 1997’s Titanic and $2.8 billion for 2009’s Avatar.

Unfortunately, Cameron can’t save everybody. The business climate in Hollywood has shifted in recent years, and studios are competing not just with each other but with a handful of ruthless Silicon Valley interlopers. New alliances have been forged out of desperation, none of them bigger than the $71.3 billion acquisition, which was set to close last month, that saw the Walt Disney Company absorb the once indomitable Fox. The deal could eventually result in the loss of anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 jobs, depending on whom you ask.

My 20 Years As A Restaurant Critic, by Jay Rayner, The Guardian

Doubtless other people think I’m wrong all the time. Indeed, they tell me so. In 1999, if I heard from readers it was in the form of a letter, which rarely felt like it demanded a reply. Now it’s a digital conversation, which cannot be ignored. My inbox fills constantly with restaurant recommendations, gratefully received. And then there is the rancid abuse, complete with references to my “so-called” job. These are harder to take because, deep down, I am as suspicious of what I do for a living as those who appear to resent me for it. What would the young reporter, determined to hunt down the truth, think of the man I had become? The problem is the man I have become is having so much fun. I have long said that I do the eating for free; it’s the writing I get paid for. This is certainly the case, but I still get to do the eating. And I do still love restaurants. I still push open the door, with hope in my heart, a credit card in my wallet and a gap in my belly that needs filling. And if I find a few stinkers, well, so be it.

As I approached the 10th anniversary in the job, I told my wife I was considering handing in my knife and fork. She rolled her eyes and said I wouldn’t quit. She was right. And I’m not quitting now either. I get my dinner paid for and then get paid to write smartarse things about it. Who wouldn’t want to do that? You’ll have to prise my cold dead fingers from this gig. Now then, where’s my table?

My Glamorous Life As A Movie Star In Control-Top Pantyhose, by Maeve Higgins, New York Times

I don’t know if you’re the type of person who can’t wait to get out of your clothes as soon as you get in the door from work, but I am.

I love to peel off too-tight trousers and wriggle free of restrictive blouses and, best of all, escape the double clutch of a bra. Feeling free and looking insane, I wander half-dressed through my apartment on my phone, hunting for snacks. This is the least self-conscious moment of the day, a private ritual that would look funny to anyone watching. Usually, nobody is. Once, though, somebody was. An entire film crew, actually.

My Sketchbooks In A Stranger’s Hands, by Sarah Williamson, New York Times

I was at work when I received a very strange text message. “Hi Sarah, my name is Will and I work for a company that sorts through donated and discarded books and came across a stack of your lovely notebooks. I am not sure if you would be interested in having them returned, but I at least would like to inquire about the pecan pie.”

Building A Home Of Stories In 'The Bird King', by Amal El-Mohtar, NPR

The Bird King is ostensibly the story of a journey, of the limits to escape — but it is also a journey into story, and faith, and refuge, the family we choose and the friends we find. It's deeply beautiful and wondrously sad, and I can't tell if it ended too quickly or if I just needed it not to — if I just wanted to dwell in a home built out of story for a little longer yet.

'Night Witches' Sheds Some Light On Daring Female Flyers, by Etelka Lehoczky, NPR

Most impressive of all is how vividly the artists show Anna's progression from eager recruit to cynical veteran. She remains recognizable even as experience scars her beyond belief. In this regard, she illuminates the nature of warfare, no matter who's fighting. Anna may be just a character, but she still represents an important contribution to women's history. In this field, fiction can tell vital truths — as even Jane Austen would probably agree.

How Dorothy Butler Gilliam Overcame Racism And Sexism To Make Her Mark On Journalism, by Lisa Page, Washington Post

While much of this book is concerned with historical events, her personal experience burns at its core. Gilliam’s own story, her interiority, lights up the page. Her descriptions of growing up – as a preacher’s daughter and the eighth child of 10, suffering through her father’s illness and death, developing an eating disorder and living without indoor plumbing – are all riveting. She also writes about her own internalized racism, reflected in her first editorial for her college newspaper, where she advocated for “a ‘go-slow’ approach to implementing integration.”

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Dear Restaurants: This Chair Sucks, by Naomi Tomky, Munchies

The Chair has been around for decades, but it was in the post-recession period, around 2010, that it became ubiquitous: its arching metal back wrapping just barely forward enough to intrude on your hips, the nearly flat seat inviting you to join it, coldly and bracingly, like Ursula inviting you into her underwater lair. The naked metal paired well with the Edison bulbs and exposed rafters of the era. As raw wood and vintage-style painting on brick took over décor, everything had to look perfectly minimalist. And the chair, usually in unpainted metal, completed that look.

Unfortunately, it didn’t complete the experience. Because I don’t have to touch the bare lightbulbs and there’s no danger of a splinter from a ceiling beam, those were of little consequence. But those chairs, they caused me plenty of pain. As a woman of ample size, I thought, as they first started spreading like the wildfire of mild annoyance into restaurants around the country, that I must just be too fat for these chairs. But as I silently suffered through another dinner in one of these low-level torture devices, my rail-thin friend Bill could no longer keep quiet on the horrors of The Chair. From his rant, I realized that everyone found these chairs to be fundamentally terrible: they’re cold, they’re hard, and they just don’t seem to be designed to fit a human body (and certainly not a large one).

You're Not Poor. You're Broke, by Katie Smith, The Guardian

Nothing in my life before or since has humbled me quite like lining up for powdered milk, bread past its sell-by date and a small box of canned provisions.

There are many reasons your income can disappear overnight. You might get sick, as I did; your factory might close; your employer might implement mass layoffs. We live in a society where precarious seasonal and contract work without benefit plans is the norm, and genuine poverty is something that can happen to anyone.

How Climate Change Has Influenced Travel Writing, by Jake Cline, The Atlantic

Part autobiography, part cri de coeur, Horizon finds the longtime travel and science writer recounting trips he’s taken to six regions of the world: the Canadian High Arctic, the Eastern Equatorial Pacific, Eastern Equatorial Africa, Australia, Antarctica, and the coast of Oregon, his home state. Now in his 70s, Lopez writes with fervid wonder and fascination about all he’s seen and experienced. This includes coming “face to face” with a 600-pound Weddell seal while diving beneath sea ice in Antarctica, searching for hominin fossils with the paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey in Kenya, and, in one particularly lovely scene, waking late one night on Oregon’s Cape Foulweather to find five Roosevelt elk grazing just beyond his tent.

Most of all, though, Lopez is gripped by an urgency to tell “a coherent and meaningful story” about the threat of humanity’s extinction as a result of climate change and societal declension, and the ways he believes it can be avoided. “I want everyone here to survive what is coming,” he writes. By bringing his past experiences and observations into the present, Lopez underscores how travel writing has changed as planetary conditions have worsened.

When America’s Love Of The Open Frontier Hit A Wall, by Edward Dolnick, New York Times

In a speech in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt reminded a San Francisco audience of what had always distinguished the United States from other nations since its earliest days. “At the very worst,” Roosevelt declared, “there was always the possibility of climbing into a covered wagon and moving west where the untilled prairies afforded a haven for men to whom the East did not provide a place.”

Well, yes and no. It is the mission of this fine, elegantly written history to explore the ever-shifting role of the frontier in the American story. Just who was welcome in that west-facing “haven,” Greg Grandin explains, was never as simple as Americans liked to proclaim. But “The End of the Myth” has a shadow theme. How is it, Grandin wants to know, that the symbol of America was once a boundless, beckoning frontier and today is a dark and forbidding wall?

Friday, March 15, 2019

Ten Ways To Look At The Color Black, by Ed Simon, The Millions

Black is the most parsimonious of all colors. Color is a question of what it is we’re seeing when contrasted with that which we can’t, and black is the null zero of the latter. Those Manichean symbolic associations that we have with black and white are culturally relative—they are contingent on the arbitrary associations that a people project onto colors. Yet true to the ballet of binary oppositions, they are intractably related, for one could never read black ink on black paper, or its converse. If with feigned synesthesia we could imagine what each color would sound like, I’d suspect that they’d either be all piercing intensity and high pitches, or perhaps low, barely-heard thrum—but I’m unsure which would be which.

