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