What Do The Make-Believe Bureaucracies Of Sci-Fi Novels Say About Us?, by Ben H. Winters, New York Times

Amid all the careful laying in of detail that we authors humbly call “world-building,” the language of law and policy does a special kind of work. It is powerful because government is powerful, and its power permeates our lives in ways large and small, whether or not we are paying attention.

Languages Are Too Big For Academies To Tame, by The Economist

That the Académie is at best aspirational—a source of guidance people might say they want but often cheerfully ignore—is better understood by the French than by outsiders. France Culture, a radio station, called the recent change of mind on gendered titles “a mea culpa rather than a revolution”. The Académie was behind the times, as even its own ruling acknowledged: its job is to observe “good usage” as already practised, and to recognise the language’s evolution, not to steer it.

What Is The Mysterious 'Global Hum' — And Is It Simply Noise Pollution?, by Philip Jaekl, The Guardian

The Hum is experienced as a consistent, low-pitched noise, much like the sound of a large truck idling in a nearby parking lot. Hearers tend to report experiencing it in urban areas – leading some to conclude that it is, in fact, a form of noise pollution screened from most people by the general city soundscape.

It is said to cause symptoms that range from insomnia to headaches to dizziness. But because its actual source is unknown, it is impossible to discern its effects accurately.

Alexandre Dumas’s Magnum Opus Was A Massive Cookbook, by Rohini Chaki, Atlas Obscura

Dumas’s historical novels, featuring swashbuckling musketeers and aristocratic scandals, brought him lasting fame. But he had hoped Le Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine would be the crowning jewel in his literary oeuvre. In a twist worthy of a novel, the gastronomic swan song of this 19th century literary maverick is almost constantly overlooked today.

A 1970s Japanese Novel Leading The Way To Ferrante, by Jiayang Fan, New York Times

What emerges is a story that searchingly inhabits the lives of women without sentimentality or self-pity. When the narrator declares that she wanted to give herself a pat on the head for “having managed to protect my daughter from the upheaval around her with the quantity of light,” it is as if Tsushima herself has momentarily taken up the voice of the narrator in order to announce herself. In putting pen to the blank page, she has opened up a territory that feels, in some small way, like a bright room of her own.

Let Me Out Here By Emily W. Pease, by Amber Wheeler Bacon, Ploughshares

If you’ve ever driven through the mountains of West Virginia in the snow at night and been afraid, you might recognize the feeling one gets from reading Let Me Out Here Emily Pease’s debut collection. Her stories are at times dizzying and dark with a hint of dread, but are also rich with texture, voice and a wild beauty.

I Got Told What To Call This Poem By My Male Colleague, by Grace Krause, Thinking In The Open

This poem is for all the men
Who have sacrificed their time
To explain my research to me.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Intersection Of Memory And Power In The Witch Elm And A Thousand Acres, by Katie DePasquale, Ploughshares

We tend to trust our memories and assume that we have rightly understood and interpreted what has happened to us and in our lives. But memories can be uncertain, and the ways in which people interpret even events that are currently happening in front of them owe a lot to the cultural trappings of power: witness the multiple competing narratives around the Covington Catholic students, Nathan Phillips, and the Black Hebrew Israelites meeting on the National Mall in January—or the conflicting reports that seem to constantly emerge in alleged abuse cases from Michael Jackson to Brett Kavanaugh. Two novels that masterfully explore these themes of memory and power from traditionally masculine and feminine perspectives, Tana French’s The Witch Elm and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, come to a similar conclusion: the power structures under which we operate can mold and distort our memories, and potentially destroy our lives. That both stories are tragedies is clear from early on, and what are tragedies if not reflections on power, who has it and who doesn’t, and who’s grasping for it?

Short Cuts, by Daniel Soar, London Review of Books

At this point, you start to question everything. Has this argument, for Hitchens at least, actually been about religion at all? Or has it, rather, been about war – about picking your side, about enemies and friends, about winning the fight and never backing down?

The Disneyland Of Death, by Larissa Diakiw, Hazlitt

Forest Lawn is a cemetery in Glendale just north of LA. It has been described as a Disneyland of Death and a theme-park necropolis. It has been satirized by Evelyn Waugh, depicted by Aldous Huxley. Stars and moguls from Hollywood’s golden era are buried in its hilltop terraces. It created a new template for death culture in North America, and a business model for other cemeteries to follow.

From the bus window, I watched hairy palms rise in lonely spikes along the street. Morning smog gave the city a haunted look. The exotic cut leaves and absurd shag of the palms appeared from the mist like an idea of a place. We passed through Chinatown where a group of old men and women, bent over trundle-buggies, stood waiting in line. When the bus stopped, they slowly filed on, helping one another up the steps, around the corner, into a seat. A woman with silver hair tied in a French-roll sat next to me and asked where I was going. Glendale, I said. She said she had made the trek downtown to get food for the week, but it was difficult to carry anything, let alone the six bags she was struggling with. I asked why she didn’t use a buggy like the others. Her daughter wouldn’t let her, she said, because it made her look old.

Why Urban Millennials Love Uniqlo, by Gillian B. White, The Atlantic

Uniqlo isn’t in the business of chasing trends. Its staples—versatile black pants, reliable oxfords, crisp cotton socks—are available month after month, year after year. A more apt analogue would be the Gap. In its 1990s heyday, the Gap revolutionized American retailing by making basics cool. But the company eventually became a victim of its own success. “When [the Gap] tried to go from having a certain cachet to being in every single mall in every single town in America, the brand lost its edge,” Steve Rowen, a managing partner at Retail Systems Research, told me. Gap clothing became the uniform of suburban moms and dads. Despite the company’s efforts to make its khakis less baggy and its shirts slimmer, no one wants to fall into the Gap anymore—especially when you can get cheaper basics with cleaner lines at Uniqlo.

The question Uniqlo faces now is whether it can inherit the Gap’s empire without repeating its mistakes. To do so, it will have to convince shoppers across the country of a proposition that’s radical for the industry: Fashion can be affordable without being disposable.

My Five Desert-Island Foods: A Culinary Thought Experiment, by Charlotte Mendelson, New Yorker

There are almost eight billion humans in the world, and one needs a way of working out whom to like. It can’t be as simple as are they right- or left-wing, dog or cat people, or even that fail-safe, Have They Suffered. No. There is only one valid litmus test for friendship, romance, or affinity, and that is the Five Desert-Island Foodstuffs.

The Five Desert-Island Foodstuffs are the dishes one can’t live without. If you could only eat these few items, forever, which would you choose? This exercise reveals everything one wants to know about a person. Are you sufficiently interested in food to give this exercise your time? Do you have the attention to imaginary detail that the subject requires? If not, please find your own desert island; mine’s full.

What Do Womxn Want?, by Breena Kerr, New York Times

Maybe not to have the word “man” in their word anymore!

Number One Chinese Restaurant By Lillian Li Review – A Confident Debut, by Claire Kohda Hazelton, The Guardian

This is an insightful and elegant novel, beautifully written and with an impressively large and diverse cast of characters. In the Beijing Duck, Li has created a symbol for the real Chinese restaurants through which many immigrant families have established themselves in America.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Impossibility Of Finding A Place To Write In New York, by Andrew Ridker, Literary Hub

Charles Bukowski has a poem where he roundly dismisses the idea that good writing can only occur under ideal conditions. “Baby,” the final stanza reads, “air and light and time and space / have nothing to do with it / and don’t create anything / except maybe a longer life to find / new excuses / for.” Well, sure. Air and light and time and space are useless on their own. But they don’t hurt—and since when was I taking life advice from Bukowski? I didn’t even like Bukowski.

How Do You Like Your Quotes? Straight Or Curly?, by John Maher, The Millions

There is a whole complex history behind the trend toward the straight quote in favor of the curly quote, which began with the typewriter but was exacerbated, like many other things in the very late 20th century, by the computer. And while curly quotes are still preferred by editors (and especially book editors, who tend to exhibit ferocious loyalty to the traditions of their rather old trade), the straight quote has become a staple of Internet writing thanks to the complexities of code.

The Tragedy Of Baltimore, by Alec MacGillis, ProPublica

In Baltimore, you can tell a lot about the politics of the person you’re talking with by the word he or she uses to describe the events of April 27, 2015. Some people, and most media outlets, call them the “riots”; some the “unrest.” Guy was among those who always referred to them as the “uprising,” a word that connoted something justifiable and positive: the first step, however tumultuous, toward a freer and fairer city. Policing in Baltimore, Guy and many other residents believed, was broken, with officers serving as an occupying army in enemy territory — harassing African-American residents without cause, breeding distrust and hostility.

In 2016, the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division concurred, releasing a report accusing the city’s Police Department of racial discrimination and excessive force. The city agreed to a “consent decree” with the federal government, a set of policing reforms that would be enforced by a federal judge. When an independent monitoring team was selected to oversee the decree, Guy was hired as its community liaison. This was where she wanted to be: at the forefront of the effort to make her city a better place.

But in the years that followed, Baltimore, by most standards, became a worse place. In 2017, it recorded 342 murders — its highest per-capita rate ever, more than double Chicago’s, far higher than any other city of 500,000 or more residents and, astonishingly, a larger absolute number of killings than in New York, a city 14 times as populous. Other elected officials, from the governor to the mayor to the state’s attorney, struggled to respond to the rise in disorder, leaving residents with the unsettling feeling that there was no one in charge. With every passing year, it was getting harder to see what gains, exactly, were delivered by the uprising.

How Artificial Intelligence Is Changing Science, by Dan Falk, Quanta

The latest AI algorithms are probing the evolution of galaxies, calculating quantum wave functions, discovering new chemical compounds and more. Is there anything that scientists do that can’t be automated?

The History Of Food In Canada Is The History Of Colonialism, by Corey Mintz, The Walrus

Bell is one of many Indigenous people who are privately and publicly engaged with the restoration of their food cultures, returning to a more traditional diet through activities like sustenance hunting—practices long under threat of eradication but not gone forever.

Indigenous food sovereignty was decimated by design: the separation of people from their historic food systems and land is not a side effect of colonialism but a function of it. Canada’s formation is a history of legislating First Nations, Inuit, and Métis out of existence, including by erasing Indigenous food cultures: the Gradual Civilization Act, the banning of potlatch ceremonies, the signing of treaties that exchanged life-sustaining hunting grounds for farmland, livestock, and pitiful amounts of cash. All of it was designed with the purpose of elimination through assimilation.

The Sound Of Evil, by Theodore Gioia, The American Scholar

Power is the goal, money only the means. But such ravenous ambition must be hidden under a respectable mask—a mask provided by classical music.

Andrea Dworkin, A Startling And Ruthless Feminist Whose Work Is Back In The Spotlight, by Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

It’s so over-the-top that at first it seems like a lark — or, since this is Dworkin, just another example of her resolve to see oppression everywhere. Soon, though, it turns into a more searching exploration of what her confrontational approach might challenge her readers to do. “Not to think about different things,” she writes, “but to think in different ways.”

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

On The Edge Of Art And The Everyday, by Will Cordeiro, The Smart Set

While I’d claim to enjoy viewing art, two to three hours strolling through most collections can give me museum fatigue. Stepping out on the street, however, I gawk astonished on the colors, forms, and composition of everyday objects. Traffic light, mini-skirt, trash can, movie poster, hubcap, a wad of gum: suddenly the world’s transformed, exposed. I feel like the kid with X-ray specs from the ad at the back of comic books. The luster and lineaments of ordinary artifacts take on giddy energy as if the hand of an estranging god were shaping a terrible beauty before my eyes.

The first time I remember this experience was during my high school years. The suction of the revolving doors slurped shut as I exited MoMA. The brisk autumn air of Midtown slapped my face. Dusk-light reveled on the iridescent cloud scud, and I stared down the crevice between office towers where every window was awash in flame. The monoliths seemed marshaled from glacial shadows. As I pressed through the urban vortex of faces, freaks, and fashions with a friend on whom I had a crush, a gulf of freedom opened in untold directions. On a lark, we’d taken a Greyhound several hours that morning. Now we wandered lost in the grid of nighttime Manhattan. I wasn’t from a small town; I was from a barren field, a clod of dirt. To my young, provincial eyes, the city in its madcap flux appeared a vast network of creation, a quasar emitting the voltage of a trillion stars and warping all the space around it.

When Science Fiction Comes True, by Namwali Serpell, New York Times

This is the dark side of science fiction prophecy. “Wow, I was right!” can turn quickly into “Yikes, I was right!” You almost envy Cassandra, the Trojan princess who was doomed by the gods to be always correct yet disbelieved. “I was never able to predict,” William Gibson demurred in an interview with GQ. “But I could sort of curate what had already happened.” When it was brought to his attention that the global disasters he had envisioned in his 2014 novel, “The Peripheral,” seemed to be happening even before it was published, Gibson admitted: “That makes me very uncomfortable.”

Does Talking About Books Make Us More Cosmopolitan?, by Tim Parks, New York Review of Books

Often, when we argue about books, it’s as well to ask ourselves if there isn’t an issue of competence that divides us. Time and again, I’ve realized I’d better shut my mouth when someone points out something of which I was simply ignorant, something that shifts the whole picture. As an Englishman living in Italy, discussing Italian literature with Italians, this is perhaps inevitable. In this regard, arguing about books can have the function, however mortifying, of reminding you that for a book to happen more fully and satisfyingly, you will have to change.

But there will be other questions, too, or areas where “competence” shades into something less easily defined. Does a book set in Amsterdam require that I know Amsterdam, or a story about chronic pain require that I have some experience of that unhappy condition? Surely not. Perhaps the whole point of the book was to bring Amsterdam, or the reality of chronic pain, to someone who doesn’t know it. Yet, if I do know the territory, the book shifts. Certainly, if I’m more familiar with Amsterdam than the author is, my reading may be less satisfying to me than the reading of someone who must take the city as described.

What Is Hell? It Depends On Who You Ask, by Michael COren, The Walrus

Almost all major religions, monotheistic or otherwise, have featured some hierarchy of reward and penalty after death. The specifics are debated—some faiths describe endless torture, others a place for introspection—but the concept of consequences in the afterlife has been a constant. Is our waning attachment to hell, then, a momentary blip, or are believers finally ready for faith that isn’t tied to fear of everlasting agony?

As Nova Scotia–based journalist and author Marq de Villiers explores in his new book, Hell and Damnation: A Sinner’s Guide to Eternal Torment, our ideas around what happens after death have always been in flux. De Villiers’ text is a deliciously cynical analysis of the afterlife viewed from a variety of historical and literary perspectives. He opens with a simple query, “What is this thing called hell?” Though, like any question wrapped up in thousands of years of religious interpretation, it depends on whom you ask.

How Many More Pink Restaurants Do We Need?, by Laura Fenton, Eater

Restaurant design trends come and go: Dark walls, bare bricks, and Edison bulbs give way to white-washed spaces accented with natural wood and succulents. The latest restaurant-interior fad, however, is not a checklist of design hallmarks, but a single color: pink.

The Creativity Code By Marcus Du Sautoy – Review, by Jonnie Wolf, The Guardian

Alan Turing asked: can machines think? He then replaced that question with his Turing test, before adding that it was “too meaningless to deserve discussion”. Perhaps he felt, as Dijkstra did, that asking if machines can think is like asking if submarines can swim: the answer rests on how far we choose to extend a metaphor from the biological to the artificial world. Unlike Turing, Du Sautoy is captivated by his original question (can machines be creative?) and seems to mistrust his own test (the Lovelace test).

If he reaches a conclusion it is that consciousness is necessary for creativity, and so the behavioural Lovelace test is insufficient. This is not in itself an unreasonable claim, but it naively intrudes on a prominent body of psychology that attempts to carefully isolate what function, if any, consciousness fulfils. It is also a conclusion that was available to Du Sautoy from the armchair, before he embarked on his enjoyable, circuitous journey: it turns out he didn’t need AI to reach his destination after all.

Ivy Leaves, by Patricia McCarthy, The Guardian

His hands were shaped into ivy leaves
that climbed up the tree, camouflage
for its inner rings, tickling the light.
Horse chestnut buds had given them
a stickiness which the rains could not
wash off. Touch them, he said.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Why Are We So Worried About “Instapoetry”?, by Anna Leszkiewicz, New Statesman

This landscape leaves some wondering to what extent this is an exercise in poetry and to what extent an exercise in producing visually engaging, relatable content for as wide an audience as possible: essentially a kind of digital branding that uses the sort of phrases you might find on fridge magnets or T-shirts. Some insist that Instapoetry is not poetry at all. “It is not art, it is a good to be sold,” Soraya Roberts writes in the Baffler. “These are not artists.” Even some of the Instapoets themselves have doubts. “I would never consider these poems,” Macias bluntly told a reporter in 2014. “I am not a poet.”

Of course, questions of what does and does not count as a real poem inevitably drags us down the thorny path of defining poetry itself. We know that wine is not poetry, even if Atticus tells us so, but proving that an Atticus post is not poetry is much trickier, even if many people will instinctively feel that it’s not. Many canonical poets have themselves struggled with settling on a definition: AE Housman admitted, “I could no more define poetry than a terrier could define a rat”, while Emily Dickinson wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry […] Is there any other way?”

Get Off My Lawn, by James Fallows, The Atlantic

As time went on, the earplugs-plus-headphones protection rig became standard writing gear. That was because the use of gas-powered leaf blowers in my Washington, D.C., neighborhood evolved from a few hours a week during the leafiest stretch of autumn to most days of the week, most weeks of the year, thanks to the advent of the “groomed” look that modern lawn crews are expected to achieve. One of my longest-running themes as a journalist has been how changes in technology force people to adapt their habits and livelihoods. I thought I was doing my part, with gear that let me attend to my work while others attended to theirs. There even turned out to be a bonus: As other parts of my body went into a predictable age-related descent, my hearing remained sharp.

Then I learned several things that changed my thinking both about leaf blowers and, up to a point, about politics.

Clean House To Survive? Museums Confront Their Crowded Basements, by Robin Pogrebin, New York Times

Some collections have grown tenfold in the past 50 years. Most museums display only a fraction of the works they own, in large part because so many are prints and drawings that can only sparingly be shown because of light sensitivity.

“There is this inevitable march where you have to build more storage, more storage, more storage,” said Charles L. Venable, the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields. “I don’t think it’s sustainable.”

His museum was so jammed with undisplayed artwork that it was about to spend about $14 million to double its storage space until he abruptly canceled the plan.

The Top-Secret Feminist History Of Tea Rooms, by Cara Strickland, JSTOR

As a young girl, I read books like the Nancy Drew mysteries—the characters were always popping into tea rooms for lunch. To a modern reader, tea rooms conjured visions of crumpets and china, but when the books were published (the first in 1930), mentioning a tea room was meant to communicate to the reader that Nancy and her friends were independent women who could eat out without a man to escort them. While most women think nothing of dining out without a man now, tea rooms played a major role in bringing about this phenomenon.

I’d Rather Be Dead Than Linger On In An Old Folks’ Home, by Barry Goldman, Los Angeles Times

It’s true that opinions change. If you ask able-bodied people how they would feel if they lost both their legs, many say they would rather be dead. If you ask people who lost both their legs, after a while they say it's just fine. In fact, many say losing their legs was a net gain since it enabled them to get a better perspective on what's really important or find out who their real friends are.

But I'm quite sure about this one. I never want to go to one of those places. I would rather be dead. I’m adamant.

Fiction: A Writer Who Finds Grace Beneath The Violence In His Stories, by Justin Taylor, New York Times

“Instructions for a Funeral” is both sweeping and narrow, panoramic and fragmentary, possessed, as Means writes in “The Ice Committee,” by “a gloriously full understanding … fractured to shards.” What beauty there is in their jagged gleaming. What pleasure it gives us to gather them up, and to dream of a world made whole.

The Old Drift By Namwali Serpell – Review, by Anthony Cummins, The Guardian

What initially seems an old-fashioned saga proves more interested in genre than in character. By the end, set in a near future involving a new digital device embedded in the user’s skin, we realise how slyly Serpell is testing our assumptions, before a cunning last-minute swerve forces us to question why we don’t consider science fiction a viable mode for the great African novel.

Fall From Grace, by Paul Starr, New York Review of Books

But because journalism has not been a lucrative business for some time, its ideals of truth-telling have become harder to uphold. The majority of digital ad revenue goes to Google, Facebook, and other companies that do not put it back into producing content; most newspapers no longer have the resources even for many of the routine stories they used to cover, much less for costly investigations. News organizations of all kinds are preoccupied with the new metrics of the digital economy and the old imperatives of revenue and profits. Survival depends on monetizing organizational assets, which in practice often means calling on editorial staff to work on business projects, ending the separation that was once a cardinal principle of journalistic ethics.

This tension between editorial autonomy and profit lies at the heart of Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth. Taking Halberstam’s book as her model, Abramson uses four news organizations—BuzzFeed, Vice, The New York Times, and The Washington Post—to tell the story of how journalism has evolved since around 2007, the point when newspapers began getting desperate and social media began taking off. The book has been dogged by charges of plagiarism and carelessness that have deflected attention from its argument. Several passages in the chapters on Vice all too closely follow other writers’ language; Abramson also got details wrong about a number of young journalists, making them appear inexperienced and unqualified. There is no excusing these failures, but not every damaged vessel should be sunk. For all its deficiencies, Merchants of Truth sheds considerable light on the news in this dark time; anyone who wants to understand what has been happening to journalism will learn a great deal from it.

Medium / Message, by Erika Meitner, Literary Hub

The rains came last night around sunset,
after a day of grill-heat, a day of persistent

Code Orange air-quality warnings.
Here, there is always a rainbow.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Curious Power Of Giving Book Characters The Same Name, by Nina Martyris, The Atlantic

Did you register, dear viewer, that Downton Abbey had two characters named Thomas B: the malignant footman turned loyal butler Thomas Barrow, and the socialist chauffeur turned son-in-law Tom Branson? And if it did, did it bother you?

Chances are the answer is no—unless you happen to be Benjamin Dreyer.

America, Say My Name, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, New York Times

What’s your name? Mine is Viet Thanh Nguyen, although I was born in Vietnam as Nguyen Thanh Viet. Whichever way you arrange my name, it is not a typical American name. Growing up in the United States, I was encouraged by generations of American tradition to believe that it was normal, desirable and practical to adopt an American first name, and even to change one’s surname to an American one.

Of course, that raises the question — what exactly is an American name?

A Belief In Meritocracy Is Not Only False: It's Morally Wrong, by Clifton Mark, Aeon

Despite the moral assurance and personal flattery that meritocracy offers to the successful, it ought to be abandoned both as a belief about how the world works and as a general social ideal. It’s false, and believing in it encourages selfishness, discrimination and indifference to the plight of the unfortunate.

The Position Of English, by Maria Eliades, Ploughshares

English was a language she strove to interpret and make perfect. It stood for a culture that had to be mastered and was part of a continuous struggle, even though she loved it. Italian became Lahiri’s way out of that struggle, into a world where she could make mistakes, but also a world of freedom and exploration. In doing so, she became “free, light.” She rediscovered, she says, the very reason for which she writes.

'The Altruists' Asks: How Do You Live A Good Life?, by Heller McAlpin, NPR

Many first novels fall into one of two categories: the campus novel, or the dysfunctional family novel. The Altruists combines the two, but don't let that put you off. Ridker elevates his book with a sharp eye for the absurdities of contemporary American culture and his characters' irksome pieties, though his ironic sensibility is offset with a good measure of compassion.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

She's The Youngest Puzzle Designer In America. Can She Save Crosswords?, by Tanya Basu, Daily Beast

“I’m what they call a ‘cruciverbalist,’” Anna Shechtman says as she introduces herself. “It’s the term they use for crossword designers.” She pauses for a beat. “It always makes me think it should be a fancy word for a serial killer or something.”

That morbid, snarky, deadpan humor Shechtman hints at is why she’s become a star in the tiny community of cruciverbalists. Last spring, Shechtman was chosen to be part of a select group of cruciverbalists to help launch The New Yorker’s Monday crossword section, after publishing a crossword as a teenager in The New York Times.

Since then, Shechtman’s puzzles have become stars in their own right, dancing between sharp-tongued feminism, politics, and hat-tips to the cultural zeitgeist of the day. In doing so she’s welcoming a whole new class of crossword enthusiasts, particularly young women.

Teen Fiction And The Perils Of Cancel Culture, by Jennifer Senior, New York Times

If the public had found “A Place for Wolves” as criminally distasteful and insensitive as Twitter did, it would have sunk the book in slower, more deliberate ways. Librarians would have read it and taken a pass. Bookstore owners would have decided it wasn’t worth the space. Book critics would have savaged it — or worse, ignored it.

It should have failed or succeeded in the marketplace of ideas. But it was never given the chance. The mob got to it first.

Chimpanzees Are Going Through A Tragic Loss, by Ed Yong, The Atlantic

It took a long time to convince skeptics that such cultures exist, but now we have plenty of examples of animals learning local traditions from one another. Some orangutans blow raspberries at each other before they go to bed. One dolphin learned to tail-walk from captive individuals and spread that trick to its own wild peers once released. Humpbacks and other whales have distinctive calls and songs in different seas. And chimps still stand out with “one of the most impressive cultural repertoires of nonhuman animals,” says Ammie Kalan, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

But just when many scientists have come to accept the existence of animal cultures, many of those cultures might vanish. Kalan and her colleagues have shown, through years of intensive fieldwork, that the very presence of humans has eroded the diversity of chimpanzee behavior. Where we flourish, their cultures shrivel. It is a bitterly ironic thing to learn on the 20th anniversary of Whiten’s classic study.

'Gingerbread' Is A Delightfully Spicy Family Fable, by Michael Schaub, NPR

Literary fiction is often knocked for being dismal and cynical, but Oyeyemi proves that it can just as easily be life-affirming, charming and just plain fun. Gingerbread is an enchanting masterpiece by an author who's refreshingly unafraid to be joyful, and it proves that Oyeyemi is one of the best English-language authors in the world today.

Bangkok Wakes To Rain By Pitchaya Sudbanthad Review – A City Of Memories, by Tash Aw, The Guardian

The indelibility of memory – both individual and collective – forms the central pillar of this sprawling, multi-generational novel, where characters appear and disappear, only to reappear a hundred pages and several decades later. Their lives may span different eras and locations, even imagined worlds, but they are constantly pulled back to a central reality that revolves around Bangkok.

What We Owe A Rabbit, by Thomas Nagel, New York Review of Books

Christine Korsgaard is a distinguished philosopher who has taught at Harvard for most of her career. Though not known to the general public, she is eminent within the field for her penetrating and analytically dense writings on ethical theory and her critical interpretations of the works of Immanuel Kant. Now, for the first time, she has written a book about a question that anyone can understand. Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals is a blend of moral passion and rigorous theoretical argument. Though it is often difficult—not because of any lack of clarity in the writing but because of the intrinsic complexity of the issues—this book provides the opportunity for a wider audience to see how philosophical reflection can enrich the response to a problem that everyone should be concerned about.

'An American Summer' Presents The Human Side Of Gun Violence In Chicago, by Gabino Iglesias, NPR

One of the worst things about Chicago's violence is that it is public, so "each shooting or its aftermath is witnessed by many, children and adults alike." With this book, Kotlowitz amplifies the words of those who have witnessed it and makes their experience available to readers. The experience is painful, but also tremendously necessary.

'Brick' Is A Visual Ode To The Humble Red Block, Perhaps Humanity's Best Idea, by Drew Tewksbury, Los Angeles Times

Behold the brick. The red, six-sided rectangle that changed the world.

Its ubiquity renders it almost invisible, a hidden-in-plain-sight part of our built environment, whose fascinating history and radical architectural applications are often overlooked. In Phaidon’s new mini edition of the 2015 photo book “Brick” — sized perfectly for a tweed coat pocket — author and editor William Hall pays homage to “the humblest thing imaginable … [a] brick is after all just earth.”

Friday, March 8, 2019

Why Do We Hate Decaf So Much?, by Rebecca Jennings, Vox

Whether caffeine is or isn’t actually good for you isn’t actually the point. The point is that if the wild success of the largely pseudoscientific lifestyle brand Goop tells us anything, the rule goes that because caffeine sometimes has negative effects and isn’t tolerated by some people, by now, there should be a full-blown attack against Big Caffeine.

There isn’t.

The People Who Eat The Same Meal Every Day, by Joe Pinsker, The Atlantic

Vern Loomis, a retired structural draftsman in West Bloomfield, Michigan, had a standard office lunch: a peanut-butter sandwich, with various fruit, vegetable, and dessert accompaniments. He ate this, he estimates, nearly every workday for about 25 years.

His meal underwent slight modifications over time—jelly was added to the sandwich in the final five or so years—but its foundation remained the same. The meal was easy to prepare, cheap, and tasty. “And if you happen to be eating at your desk … it was something that was not too drippy,” he told me, so long as one applied the jelly a bit conservatively.

The Manipulation Of Time In Salvatore Scibona’s The Volunteer, by Mario Alberto Zambrano, Ploughshares

It is often the descriptive details of character, dialogue, style, and rhythm that we pay close attention to when we consider language in fiction, but one of the greatest powers of language is its ability to manipulate time so that its linearity is broken up and we, as readers, are able to witness the “unseen.” We might pause for reflection or return to backstory, get swept up in a character’s reverie or stream of consciousness, or fall into essayistic soliloquies voiced from a collective society.

These literary opportunities—shifting the focus to other points in time, whether real or imagined—are apparent in Salvatore Scibona’s new novel, The Volunteer, out this week. The book spans four generations of a family suffering the consequences of the Vietnam War and sweeps over approximately a hundred years. But the reader feels this expansion, and contraction, of time less in the book’s structure and more in its sentences—how they move in and around the actions of a scene while offering insight into the past, and sometimes into the imaginary.

Lanny By Max Porter Review – A Joyously Stirred Cauldron Of Words, by Alexandra Harris, The Guardian

Max Porter’s second novel is a fable, a collage, a dramatic chorus, a joyously stirred cauldron of words. It follows his startlingly original debut, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, the dark, comic, wild, beautiful prose-poem-novel that was a runaway success in 2015 and won the Dylan Thomas award. Lanny is similarly remarkable for its simultaneous spareness and extravagance, and again it is a book full of love. It plays pretty close to the edge over which lie the fey and the kooky; anyone allergic to green men may need to take a deep breath. But Porter has no truck with cynicism and gets on, bravely, exuberantly, with rejuvenating our myths.

Four Words For Friend By Marek Kohn Review – Why Language Matters More Than Ever, by Steven Poole, The Guardian

To know another language is also to know more about how others think, since some weakened version of the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – that different languages, because they carve up the world in different ways, cause speakers to perceive and think differently – is almost certainly true. Hence the book’s title: in Russian, one is obliged to specify one of four levels of closeness when referring to a friend. Other examples abound of subtle differences that influence thought: Turkish has “evidential grammar”, according to which one must mark whether the information one is conveying is first-hand or not. This might be useful if forcibly adopted on social media.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

The ‘Moral Clarity’ Of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ At 50, by Kevin Powers, New York Times

I am now 38. I live in a rented house in Pittsboro, N.C., with my wife, my two daughters and my dog. I try to be kind. I try not to hurt people. And though I have just told you all the things I know with certainty about that day in September in Tal Afar, Iraq, when I was 24, I’m still not sure what it means. I don’t know if my being there in that place and at that time makes me a bad person, but on most days I think it means I do not get to claim to be a good one.

There is an eminently useful thought experiment with which I suspect you are familiar. It goes something like, “What would an alien think of ____?” The blank is typically filled in with something like sex, or our destructive relationship to the natural world, or money. War is sometimes used to fill that blank, too. The point of the thought experiment is to invent a kind of critical distance between a particular aspect of human behavior and ourselves, the ones behaving un-self-consciously like humans.

The Greatest Of All Novels, by Gary Saul Morson, New Criterion

Just 150 years ago, in 1869, Tolstoy published the final installment of War and Peace, often regarded as the greatest of all novels. In his time, Tolstoy was known as a nyetovshchik—someone who says nyet, or no, to all prevailing opinion—and War and Peace discredits the prevailing views of the radical intelligentsia, then just beginning to dominate Russian thought. The intelligentsia’s way of thinking is still very much with us and so Tolstoy’s critique is, if anything, even more pertinent today.

How Leonard Cohen And Emily Dickinson Led Me Through Dark Days, by Sharon Steel, The Millions

His voice came to me right before the world began to end. It was a cold evening in October of 2016—slate grey skies, the highway flat, that Sunday feeling where the worries of the week ahead overtake the pleasure of a weekend away. Leonard Cohen on the stereo, speaking more than singing. He put all casual conversation to an abrupt end.

That wasn’t the first time I heard Cohen. I knew his best-known songs, what his voice sounded like. But it was the first night I really heard him, the first night his voice reached inside and gutted me. It always seems so strange and stupid, in retrospect, when something precious is handed to you, and years go by before you accept it and give thanks for the gift. Until then, I simply hadn’t been paying attention.

Helen Oyeyemi Dishes Up Magic In Her New Novel, ‘Gingerbread’, by Eowyn Ivey, New York Times

This is not a book to devour mindlessly. It is much like Harriet’s gingerbread: “a square meal and a good night’s sleep and a long, blood-splattered howl at the moon rolled into one.” This is a wildly imagined, head-spinning, deeply intelligent novel that requires some effort and attention from its reader. And that is just one of its many pleasures.

In ‘The Uninhabitable Earth,’ Apocalypse Is Now, by Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

“The Uninhabitable Earth” wagers that we’ve grown inured to cool recitations of the facts, and require a more direct engagement of political will. “There is no single way to best tell the story of climate change, no single rhetorical approach likely to work on a given audience, and none too dangerous to try,” Wallace-Wells writes. “Any story that sticks is a good one.”

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Becoming An Actor Taught Me To Write, by Ennis Smith, Electric Lit

I feared I might be starting from scratch, but it was actually the opposite. Writers who have never acted will balk when I say that, while the two are definitely not the same, the lessons learned as a performer resonate often when I write. I doubt that’s a surprise to Tony Bennett, a singer who also paints. In the last ten years, actor John Malkovich has spent more time designing couture men’s clothing than playing roles on the big screen. The “multitudes” are evident in the work of Joni Mitchell, who also paints when she isn’t composing songs that devastate with their emotional honesty. The Sistine Chapel may be a work of art, but so are Michelangelo’s poems and letters. And recently, Daniel Day-Lewis announced his retirement from the screen to pursue dressmaking — to add to his other skills as a cobbler and stonemason. From Victor Hugo to contemporary polymaths like Boots Riley, Solange, Janelle Monae, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Lady Gaga, artists have funneled their creative juices through multiple mediums for eons. For them, doing “one thing” has never been enough.

At The End Of The Day, Think Outside The Box About Clichés, by Nana Ariel, Aeon

These attacks on clichés are at once captivating and convincing. However, they share two major blind spots. First, they assume that clichés are always used by others, never by the writer herself. This ignores the fact that clichés are intrinsic to communication, almost unavoidable, and subject to contextual interpretation. A seemingly authentic and effective saying is interpreted as a cliché from a different perspective, and vice versa. Thus, the US president Barack Obama declared in the 2013 Democratic National Committee that it’s a cliché to say that America is the greatest country on Earth – but was also accused of constantly using clichés in his own speeches, such the need to ‘protect future generations’, ‘together we can make a difference’ and ‘let me be clear’.

The Aldi Effect: How One Discount Supermarket Transformed The Way Britain Shops, by Xan Rice, The Guardian

By sucking in shoppers and, as former Aldi UK CEO Paul Foley puts it, “sucking the profitability out of the industry” – profit margins of 2-3% are now the norm – the two German-owned companies have forced the “big four” supermarkets to take drastic measures. Morrisons has closed stores and laid off workers, while Sainsbury’s and Asda, desperate to cut costs and stop losing market share, announced a proposed £13bn merger in May, which the UK competition watchdog now appears likely to block. Tesco, meanwhile, has slashed its product range and bought the discount wholesaler Booker. In September, in a belated acknowledgement that the major threat to its business comes from Aldi and Lidl, Tesco launched its own discount chain, called Jack’s.

These industry shifts often lead the news, because supermarkets are so important to the economy: with more than 300,000 staff, Tesco is the UK’s biggest private-sector employer and the biggest retailer of any sort. But we also follow these stories closely for a more sentimental reason: grocery shopping is an intimate part of our lives. We don’t need to buy books or fancy trainers, but we do need to eat.

Two Début Novels Explore How To Be Good, by Katy Waldman, New Yorker

Fiction that dramatizes the struggle to be good is filtering down like a soft light on our messy present. “Such Good Work,” a first novel by the Swedish-American writer Johannes Lichtman, is one example; “The Altruists,” a début from Andrew Ridker, is another. Both authors came up in the M.F.A. system; both cast a brilliant German academic as the love interest of an undeserving male protagonist. More centrally, the two titles are about discovering and applying—to yourself, to others—a sustainable form of moral idealism.

Directions To The Undiscovered Country, by Paul O’Mahoney, Dublin Review of Books

The problem of offering a practical perspective on death is summarised at the outset. “Birth and death are the only human acts we cannot practise,” writes Tisdale, and so “death looms ahead as a kind of theory.” There are no dress rehearsals for death. Dreamless sleeps will be woken from; the deaths of others do not necessarily carry instruction as to how one ought to go into that good night, gentle or raging. Practical advice then must deal with the concrete details of death; Tisdale’s book addresses both future corpses and their carers and families, and indirectly, health professionals and advocates of varying stripe. The advice is direct. The grammatical mood is usually imperative, the mood and tone of the author running the spectrum from compassionate to faintly peremptory. The book is “about preparing for your own death and for the deaths of people close to you”. A bank of experience built up as a palliative nurse makes Tisdale a singularly qualified counsellor of corpses-to-be, and allows her to lay out the various dull, uninspiring, sometimes absurd practicalities attending the business of dying while avowing simultaneously “the strange, undeniable fact that the presence of death can be joyful”.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Seeing The World (And Writing It) With Alice In Wonderland Syndrome, by Craig Russell, Literary Hub

It sounds obvious to say that an author’s writing reflects their personal vision of things; that the psychology of the writer reveals itself in the writing. That is, after all, the essence of fiction. It’s all about how you see things. But I’m talking about something more specific: the particular neuropsychology of some writers. What if that personal vision is different from the majority of other people? I don’t mean a writer’s opinion or unique intellectual “point-of-view,” I mean literally how they see—perceive—the world.

And I’m not talking about psychosis or neurosis, either—although there’s a whole different, and equally large, discussion to be had about that—I’m discussing the differences in how the brain processes sensory information, or how a momentary short circuit in the brain can lead to a whole different way of viewing reality. In the case of writers—and artists and musicians for that matter—it can determine the whole nature of their creative output.

How Fiji Changed The Way We Travel, by Sarah Stodola, BBC

The descent into Fiji’s Nadi International Airport en route from Sydney is a spectacular one. After hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres of nothing but water, a string of barrier reefs announce themselves, made visible by the waves breaking against them. Then, the volcanic islands beyond them, mountainous and green and rocky all at once. Up ahead is Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu looms, too big to take in completely, even from this distance. Twin senses of vastness and remoteness mark this first impression.

It’s a remarkable landscape, and it’s made even more so by the fact that it ushered aviation into the 21st Century. The airspace above the islands was the first to incorporate the Global Positioning System, or as we all commonly know it, GPS, into its aviation system. In doing so, Fiji changed forever the way we get from Point A to distant Point B.

In The Food Swamps Of LA, McDonald’s Was Our Lifeboat, by An Uong, Eater

The first place we were allowed to go to alone was the McDonald’s around the corner. Our family went so often that my parents eventually allowed us to walk there and back by ourselves. At 13, I carried the $15 my dad handed me while my brother Kenny, then 7, held onto a torn piece of lined paper with our order: eight McChicken sandwiches, six cheeseburgers, and — don’t forget! — a few handfuls of ketchup packets. I could smell it before we even reached the doors: hot oil and well-done meat mixed with ball-pit musk, back when McDonald’s PlayPlace was in its heyday. Before the Burger King across the street became a Chase Bank, the red-and-gold glow of McDonald’s was rivaled only by Burger King’s towering red, yellow, and blue sign. Nothing had been that bright in my family’s district in Saigon. I was so taken by the neon all over Los Angeles, but especially by the neon of McDonald’s. When I see it today, I’m hit at once with nostalgia and remorse.

Situated at one of the busiest intersections in our town of Glendale, California, McDonald’s was sometimes more of a community space than it was a food source. We lived — and still live — in Glendale’s food swamp, where the inundation of fast food was too tempting to pass up. Walk a handful of blocks east and you’ll hit KFC, Jack In The Box, Carl’s Jr., Domino’s, and Pizza Hut. But that McDonald’s was our favorite. Usually filled with old men playing chess or teenagers crowded around Nintendo Game Boys, our McDonald’s was never empty. I learned early on not to be overwhelmed by the menu in all its backlit glory. It unfurled into infinity behind the cashiers, offering McThis and McThat, but I was trained to focus only on the Dollar Menu, where I could find our trusted McChicken sandwiches and cheeseburgers, minus the Extra Value Meal upsells.

Fiction: A Rock Band Novel — And A Snapshot Of The Bell-Bottomed 1970s, by Eleanor Henderson, New York Times

Our love for the ’70s, equal parts homage and satire, is inseparable from the bell-bottomed music scene of that decade. Taylor Jenkins Reid has written a stylish and propulsive if sometimes sentimental novel set against that backdrop, in the stadiums, studios and pool houses of late-1970s L.A. Though the back cover suggests that “everyone knows Daisy Jones & The Six,” the book is the story of a fake band in a real world.

The Gendered Brain By Gina Rippon Review – Demolition Of A Sexist Myth, by Rachel Cooke, The Guardian

Quite apart from how interesting the science contained within it is, it has the power – if only people would read it – to do vastly more for gender equality than any number of feminist “manifestos”.

We Lived Happily During The War, by Ilya Kaminsky, Literary Hub

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Guardians Of The French Language Are Deadlocked, Just Like Their Country, by Adam Nossiter, New York Times

But lately the sacred job of protecting France from “brainless Globish” and the “deadly snobbery of Anglo-American,” as a member spat out in a speech last month, has rarely been more difficult to attain.

Four vacancies — lifelong tenures — have opened since December 2016, and the members cannot even fill the first one. Three times they have voted, most recently in late January, and three times they have failed to achieve a majority.

The deadlock, some academy members say, reflects France’s own — between the proud, timeless France determined to preserve itself at all costs, and the France struggling to adapt to a 21st century defined by globalization, migration and social upheaval, witnessed in the “Yellow Vest” revolt.

The Female Chef Making Japan’s Most Elaborate Cuisine Her Own, by Helen Rosner, New Yorker

N/naka has often been miscategorized as a sushi restaurant, the style of Japanese dining establishment most familiar to Americans. But sushi and kaiseki are in many ways opposites. Sushi is as much a culinary performance as it is a category of food. The itamae (head chef), usually wearing a kimono and a headband, prepares your maki and nigiri right in front of you. There’s theatre in slicing the fish, brushing on the sauces, shaping the rice between agile fingers; there’s banter with the customers, and macho jockeying with other chefs behind the bar. In a sushi tasting menu, or omakase, the chef is free to improvise the meal as he goes along, choosing whatever fish looks best. (The word “omakase” means “I trust you.”) Kaiseki, by contrast, has a predetermined flow, its interrelated courses incorporating dozens—if not hundreds—of ingredients and techniques to form a single narrative arc. Even the most exorbitant sushi omakase can be over with in forty-five minutes; a kaiseki meal takes hours to unfold. Junko Sakai, a Japanese writer, has likened a sushi chef’s approach to that of an essayist, and a kaiseki chef’s to that of a novelist.

And yet kaiseki does not broadcast its own cleverness. There is no futuristic culinary chemistry or flamboyant tableside showmanship. Its practitioners talk about it almost as a form of service, a subordination of the self. When I met Nakayama, she told me that, in kaiseki, “the ingredients are more important than you, the cooking is more important than you. Everything about the food is more important than you, and you have to respect that.” She added, “There’s a part of it that’s really prideful and ambitious, and yet it tries to hold itself back.”

‘The Island Always Brings You Back’: Finding A Caribbean Home, by Jessica Francis Kane, New York Times

When my father was a child, the estate was 42 acres, but when his parents divorced, he returned to the mainland with his mother and didn’t go back, or see his father, for 25 years. When he did return, in July 1973, he had a Ph.D., a wife and a baby daughter, and the estate had been subdivided. My grandfather had managed to keep the original house, the Great House and two acres. We went back the following summer, when I was 3, and that is the last time any of us saw Mafolie.

My father is a university professor, a scientist skeptical of what he calls my “humanist love of place.” And yet he was the one who kept a framed pair of maps of St. Thomas, the biggest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, on the wall behind his dining room chair all the years I was growing up. He is the one who said the view from Mafolie had been described as the “eighth wonder of the world,” and told me about my grandfather playing horseshoes in the evening, his cocktail in a glass the shape of a bud vase so it could be slipped into his shirt pocket. I share my father’s deep love of his second landscape, the Connecticut River valley, but this first, tropical place was a mystery to me.

A Swimmer Saved By What She Lost, by David Waldstein, New York Times

The last thing Morgan Stickney remembers from before her lower leg was amputated is lying on a hospital gurney waiting for the anesthesia to take hold. With a debilitating fear racing through her mind, she asked her surgeon to hold her hand. They talked about swimming until she passed out.

“It’s the last moment I had with two legs,” she said. “I was in the pool, the most happy place for me.”

Roberto Bolaño And The Beat Connection, by Valerie Miles, New Yorker

The book is not perfect: it gets silly at times, and there are often excessive sentences or stray clunkers. It’s an early novel, and the author is no longer around to make it better. But it also has achingly beautiful passages, and its lessons about the reach of American policy resonate to this day. A superbly talented young man wrote it, in 1984, believing that truth reached through art was the only means to revolution. In this sense, it reads like a dispatch from beyond the grave. “The soul of the dead author” is present in the novel, Bolaño wrote, “along with the other ghosts.”

'The Border' Is Shakespeare For Our Times — Seriously, by Jason Sheehan, NPR

But taken all together, in its entirety — taken as a full, sweeping, fictionalized tale rooted and grounded in very real tragedy — The Border becomes a book for our times. Like Shakespeare, it makes a three-act drama of our modern moment. Like Shakespeare's plays, it shows us a world that is our own, a history that is our own, a burden that is our own, rendered out into the rhythm of scenes and arcs, chapters and parts.

Wrote For Luck: Selected Lyrics By Shaun Ryder Review – Unique, Hilarious, Vicious, by Miranda Sawyer, The Guardian

Not WB Yeats, then, as Tony Wilson always claimed of Ryder (Wilson chose Happy Mondays’ Bob’s Yer Uncle, a song about dirty sex, to be played at his funeral). But not captions either. Unique, hilarious, vicious, oddly logical, Ryder’s lyrics are all his own.

Victory By James Lasdun Review – Suspenseful, Truthful, Audacious, by Johanna Thomas-Corr, The Guardian

Lasdun doesn’t put a foot wrong in either story: both are suspenseful and truthful, familiar in their subject matter but audacious in their conclusions. If future scholars want to know what the hell was going on with sex and power at this moment in history, Victory won’t be a bad place to start.

Midnight In Chernobyl; Manual For Survival – Review, by Luke Harding, The Guardian

More than 30 years on, Adam Higginbotham tells the story of the disaster and its gruesome aftermath with thriller-like flair. Midnight in Chernobyl is wonderful and chilling. It is a tale of hubris and doomed ambition, featuring Communist party bosses and hapless engineers, victims and villains, confusion and cover-up.

It Seems At Times That Silence, by Diane Seuss, Literary Hub

has a roundness like an apple,
and that even an apple is made
of planes, minute horizontals
and verticals, ruby and russet
and freckled and spackled
and black. And that silence

Sunday, March 3, 2019

The A.I. Diet, by Eric Topol, New York Times

It turns out, despite decades of diet fads and government-issued food pyramids, we know surprisingly little about the science of nutrition. It is very hard to do high-quality randomized trials: They require people to adhere to a diet for years before there can be any assessment of significant health outcomes. The largest ever — which found that the “Mediterranean diet” lowered the risk for heart attacks and strokes — had to be retracted and republished with softened conclusions. Most studies are observational, relying on food diaries or the shaky memories of participants. There are many such studies, with over a hundred thousand people assessed for carbohydrate consumption, or fiber, salt or artificial sweeteners, and the best we can say is that there might be an association, not anything about cause and effect. Perhaps not surprisingly, these studies have serially contradicted one another. Meanwhile, the field has been undermined by the food industry, which tries to exert influence over the research it funds.

Now the central flaw in the whole premise is becoming clear: the idea that there is one optimal diet for all people.

On The Overdue Evolution Of Immigrant Narratives, by Irina Reyn, Literary Hub

“I’m a Russian-American writer,” I said. In reality, I was in my early twenties and I hadn’t written a thing. But it was 1998 and there was no one else I could recommend but me.

So I received my very first writing contract and busied myself with becoming understandable to an audience I assumed would be unfamiliar with the Russian-Jewish immigrant experience. My primary model for this type of narrative was Eva Hoffman’s luminous memoir of immigrating from Poland to Canada, Lost in Translation, and I set about earnestly imitating its meditative style, trying to pin down the feeling of belonging nowhere, a sense I’d felt at the time of displacement and invisibility. Looking back now, my first work was an act of introduction, a translation.

The Dark Brilliance Of Bret Easton Ellis, by Ottessa Moshfegh, The Guardian

Subtlety is necessary to satire, but is not prized in the US. We value outgoingness, aplomb, direct attacks and celebrations. We favour straight arrows over innuendo. This is a weakness. Satire is the most difficult mode in literature because it functions with a delicate, invisible layer of self-awareness – which readers often lack. An insensitive reader of Less Than Zero might think, “Well, that was disturbing,” and point to the moments of vivid exploitation as “inappropriate” and “wrong”. Such a reading does not appreciate the incredible timing, restraint, and synchronicity in the writing, nor the fact that these “inappropriate” scenes are actually a direct reflection of reality. We often refuse to acknowledge the ugliness in ourselves and in our world, out of shame or vanity.

The Gendered Brain By Gina Rippon Review – Exposing A Myth, by Katy Guest, The Guardian

The Gendered Brain is one of those books that should be essential reading before anyone is allowed to be a teacher, or buy a child a present, or comment on anything on Twitter, ever again … but my fear is that Rippon is preaching to the choir. That said, all systemising brains out there owe it to themselves to read this calm and logical collection of evidence and science, and all empathisers will understand its importance.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Selling Cookbooks In The Age Of Amazon, by Deborah Reid, Eater

Shopping in cookbook stores, those places dedicated solely to culinary books, is a pilgrimage of sorts for home cooks and chefs: Hours can disappear pulling books from the shelf and pouring over the labors of the writer. Most of these bookstores are owned by people who have an encyclopedic knowledge of books, both those currently for sale and those long gone from the shelves, and can quickly size up a customer’s appetite, steering them in the direction of a tried and true cookbook or toward a lesser-known culinary treasure.

Contrast that experience to the surge of endorphins elicited by hitting the golden “add to cart” and “proceed to checkout” buttons on Amazon: There, one of the pioneering consumer tracking and recommendations systems tailors specific suggestions for each user, with algorithms standing in for booksellers’ tastes. Add the fast shipping perks of Prime membership, and in less time than it takes to marinate meat or make a sourdough starter, the cookbook is in the kitchen.

Shedding Books To Survive The Uncertainty Of Academic Life, by Maggie Levantovskaya, Literary Hub

It was in the last year of my tenure-track chase that I finally accepted my identity as a professor without books. But a professor without books isn’t much of a professor. And I accepted this too. I had moved into my office at my new job at a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. “Moved in” is a stretch though. There was none of the romantic chaos described by Walter Benjamin in “Unpacking My Library,” none of the anticipation, none of the intimacy, none of the memories that emerge from handling one’s carefully acquired tomes and gradually subjecting them to “the mild order of boredom.” I walked into the recently built, pristine space, put my bag on a chair and logged into my desktop for the first time. My bookshelves were gunmetal gray and cold to the touch. They were completely empty and I had nothing to put on them.

Helen Oyeyemi Is Up To Her Old Tricks In The Dark, Nutty Gingerbread, by David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly

To call a novel childlike isn’t to say it’s simple, especially if we’re talking about Gingerbread, a book that whirs through mythic lands and spikes its many plot twists with the enchanting allure — and nightmarish tinge — of a fairy tale, to be absorbed in a pleasant, sleepy daze before haunting its reader’s dreams.

'Mama's Last Hug' Makes Case That Humans Are Not Alone In Experiencing Emotions,by Barbara J. King, NPR

Fairness matters to monkeys; when food offered to their social partners is of higher quality than what they themselves receive, they become highly agitated.

Pigs experience hope, which we know because if raised in decent conditions they anticipate that pleasurable things will happen to them.

As primate behavior researcher Frans de Waal writes in his new book Mama's Last Hug, publishing in early March, "emotions are everywhere in the animal kingdom, from fish to birds to insects and even in brainy mollusks such as the octopus." Through colorful stories and riveting prose, de Waal firmly puts to rest the stubborn notion that humans alone in the animal kingdom experience a broad array of emotions.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Toward My Own Definition Of Disability, by Ashley P. Taylor, Hazzlitt

“I write essays about life with a chronic medical problem,” I tell the editor when we meet at a literary event. I don’t go into the details—that I was born with a neurological condition, hydrocephalus, which is treated with a device called a shunt. Periodically the shunt malfunctions and I get headaches and other strange symptoms that only brain surgery can alleviate. During those times, having hydrocephalus is frightening and painful, but when the shunt is working, as it is this evening at the bookstore, I barely think about it—that is, outside the context of my writing.

“We publish pieces on disability,” the editor says, handing me his card. I thank him and walk away. I don’t want to leave a bad first impression by saying something contradictory.

But I don’t have a disability, I think to myself. Or do I?

Revisiting Chernobyl: 'It Is A Huge Cemetery Of Dreams', by Malcolm Borthwick, The Guardian

‘These buildings are the tombstones of the dreams and lives that were lived here. It’s a huge cemetery of dreams, if not of people.” From the top of an old Soviet apartment block, Serhii Plokhy looks over Pripyat. “On the one hand it looks like a normal city; on the other hand you see windows without glass, streets without people and town squares taken over by forests.” Now the ghost town is used by the Ukrainian army for sniper practice and has also become a tourist attraction.

The Distance Home By Paula Saunders Review – Debut Of Family Strife, by Molly McCloskey, The Guardian

Whatever a writer has in mind while writing, a novel sinks or swims according to its merits. There were stories in The Distance Home that I wanted more of, and others I wanted less of, and I sometimes wished the book had been written as a memoir. Freed of the burden of plotting, the sheer, raw power of this family’s story – so unusual in its context and emblematic in its agonies – might have been plumbed to its depths. The moments when that was achieved made me yearn for more.

A Brilliantly Funny And Slightly Bonkers New Novel From Jasper Fforde, by Charles Yu, New York Times

Every book of Fforde’s seems to be a cause for celebration and a source of pleasure for many people, and for good reason. “Early Riser” may not be my favorite of his novels, but I laughed and had fun. As long as he keeps his literary party going, I’ll keep dropping in.

The Snakes By Sadie Jones Review – The Abusive Power Of Money, by Elizabeth Lowry, The Guardian

Sadie Jones’s fourth novel revisits the themes of isolation, shame and estrangement that we’ve come to look for in the work of this provocative and astute writer.

What To Look For In A Usage And Grammar Guide, by The Economist

Mr Dreyer says he considered calling the book “The Last Word”, but decided against: “There’s no rule without an exception (well, mostly), there’s no thought without an afterthought (at least for me), there’s always something you meant to say but forgot to say. There’s no last word, only the next word.” This is what to look for in a language book: authority without arrogance. There is always more to learn.